Computers have revolutionized the composition, production and recording of music. However, they have not yet revolutionized music education. While a great deal of educational software exists, it mostly follows traditional teaching paradigms, offering ear training, flash cards and the like. Meanwhile, nearly all popular music is produced in part or in whole with software, yet electronic music producers typically have little to no formal training with their tools. Somewhere between the ad-hoc learning methods of pop and dance producers and traditional music pedagogy lies a rich untapped vein of potential.
This paper will explore the problem of how software can best be designed to help novice musicians access their own musical imagination with a minimum of frustration. I will examine a variety of design paradigms and case studies. I will hope to discover software interface designs that present music in a visually intuitive way, that are discoverable, and that promote flow.
There is a popular game, sometimes called Pong, which simulates on a television screen a perfectly elastic ball bouncing between two surfaces. Each player is given a dial that permits him to intercept the ball with a movable “racket”. Points are scored if the motion of the ball is not intercepted by the racket. The game is very interesting. There is a clear learning experience involved which depends exclusively on Newton’s second law for linear motion. As a result of Pong, the player can gain a deep intuitive understanding of the simplest Newtonian physics – a better understanding even than that provided by billiards, where the collisions are far from perfectly elastic and where the spinning of the pool balls interposes more complicated physics.
Computers can only do a few very simple operations consisting of flipping electrical switches on and off. You can represent numbers in patterns of the on-off states of sequences of switches. By flipping switches on and off in particular patterns, you can perform simple mathematical operations on the numbers. You can do more complex mathematical operations by stringing simpler operations together.
The vast majority of music that I hear is recorded, and if you’re reading this the same is probably true of you. Most people don’t have a clear idea what the recording process is like, especially using computers. Here are my adventures in recording.
I grew up in the eighties. Cassette recorders were just starting to be ordinary household gear. My sister and I made a bunch of random tapes as kids, not knowing what we were doing or why, just that it was fun. We also taped songs we liked off the radio. We waited until the song we wanted came on, and then held up the tape recorder to the radio speaker. Go ahead and laugh, millenials, but this was such a widespread practice among my generation that there’s a whole Facebook group devoted to it.
Lil Wayne and I have some differences of style and taste: about facial tattoos, about drinking cough syrup recreationally, about jewelry on one’s teeth. But we agree about music. He brags constantly that he’s the best rapper alive. I think he makes a pretty good case.
There was no caption or any other context. So I posted it on my Flickr with a note asking if anyone could identify the computer Herbie is sitting in front of. A couple of days later my friend Mike responded with this video of Herbie and Quincy Jones demonstrating Herbie’s Fairlight CMI in 1983. Continue reading →
Like this sentence, computer programs and songs can refer to themselves. Many computer programs and songs are made of loops within loops within loops. Self-reference gives computers their extreme versatility. It also makes for richer, more interesting music.
Writing a song is a lot like writing a computer program. They both require clever management of loops and control flow.
The simplest sheet music reads as a straightforward top-to-bottom list of instructions. You start on measure one and read through to the end sequentially. That’s fine unless the music is very repetitive, which most popular music is. The loop is the basic compositional unit of nearly every song you could dance to. The problem is that writing loops out sequentially is very tedious.
Rather than writing the same passage over and over, you can save yourself a lot of laborious writing by using repeat markers. They’re like the GOTO instruction in BASIC. Here are the first four bars of “Chameleon” by Herbie Hancock. This four-bar phrase repeats hundreds of times over the course of the song. You wouldn’t want to write them all out. With repeat markers, you don’t have to.Continue reading →