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Pushing the boundaries of ‘marble music’

29 May 2024

Some would call it genius, others madness, but all would have to agree that what Martin Molin has created is a work of art. Here, Roger Emlind, part of the engineering team at SKF supporting Molin, describes how one young man is pushing the boundaries of ‘marble music’.

Swedish musician Martin Molin has a grand plan: to perfect the design of his ‘marble machine’. Begun over seven years ago, the machine creates music using falling steel balls. However, Molin is the first to admit that as a musical instrument, it is completely impractical. “A midi keyboard is perfect. A marble machine is almost the worst possible solution you can have.”

However, Molin has persisted because he sees the machine as a piece of art, rather than a piece of engineering – often describing it as a “sculpture”.

To get an idea of the scale of the task, a brief explanation of the marble machine is needed. It resembles a Victorian spinning loom – but one that is filled with 2,000 ‘marbles’ (actually, they are steel balls!) An early prototype – built very much on the fly – ended up becoming an online hit. So, Molin created a more sophisticated second prototype, which is operated by turning a cranking handle. This lifts marbles to the top of the machine. From here – under gravity – they fall through various mechanisms. Some of the marbles fall onto vibraphone keys, to play specific notes; others fall onto percussion pads. 

While the music is ‘pre-written’, it is not simply a case of pressing a button and standing aside. Molin says it is important to be able to ‘play’ the machine. “The music is pre-programmed, but if I don’t pull the levers it won’t be dynamic.” 

Certain sections can be muted, allowing for changes in the verse and chorus, and bass strings are included that Molin can play to bring additional texture to the sound.

Engineering and music combined
To create ‘tight’ music, the ‘marbles’ must be controlled to an accuracy of one millisecond. Developing a mechanism that plays music with such accurate timing is a tall order. In addition, as well as using standard parts, the marble machine is entirely mechanical – with no electrical or electronic parts. 

Read the full article in DPA's June 2024 issue

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