A Robot Train That Lets You Write Music With Magic Markers

The creator of the “Looks Like Music” project was inspired by his own dyslexia to come up with a more intuitive way of reading and writing music.

Up until he went to college, Japanese media artist Yuri Suzuki thought he was stupid. Music was in his blood, his bones, his thoughts, but he couldn’t read it. Suzuki was dyslexic, and as much as he loved music, the only sound a series of notes arrayed upon a musical stave implied was the sound of chaos.


That’s why much of Suzuki’s work focuses on new ways to visualize music. Looks Like Music is his new project, an alternative to standardized Western musical notation synesthetic enough for even dyslexics to understand. Even cooler? It’s music notation done with robots.

Even as a child, Suzuki loved music. Raised in a richly musical household where the big band sounds of Glenn Miller seemed to come crashing like thunder from his father’s stereo, young Suzuki was inspired to begin his education in the trombone at an age when he would scarcely have been able to hold the thing upright: just three years old. In high school, Suzuki joined a ska band as a trombonist; later, he left the band, and, inspired by musicians such as Yellow Magic Orchestra, Devo, and Kraftwerk, Suzuki began to focus on synthesizers and electronic music.

Although musical, Suzuki was working with a disability, one that it took him a long time to realize was there. “I had all these friends asking me to read scores and do music theory stuff, but I couldn’t read the notes. I thought I was dumb,” Suzuki tells me. “It was only when I got to college that a coordinator took a look at my work and said, ‘Yup, you’re dyslexic.'”

The revelation was eye opening to Suzuki, whose work since college has largely focused upon visualizing music and sound. “I try to design systems that don’t require words to explain,” Suzuki tells Co.Design. “Think iOS instead of Unix.”

The Looks Like Music project is a perfect example of this design principle: Jony Ive’s iOS 7 to the Unix of the stave. Essentially a self-automated robot train, Looks Like Music’s five robot cabooses chug along a two-dimensional track, a black line scrawled on a sheet of white paper. Each of these cars is responsible for a certain kind of sound, which are self-evident from their names: the drumcar, for example, plays drum samples, while the melodycar plays chords and melodies.

These cars are quite happy following the black line silently all day, but when they happen to pass across a patch of color, they make sounds. If the train passes over a darker color, the sound will be lower-pitched; a brighter color means the opposite. And because every car is set into the scale of C, each car of the train plays in perfect harmony with the others as it passes over its chroma-musical tracks.


The train track metaphor for a musical staff is perhaps obvious, and in fact, we’ve seen the idea of turning a musical staff into a train before. But what makes Suzuki’s implementation so special is that it can literally be drawn on a piece of paper with some magic markers. One other perk of the system? When you’re done coloring your music and the robot trains are through playing, you can keep the paper as either a record or a piece of artwork to display.

Combined, this all makes for a deeply intuitive alternative to standard music notation that almost everyone can enjoy. “With Looks Like Music, we’ve been delighted to see that people enjoy playing with it no matter what their age,” says Suzuki. “Kids love it, but even older people enjoy writing music by just coloring with markers. The reaction is the same no matter what the generation.”

Right now, Looks Like Music only exists as an art project, but Suzuki says that a Kickstarter campaign to mass-produce his color-sensing, music-playing robot train might be around the corner. In the meantime, Suzuki is working on perfecting even more intuitive ways of visualizing music. “My dream is to make a perfect system of notation based on physics, not symbols.” In that sense, Looks Like Music could be the first step to a system of musical notation intuitive enough to be read by everyone.

More of Yuri Suzuki’s music visualization work can be found here.

[Photos by Hitomi Kai Yoda]