Guest Post: Hannah’s intro to the AirHarp

This is the second guest post from Hannah, one of our DMLab North West crew. In her first post she introduced us to how she got involved with DMLab and told us a bit of her story and why she was excited to co-design her own bespoke instrument.

Read the second instalment below to find out all about the AirHarp and where Hannah plans to go from here.

Hello there!!

A very warm welcome back to my Drake Music Northwest blog. In this blog entry you, the reader will start at the beginning of my musical journey. I’ll explain to you how I have found my inner musical voice and the devices and methods which I use to create music.

As I have already said, I became involved with Drake Music Northwest in February 2017. I took part in a project named the DMLab Northwest Challenge.

This was a collaborative project that brought both disabled musicians and technologists together. The aim was that, collectively a method could be devised by which the musician could create music.


From this came the evolution of the AirHarp… This is a midi device, which works in conjunction with Ableton music making software.

The AirHarp is connected to the computer via USB. I control Ableton using the AirHarp.

I begin by selecting an instrumental sound that I like from the menu contained within Ableton, I then move my hand across the AirHarp.

The AirHarp will then measure the distance between its sensors and my hand. If my hand is within a particular range, this will activate the sensors and the AirHarp will play.

The AirHarp also features several brightly coloured buttons, with which I can do various things, such as changing musical scales etc.

The reason for the brightly contrasting coloured buttons is to accommodate for my visual impairment…

Unforeseen barriers

The AirHarp was eventually completed. On the whole it works well, there are however some access barriers when using the AirHarp that Myself and Chris Ball, Drake Music Northwest technologist, didn’t foresee…

Mainly the biggest problem that I’ve encountered is that, when playing the AirHarp, because I have to move my hand above the sensors, it is difficult for me to hold a musical note and make a deliberate choice of which note I’d like to play, as I can’t feel where I am, which in turn affects precision.

I needed something tactile, this would enable me to feel where I am and I would be able to choose which musical note I wanted and hold that particular note for as long as is necessary.

Take Two

So then comes the, currently unnamed, AirHarp take two prototype.

It is indeed very similar to the original, but with one major difference…

It has been redesigned much like a guitar fretboard.

This works much better for me. I can now feel where all the various musical notes are, make a deliberate choice of which note I’d like to play and hold it for as long as is necessary.

The new device will also be on a stand attached to my wheelchair. This will enable it to be moved nearer to me or further away from me depending how my Cerebral Palsy is on that particular day, as my range of movement varies.

Experience needed

The original AirHarp was months in its designing and development. During this time I began to consider what potential musical pathways I could follow.

I came across a very unexpected barrier. Every opportunity that was available appeared to be aimed at either established musicians or for much younger people.

I was most surprised to say the least. The only thing I can compare it to is, when one wants to obtain an employment role in a particular field of work, but they can’t as the job requires an experienced worker.

So the question was, where did I go as a “want to be musician” from here?

It also became apparent that before I could progress with my music any further, everyone I contacted requested that I sent them a sample of my work…

The trouble was, I had no musical background what so ever due to access barriers, this was the very reason I joined Drake Music Northwest in the first place.

What a strange situation I found myself in… To make a sample of my work, I first had to learn the music making process . That sounds all well and good, the next logical step, you’d think. Just a small problem to overcome… there wasn’t anyway that would enable me to do this.

The light bulb moment!

After many months of frustration and trying every possible avenue; I was sitting in the house bored. During these times of boredom my mind always wanders…

Then came the light bulb moment, as well as my music, I have another passion in my life, sailing. I’m a sailor through and through.

What if I was to create a musical composition about my sailing?


I set to work and simply wrote down my thoughts. We shared my idea with the rest of the group, who were more than happy to come on board…

And so it was born, “Surge Of The Sails” was going to be my own musical composition…

More about “Surge Of The Sails” coming soon!! My inner musical voice is soon to be unveiled.

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