Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2345:
PROGRAMMING MUSIC

by Andrew Boyd

Today, when is a musician a musician? The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Composers write notes on a page, but those notes aren’t music until an artist gives them life. Here’s Beethoven’s Für Elise played exactly as written, with no expression.

Here’s that same passage, but with an artist’s musical interpretation.

We hear how the subtle nuances of the artist translate the composer’s notes into music.

What’s special about these particular recordings is that the artist was a programmer at his keyboard, not a pianist at his. Pianos are wonderfully expressive instruments. But the pianist can only control pitch, volume, and tempo. Each can be represented mathematically: what note is played, exactly how hard is it played, and exactly when is it played. The pianist also controls the press and release of the sustain pedal. These activities are easily described using a language of numbers – numbers that can be stored in a file on a computer. A musical interpretation of a composer’s notes can be created by writing a file of numbers.

A computer-artist may spend days or weeks creating a file with pitch, volume, and tempo information. He may listen to hundreds of versions of a composition as he tweaks the file and “plays” it by giving it to a computer program. The program creates sound using individually recorded notes from a real piano. It’s just like placing a roll of paper in an old player piano. Only the technology – and the detailed control given to the computer-artist – have changed. The computer-artist may spend thousands of dollars buying equipment that will serve as his instrument. The computer-artist must become intimate with his equipment, just as a musician must become intimate with a traditional instrument. The computer-artist feels joy and satisfaction when a file is “just right,” just as a musician does when a live performance “clicks.”

Technology will never replace musicians. We relish the anticipation of a live performance. We delight in the treat they provide our senses. And above all, we celebrate the human accomplishment of musician mastering musical instrument. Still, we must ask ourselves: is the artist mastering his computer a musician, or not?

I’m Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.



(Theme music)


For more on mechanized music, see episodes #557, #692, and #2296.

Sequencer image courtesy of Wikipedia. Photo of synthesizers by Andrew Lienhard.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.