Startup harnesses ‘power of music’ for all

Special to Western News

Co-founded by Ryan McCaul, BMus’17, Inclusive Instruments, a Chicago-based non-profit, transforms tablet computers and other mobile devices into adaptive instruments for anyone with a disability.

Music isn’t just for those who can pound a piano or blow their own horn, Ryan McCaul stresses. Music should be accessible to all, even, and especially, to those whose motor control might not let them play conventional instruments.

And the Don Wright Faculty of Music alumnus’ startup is intended to do just that.

With Inclusive Instruments, a Chicago-based non-profit, McCaul transforms tablet computers and other mobile devices into adaptive instruments for anyone with a disability.

McCaul, BMus’17, first generated the idea while participating in a drumming circle and then while employed as a developmental service worker through Participation House, a London service that works with people with developmental and/or complex physical needs.

“It became obvious to me how important music was in their lives,” he said.

Simultaneously at Western, he was learning electro-acoustic music composition and developing computer programs that could help that happen.

After graduation, he went on to earn a Masters of Education degree at Northwestern University in Chicago, where he and roommate Patrick Horton developed the idea into an 18-month collaborative research project at an Illinois school with students who have developmental or cognitive disabilities.

With McCaul working at the computer, students with moderate motor ability used iPad buttons and sliders to make notes and change tempos. With a computer program helping turn iPod accelerometer data into notes, even those with more limited hand control can wave an arm to generate sound. “They’re able to make music with their arm movements.”

McCaul recalls one shy student’s transformation into a performer when he used the vocorder-enabled microphone to synthesize and autotune his voice. “He would rap and sing into it and he’d say, ‘I’m singing, I’m singing,’ and he’d freestyle rap forever. That was kind of an amazing experience.”

McCaul helped develop the business model as a non-profit and some of the logistics through The Garage, Northwestern’s business incubator for students.

With Inclusive Instruments, the technology is an important facilitator, but it doesn’t create the music, he noted.

“It allows the student to express themselves and express their creativity so that they have a voice. It gives them the chance to be musical and be musical in a community.”

Because the process does require someone who is proficient with technology, though, McCaul is looking to train music students able to work with students, teachers and the programming.

It’s been a long process – and one that doesn’t easily translate to a portable business – but it’s been worth it, he said.

“There have been a few moments that have been ineffable. There’s been this sense of awe in the room,” he said. “The power of music and how it becomes real, that’s really cool. That’s probably the most motivating and exciting thing.”