Active Music

Tod Machover‘s article Shaping Minds Musically is an interesting read, summarising much of the work on hyperinstruments that have happened at the MIT Media Lab during the last ten years. The main point he is trying to make, is that music should be active rather than passive. This comes from the observation that most people’s involvement with music is from a reception side rather than from production.

There is more music than ever in the air, but fewer of us actually play music, sing music, or create our own music. Music rests in the periphery, like background wallpaper, tickling our senses but not engaging our intelligence.

I would claim that an important reason for this is recording technology, which has made music listening increasingly available for everyone, but has similarly removed the necessity to play yourself to enjoy music. Another reason, is how traditional musical instruments are technically hard to learn, usually so hard that most people loose interest before they every become proficient enough to enjoy the music making. This is often coupled to the (unfortunate) focus of teaching children “non-musical” music theory rather that having children “unlock the expressive mysteries of music first, before learning the technical foundations”.

He also mentions the interesting fact that teaching of visual art is often much more free, and based on experimentation and improvisation to a much larger extent. When learning to draw and paint, children start with a blank sheet of paper and can do whatever they like. In music, on the other hand, there is a focus on teaching children songs and melodies, rather than asking them to explore sound and music through improvsation.

The Media Lab has experimented with creating various hyperinstruments and toy instruments that allow people to explore music themselves. Such active musicking has been proven to be more enjoyable for everyone, regardless of age.

Another part of the Media Lab projects involves the development of Hyperscores as a composition tool. This I find to be somewhat problematic, though, as it implies a traditional Western art music approach of creating large scale structures, rather than focusing on sounding objects and couplings between action and sound.

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Alexander Refsum Jensenius is a music researcher and research musician living in Oslo, Norway.