Music is always collaborative, and I wanted to explicitly cultivate the playfulness and creativity that arises when two musicians play together.
Create a musical instrument which requires close collaboration between two musicians.
The Lothlóritar is a stringed instrument in which two people must work together to fret and pluck the strings.
I began by learning the physics of string instruments to determine the lengths necessary for various pitches. I knew I wanted to create an instrument that highlighted the collaboration in music-making and invited playful improvisation among musicians.
The concept is to have 4 strings, and 2 players—each controls fretting 2 strings while plucking for the other. This requires very synchronized timing to get the correct note. I like the visualization of having frets on a string instrument, as it helps musicians quickly visualize the layout of notes.
Using string wave equations, I designed a small working prototype to test my concept. I learned that it is hard to fret a note just a half step above the open string, due to high tension, so I modified the fretting in later prototypes. This prototype only had 2 strings, to test the concept, and could be held by one person.
This second prototype was full size, making it impossible to play as only one person. I altered the available notes to start a major fourth above the open string to ease finger comfort and tuning, and made it clear through the fret design which frets could be played with each string.
I also created instructions for an improvisatory game in which players could invent a small repeating pattern of notes, and then one at a time, change a note or rhythm, slowly changing the shape of the melody. I left these instructions and the prototype, plus post-its and sharpies, in the engineering center for people to play and give feedback.
Here is a video of two of my professors playing the second prototype: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MApmCNngqnU
A technical challenge, a long engraving time, was improved when I changed my method from raster engraving to vector engraving, allowing the frets to be engraved more quickly. I tuned the depth of the engravings by varying the density of vector lines.
Another challenge I found was balancing player comfort and musical sound. When the strings have high tension and high action (the vertical distance between the string and fret), the sound had less buzzing of the string against other frets. However, this made the strings cut into the player’s fingers, increasing discomfort.
In its final form, I found a balance between these considerations, with strings that barely buzzed and were more comfortable to play. I also used a beautiful piece of wood from the Yale Forest with raw edges, and laser engraved two Celtic knots on the wood for decoration. I named this instrument the Lothlóritar after the forest Lothlórian in the Lord of the Rings.
I performed acoustical analysis on the sound of the instrument throughout the design process. I compared and contrasted the partials of a thick versus thin wire, where the thin wire had the expected result of many higher partials. I also compared fretting before plucking (as is normally done) and plucking before fretting, and noticed that the plucked then fretted sound had fewer partials, though they extended as high as the fretted and plucked string. This is due to the fretting, which effectively dampens only certain frequencies from the open-string sound.
Playing the Lothloritar requires close collaboration between the two musicians—my partner and I played a simplified arrangement of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman,” to demonstrate, and it took a surprising amount of practice. I could imagine experts, like ballroom dancers, performing intricate music in total synchrony on the instruments.
Amateurs and experienced musicians alike plucked and played with the instrument. Because it is laid flat on a table, it opens itself to experimentation, with folks playing with different patterns of notes and improvising, just as I hoped.
This project was created for the course Musical Acoustics and Instrument Design, led by Dr. Larry Wilen. Photos are courtesy of Ken Yanagisawa. It was featured on YaleNews.