Visualizing music

Update: check out my masters thesis, a radial drum machine. Specifically, see the section on visualizing rhythm. See also a more scholarly review of the literature on visualization and music education. And here’s a post on the value of video games in music education.

Computer-based music production and composition involves the eyes as much as the ears. The representations in audio editors like Pro Tools and Ableton Live are purely informational, waveforms and grids and linear graphs. Some visualization systems are purely decorative, like the psychedelic semi-random graphics produced by iTunes. Some systems lie in between. I see rich potential in these graphical systems for better understanding of how music works, and for new compositional methods. Here’s a sampling of the most interesting music visualization systems I’ve come across.

Music notation

Western music notation is a venerable method of visualizing music. It’s a very neat and compact system, unambiguous and digital, and not too difficult to learn. Programs like Sibelius can effortlessly translate notation to and from MIDI data, too.

Chameleon bass loop

But western notation has some limitations, especially for contemporary music. It doesn’t handle microtones well. It has limited ability to convey performative nuance — after a hundred years of jazz, there’s no good way to notate swing other than to just write the word “swing” at the top of the score. The key signature system works fine for major keys, but is less helpful for minor keys and modal music and is pretty much worthless for the blues.

Here’s a suggestion for how notation could improve in the future. It’s a visualization by Jon Snydal of John Coltrane’s solo in Miles Davis’ “All Blues”  (I edited it a little to be easier on the eyes.)

John Coltrane's solo on All BluesSnydal’s visualization is more analog than digital — it shows the exact nuances of Coltrane’s performance, with subtle shadings of pitch, timing and dynamics.

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Facebook and multiple identites

Here’s an alarming Mark Zuckerberg quote from The Facebook Effect by David Kirpatrick:

You have one identity… The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.

How nice for Mark Zuckerberg that he doesn’t feel the need to keep any part of himself private. Zuckerberg doesn’t have an identity outside of his work, which is common enough in Silicon Valley startup culture but is neither possible nor desirable for most of us. When family members have illnesses, or friends are feeling down, or I’m thinking or feeling something that doesn’t reflect well on me in that moment, how is that any of my coworkers’ business? Zuckerberg understands human psychology very well within the context of college and startup culture, but Facebook is an increasingly poor fit for the complexities of my social life.

Nexus white

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