Designing a Group Music Improvisation System


This project aims at designing a system of interactive products for group music improvisation. These products can be musical instruments or music modifiers, aimed at musicians, music groups and even audiences. The project is intended to shed light on how to design for systems, which has the consequence that students should design as a system as well.

Main competency development targeted in:


Targeted blocks

B1; B2; B3.2; M1.1; M1.2.


Bart Hengeveld, Mathias Funk, Joep Frens


Coming from the traditional craft of Designing for Appearance, we are currently moving through Designing for Interaction towards Designing for Systems [1]. This means that we are no longer designing only from a ‘one user-one technology’ paradigm but from a ‘multiple users-multiple technologies’ paradigm. Designing for this new situation is not trivial. A profound difficulty is that we cannot simply transfer our ‘designing for interaction methods and tools’ to this new paradigm. This has several reasons: (1) firstly, the systems we are designing are essentially too large and our targeted user-groups too heterogeneous to simply choose an approach (e.g., bottom-up or top-down) and start designing. Moreover, as designing for systems is relatively uncharted territory, we even don’t know if these existing approaches apply or if we need an alternative hybrid approach [3]; (2) secondly, the interaction with systems appears to be different than with interactive standalone products as systems are more focused on facilitating opportunities for behaviour rather than on disclosing functionalities.

To explore how we can design for systems this project proposes to learn lessons from fields with a longer tradition in facilitating behaviour and personalization. One such field is that of improvised music. For example, in jazz music the rendition of a composition—which is in essence a musical design—is highly dependent on the size of the performing band, the people in the band bringing their individual musical backgrounds, heroes, styles, fortes and flaws, and even on the type of gig or venue. Nonetheless, as a system a jazz band functions really well; the whole is genuinely more than the sum of the parts. Transferring this phenomenon to designing for systems, we may ask: can we design for such a setting, in which people can express themselves while being part of a self-directing, co- creating, musical organism? Or better: can we even go further? Can we design interactive musical instruments that are specifically aimed at ‘the whole’ rather than ‘the sum of the parts’? In other words, intelligent musical instruments that allow the musician or even the audience control over someone else’s instrument or even the entire group? This is the ultimate goal of this project.

Design challenges or research questions

This project aims at creating interactive, intelligent musical instruments or music modifiers [2] that are specifically designed for group music improvisation. This means that each student should design an interactive product that has its own musical behaviour as well as behaviour depending on other such products. We particularly aim for physical, expressive interactive products. These products may be aimed at musicians, entire music groups or the audience.

The project holds several challenges. First of all, students cannot start designing from existing technological platforms or even existing paradigms; these are an integral part of what students need to explore and define. As there is no technological starting point, students can only be design the whole system—i.e., not merely the individual nodes—through experiential explorations. As this is a novel design area the students can only achieve the goal of the project by behaving as a system themselves. For example, as the term ‘music’ is extremely wide, the students on this project will have to find a way to converge on musical preferences, instruments, skills, concert-concepts, etcetera, through mechanisms of self-organization. From a research perspective this could provide valuable, first-hand insights into mechanisms for designing for systems.

Looking at the structure of bands—and more prominently orchestras—the final group music improvisation system will most likely incorporate three feedback-loops: the individual ‘instrumentalist’ loop; the sub-group ‘section’ loop and the band-sized ‘whole’ loop [4]. Having these different feedback loops introduces the question how the influence or control of an individual node in the system will (1) be able to shift forms as a consequence of being in different musical roles; and (2) be perceived (and appreciated) by the audience.


[1] Frens, J.W., Overbeeke, C.J. (2009). Setting the stage for the design of highly interactive systems. In: Proceedings of International Association of Societies of Design Research, Seoul, Korea, pp. 1–10.

[2] Funk, M., Hengeveld, B., Frens J., Rauterberg, M. (2013). Aesthetics and Design for Group Music Improvisation. In: Proceedings of HCI International 2013, July 21-26 2013, Las Vegas, USA.

[3] Hengeveld, B.J. (2011). Designing LinguaBytes : a tangible language learning system for non- or hardly speaking toddlers. Eindhoven: Technische Universiteit Eindhoven.

[4] Hengeveld, B., Frens, J., Funk, M., (2013, submitted). Investigating how to design for systems through designing a group music improvisation system. Submitted to IASDR 2013, Tokyo, Japan.

OoC: projects/GroupMusicImprovisationSystem (last edited 2013-12-27 21:14:30 by JunHu)