Electronic Waste Orchestra Turns Trash into Tunes

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A turntable made by the Electric Waste Orchestra.
From and

Search online for images of e-waste, and you'll find mountains of old TVs and laptops, floppy discs and flip phones. But musician and computer programmer Colten Jackson is getting some use out stuff most of us call trash.

With six hard drives and an old keyboard number pad, Jackson put together his first e-waste instrument: The hard drive guitar. It's all part of a project called the Electric Waste Orchestra.

While not technically an orchestra, the group meets regularly and holds a summer camp where kids build their own instruments entirely out of e-waste.

Today on The Takeaway, Jackson explains how he decided to turn trash into tunes.

"I'm kind of doing the reverse of what hard drives are meant for," says Jackson. "When they're in your computer, your computer sends electricity to the motor to make it spin—that's how it reads and writes data. Once I've cracked them open and tear all the circuitry off of it, it's just a nice silver disc attached to a motor. When you spin the motor by hand, it generates electricity, and each hard drive is hooked up to a different pitch."

The faster Jackson spins a disc, the louder the note gets. Multiple discs can be played at once, and one the disc stops spinning the sound stops as well. The keyboard number pad also lets Jackson control the pitch of the notes.

"I picked e-waste because it was something that I had for free," Jackson says about his beginnings. "It's something that I imagine a lot of people have for free—there's stockpiles of these computer parts anywhere with an IT department, a community help desk, or even people that went through a lot of computers themselves might have a stack of hard drives somewhere."

Jackson says that computer programming, repurposing, and making music can serve as a collaborative project for individuals and communities.

"We got to run it as a small summer camp at the Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab," says Jackson. "We got some kids taring into computer parts, which I really love seeing—it gives opportunity to tear into these pieces that are usually black boxes. People are often afraid to open their computers because it's usually a bad idea if you don't know what you're doing. When you're using old computer parts, it doesn't matter if you break it—that's the point, you're breaking it first so you can make something new out of it."