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Device helps deaf musicians stay on beat – Part 1

Device helps deaf musicians stay on beat – Part 1

Editor: Everyone knows that people with hearing loss can’t enjoy music, right? Fortunately, some students at Marquette University didn’t buy into that myth, and they went on to develop a metronome for deaf musicians.

This story originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is reprinted with their kind permission.


For their senior project last fall, Matt Marquette and his fellow student engineers set out to solve an unusual problem: How do you teach musical rhythms to a child who cannot hear?

Most children learn musical time to the steady tock-tock of the metronome, a fine tool for the hearing. The six Marquette University students would spend their senior year inventing a metronome that worked silently, delivering rhythm through another sense.

Unlike many of the engineering projects at Marquette, this one was not the idea of a professor, or a local company. The idea came from Cecil Austin, who teaches hand drumming to children at the Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in West Allis, and who has worked with the center’s drum ensemble, “probably the only ensemble of its kind in the world,” he said.

In an effort to teach rhythm to the children, Austin had developed a way of using state names to suggest a beat. Single-syllable Maine was a quarter note. Double-syllable U-tah was a pair of eighth notes. Mi-ssi-ssi-ppi was four sixteenth notes. But a child’s eyes cannot track words as easily they can musical notes. Also, the system made more sense to those who were hard of hearing than it did to those who were deaf; they hear Maine or Mi-ssi-ssi-ppi in their heads.

Nor was the system ideal for the children when they practiced by themselves. How would they know if they played a rhythm correctly?

Austin needed a new kind of metronome. He mentioned his idea to an engineer he’d worked with before, who then passed it on to Matt Marquette

“There’s something gratifying about solving problems, especially when the problem you solve is going to help people,” said Marquette, a quiet, bespectacled 21-year-old whose childhood interests in Legos and mathematics had led him to engineering.

The senior project is a rite of passage for the university’s engineering students, a chance to put what they’ve learned into practice. They have less than nine months to turn an idea into a prototype, a process that takes several years at many companies.

“This is what we were going to be doing in the real world,” said Katie Holterman, then a 22-year-old studying electrical engineering.

She was one of the five classmates Matt Marquette assembled to work on the project. The others were Emily Stockhausen, Brandon Zingsheim, Brad Fessenbecker and Chris Jablonowski.

Although the engineers had no experience working with the deaf and hard of hearing, several came from musical backgrounds. Holterman sang in the Homestead High School choir in Mequon, and her mother was a piano teacher. Zingsheim played piano and composed music. Marquette had played drums and other percussion instruments in bands since fifth grade and performed with the university concert band.

George Corliss, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, had advised groups of students for the past three years. He knew that some projects call for a leap of imagination, while others show the everyday applications of engineering.

The students split neatly into two areas of expertise. Jablonowski, Fessenbecker and Holterman knew electronic hardware and focused on the circuit board.

Zingsheim, Stockhausen and Marquette knew software and worked on the programs for the LCD screen and the microcontroller, a sort of mini-computer that reads sensors and does calculations.

The students spent much of the first semester brainstorming on durability, cost and manufacturing. They met with the children to learn their needs.

Here’s Part Two