Melody Railroader

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.

Team

with Ting-En Wei (designer) and De-Yen Wu (engineer)

My Role

Design research, concept development, interaction design, visual design, prototyping

Tools

Arduino, Rhinoceros, 3ds Max, Adobe Suite, CNC milling, 3D printing

In a nutshell

Problem

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.

Target Group

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.

Goal

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.

Solution

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.

Research & Ideation

Insights from experts

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:

The Playthings

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.

First Ideation

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.

Not just a train

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.

The Design

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
(instruments)
3 Instruction Books
10 Rails
1 Train
  • train toy (x1)
  • circus characters (x5)
  • rail sections (x10)
  • blocks and connecting blocks (8+1colors x 16pcs)
  • instruction booklets (x3)

Get started!

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

In addition, we designed 3 booklets as an aid for playing with the train toy. Each booklet has its own specific expertise. 

Guideline

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. 

Music Score

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. 

Blank Score

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.

Concept Validating

User Testing

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.

3 yrs-old

see testing result >

3 yrs-old

Little kids might not understand the message in this toy entirely. But they are able to play with this toy by following adults' guides such as "where is the pink?" or  "what is this instrument?"  One thing worth notice is that some accessories in this toy might be too small or too sharp for kids at this age.

4-5 yrs-old

see testing result >

4-5 yrs-old

This age group can play and understand the toy well through the guide from adults, and are able to play independently after a few times of practice. Many of them showed great interest and excitement when seeing and hearing the feedback of the train drive through with music. 

6-7 yrs-old

see testing result >

6-7 yrs-old

Among all ages, this age group can best immerse themselves in the playing context and comprehend the music theory with some explanation. Following the instruction from the booklets, they are able to arrange the blocks systematically and complete a song by the score. Also, they are able to create decent songs through trial-and-error.

8 yrs-old & above

see testing result >

8 yrs-old & above

Older kids are able to understand how this toy works and master it in a relatively short time. Some kids can even apply the theory learned from music class to this toy, or vice versa. But this toy is limited to a certain scale, and cannot meet all the requests (eg. wider music scales or sharp/flat notes) that older kids asked for. 

Evaluation

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”:

Training of planning and implementation.
Performing, composing, and appreciating music and musical patterns.
Training of fine movement skills and visual-motor integration.
Cognition of visual information, including color, shape, and space. 
Linguistic
Multiple Intelligences
Logical
Bodily Kinesthetics
Musical
Spatial
Inter- personal
Intra- personal

Lessons learned

Exploratory Research

We visited the music class in kindergarten and talked to music educators. By watching, asking, and listening, we got a better understanding of the problem we were dealing with. By aids of the gained insights, we got the idea of using metaphor as a learning method.

Interdisciplinary Teamwork

To create a full-functional prototype, we worked with an IT engineer, who has been active throughout the process and provided meaningful insights from an engineering perspective. It was a precious experience to learn from, get inspired by one another.

Modeling and Mechanism

This toy is composed of numerous parts and components: the blocks fitted to the track; the motor, gears, and wheels; and the electronic components inside the train. Through repeated prototyping and testing, we reached a satisfying result that everything works coordinately.

UX Design for Children

We are designing for children at the preoperational stage, whose cognitive skills are still developing. To help them successfully use the product, designs should display clear, specific instructions, leveraging kids’ mental models and prior knowledge.

User Testing

We invited children, parents, and teachers to try our design. We observed and documented how the kids play with the toy, and interviewed the adults to know how they think. The feedbacks made us confident about our design result and get the findings for future improvement.