This week, on Top Chef. Photo: croncast.

The saga of the Beamz Laser Music System goes on: the spectacularly awful demo video has spread on the Internets, and after Gizmodo proclaimed it the most stupid promo video ever, they were challenged by the PR company to do a real review. (No such challenge yet for CDM, mercifully.)

This does reveal where the thing came from, though. The Beamz tool was “invented” by songwriter Jerry Riopelle, who had a fairly significant career penning tunes in the 60s (“The Thrill is Gone”) and went on to a solo career in the 70s. (I say “invented” because it’s certainly not the first laser harp in existence.) Apparently his dream more recently was to move to the Valley and make a gadget, so he went on to focus on Beamz — and landed an exclusive distribution deal with Sharper Image a few years ago, before the company’s finances fell apart. (Doh!) Jerry actually plays with his Beamz system onstage, and it … uh … kinda sounds like it does in the videos.

But the PR firm wants Gizmodo (and the world) to believe everyone will feel differently when they play it.. except we’d presumably have to hear it, too, which so far is a bit on the painful side. (They also say this obviously tech-savvy crowd loved it.) Yet, that’s not what bothers me — this does (from PR man Matt Silverman’s retort to Gizmodo):

It is not meant to be a traditional musical instrument because that takes so much training for people to master. The beamz was conceived and created by an accomplished Hollywood musician and songwriter whose goal was to allow the average music lover to experience the passion of making music.

This is something we hear all the time. Yet you never hear anything like this:

  • Cup Noodles: Experience the real joy of cooking — finally, without needing years of apprenticeship under French master chefs.
  • Hot Wheels: Why own a real car and bother with greenhouse gas emissions and drivers license exams when this fits in your pocket?
  • Connect the Dots: Because deciding what to draw is just too much stress — and who wants hours and hours of training drawing nude models?
  • Tetris – the non-competitive edition: Put the blocks wherever you want! You don’t want all that pressure. Heck … the blocks don’t even move.


On a more serious note — and illustrating just what a big difference different users, different musical content, context, and purpose can make — check out what happens when the system’s creator visits a Children’s Hospital. Part of why it’s worth being thoughtful about this stuff, and not reducing it to black-and-white marketing terms, is that interface design really can be meaningful. Thanks to Koen for the link.

Despite that, if anyone suggests that maybe a certain amount of challenge or open-ended creativity is kind of the point of music, we’re “elitists” or “pretentious.” (Nothing against, say, Cup Noodles — I enjoy a little Picante Chicken now and then, in fact — but you’d never describe them as the “passion of making food.”)

Don’t get me wrong. Making music more accessible has actually long been part of musical instrument design and music history. Think frets, tablature, shapenote notation, keyboards and pianos, the autoharp — there are countless examples of making music more accessible. A lot of them worked. Lutes were really popular in their day for a reason. Almost every great composer you can name from the Classical period wrote piano music for beginning students, often lovingly so. And don’t start with the “kids today” speech. Have you listened to From the Top? There are some terrifyingly-skilled 12 year-olds around. Music education is threatened in schools, but music making survives. And those kids get interviewed — someone invariably asks, surely you don’t watch TV, or play video games, or play sports, or have friends, right? But, of course, they do all these things.

What the PR person says about traditional musical instruments is just plain wrong. Traditional instruments run the gamut from impossible to play, impossible to tune, and impossible to lift to ridiculously easy toys for kids.


Traditional music instruments: pretentious power tools for the elite, keeping the Man in positions of authority. Photo: undergroundbastard.

Here’s the thing: the result has to be fun. It doesn’t have to be hard, or require massive skill. But simply saying something is better because it’s easier really does miss the point. The reason all those other categories from kazoos to pipe organs fall in the same basic category is that they’re fun to play over a long period of time, and they don’t impose one kind of musical expression on the user.

I don’t care if people claim I’m pretentious. I think it’s the job of people who do have more experience with more kinds of musical inventions and systems to introduce as broad a range of instruments as possible. I don’t think Beamz really stands up terribly well to a ukulele or a steel drum or even Guitar Hero — and I don’t have any training in any of those three. You can use computers. You can sing together off-key.

And, yeah, you really can build your own laser harp, save $400-500, and have a better time.

So how do I feel about buying expensive, pre-made gadgets that have limited forms of interaction, constrict the style, content, and expressive quality of what you play with them, and then claim to be new inventions even though they deliver watered-down forms of things we’ve already seen?


The thrill is gone.