Inclusive Instruments 5 July 2017

Ahead of his workshop on differentiation at Expo Manchester, Phil Heeley explores the wealth of technology available to help young people with SEND engage in and enjoy music

Assistive technology devices are used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of anyone with some sort of disability. In music there are many options available, some of which were never intended or designed to play that role but have been discovered to be invaluable in dismantling barriers and enabling access to music.

Sadly, though, many assistive technology devices are gathering dust in the back of a cupboard. This is partly due to a fear that they are just too complicated or require a great deal of training to use effectively. And there are many teachers who are more comfortable with a box of percussion than technology.

Perhaps the best known and most prevalent piece of assistive music technology to be found in schools is the Soundbeam. For over 25 years this device has been enabling access to music for people with special needs and disabilities. Its name stems from a beam that emits ultrasound (sonar) to generate MIDI messages. So by interrupting this invisible beam a musical note or sound can be heard. Added to that, up to eight switches can do the same thing. Tim Swingler from Soundbeam explains: ‘As a non-tactile interface, any pupil for whom physically accessing any traditional instrument is a challenge will find Soundbeam liberating. This includes children across a broad spectrum of both physical and cognitive disability who may find plucking, blowing, fingering or even hitting difficult.’

The Beamz
Making music with Beamz is extremely easy and sounds amazing. By moving your hands through the four laser beams a well known song can be performed instantly. There are thousands of songs and instruments to choose from, making it suitable for all ages. The device simply needs to be plugged into a computer via USB and the software loaded. It’s got some excellent research and resources behind it such as the Beamz Therapy Guide, which contains detailed session procedures and goals. It’s also great value for money. As well as the physical device, The Beamz can be played with a mouse, wireless switches, as a free app on a tablet, and with the eyes (via the Tobii PCEye Go). Eye tracking technology is relatively new and so music software applications are in their infancy. However, it’s also already possible via software like Ableton Live, Loop Composer and E-scape to compose and perform using the eyes.

Theremini by Moog
Based on the original invention, this reimagined and affordable version has some great features, making it very useable for those with limited movement. Moving a hand or any other limb towards the antenna triggers a sound. The nearer you get the higher the pitch. Volume can also be controlled by another antenna giving it some expressive capabilities. It’s very easy to use and requires no set up. Presets allow you to store sounds with FX and range of notes. MIDI in and out means that it can be controlled by another device, such as a keyboard but more importantly it can play third party instruments and sounds other than the 32 onboard.

The Skoog
A beautifully designed cube with five bright coloured circles on the playable faces which can be tapped, squeezed, and contorted to produce sound, the Skoog is in itself appealing and motivating. It needs to be linked to a computer and has its own software which allows changes to be made to expression and sensitivity, as well as different keys and scales. MIDI out allows it to trigger external devices which can increase the limited number of sounds it comes with. There are some useful resources on the website to enhance the way the instrument is used. Children as young as three will enjoy this but I’ve seen it played by all ages.


The iPad has become an amazing assistive music device thanks to the wealth of quality apps available. While many of them were not perhaps designed with SEND in mind there are many that are valued in this area.

An iPad on a stand or robotic arm can be carefully positioned to allow access to those who can use the touch screen. Apps such as Beatsurfing and Touch OSC allow simple programming in the form of designing shapes on the screen, choosing size and colour and then assigning properties to the different shapes, so a blue square might trigger a drum sound or a voice singing or a violin playing a C. The beauty of this is the flexibility to design a bespoke environment based upon the needs, ability and choices of the individual. These demand some degree of technical skill to programme. Beatsurfing is demonstrated at

Apps such as ThumbJam, iKaossilator and AirVox are instantly accessible in that they can be played the second they appear on the screen. ThumbJam contains quality sounding instruments within a flexible environment. So a screen could display from 5 to 29 notes. The level of fine motor control might be a factor as to how many are chosen (as demonstrated here However it has a huge level of sophistication and options beneath the surface which make it invaluable for progression.

The iKaossilator from Korg was modelled on Korg’s own hardware but like a lot of established developers the app version has many more and often completely new features. A 5×4 inch rectangle represents the playing area where sliding from left to right, up or down raises the pitch, or changes the volume, and/or FX. Whereas Thumbjam concentrates on traditional instruments, the iKaossilator is a synth with sounds used by many contemporary genres like glitch-hop, dubstep and deep house.

AirVox is in a league of its own as it uses the iPad camera to act as a trigger. Once calibrated any movement detected by the camera is translated into notes. Both key and scale can be chosen and the range of notes from one to three octaves. It’s a little bit crude to control accurately, but for those who have very limited mobility it could be the first chance to access a musical instrument.

Why use technology?
Assistive music technology exists for people who face some form of challenge or barrier when playing a traditional instrument. It allows the possibility of inclusion in the wonderful world of music making and performing. No matter what the ability or disability there is something available for everyone.

It’s all well and good having all the best equipment available but it will end up mis- or underused if two factors are not carefully considered: context and setting. Much of this equipment still requires an individual with some understanding and training to facilitate or set up a session. They must be sensitive to the particular needs, likes and dislikes of the individual as well as their abilities and disabilities.

Questions like ‘What is meaningful self-expression for this person and how can we facilitate this?’ are really important. Establishing that will lead to the appropriate choice of equipment. Effective, regular training and communication are crucial also, to avoid the all-too-common tragedy of potentially life-changing music technology gathering dust because no one feels confident enough to use it.

Phil Heeley presents ‘Access for all: differentiating with music technology’ at Music & Drama Education Expo | Manchester on 4 October 2017. Book your free ticket


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