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March-december 2018
Graduate Thesis Project

skills utilized:
+ Product Design
+ Design Research
+ Lo-Fi Prototyping
+ Industrial Design
+ Arduino Programming
+ UI / UX Design
+ Adobe Suite
+ Ableton
+ Video Editing
+ 3d printing

As the culminating experience of my master's program, my thesis project had to be a solo endeavor, synthesizing everything I had learned, as well as pushing me even farther than before. Starting with general interests in the fields of music and health, I found the small but amazingly powerful field of music therapy. I was so inspired by the work these people were doing, and quickly dove deep into learning about how I could help them in their endeavours.

Through in-depth, empathetic research, multiple iterations of prototyping and testing, and many feedback sessions with music therapists, I developed drumm. It's a system of digital drumpads that a music therapists can use to better facilitate a jam session. It takes on some of the tasks of the therapist to allow for better group dynamics and the maintaining of music throughout the session. It gives more opportunity for creative, emotional expression to the participants and lowers some of the barriers to entry with a simple, adaptable design that can change with the mood and taste of the participants. Below, you can see some highlights from my process, as well as the final product.



Initial exploration

My first task was simply getting the soup of interests and passions I wanted to pursue onto paper. Through many mind mapping sessions and inspirational discussions with classmates, I narrowed my focus to the intersection of creative expression and health. Having experience with listening to and playing music as a means of self-care, I became fascinated by the field of music therapy, a formal science of affecting positive mental and physical outcomes through playing music, both individually and in a group.


Research & empathy building

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With my ideal field in mind, it was now up to me to absorb as much as possible about working in and participating in music therapy, as I knew almost nothing about it.

I made sure to focus much of my research of uncovering unmet and unexpressed needs of both the participants and practitioners of music therapy. By journey mapping therapists' process of facilitating different activities and finding "pain points" throughout these maps, I could hone in on some of the core tensions present in a music therapy session.

I found that the most difficult tasks for therapists often arose in group therapy because of the challenges inherent in trying to coach a group to play together while they themselves had to continue making music as well. Sure enough, participants also seemed to express the most frustration with their therapy when it was facilitated in a group setting due to the apparent lack of freedom to explore the music in a way that fit their specific interests and emotions. It made sense, more people in the session led to more difficulty facilitating the session effectively. I found another eye-opening core tension in the sheer number of roles the music therapist must fill during a session, often leading to them feeling spread thin and less able to affect positive therapy for the participants.

One challenge throughout this research was the concern for participants' privacy. Out of respect for this confidentiality, I used many channels of research that did not require me to directly observe sessions: observing jam sessions in music classes as an analogous experience, speaking with particip (fants anonymously online, and attending a national music therapy conference.


Defining the problem

Knowing the sense of frustration that can present itself in both parties of a therapy session, I wanted to hone in on what the source of that problem might be. Through testing out different frameworks and continually keeping my users in the loop for feedback, I could now describe the more specific problems that my solution had to solve:

  • reducing the cognitive load for the therapist

  • opening up possibilities for customization for the participants

  • lowering the intimidation factor of digital music for both parties

By forcing myself to be explicit about the problem I was trying to solve, I was able to work out a set of parameters to pay attention to during my first round of testing: the number of tasks I (the mock therapist) had to perform, ways participants wished they could customize their experience, and the comfort level of all parties.


Early Prototyping and Co-creation


Rather than spending time on a fully built solution immediately, I took a different, two-pronged approach: simultaneously performing exploratory co-creation sessions to see what participants may want out of an instrument, as well as testing the feasibility of digitally enabled group music-making.

Taking prototypes (read: small cardboard boxes) to a group of music students and asking them to use provided components or their own to make their ideal musical instrument for writing music. Ideas ranged from a Guitar-Hero-like controller to an emotionally-aware MIDI pad, which were then analyzed for common features.

By linking a MIDI keyboard with a custom instrument rack in Ableton, I allowed test subjects (all of whom had "little to none" music experience) to make a looped beat together and have the capability of switching instruments through the use of a knob. A discussion was then facilitated on the participants' points of delight and confusion throughout the session.

Some of the many learnings from this step included:

  • A limited number of inputs made participants more comfortable with experimentation.

  • Participants and facilitators were delighted by the ability to quickly edit the loop.

  • It was helpful to give the participants subtle guidance on ways to express emotions through music.


Moving to higher fidelity

With a better idea of what the instrument and software needed to do and, just as importantly, what it didn't need to do, I moved toward a higher fidelity expression of my solution. For the sake of feasibility, I focused on making an instrument that could make percussion-based beats, rather than trying to work an intuitive mapping for every sound into one instrument. I went in depth into creating a functional prototype that unified the two approaches I took in the last step. Significant time was spent on formal studies of the drum pad itself, prototyping the drum interface with Arduino, and integrating these two endeavors into a single object.

As I learned through my research that therapists often do not have enough confidence with music making software to bring it into a session, I wanted to address this need through a mockup interface for an iPad. This interface could ideally provide the core functions found within a program like Ableton, but simplified and built to facilitate the group dynamics of the session. I constructed the final result with Adobe XD.

paper prototype.jpg

Visual Storytelling

Nearing the end of my project, I had to distill this exciting (and messy) process into ten minutes of polished, effective storytelling. I wanted to spend a substantial amount of time building empathy with the audience through particularly Through hours of exploration with colors, typography, and graphics, I worked my presentation into a singular statement of brand identity that felt cohesive with the aesthetics and personality of my prototypes. (Note the inspiration the logo took from a group of people.)

Finally, always admiring the volumes a well-produced video can speak, I opened Premiere. I felt that by relating the modern, exciting world of hip-hop production to some of the hallmarks of music therapy, I could illustrate the power of those "a-ha!" moments in music making and show how drumm could help provide those to more people. Check out the video that kicked off my presentation here!



Many individuals and groups deserve recognition for their help throughout my process:

  • My advisor, Susan Curtis

  • Mike O'Mara and students of etc. Music School in Evanston, IL

  • Music therapists: Kearsti-Rae Knowles, Amanda Clay, Sara Cannon, Patty Ashford, Barbara Else, Nancy Swanson, Deforia Lane

  • Anonymous reddit users