Towards Active Music… (or not)

garageband2.png I am doing some background research for a paper on “active music” and have been testing various audio software over the last few days. I was very excited about testing GarageBand ’08, since Apple has been shouting loudly about its new “magic” features. I have to say that I had some expectations that we would actually see some novel features here, especially since they promise a “hand-picked” band on a virtual stage.

Well, we start off by getting the choice of different musical styles…


So far so good. I chose “jazz”, the curtain went up, and I had the chance to choose position in the band:


Here I selected a jazz organ to play the lead, and GarageBand “magically” sets up the set:


Hey, what happened here? I thought something magic should happen, and I am only presented with the standard GarageBand layout and a few samples being loaded. Nothing bad with that, but except for a fairly easy setup I can’t really see anything new about this at all. Hasn’t these things been around for years, for example in Band in a Box, or in most “accompanist keyboards”? I really would have expected some more possibilities and interaction, for example that the accompaniment could follow my melody line. I teach that type of things as one of the first lectures in sound programming… When are the big companies going to start implementing some new stuff in their products?

Journal of interdisciplinary music studies

There is a new music journal out titled Journal of interdisciplinary music studies, and which seems to be freely available online. I was particularly pleased to read Richard Parncutt’s opening paper on the history and future of systematic musicology. While it has been overshadowed (and to some extent suppressed) by historical musicology for the last decade, there seems to be a growing interest for systematic musicology today.

However, as Parncutt argues, much of this research is carried out under other names and in other departments, e.g. music psychology, music cognition, music technology, etc. Placing music psychology in a psychology department is like historical musicology should be placed in a history department, and ethnomusicology in social anthropology. Parncutt argues that it is important that all of these disciplines should be considered musicology and gathered in musicology departments to avoid musicology from totally breaking apart.

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.