Making music with switches for dummies

Here you can see a number of switches which have been designed specifically for people with a disability.


These switches ensure that people with severely reduced mobility can operate their computer, electrical wheel-chair or other devices. We’re using these same switches to make music.

Making music with switches is easily accessible. No matter how severe the disability, there’s always a switch just right for just that one participant.

Usually, the decision to use a switch is based on the motor abilities of the participant, although this may not always be the case. Making music using switches is easy and convenient. Therefore, it’s a highly appropriate way for children to get started with music. As a group activity in class, or as an aid in occupational, speech, music or physical therapy. Making music with switches is also suitable for children with low cognition and for very young children.

The above is the starting point for a description of two different music systems. For both systems, user friendliness for the tutor was considered paramount.

System 1 – A computer with peripheral devices and music software

The music software is from the US: two programs written by Jon Adams, Switch Jam and Switch Ensemble. Both programs are very accessible. The lay-out is clear and convenient. In order to connect the switches to the computer, a USB switch interface is required. We’ve selected the JOYBOX. The total package needed for our Windows computer:

• 1 or more switches
• the music software: Switch Jam and Switch Ensemble
• a USB switch interface: the JOYBOX
• user-friendly software (HOTKEY) designed by us to operate the JOYBOX
• optionally an extra adapter cable to e.g. a headrest switch

In Switch Jam you’re impersonating one of four musicians. You may sing, play saxophone, keyboard or (bass) guitar using the switch. There’s a maximum of four players.

Switch Ensemble is my favourite program. Switch Ensemble has two different modes. You can use it either as a sample player or as a virtual keyboard. A sample player can be described as a device which plays pre-recorded snippets of music. Each time the switch is activated, a new fragment will be played. This can be anything from a distorted guitar to percussion to singing. You can also load short sound bites of yourself singing. That way, you can chop a song into short fragments (phrases), so even people with a speech impediment may be able to sing a song! The second mode is similar to a synthesizer keyboard. You play individual chords or notes, choosing from 128 different sounds. It’s possible to program Tone Bells.

System 2 – The Quintet

It’s all about ease-of-use



Forced hand use: stimulation of the affected arm using Quintet

The Quintet is an exciting device which can accommodate up to five switches. The Quintet has been made specifically with teachers, therapists, mentors and parents in mind who want to use music in their activities with children or grown-ups. It’s been specifically used for every-day use in the field. It’s a musical device which stands alone, is robust, and it contains many pre-programmed songs. It has a built-in speaker and operates with a battery.

Just switch it on and you’re ready to play. No valuable therapy time is lost, and it’s easy to take it along to other therapy rooms. The Quintet comes with a book full of fun activities.

The Quintet is well-suited for working with a group. All participants can play their own role within a piece of music. But it’s also a therapeutic aid. One application allows a therapist to introduce a child to the concept of using switches. It’s also a valuable aid in Forced Hand Use training.

The adremo headrest

It’s difficult to give acces to music to people with severe spasticity. Some of our pupils with Cerebral Palsy make use of an Adremo headrest controller. This headrest contains 2 or 3 switches. In our setup, the Adremo headrest is very well suited for use as a musical instrument! And it looks way cool!


An adapter cable is needed to connect the headrest to the JOYBOX. This is available from the Adremo company.

More about Switch Ensemble  
I like to make Tonebells. If you right-click one of the eight Tonebells, the following screen will appear.


With this screen I can create my own Tonebells. With “Import sound” I can load (fragments of) a recording of myself singing. I may also create my own scales when I check “Play Synthesizer”.

On your computer, there will be a folder called “Switch Ensemble”. Probably under “Program Files” (XP) or “My Documents” (Vista, Windows 7). This is the place where you can store your own Tonebells and samples. 
I have created a number of Tonebells. You can download them here (new tonebells). If you have created your own Tonebells, please send them to us!

Musical improvisation with switches using the program Switch Ensemble

Improvisation is the ability to create your own unique music, here and now, without having to think too much. It’s a wonderful way to express yourself. Children can start improvising at a very young age. It’s good for their mental development. Someone who is able to improvise musically can often improvise in daily life too.


We’re going to explore how to use Switch Ensemble to improvise. As a starting point we use the default settings. Two switches are used to play a certain scale up and down, one step at a time.

However, the potential for improvisation is limited in this way.


In order to create more possibilities, my son has written extra software so a third switch can be used to repeat a note. With a fourth switch, it’s possible to skip notes in a scale! Again, this extra software (HOTKEY) is very user-friendly. A single mouse click is sufficient to activate it. You will have to use the Joybox USB interface however. So, using our extra software up to 4 switches can be used.
1 switch to go up one step in the scale (A)
1 switch to go down one step in the scale (B)
1 switch to repeat the last note played (C)
1 (interval) switch to skip one or more Tonebells when the next note is played (D).

The Improvisation “Hotkey” for extra modes within Switch Ensemble can be downloaded here.

Operating other sound sources with Switch Ensemble

Finally, it’s possible to use Switch Ensemble to control other sound sources. This might be a music application on the same computer, but it might also be an external sound source like a sound module or a keyboard.


This is fairly complex and technical and it would go to far to explain the two free applications I use for this purpose in much detail. So you’ll have to find out for yourself about these applications. The first application is called “Midi Yoke” The application has 8 virtual Midi cables. This Midi cable will be the link between Switch Ensemble and the alternate sound source. The second application is Putzlowitschs Midi mapper. In this application, you have to select Midi Yoke 1 as the output. In the receiving application, you’ll also have to select Midi Yoke 1.

Ruud van der Wel – August 2011

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