Visualizing the music theories in train toy
Through the metaphor between railway toy and music theory, Melody Railroader makes the abstract music theory intuitive and understandable.
In a nutshell
Music provides children with countless joy, love, and engagement. However, the learning process usually involves the unintuitive music theories. Repetitively memorizing often curtails children’s willingness to learn.
Design for 3-7 years-old children, as toy at home or as teaching material in classroom. These kids at the preoperational stage can think in terms of symbols, but they aren’t yet able to effectively take other people’s perspectives.
The aim of this project is to discover the possible ways to make music theory more understandable and to help children to learn music in a more playful and stress-free way.
A set of railroad toys that makes the music theory visible and comprehensible. Through playing with it, children can grasp the idea of music theory by osmosis and apply what they learned in future music education.
The struggle of learning music theory
I started to learn musical instruments from a young age. Until today, I still remember I had a hard time sitting in front of the piano and trying to remember all the music notes and theory.
Music theory is counterintuitive to learn, especially for young children. Yet, there aren’t many alternatives other than lecture books or paper cards.
Understanding the context
From motivated to demotivated
We talk to 5 parents and teachers, who shared their discovery with their children in learning music. We found that most children start to learn music because of their passion and interest.
However, the process of learning is combined with counter-intuitive memorizing, that kids get bored at early stage (most of time even before they “really” start to learn).
Make music fun, playful and easy to understand
We believe playing is the best way to learn, we would like to create a system that helps kids to grasp the concept of music theory.
Learn the concept without traditional learning but playing.
Visualize the music theory in a easy-to-grasp way.
Serve as an assitance for music education, but not to replace it.
Research & Ideation
Insights from music educator
We visited kindergarten to observe the music class on-site, and had an interview with music(instrument) teachers to get a better understanding of their teaching methods, teaching materials, and the different scenarios they have in the classroom. We gained these insights:
As playing is the best way to learn, we did general research on the playthings by collecting various kinds of toys for preschoolers, including but not limited to constructional, instructional, symbolic and sensorimotor toys. By sorting them in different ways, we tried to find the logic and got inspired by how toys teach kids new things in playful manners.
Metaphor between train and music
We found some interesting similarities between music and railway toys. The mobility of toy train makes it a great metaphor for music playing -if the train is a musician, the rail would then be the sheet music that he plays through. The width of the train track refers to different duration, that kids can see the abstract concept of musical note.
A circus theme for much more fun!
As the sketch above, the original plan is to use the conventional image of a train toy. But we quickly found out the link between a normal train and music was not strong enough. Through brainstorming, we decided to add the theme of a circus that is traveling the world by a train.
Each circus animal plays an instrument. Changing the animal standing on the train would change the timbre played. And the circus tent behind the animal would work as an amplifier for a better music quality.
Color & music
The train senses the colors on the rail, and play the corresponding music.
Each color of the train track is referred to a note on the music scale. Running the circus train through the rail, the RGB color sensor on the bottom of the train would detect the color on the rail track, and play the music based on the arrangement of the tracks.
A set contains...
Blocks & Connecting Blocks
8+1 colors x 16pcs
5 circus charaters
3 Instruction Books
- train toy (x1)
- circus characters (x5)
- rail sections (x10)
- blocks and connecting blocks (8+1colors x 16pcs)
- instruction booklets (x3)
Music theories visualiztion
We visualized the basic music theory. Children can see, feel, and hear these abstract music concepts through playing with Melody Railroader.
Colors ▸ Notes & Rest
Each color represents a note on the musical scale. As an ”achromatic color”, the black is considered as a rest in music.
Connecting Length ▸ Duration
The connecting-block is a tie combining two notes together. The longer a color continues, the longer the sound lasts.
Rail Section ▸ Measure
Each rail section is like a measure of the same length. Several measures together can make a song.
Train Speed ▸ Tempo
The speed of the train can be adjusted by rotating the flag on the train. The faster the train runs, the faster the music plays.
Travel with Melody Circus
To make it more playful and attractive, we added a story of “a circus traveling around the world by train” to the toy. The train is designed as a circus tent, in front of which stands a circus animal with an instrument on its hand. Changing the animal would change the timbre played.
Guiding booklets supporting the experience
In addition, we designed 3 booklets as an aid for playing with the train toy. Each booklet has its own specific expertise.
The guideline helps children get started with Melody Railroader step by step. In this book, kids will learn the way of playing this toy as well as the music theory hidden in it.
Melody Circus is going on a world tour! This book collects 12 ballads from different countries. Children can arrange the blocks by the score and travel around the world with the circus.
Besides making music by score, we also encourage children to create music freely. Kids can document their song on the blank score with the appended stickers.
Testing with parents, teachers and kids
Melody Railroader is a fully-functional prototype made with Arduino. By virtue of that, we are able to run the user testing and examine our design by inviting children, teachers, and parents to play with Melody Railroader. The target users are children from 3-8 years old. Through our research, we found that children of different ages behaved differently when they play with it.
What experts say
We got a lot of feedback and advice from the testers. Educational experts shared, “children are more willing to accept play as a teaching method and are receptive to participating.” Though there are still some details to refine, we believe Melody Railroader does have positive impacts on children. This can be evaluated by Dr. Howard Gardner’s theory of “multiple intelligences”: