Exploring the role of Culture & Community in Instrument Design

PhD research Giacomo Lepri

Situating design within cultural and musical values


It is possible to argue that any musical technology embodied a set of pre-existing knowledge (e.g. technical expertise, musical notions and performative intentions). A luthier (instrument makers), while designing an instrument, transfers into the object specific cultural knowledges and musical meanings.

Likewise, musicians can be considered influential vectors through witch musical values are conveyed within communities. The involvement into specific musical communities implies ways of learning - of both absorbing and being absorbed in - the culture of practice. The roles played by music practitioners active in particular contexts seems therefore crucial for the generation and reproduction of cultural values that influence the understanding and use of music technologies.


This research aims to explore how diverse musical backgrounds related to communities of musical practice influence the foresee of music technology. Drawing on HCI approaches and methodologies such as Design Fiction, Value Sensitive Design and Participatory Design, we aim to develop a body of knowledge for the discovery of musical values related to specific musical communities.

The exploration of the communities engaged with the invention and mediation of new musical instruments are also considered. We therefore aim to identify tacit assumptions on the ways designers use the available technologies while building new musical instruments. Furthermore, our goal is to elaborate on the question “Who controls who?”. Thus, discussing the relations between tools, musical intentions and technical expertise within the instrument design tendencies situated in the NIME communities.

The body of knowledge and skill acquired will hopefully converge in the design of instruments conceived for specific musical values. Thus addressing specific musicians active in diverse communities of musical practice.

Key concepts

Notions such as corporeal intentionality and embodied interaction are considered as core aspects of musical expressiveness. From this viewpoint, designers of New Interface for Musical Expression inherit a centuries-old body of knowledges and practices. New instruments are often discussed in relation to traditional instruments. This suggests that historical and cultural practices are easily projected into the design of the new instruments.

This research is grounded on the idea that new media re-mediates old media. The design of a novel instrument can be approached as a migration process in which features associated with existing musical technologies are integrated and negotiated into a new context. Thus we envision instrumented design cultures as sedimented and layered, a fold of time and materiality where the past might be suddenly discovered anew.

Media Archaeology

In media theory, the attempts to understand new and emerging technologies by taking into account the history and evolution of past new media is de ned as media archaeology These cultural studies focus on the critical scrutiny of forgotten technologies, observing that new media often renovate old interactive paradigms and communication techniques. Media Archaeology is also a methodology for contemporary artistic practice introducing the concept of ‘zombie media’: a media that is not only out of use, but resurrected to new uses, contexts and adaptations.


Remediation can be de ned as the formal logic by which new media refashion prior media forms. This implies that characteristics typical of an existing media are transferred into the new media. Digital media often remediate analog media, for instance the pages of a web portal might remediate those of a printed newspaper. Nowadays, thanks to low-cost microcontrollers and embedded systems, everyday objects can be easily digitalised in order to expand their functionalities and remediate of other devices.

Mirroring the past: Cembalo Scrivano

The first outcome of the research is the Cembalo Scrivano : an interactive audio-visual installation based on an augmented typewriter. By detecting the user’s typing activity, the CS1 generates in realtime audio and visual materials. The project is inspired by the writing machine created in 1855 by the Italian inventor Giuseppe Ravizza. Ravizza called his invention Cembalo Scrivano (Scribe Harpsichord) due to the usage of piano-keys. This invention reworks the harpsichord interface: an existing musical instrument was used as source of inspiration for the development of a new machine (from art technology to typewriting).

The CS1 aims to mirror this process: a typewriter is converted into an interactive art installation (from typewriting to art technology). Oscillating between two domains (musical and literary), the same technology travels across history, carrying knowledge, behaviours and meanings.


G. Lepri, A. P. McPherson. Mirroring the past, from typewriting to interactive art: an approach to the re-design of a vintage technology. Proc. New Interfaces for Musical Expression, Blacksburg, Virginia, USA. 2018.