Rare Musical Instruments: The Continuum

The continuum fingerboard is a concept instrument in playing music in 3 dimensions. Seeming to be just a soft neoprene surface in a long box, it mates high concepts with a little 3d geometry to create a truly unique instrument with incredible expressive powers.

What is the Continuum Fingerboard?

The continuum was developed by Lippold Hakken, a professor over Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois. developed as a sound controller for internal products, it was turned into a MIDI controller in 2002 as a commercial product. MIDI is an industry-standard protocol for the controlling of synthesized instruments. Instead of an instrument sending a computer information in the form of a wave, it sends digital information like pitch, volume, and duration, leaving the computer to generate the sound. As a result, computer controllers can apply all sorts of processing to the signal to make the instrument play as a keyboard, violin, tambourine, or almost any other sound, real or imagined. The continuum allows you to control these options in 3 dimensions, providing a dramatic difference between it and other controllers (typically keyboards).

How Does the Continuum Work?

Depending on whom you ask, the continuum can be thought of as a keyboard or fretboard with added possibilities. Along its length, which we will call the x dimension, it has control over pitch. Pressing different points along the length will produce different notes.

The interesting thing is that it is essentially continuous in this dimension, more like a violin fingerboard than a piano. Moving only slightly in one direction with your finger moves the pitch slightly in that direction. Thus, microtonal scales and just intonation can be played with great facility on the continuum fingerboard.

The y-axis, in this case being across the fingerboard is programmable. It can control the voiced instrument itself, implement subtle timbre changes, or allow any number of other options. Essentially, any parameter than can be controlled, it can control in a fluid motion.

Finally, pressure creates a third dimension. It reads pressure continuously, and typically people let this represent the volume of the note. Still, since this is a MIDI controller, it can be programmed for any MIDI controllable parameter.

The continuum can play in up to 16 unique voices simultaneously, which is to say that it will command 16 MIDI instruments. How you do that is, of course up to you. That brings us to the real power of the continuum fingerboard: it is up to you. Unlike many instruments, where you control only so much of the sound, pitch, and volume, the continuum presents sound itself as a continuous medium. While difficult to control at first, the range of expressiveness is almost limitless compared to almost any other instrument, acoustic or electric.

That attraction has made the continuum fingerboard popular amongst avant-garde musicians. Progressive rock has adopted the continuum as a way to express one’s self in a limitless format. At about $5,200 for a full sized instrument, it is at the normal range for a professional instrument, but it may be hard to get one to just “noodle” on.


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