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iPhone orchestra: Roll over, Beethoven

University of Michigan students winding up a course on turning mobile phones into musical instruments will take to the stage to perform their original compositions.

Michigan Mobile Phone Ensemble
The Michigan Mobile Phone Ensemble uses smartphones as primary musical instruments. University of Michigan

Generally, cell phone noise is pretty much the last thing you'd want to hear at a concert. But it's all the audience will be getting at a Michigan recital next week. And that's the way it's supposed to be when the Michigan Mobile Phone Ensemble hits the stage.

Orchestra members are University of Michigan students winding up a fall course on turning mobile phones into musical instruments. The course merges engineering practices, mobile phone programming, and sound synthesis with music performance, composition, and interactive media arts.

Michigan Mobile Phone Ensemble
The iPhone musicians broadcast their creations through custom-built speaker systems worn around the wrist. University of Michigan

Rather than just playing a bunch of converging ringtones, the students use their devices to create new interactive sounds in live performance. Their instruments of choice are currently iPhones and iPod Touches, and they use custom-built speaker systems worn around the wrist to broadcast their original artistry.

"The mobile phone is a very nice platform for exploring new forms of musical performance," said Georg Essl, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and music at the school who is teaching the course. "We're not tethered to the physics of traditional instruments. We can do interesting, weird, unusual things."

At their end-of-semester concert in Ann Arbor Wednesday, students will be doing more than firing up apps that turn the iPhone into an organ or ocarina. They have spent the semester building apps themselves and using touch screens, microphones, GPS, compasses, wireless sensors, and accelerometers to create sounds when they run their finger across the display, blow air into the mic, or tilt or shake their phones.

Some of the sounds they produce will emulate traditional instruments, while some have a more distinct sound.

"In order to come up with a creative piece, you have to engage with the technology, but in order to make technology interesting, you also have to engage with the musicality. These are really hard to separate. We're trying to teach both," Essl said.

The Michigan musicians follow in the tradition of similar mobile phone orchestras ("MoPhOs," as they're called) including one at Stanford University (which also offers a free course in iPhone application programming), as well as the Helsinki MoPhO and Berlin Mobile Phone Orchestra.