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  • Writer's pictureJulian Brill, MT-BC

Improvising Using Abstract Instruments

Virtual reality enables the creation of musical instruments that would be difficult or impossible to replicate in reality.

One question I always try to ask myself is "Why VR?". There is a risk of being too enthralled with the graphical nature of 3D development, to the point where the original goal becomes a little lost.

Within music therapy, the focus is always the individual or group with whom you are working. The choice of music, the nature of the intervention always point back towards the individual's goal. You may love 90s rock yourself, but if the individual loves country western, then that is more than likely your music of choice.

The same question applies to use of additional tools, and in this case, virtual reality.

Will the use of said tool benefit this person?

The answer is not always "yes", and that is okay. However, I believe the power behind virtual reality lies in its flexibility to match the needs of any individual and therefore be a useful tool in many different circumstances.

Creating a Reality

One such aspect of VR is its ability to provide an alternative reality, particular one that does not need to match actual reality.

For instance, the image above is from an improvisational prototype. Within this intervention, the user is presented with varying cubes and orbs approaching them randomly. As a "game", this concept is not new. VR experiences like Beat Saber have become mainstream entertainment recently, and similar rhythm games like Guitar Hero before that. There is, of course, a reason why these games are popular. They allow people to create music in a unique and fun way. They are accessible with no extensive musical training needed to benefit from the experience.

These characteristics are also present in music therapy. Music therapists strive to make music accessible no matter someone’s background and a unique and fun experience is more likely to make a lasting emotional impression on a person as well as make them more eager to repeat the experience.

This effect can be multiplied with VR, mainly due to its novelty as an experience for many people and a developer‘s ability to create a reality that is both aesthetically pleasing and congruent with any musical presentation.

The ”Orb and Cube Improvisation“ prototype utilizes the Beat Saber game mechanic while also using basic music therapy principles. The musical quality of each object is set to “sound good” within a traditional Western music framework (i.e. pentatonic scales, tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords, bass drone tone). This sets up the individual for success. The point of music therapy is NOT to be a proficient musician, but rather use music to excel in other attributes of the whole person.

Particularly, with this style of intervention, the goal is give an opportunity for self-expression and creativity. The physics interactivity of the cubes and particle effects add to the aesthetics and encourage experimentation with how the individual interacts with the objects. The visual responses act as reinforcement and encourage participation.

The experience itself is very abstract. The objects appear at random with a small variance in timing. The individual appears to be floating, to parallel the musical quality being created. The environment itself is a night sky to add some depth. Overall, this is an experience that would be difficult to replicate in reality. This is why VR presents an interesting alternative medium.

VR allows for the “unreal” and the abstract. This ability can be advantageous when trying to present an experience that also abstract or free of strict structure. When coupled with a music therapy intervention that is also abstract in nature, the VR experience can reinforce the intent behind the therapy and therefore compliment its goals.

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