Underground Sound

Boston-based mechanical engineering student, Alexandra Thaon, fused her love of live music with her passion for product design and computer science creativity; using Makey Makey to put some of the MBTA’s most prominent musicians firmly on ‘the map’...

Too much choice can be overwhelming, especially when you’re choosing what to major in at college and your heart is split between two subjects.

After a semester in Australia flirting with the idea of switching to computer science, Northeastern University freshman, Alexandra Thaon decided to stick with her original degree choice -- mechanical engineering -- after taking a class in design process; which kick-started her maker talents.

“I’ve always put a lot of effort into making projects creative and visually appealing,” she says. “But I wanted to be able to blend something digital with something more physical, which I was able to do in the design process class.”

The class gave her a chance to create a personal project piece, and after exploring student use of the Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority (MBTA) -- or the “T” as it’s more commonly known -- Alex came up with the idea of creating an interactive musical map, to showcase Boston’s multicultural subterranean music scene.

The final piece is a map of the T’s central section mounted on a large foam core board. Each station is represented by a button. Attached to each button is a thin strip of aluminum foil, which is connected to a Makey Makey via an alligator clip. By holding down the ‘Earth’ button, and pressing a station button, the user plays music recorded at that particular subway station.

“Although my tutor showed me a range of different technologies, like Arduinos, I found that Makey Makey was the most cost efficient and easy to use,” she explains. “Liam from JoyLabz was able to help me bridge the gap between Makey Makey and playing the songs; he suggested using Scratch as a medium through which I could connect different keys to playing different songs.”

During her underground musical adventure, Alex experienced a rich tapestry of music, including: hip-hop, country, jazz, Spanish, pop, and alternative.

“It was interesting to see the interactions that went on between the performers and the public. For example there’s a trombone player at the Back Bay station; an old man approached him suggesting he play a certain jazz song, and was thrilled to hear him play it. The hip-hop scene at Downtown Crossing, on the other hand, attracts many young people, some even join the circle and add their freestyle.”

Although she’s now planning for her second year of study, and another semester overseas, Alex has a few ideas on how her project could to evolve.

“I’d like to develop a screen that would sit above the map; to visually show subway performances,” she says. “It would also be interesting to implement some sort of app or Twitter account that could update which stations have live performers; in order to connect the musicians and provide more of a community.

“The overall response to the project was very positive and interested. A lot of my peers, after telling them about plans to take the project further were keen to give me advice and positive feedback.”

Thanks Alex! We’re really keen to see what else you come up with on your travels.