Customising ThumbJam for accessible music

This blog post is part of a series of technology-based pieces from the Exchanging Notes project, in which we will share resources that have worked well in our accessible music sessions at Belvue School.  See this post for an overview of what we have been using so far.

Exploring ThumbJam during a training session at Belvue School.

ThumbJam is a popular accessible music app that can be used to set up scales or chords to be played on a flat surface, with a single finger or stylus.  The sounds are highly customisable – but did you know that you can also add images to add an individual flair to activities?

Inspired by our recent research and development sessions, the session described below has been developed as a way to introduce young musicians and teaching staff alike to the app, using characters and musical conversations.

We have found that actively customising resources in our sessions has given young musicians an increased sense of ownership of the activities.

Using characters can lead to developing different styles of approaching touch gestures and other elements of play that can be re-applied to ensemble playing.

It has been useful to find different ways of engaging with the (virtual) instrument outside usual musical obligations, crossing over with interests in visual art and drama.  This has also provided a way in for non-specialist teaching staff without necessarily getting caught up in musical terminology.

Through recent planning and training sessions we have been looking at new ways to expand on this process, including drawing graphic scores straight onto the iPad.

Stay tuned for more ideas as we put these into practice in the coming school year!

Sample ThumbJam session plan

(minimum 10 minutes)


  • Build familiarity with ThumbJam, preset sounds, and option menus
  • Create characters as an entry point to playing with ThumbJam


  • Set the instrument, span, and octave in the app
  • Recognise two contrasting notes/areas on the ThumbJam keyboard
  • Draw two characters in response to sounds heard
  • Take a photo and set as the background image

1.   Setting sounds

  • Load ThumbJam on the iPad.  Choose a sound from the top-left corner of the screen – touch Sound followed by Change Instrument (the trombone and theremin presets work well for this activity).

  • Play with the sound by running your fingers across the screen, or tapping lightly – try to find contrasting sounds at either end of the range.
  • Play with the span control to set how many notes appear on the screen, and oct (octave) to change the pitch.

2. Adding characters

  • What kind of people or animals might make the sounds you have been exploring so far?
  • On paper, draw two characters at either end of a piece of paper.  These might be in response to the sounds heard; for example, one end of the iPad should produce lower, bassier sounds, with higher-pitched sounds located at the other end.  Would the characters sitting in these areas be large or small?
  • Alternatively, you may prefer to draw first, and go back to step 1 and choose some new sounds based on your picture.

  • Take a photo of the characters using the iPad’s built-in camera app (instructions from Apple can be found here).
  • Return to ThumbJam, and choose the Prefs menu in the bottom-right hand corner of the screen.
  • Inside the preferences menu, choose Options, and scroll all the way down to find the Background Image option.  Press Custom to select a background from your iPad photos.

You may need to click Allow or find Thumb Jam’s photo permissions  in iOS settings.  If ThumbJam already has a custom background image, press default and then custom again to bring the menu up.

3. Setting guided access

Guided access can help block off areas of the interface that might be touched by accident, thus changing the sound, or even closing down the app.  This bit is probably best operated by teaching staff at first, although you may wish to share the passcode with some members of your music-making group.  Ideally the process should be viewed as enabling everyone to experiment freely, rather than necessarily as a restriction!

Make sure all the menus are closed.  Set guided access by pressing the home button three times quickly (see this post on iPad accessibility for more details).  

Block off all menus apart from the “Sound” menu by drawing a box around them with your finger.

4. Time to play!

You are now ready to play with your characters!  

Try developing a story in which they can provide sound effects, or work out a musical conversation.

  • Once you feel comfortable with this activity, try choosing a different instrument.  
  • Set a major or blues scale from the sound menu, and use the adjacent #b button to choose the key.  
  • Explore the control menu in the bottom-left part of the screen to find different ways of changing volume and vibrato.

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