These young musicians from Hong Kong built their own instruments using concepts from STEM

These young musicians from Hong Kong built their own instruments using concepts from STEM

Young Post speaks to the winners of the Musical Instrument Design Competition 2019 organised by the University of Hong Kong

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The Music Holics, composed of primary students from Po Leung Kuk Choi Kai Yau School, performed an original song using two instruments that they built themselves.
Photos: PLKCKY School

It’s not difficult to find a Hong Kong student who can play at least one musical instrument, but how many do you know who can explain how their instrument works? Nine young scientists from Po Leung Kuk Choi Kai Yau School can, as they had to study and build the mechanisms behind their music.

On May 11, five primary students and four secondary students from the school brought home two champions and two awards from the Musical Instrument Design Competition Award Presentation Ceremony held at Queen Elizabeth School.

The primary students who formed the team called The Music Holics surprised the judges with their water wheel instrument and micro:bit gloves, while the secondary students forming the team Mackerel impressed by performing the song Megalovania from the video game Undertale using a stepper motor, a marble machine, Tesla coils and a wine glass.

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Young Post spoke to the winners at their campus on May 31 to learn more about the challenges and science behind their innovative creations.

“We [team Mackerel] watched a video of Swedish Band Wintergatan playing the marble machine [built by one of their members Martin Molin]. We thought it was really interesting to make a mechanical instrument like that … so we tried to make a simpler version of it,” said Max Wong Wang-yui, 17.

Mcvey Srirajan, 16, who was in charge of playing the instrument, said he didn’t find it too difficult to programme the mechanism that dropped the marbles onto the copper rods to make sounds as he had a template to follow. But his teammate Jerry Tsang Hui-lok, 16, said it was challenging to programme the stepper motor, which provided the melody of their music.

Team Mackerel ended their performance of the song 'Megalovania' with an electric spark created by a Telsa coil – an electrical machine that generates high voltage electricity at low currents
Photos: PLKCKY School

“We have only been taught block coding in school, so we had to learn to line code in [the programming language] C++ by ourselves, which [I thought] was significantly more complex than using coding blocks,” he said.

As both instruments had to be programmed, rather than being played manually, the team found it tricky to make them play in sync, along with the sounds created by Mike Wong Wang-yui, 17, with half-filled wine glasses. They also struggled to incorporate the Telsa coil into their music, even after Max Lee Man-yiu, 16, built four prototypes. They instead used it to create a large spark at the end of their performance, an idea they came up with when one of the team members got an electric shock from the coil a few weeks before the competition.

Unlike their seniors, The Music Holics performed an original song called The Journey, which was written by 11-year-old team member Valerie Lam Yat-kiu. She said she wanted the song to bring their audience “back to nature” by mimicking sounds of rain and chirping birds.

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One of the key instruments they used were the micro:bit gloves – essentially “a very compact system of buttons, wires, micro:bits [a pocket-sized computer that can stop and start music], amplifiers and speakers,” as Michael Lam Pui-sang, 12, explains. He added their aim was to make a more portable version of an electric keyboard.

They used three gloves to create the melody for their song, and created the bass with a percussion instrument they invented named “The Water Cycle”.

Similar to a watermill, the instrument involved a spinning wheel that would hit different materials to create sounds. They used a high-pressure water pump to make the wheel turn and built in a noise isolation box so only the sounds made by the instrument would be heard, said Nikila Thisum Kahangamage, 12.

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The wheel had components that were made with a 3D printer, which none of the team members had used before. Chelsea Wong Pak-yan, 11, said they had to choose different software to test which was best.

When asked if they ever imagined winning the competition, which attracted more than 400 students across Hong Kong, the team members all shouted, “no!”.

“We didn’t expect that this project would take us on such a long but successful journey,” said Lauren Chan Wing-tsun, 11.

Edited by Nicole Moraleda

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
When music meets science

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