music & design, old school

Don’t mean a thang if it ain’t got that twang…  © Alembic

Most designers enjoy music for mood-management or constructive distraction and many also grapple with an instrument in their spare time. Finding significance in detail is another inextricable part of design activityA History of the World in 100 Objects and the Boring Conference attest to the the wider appeal looking for big stuff in minutiæ.

I enjoyed Boring 2011 hugely but could not attend this time—so an invitation to contribute to Keechdesign / Yamaha Design Studio’s Something Like A Musical Instrument event was timely consolation. For it, contributors were asked to speak for a minute or two on an object with some connection to music. Talks ranged from a concise presentation of the flosspick as “the world’s smallest stringed instrument” to a demonstration of trombone mute development by David Keech (not only a fine designer but an actual proper musician as well). A fuller selection of contributions can be found on Johnson Banks’ ‘Thought For the Week’ blog. My effort was something like the following:

I am not a musician. From a non-musical family, I grew up when what passed for music education in Hertfordshire was endless repetition of Bavarian folk carols. Undeterred I have since “played” flute, saxophone, bass, piano—though always with competence somehow just out of reach. Whilst I am at most a would-be musician, I am a certified enthusiast for good music of all kinds (making a small exception for Bavarian folk carols).

But before I knew what music was, a wooden school ruler was my first instrument. It’s a small piece of hardwood roughly 31.5 x 2.5cm, flat on one side, bevelled on the other. It is split a little at both ends and like a cracked Stradivarius lacks its former tonal richness and market value (FYI 30p). The surface carries debossed and inked notches, some basic angles and pre-decimal measurements in 1970s utilitarian numerals: inches, tenths, sixteenths, eighths, twelfths and “fourths”(whatever those were).

For the 20th century schoolboy the ruler’s main purpose was to propel chewed paper projectiles at classmates (or authority figures if you were a true rebel)—only incidentally was it an educational tool for precise measurement of physical dimension. The universal language of mathematics was always beyond my brain grade but the ruler offered inklings of another universal language—music. Specifically:

Music is not always serious The wooden ruler of course amused as simple sound effect (accelerating many a dull geography lesson)—but deftly twanged with restraining thumb movement produced a rising inflection hinting that musical phrasing could convey more than mere slapstick fun.

Materials make tone Metal & plastic rulers have long been available but metal’s brightness & extra volume is for showoffs (and plastic can’t be used without safety goggles). The true afficionado favours the organic charms of oak, birch or boxwood—more modest projection, but warmer tone.

There’s more than one way to play Placing the ruler’s raised side down reduces the damping effect of surface contact, giving much better sustain. For maximum resonant effect the traditional amplification of the school desk must be used (n.b. to turn all the way up to 11 remove all books within).

The joy of notes Thumb position relative to desk edge is critical and melody is near-impossible without advanced skills. Pitch is controlled by frequency / wavelength, determined by the freely vibrating off-desk length. One-eighth of an inch is roughly equivalent to a semitone and middle C can be found at around five inches. Middle C!—the actual musical note as used by Mozart, Mingus & McCartney…

This early inspiration failed to launch a glittering musical career, but I like to think that the wooden school ruler first taught me enjoyment of music through physically engaging with sound. Certainly it taught me that music begins with listening. 


Many thanks to Yoshihisa Sugiura of Yamaha Design Studio and David Keech of Keechdesign for a very enjoyable evening of sounds, speech and sake. Something Like a Musical Instrument (SLAM) has more to offer with a book rumoured to be in the works…




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