Enabling the Novice Musician to Become a Virtuoso

Posted June 14, 2010

In 2010 we're seeing more instruments and applications that encourage experimentalism through touch-sensitive controls, wearable performance interfaces, and laser beams. Today, a novice keyboard player can sound like a virtuoso within a matter of minutes using highly responsive touch screens/pads to manipulate sounds.  As innovations in music technology transfer from complex systems to more user-friendly interactive platforms, music can become easier to play for those who never thought they could.

Ocarina ($1) is a perfect example of a highly innovative and social iPhone music app that works for both trained musicians and ordinary people as an instrument. Through movement, touch, and breath, Ocarina’s “tap and play” interface allows users to create music on the go so that they can share with other users around the globe. Ocarina users are instructed to blow into their iPhone microphone port while tapping the four holes on the screen to manipulate the instrument’s pitch, add vibrato by tilting the iPhone down, and change the volume by blowing harder or softer into the port. Ge Wang, a founder at Smule which created Ocarina explains, “The iPhone will never replace a physical instrument like a violin, but these new instruments are only possible on the phone, and it’s something people always have with them.”  

If you’re looking for an instrument with a little more musical dynamism, David Wessel, Professor of Music at Berkeley University created the Slab: a music interface consisting of highly-expressive pressure sensitive touch pads containing 96 channels of data as audio signals mapped by computer software.  The gestures used to play the Slab are programmed as signals, which creates a close pairing between the user’s gestures and the audio response from each pad containing a sound file.  The Slab basically “humanizes” sounds as it is controlled by the movement and pressure of one’s fingertips across the interface.

“Many more people can experience the basics of rhythm and melody through these interfaces that give beginners “training wheels” to get started in music.  That in itself is empowering. It doesn’t replace the long hours of toil that go into becoming a serious musician, but it adds a positive dimension to our society – letting more people experience the joy of collective music making” said Gideon D’Arcangelo, VP of Strategy and Communications for ESI Design in a conversation about music technology for novices.

Similar to the Slab is Roger Linn’s LinnStrument digital music interface. It uses a multi-touch pressure sensitive USB control surface that allows each square to give three degrees of control including pressure, timbre, and pitch.  The interface enables the user to reproduce the sounds of traditional music instruments at virtuoso levels (guitar, piano, and violin) while also leaving room for individualistic expression and new sound production. 

A rendering of Roger Linn’s LinnStrument

At this year’s San Francisco MusicTech Summit John Chowning explained, “Music isn’t just notes on paper, it's about performance. Music is learned in a way that has nothing to do with symbolic representation.  This technology I think allows people to make contact with music at a level which bypasses years and years of learning.”

While the market for such revolutionary and novice-friendly music technology is still in the introductory stages, we can hope to see interfaces like these in the future, enabling those who have always dreamed of being a musician the opportunity to do so with little formal training.

Michelle Mullineaux

Michelle is an experienced strategist, marketer, business developer and change agent. She joined ESI in 2004 and is charged with building and implementing successful business development and marketing strategies for the firm. She also serves on the Leadership Team, which guides and supports ESI’s strategic growth across all disciplines and functions.

Michelle is recognized as an expert and leading advocate for public interest design, an evolving practice area that operates at the intersection of design, service, sustainability and social impact. She is one of the co-founders and an active board member of desigNYC, a nonprofit with the mission of improving the lives of New Yorkers through the power of good design. She is featured in the Public Interest 100, sponsored by Autodesk, and served on both the Steering and Community Development Committees for NYCxDesign, New York’s inaugural citywide festival celebrating and promoting design of all disciplines. Prior to joining ESI, she held business development, marketing and new media strategy roles for METROPOLIS Magazine, Acoustiguide, and Christie’s. Michelle holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and BS/BA degrees in Journalism and Art History from Boston University.

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