It looked like a guitar, it felt like a guitar, and it certainly sounded like a guitar, but this instrument had a hidden talent.
A couple of months ago, I got the opportunity to test a very interesting instrument. I had heard chatter around the guitar department about a “smart guitar” being developed in house, but I had only heard rumors about this mysterious instrument. It seemed inevitable that the ironic “smart” adjective would begin sticking itself to the musical world. Smartphones, smartwatches, smart-refrigerators, and all the other smart counterparts are the norm. My imagination could only conceive of a smart guitar that had a built in touchscreen on the upper-bout to Face Time friends while practicing scales, or a probe that sent an encouraging shock to the player every time he played a wrong note.
However, when I got to participate in a formal test of the SmartGuitar, my skeptical and electrifying thoughts were erased. Engineering students from The Johns Hopkins University, in collaboration with the Peabody Institute, had developed an instrument that is more than smart, it is potentially career-saving.
I walked into the studio where the test is being conducted and take my seat in the subject’s chair to await examination. I am handed a rather unassuming guitar and briefed on its function and a potentially sharp edge to avoid at the end of the fret board. It looked like a guitar, it felt like a guitar, and it certainly sounded like a guitar, but this instrument had a hidden talent. The team had installed a force sensor under the fretboard to measure the amount of force in newtons that a player is exerting. I am asked to play a few exercises at varying tempos and then asked to play a piece of music. Bach fits most occasions so, I pulled out the Allemande from Lute Suite No. 3 BWV 995, and brought the old Baroque composer to 21st century technology.
This is where the genius of the SmartGuitar comes to display. The objective of the product is to allow the player to see in real time how much force they are applying to each fret. When a set amount of newtons is surpassed, that fret turns red on the computer display. If the player uses less force, the fret will return to green.
I wasn’t able to see the display while I was playing the exercises and the Bach piece, but afterwards they let me free play while viewing the monitor. It was a lot of fun to dial in the fingers into optimal efficiency, and a sober reminder of the pitfalls of bad technique.
It is a tragedy that is all too common; a talented musician practices and studies vigorously to build a career, only to be silenced by an injury.
If you have never played an instrument, it is easy to dismiss the physical activity required to produce pleasant sounds. Every instrument (and voice) demands the activation of countless muscles. The only difference between musicians and athletes is which muscles are performing work. A careless runner is susceptible to pull a hamstring, while a musician could easily damage the tissue in the hand and forearm from technical deficiencies. High-level players practice repetitively for hours a day; a small strain can quickly amplify itself when done habitually.
On stringed instruments, it does not take a G.I. Joe kung fu grip to produce a note. The threshold for the SmartGuitar was set at 2 Newtons, which is less than a half pound of force. However, students from beginner to advanced will tend to press too hard against the fret board in order to gain security within the hands. This bad form will inhibit quick movements and accuracy, but more importantly can adversely affect the longevity of the player’s facilities. It is a tragedy that is all too common; a talented musician practices and studies vigorously to build a career, only to be silenced by an injury.
Sports science has greatly improved the quality and health of athletes by examining micro details and every aspect of the human body. It is time for musicians to start taking a larger interest in our health so that we may communicate our art for as long as possible. The SmartGuitar is a great tool to proactively avoid injury and cause musicians to become more aware of their physical health.
The engineering students won first prize at Whiting’s School Design day and there are plans to further this project into SmartCello, SmartViolin and beyond. The goal is to have the instrument be compatible with smartphones( a practical use at last!) for easy access. Before they are available on the market, you better believe I will be more spending time lightening my touch and playing smart.