Musical Instrument: Lothlóritar


Photos courtesy of Ken Yanagisawa

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This instrument was inspired by the collaborative aspect of music making. One of the most important things to me about making music is being creative with other people. I wanted to create an instrument that would require this collaboration, which would “force” two people to work together to play anything at all. The final instrument has four strings, played such that each player frets two strings which the other plucks. My professor got some beautiful wood from the Yale Forest, which inspired the Elven and Irish aesthetic, with celtic knot engravings and the name Lothlóritar (named after Lothlórian, the Elven forest in J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings). In honor of the collaborative nature of the instrument, a friend and I played “Do You Want To Build a Triad,” a parody of the song from Frozen, for the final presentation.

Musically, though it is less complicated than most instruments, the difficulty of playing the instrument lies in working with another person to create music and coordinating fretting and plucking different patterns simultaneously. It is an experiment in this thinking, a challenge to mentally dissociate fretting from plucking, trusting the other player to fill in the gaps. Another goal for the instrument was for it to be approachable and playable, for example in a museum exhibit about acoustics. Two people who don’t play any other musical instruments could walk up, start playing together and have fun making music. Because its operation is so transparent, players can easily experiment with how the tuning and fretting works. I could also see very proficient musicians playing the instrument together, similar to how pair ice skaters can not only skate well, but also skate together.

Here is a video of two of my professors playing the second prototype:

The instrument also experiments with the idea of writing music as rules for a game, as in the looping, iterative improvisation game I made. Players build up to a harmonic vamp which can change subtly in rhythm or harmony on each iteration. This means the music created by the same rules will be different each time it is played. I would love to create more games to be played on this instrument and watch how different people choose to play them.

Through two prototypes, one much smaller than the final product and one full size, I refined the fret placement, nut and bridge height, and string material. One challenge I continually worked on was the balance between tension, to reduce string buzzing on the frets, and the action, or the vertical distance between the string and fret. When the action was high, the strings hurt more to play, but buzzing was reduced. In the final prototype, I found a balance between these considerations, with strings that barely buzzed and were quite playable on the fingers. Also, by starting the first fret a perfect fourth above the open string pitch, the string was easier to fret, less subject to being sharp due to increased tension during fretting (I also compensated by calculating where the frets needed to be to be in tune), and created interesting musical possibilities. Here is the final fingering chart, showing the scale degrees when the open strings are tuned to 1 and 5:



During testing, I left the prototype out in Yale’s Center for Engineering, Innovation, and Design for people to play with and leave comments. People loved playing with it!


Frequency analysis using the programs SPEAR and Audiosculpt showed the differences in the distribution of partials, the frequencies and their relative amplitudes that sum to create a characteristic pitch and timber. For instance, the fifth scale degree can be played on both strings, but the thinner string had stronger higher partials. My professor liked to play the instrument by plucking the open string and then fretting it, instead of fretting before plucking. This method of playing reduced the number of partials heard but maintained the range of partials, excluding those partials which were not a part of the harmonic series of the open string. See graphs below for more information:

Below: G played on the thicker string and the thinner string, respectively

G_thick              G_thin