Every year Georgia Tech hosts a search for the world’s best new musical instruments

The Guthman Musical Instrument Competition runs March 8-9 this year
Guthman Musical Instrument Competition
The laser harp won third place in 2016.

Photograph by Tyler White

Most of the musical instruments that we play today have been around for decades or even centuries, from the piano (introduced around 1700) to the electric guitar (1931). At Georgia Tech’s annual Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, however, inventors show off what could be the instruments of the future.

Guthman Musical Instrument Competition
An electromagnetic harp was also entered in 2016.

Photograph by Tyler White

In previous years those creations have included a laser harp, a grid of laser beams that creates sound when you pass your hand through it; a keyboard whose tone changes depending on how much pressure you apply; and an iPhone app that produces a simulated choir. Entries are accepted from around the world, and the unusual contest—which is billed as an “X-Prize for music”—has gained international attention. This year it drew more than 60 applicants from 19 countries. About 20 semifinalists are invited to Atlanta to demonstrate their inventions for a panel of judges, which in 2017 includes a professor of digital media at London’s Queen Mary University; the president and CEO of Moog Music; and Daedelus, an electronic musician.

“We look at the quality of the engineering, the design, and the musicality,” says Gil Weinberg, founding director of the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, who oversees the competition. “The instruments have to be unique in terms of musical expression and human-instrument interaction.” The open-minded approach to what constitutes an instrument can make a judge’s job difficult. “It’s very tough to compare a robotic instrument, a controller that connects to a computer, and an app, and say which is best,” Weinberg says.

The judges select up to 10 finalists to perform in what is perhaps the city’s most bizarre concert, held at the Ferst Center. “The goal is to bring together people on the technical side and on the artistic side,” says Weinberg. “We want creators to push forward and create the next generation of musical experiences.”

This article originally appeared in our March 2017 issue.