Sunday 23 May 2021

micro:bit music making

The year 6 Fleetville Code Club has kept going during all through lockdown – we spent a lot of time in Minecraft, which worked pretty well for virtual sessions, since we were all sharing the same virtual space.

This term we did something a bit different: the students have been making and programming MINI•MU musical gloves. This is a kit designed by Helen Leigh based on the MiMU Glove – in turn invented by the musician Imogen Heap and her team. You can get a glimpse of what the full MiMU Gloves can do in the following video:

The MINI•MU Gloves are considerably simpler than the ones in the video – instead of picking up all finger and hand movements, they use the movement sensors on a BBC micro:bit to detect basic hand motions, like how much you tilt your hand front to back and side to side. It’s still plenty of input to use for a musical instrument though!

We received the glove kits thanks to the OpenUK Digital Kids Camp and Huawei – who sent out 3000 kits and provided some cool e-zines which we used as a basis for our sessions. The students had to first cut the pattern from felt and sew their glove together, then connect the micro:bit, sound board and battery pack – before programming the micro:bit to make their own sounds.

This was a harder project to get to work in an all-remote environment, and I think some of the students found it hard to stay engaged without being able to share their creations in real life. Even so, I was really impressed with what they managed to build. Here’s my favourite wishing one of the student’s grandparents a happy birthday!

Taking it further…

The MINI•MU gloves make it easy to make a sound as they have a built-in speaker. However, the micro:bit can only make very simple beeps by itself.

I spent a bit of time trying to get closer to the full MiMU glove experience by sending the movement of the glove to something else that could make some richer sounds.


One option is to connect the micro:bit to Scratch using its bluetooth connection. The Scratch site has very clear instructions on how to get the micro:bit connected – you need to install the Scratch Link software on macOS or Windows, or else use the Scratch app for ChromeOS or Android tablets; then install a special program on the micro:bit itself; and finally add the micro:bit extensions to Scratch and identify your micro:bit by the name it displays.

There’s a few tutorial programs to get you started on the Scratch site, and there’s a range of examples on the microbit site as well – including a theremin to make spooky sci-fi noises.

I’ve made another example that lets you make noises as you move either the mouse or the micro:bit around. You can have a go below:

Bluetooth MIDI

Another way to get better sound from the MINI•MU glove is to connect the micro:bit to a tablet or computer using MIDI over Bluetooth. MIDI is a music communication system that’s even older than the micro:bit’s BBC precursor from 1981, the venerable BBC Micro. You can use MIDI to describe starting and stopping a particular note, how hard the note is played (its velocity) and all sorts of other variations – and the system is supported by most music making programs, including things like GarageBand.

To get MIDI from your micro:bit to your computer or tablet is a little complex but once it’s working, you can make all kinds of sounds! Here’s some tips and tricks to get you going:

Build a project with the Bluetooth MIDI extension

To send Bluetooth MIDI from your micro:bit, you’ll need to add the Bluetooth MIDI extension:

  1. In MakeCode, click Advanced at the bottom of the blocks
  2. Scroll down to the bottom to see Extensions
  3. Click that and type “midi” into the search bar
  4. Make sure you click on the bluetooth-midi extension, not the plain midi one
  5. You’ll now have some extra light blue blocks in the Midi category

Here’s a ready-made project you can start with – Pentatonic MIDI controller

Tilt your micro:bit left and right to choose a note, then press the A button to make the micro:bit send the current note. There’s a secret feature to use the light levels picked up from the LEDs – can you figure out how to use it?

Make your micro:bit easier to connect

micro:bit MakeCode projects have a secret option that makes it easier to connect the micro:bit to something over bluetooth. It would probably make things harder if you had lots of devices in a classroom, but if you’re just wanting to connect a single micro:bit to your computer or tablet then this will make your life much easier!

  1. Go to project settings by clicking on the gearwheel at the top right of the page
  2. Turn on “No Pairing Required: Anyone can connect via Bluetooth”
  3. Click Save
  4. Re-download your project to the micro:bit

The Pentatonic MIDI Controller project above already has this option set for you!

micro:bit to iPad

This is fairly simple – in GarageBand for the iPad, go to Settings (the gearwheel icon), click Advanced, click Bluetooth MIDI Devices, tap the micro:bit then tap the Connect switch on. If the micro:bit is marked as offline, click Edit and Forget the device.

Now you can use your micro:bit to play and record tunes in GarageBand – and choose any instrument you want!

micro:bit to Mac

macOS won’t connect to the micro:bit by itself and needs a little bit of prompting. Download and run the Bluetility app to see the micro:bit, then click the last service and the last characteristic (they should start “E95D93AF-” and “E95DB84C-” respectively). You should then see a Subscribe button to click in the Detail pane – and this should then make the micro:bit appear in your Bluetooth system preferences.

Now that the micro:bit is connected over Bluetooth, you need to tell the macOS MIDI system that it needs to listen to it. Open the Audio MIDI Setup app (it lives in /Applications/Utilities – or just use Spotlight Search). Make sure the MIDI Studio window is showing (if not, go to the Window menu and choose Show MIDI Studio). Then click the Bluetooth symbol in the MIDI Studio window’s toolbar, which should open the Bluetooth Configuration window and list your connected micro:bit. Click the Connect button next to your micro:bit and you’re finally ready to play!

Open GarageBand, create a new project, and add a Software Instrument. GarageBand should pick up the connected micro:bit immediately and play the notes that you send. You can then choose different sounds from the Library to make your micro:bit play whatever instruments you want.

micro:bit to Windows 10

I haven’t tried this, but there’s a very clear video by BEATNVISION that suggests using the MIDIberry app to receive the Bluetooth MIDI from your micro:bit and play sound.

Use the micro:bit connectors

As well as the movement sensors, the micro:bit also has edge connectors that you can use to attach all sorts of other technology. The MINI•MU glove uses these to connect the speaker, but if you’re going to use bluetooth to output the sound, then you can use the connectors to get more input.

Here’s the micro:bit wizard David Whale with his micro:bit guitar:

And if you really want to see how far you can go, how about using muscle movements to control your music? Here’s a video on how to pick up electrical changes from your muscles using a micro:bit:

Keep making music!