News Center

News from the Reed College public affairs office

Physics Majors Build Musical Staircase

By Chris Lydgate ’90 on May 29, 2014 02:19 PM

Allie Morgan ’14 and Anya Demko ’14 installed a series of lasers and phototransistors on the spiral staircase in Vollum, turning the steps into a giant, twisting keyboard spanning two octaves on a C major scale.

Allie Morgan ’14 and Anya Demko ’14 installed a series of lasers and phototransistors on the spiral staircase in Vollum, turning the steps into a giant, twisting keyboard spanning two octaves on a C major scale. Photo by Tom Humphrey

Pythagoras proposed the harmony of the spheres; Anya Demko ’14 and Allie Morgan ’14 built the harmony of the stairs.

In April, the two physics majors installed a series of lasers and phototransistors on the spiral staircase in Vollum, turning the steps into a giant, twisting keyboard spanning two octaves on a C major scale.

To play the keyboard, you jump from one tread to another. Each time your foot lands on a tread, it interrupts a laser beam, triggering a musical tone. Stepping nimbly down the staircase generates the synthetic jig of an ice cream truck. Charging back up sets off an avalanche of organ tones that sound like JS Bach clearing his throat.

The two seniors spent many hours designing the circuitry, constructing the hardware, and installing the lasers in Vollum. “It was really a great experience,” says Anya. “This was the first time we really got to design our own circuits.”

Anya first got the idea during her junior physics lab. Casting about for a project involving microprocessors, she remembered a musical staircase she once saw at a museum in her native Boston.

Anya and Allie first unveiled the project at Renn Fayre their junior year. It was so popular that they installed it again this year.

Mary Had a Little Lamb: Anya Demko ’14 plays the stairs.

Lois Hobbs with Anya Demko ’14 and Allie Morgan ’14.

Lois Hobbs gave the students permission to work on the project after hours, when the building was closed.

The lasers are inserted into blocks of wood that are clamped to the treads, so that no permanent modifications were necessary—a requirement for all Renn Fayre installations. They also received special permission from Lois Hobbs [administrative assistant to the faculty for economics, history, and sociology] to work on the project after hours, when the building was closed. “Lois was really great to allow us special access,” says Anya. “She’s been really supportive.”

Greg Eibel from the machine shop and instructional technologist Joe Janiga also provided technical assistance.

Anya wrote her thesis on the dynamics of an inverted pendulum with Prof. Lucas Illing [physics 2007–]. Allie wrote her thesis on relativistic strings and Ehrenfest’s Paradox with Prof. Joel Franklin ’97 [physics 2005–]. Both are interested in teaching.

Sadly, the musical staircase was installed on a temporary basis and will be disassembled shortly. We look forward to its return next year.