3D Printed ‘Zoolophone’ Demonstrates Connection Between Shape And Sound

Music to our ears

This adorable musical instrument, dubbed the zoolophone, is the result of two years of hard work by computer scientists from Columbia Engineering, Harvard, MIT, and Disney Research.

In a paper that will be presented at SIGGRAPH Asia on November 4, the researchers, led by Changxi Zheng, an assistant computer science professor at Columbia Engineering, describe just what it takes to reliably build an instrument in which shape is of utmost importance.

The team took on the challenge of designing a metallophone (a type of metal instrument that produces sounds based on vibrations of the instrument itself, rather than a reed or strings). Because shape is so important to the instrument, the design process is typically complex and slow. And because of that, we’ve been limited to boring, simple bars instead of interesting animal shapes. Instead, Zheng and his team 3D printed elephants, lions, giraffes, turtles, and other animal shapes to make up the keys of the instrument. To obtain the desired pitch, machines perforated and deformed the pieces automatically using a set of parameters.

Other algorithms have previously optimized just the loudness or frequency at which the keys produced sound. But the new algorithm employed in the zoolophone optimized both at the same time. The method is called Latin Complement Sampling, and it allows users to request specific shapes to produce specific notes. And it’s not just useful for making amusing instruments.

“Our discovery could lead to a wealth of possibilities that go well beyond musical instruments,” Zheng said in a release. “Our algorithm could lead to ways to build less noisy computer fans, bridges that don’t amplify vibrations under stress, and advance the construction of micro-electro-mechanical resonators whose vibration modes are of great importance.”

You can watch a video explaining the research (and hear the zoolophone for yourself) below: