User Interface Design for Music Learning Software

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.

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Carl Sagan explains why Pong is good for you

From from Sagan’s highly-recommended 1977 book The Dragons Of Eden:

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.

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How does a computer work?

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.

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Inside the recording process

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.

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A synthesizer is like an axe

I found this picture of Herbie Hancock on a stranger’s blog.

Herbie with Fairlight

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