Computers and Music

by Jean Freedman

Music is an art form that exists only in time, in air, and in memory. Visual representations of music scores, for example, "are but approximations of what the sound is going to be," says Gary Wittlich, a professor of music theory at Indiana University Bloomington. Music as sound is the result of performers' interpretive choices. Thus, many different performed versions of a composition may be represented by the same score.

Yet visual analogues of musical sound are extremely useful--for the teacher, the scholar, the composer, the student, and the performer. For centuries, these analogues were restricted primarily to notated scores. Now, however, computer software allows graphic representations to be made that facilitate study of music as performed in ways that music scores do not. Wittlich, who is also an associate dean of academic computing for the Office of Information Technology, uses music software to help students understand structural relationships within compositions. One favorite software package, CD TimeSketch, was developed by Douglas Short of IBM with input from Wittlich. This software produces "time lines" of CD-recorded sound that let one follow the music as it unfolds while the cursor tracks the music in real time beneath the time line. Arcs (called "bubbles") drawn above the time line are placed side by side to represent the component parts of a composition. The length of each bubble is proportionate to the duration of each component musical part as performed, which typically differs considerably from the precise durational relationships of the notated score. Besides tracking the music as it unfolds in time, explanatory or analytic text may be synchronized with the music to appear in fields beneath the time line. Wittlich believes that the time lines are more effective in illustrating musical form than traditional scores and that they engage the students' attention. Currently, Wittlich and his colleague Eric Isaacson, an assitant professor of music at IUB, are working on a joint project with the Center for Innovative Computing Applications (CICA) and the Teaching and Learning Technologies Laboratory (TLTL) to develop a comprehensive software package for combining notation, time line graphics, and pedagogical sequencing for both classroom and individualized study.

Teaching is not the only area where computers and music are finding common ground. Scholars are currently using computer software to analyze music performance, especially expressive timing and articulation. Using recording pianos or other specially equipped instruments that can produce MIDI code (a standard code for communicating between electronic instruments and computers), sequencing software can be used to access digital information about each note as performed and to display notes in a graphic notation (like a piano roll) to show timing relationships down to the millisecond. In turn, this data helps raise questions about where, when, and how performers inflect important points of articulation within a musical work. Such research has shown that individual performances deviate enormously from the timing relationships notated in the score; even if performers are told to play the notes precisely, they have trouble doing so. Wittlich's plans are to record the performances of professional pianists playing the same piece and then to analyze differences in timing, articulation, and dynamics. He believes that data visualization can help demonstrate how computer technology and specialized graphics can be useful in both the classroom and in the teaching studio. Other software can analyze acoustical data to help researchers understand complex issues of musical sound, color, or timbre.

In a large music school such as the one at IU Bloomington, sometimes a student's greatest concern is finding a particular recording assigned for class. Traditionally, students check out records and tapes from the music library; in a large class with many assignments, lines develop and anxiety mounts, especially at exam times. At the music school's new Simon Music Library and Recital Center, a project called VARIATIONS is making such problems a thing of the past. VARIATIONS is creating a digital library in which students can sit at computer terminals and listen to pieces of music played across the library network. Because the sound is digitally encoded, many students can listen to the same piece at the same time and in individual ways. Eventually, music scores will be digitized and similarly distributed so that students can view the score of a piece as they listen. It also will be possible for students to manipulate their copies of the scores, perhaps reorchestrating them via MIDI instruments without affecting the originals.

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