Science, Tech & Environment

App turns iPhone into musical instrument

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Story by Angela Frucci for PRI's "Studio 360."

Lauren Steely is kind of a celebrity at the moment. She made a video of herself playing the iPhone Ocarina and posted it on YouTube under the name "hrdrockgrrl."

"My first instrument was a trumpet, and as a wind player there's definitely something very magical about being able to play so expressively using your breath," said Steely. "And I think that's really what the big appeal of the Ocarina is ... they really got this hokey-sounding thing to actually work, and they did it really well."

Her song was "Storms" from the Legend of Zelda video game, and the video she put on YouTube has upwards of a hundred thousand views.

In the world of iPhone apps, the digital Ocarina was a hit when it came out last year. A company named Smule figured out how to take the sound a person makes when they blow into a phone and turn it into a musical note.

Smule co-founder and the app's inventor, Ge Wang, thinks the more people play music, the better. To play the Ocarina, he wears speakers on his hands -- they're sewn on golf gloves.

"The speakers I wear on my hands are actually wearable speakers we're building for the Mobile Phone Orchestra, otherwise known as MoPho," explains Wang.

He says he didn't set out to create a digital Ocarina, "Instead of saying, I want to make instrument X and put it on the phone, we looked at the phone first and thought, hey what is this phone most capable of doing for us."

One of the things that makes the Ocarina popular is that it has a social component to it -- Wang calls it "The World Listener." If you press a little globe on the screen in the app, you see a visualization of the earth with white points of light. Each point of light is an iPhone that has been used recently to play the Ocarina. Using an iPhone's GPS chip, Smule's servers can track Ocarina performances.

"You actually can hear one by one, other people playing the Ocarina from around the world and see where they're doing that," said Wang.

The Leaf Trombone is Smule's new musical app. Like the Ocarina, the Leaf has a social component -- you can submit  a Leaf performance to a virtual world where people listen and rate your performance.

Said Wang, "We at Smule are really trying to bring this idea of unlocking creativity to as many people as possible."

He thinks the Ocarina encourages amatures who might not otherwise pick up an instrument.

Watch video of Lauren playing "Storms" on the Ocarina:

PRI's Peabody Award-winning "Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen" from WNYC is public radio's smart and surprising guide to what's happening in pop culture and the arts. Each week, Kurt Andersen introduces you to the people who are creating and shaping our culture. Life is busy — so let "Studio 360" steer you to the must-see movie this weekend, the next book for your nightstand, or the song that will change your life.

 

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