Ironing tunes Technology can make an instrumentalist out of anyone. The brain loves music, but you need to be careful with the ears. Text: Minna Hölttä Photo: Jaakko Kahilaniemi WHEN AN INTERNATIONAL group of
experts came to evaluate Aalto University’s research and artistic activities one year ago, Academy of Finland Research Fellow Koray Tahiroğlu played them some ironing music. Tahiroğlu’s student had crafted a unique instrument by combining a computer with a clothes iron and an ironing board during the course he was teaching physical interaction design. An infrared scanner on the iron recognises different colour hues on the board, then transfers the data to the computer, which processes the hues into musical melodies. Sounds fun, but Tahiroğlu, who leads the Sound and Physical Interaction research group, and Professor of Audio Signal Processing Vesa Välimäki say a bigger idea is at stake. ‘Everybody likes music. We want everyone to also enjoy the opportunity of playing it,’ says Välimäki.
Teaches language and nurtures the mind Hearing is one of our most nimble senses, and music triggers emotional responses faster than any other art form. Just waiting for the best part of our favourite song makes the brain release dopamine, the neurotransmitter of satisfaction. But music affects a lot of other things besides emotions. Research indicates that it refreshes memory, boosts concentration and speeds up language learning, for example. Music benefits especially those who themselves practice it. The younger you get started, the better, but the brain benefits also from musical activity that starts in adulthood. Vesa Välimäki started playing the piano and flute as a child and got into synthesisers when at school. He seriously considered a career in music before deciding to study for a master’s in engineering because this enabled him to simultaneously immerse himself in acoustics. Koray Tahiroğlu played in bands, studied to become an architect in Istanbul and experienced an awakening when he got the opportunity to work with the available digital technologies at the time in a team and together they developed one of the first virtual museums on 36 / AALTO UNIVERSITY MAGAZINE 25
the internet in 1995, Istanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture. ‘Getting to digitally do things that would have never been possible before was a turning point in my career.’ Now, Välimäki and Tahiroğlu both are part of Aalto Acoustics Lab, a multidisciplinary research centre that brings together researchers, teachers and students from the departments of Signal Processing and Acoustics, Computer Science, and Media. Välimäki specialises in, among other things, developing earphone and speaker sound quality as well as virtual audio technology, for example modelling and encoding Jimi Hendrix’s guitar sound. Tahiroğlu studies the interaction between music, technology and people. At present, the pair is coming up with
ideas for new instruments – details on which they are not yet ready to divulge. Learning to play traditional instruments often demands lots of motivation and diligent practise. Although all of us are gifted at birth with an ability to understand music, many don’t even try creating it themselves, fearing that they have no sense of rhythm or singing skills. ‘With help from a computer, touching nearly any object can make it play. A vase might sound like a drum or a symphony orchestra,’ Välimäki says. ‘Everyone knows how to use a phone or a clothes iron, so why couldn’t these things be refined into instruments? We want to provide people with the means to produce something beautiful with real world physical interactions,’ says Tahiroğlu.