Zoolophone musical instrument made of animal shapes

Computer scientists at CSAIL, Columbia, Harvard and Disney Research have created a ‘Xylophone’, which looks like a simple kid’s musical instrument and has keys in the shape of zoo animals. They have demonstrated that sound can be controlled by 3D-printing shapes. The team designed a optimization algorithm and used computational methods and digital fabrication to control acoustic properties of both sound and vibration, by altering the shape of 2D and 3D objects.

They decided to focus on simplifying the slow, complicated, manual process of designing idiophones, musical instruments that produce sounds through vibrations in the instrument itself, not through strings or reeds. Because the surface vibration and resulting sounds depend on the idiophone’s shape in a complex way, designing the shapes to obtain desired sound characteristics is not straightforward, and their forms have been limited to well-understood designs such as bars that are tuned by careful drilling of dimples on the underside of the instrument.

In order to demonstrate their new technique, they built a “zoolophone,” a metallophone with playful animal shapes. Their algorithm optimized and 3D-printed the instrument’s keys in the shape of colourful lions, turtles, elephants, giraffes, and more, modelling the geometry to achieve the desired pitch and amplitude of each part.

The work at Columbia Engineering was supported in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Intel, at Harvard and MIT by NSF, Air Force Research Laboratory, and DARPA.