Building a better iOS music player for kids.

March 15, 2023

TL;DR Today I released Musikalia, an iOS music player for kids. Here is a short demo:

Get it on the App Store (it requires an Apple Music subscription), or read on for the back-story.

When I was a kid

You are a thirty-something who grew up without the internet, and now that you have kids you want them to authentically experience culture, just like you did. That is a fairly accurate description of me, and whenever my son wants to listen to Buzzcocks or Marvin Gaye, I have to admit to feeling a little proud. Most of the time he obviously prefers Baby Shark, and that is alright, kids will be kids, and what matters to me is that he has a very specific taste, however idiosyncratic it may be. I wanted to put him in charge of the music, to let him be his own DJ, to nurture his budding sense of musical taste.

Since we already had a playlist for him on Spotify, and he had (very) basic iPad-proficiency, I let him use Spotify to see whether he could navigate it on his own. I was a bit skeptical, it is a very text driven interface, not really made for a three year old child who cannot read. What followed was somewhat shocking. Have you ever seen a 3-4 year old kid use YouTube on their own? No matter what the starting point is, however respectable it might be, within fifteen minutes the algorithms always lead to the most mindless videos. Droning, repetitious, mind-numbing videos. Exactly the sort of entertainment you would expect in a dystopian kindergarten.

OK, everybody knows that YouTube is like that. What does that have to do with Spotify? It turns out that Spotify is basically like YouTube. Spotify’s algorithms quickly led my child away from his playlist and towards the dumbest music (and I don’t find Baby Shark particularly dumb), and even worse: it turned music listening into an endless browsing session, constantly jumping from one song to the other, becoming frustrated when it was not possible to find the right song. This is not what the nineties looked like. We had Fisher Price tape recorders: play, forward, rewind. It may be nostalgia speaking, but it seems like a better model for a child.

Fisher Price tape recorder from the 80’s. It still works.

I live in Austria, where it seems as if everybody owns a Toniebox, essentially a portable speaker. You buy various figurines for it, and when you place a figurine on the Toniebox, a corresponding song will play. It is a neat system, but I was a bit wary about having to shell out €16.99 for each additional figurine. Being a programmer, I have been wanting to build something with Arduino for at least a decade and a half, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I would get to mess around with hardware, and my kid would (eventually) get a DIY Toniebox. It turns out I was not the only one to have that idea, and there is a thriving TonUINO community. I highly recommend taking a look at the forum thread where people share their TonUNIOs, the creativity is quite impressive.

The next few weeks I talked non-stop about the TonUNIO I was going to build, and imagined how I would set up a DIY lab in a corner of my living room, complete with soldering irons and how it would be authentically (there I go again) messy, and how it would reflect well on me as a person, as that kind of person. Then I sobered up and realized that I would never get it done, and I did what I know how to do: I built an app.

It had two solve two problems:

  1. The music selection should be limited. More Fisher Price, less YouTube.
  2. A three-year-old should be able to choose what to play. More buttons, less text.

Songs are placed on a canvas, and to play a song, you press it. Kids can recognize the cover album, and multiple songs from the same album are not a problem, since they are differentiated by their placement on the canvas. To add songs you unlock a “parent mode”, and there are no algorithms, no suggestions, just a search box.

Musikalia’s interface. It gets crowded.

We have been using Musikalia almost daily for the past year, and I hope it can be useful to other families. Do not hesitate to get in touch at if you have any thoughts to share.