Computer-Music.com contains articles and product reviews related to making music using computers and creating 3D computer animation in sync with music. Computer-Music.com is also the home page of  Donald S. Griffin, an experienced professional composer, sound effects designer and audio consultant with an emphasis on computer games,  video games and internet music and sound effects. For pricing and contract availability send email to: DGriffin (@) Computer-Music (.) com

Computer-Music.com  contains articles and product reviews related to making music using computers and creating 3D computer animation in sync with music.
Computer-Music.com is also the home page of  Donald S. Griffin, an experienced professional composer, sound effects designer and audio consultant with an emphasis on computer games,  video games and internet music and sound effects. For pricing and contract availability send email to: DGriffin (@) Computer-Music (.) com



 

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Welcome To A Brave New (Musical) World

While revising this article I realized that I begin with a lot of background material. In these first sections I am trying to show you the usefulness of the tools, both software and hardware, that I will be introducing in the following sections. Hopefully you will take the time to read these first sections so that you will be able to quickly understand why a composer would want each of the features I describe in the later sections. I added this paragraph to explain this and to let you know that this article is not all about my musical past, but an attempt to lay a strong foundation for understanding all of the material that follows.

Composing music has always been a giant step forward even for an accomplished musician. Most people seem to think that composing music is the same as playing it except that you are writing instead of reading. But that is exactly what makes the two activities so different, almost opposite. A musician spends many thousands of hours over many years training his/her body and mind to react to the sheet music with complex sets of reflexes that allow them to break up the very complicated task of playing the music into larger sections that they already know how to do without thinking. This is similar to the way you read whole words, not the individual letters in the words. This allows you to use your mind to comprehend what you are reading instead of spending all your effort putting words together from letters. Music is a lot like reading three or four or even five separate lines of text all at the same time with the additional requirement that you not slow down and that you physically respond to every word. This is no simple task and takes seemingly forever to get good at. In fact, nearly every musician in the world is constantly practicing and improving no matter how good they are. My father was fond of quoting a famous clarinetist who supposedly said "I don't play the clarinet anymore. I play the music." Overcoming the need to constantly think about what you are doing gives you the opportunity to be think and be creative about how you do it. Just this goal is enough to keep most musicians busy for the rest of their lives.

Now consider how different writing a story is from reading a story. A story writer has to understand how the way words are put together effects the reader. A composer has to understand how musical sounds effect the listener. Just as the musician who must master the basics of music to free up his/her mind for more creative interpretation of the written music; a composer must find a way to organize his/her musical thoughts so that the details of putting notes on paper don't become overwhelming.

When I was in the 7th or 8th grade I had a new music teacher whose family often formed a Dixieland Jazz band. Dixieland Jazz is one of the purest forms of Jazz in that very little is agreed upon in advance. There is usually no sheet music at all. The key to doing this is called improvisation. Improvisation is a sort of technical art involving making up notes to fit the music only an instant before you play them. I call it a technical art because, to make any sense the notes must be founded in musical theory but to be worth playing they must be evocative of some sort of human feeling. This teacher of mine started by writing a C scale on a sheet of music paper to allow me a small connection to my familiar world of the written note. He then said "I will play a pattern of chords on the piano while you play any of the notes on the page in any order and rhythm you want." It was just that simple and complex at the same time. It was also a pivotal point in my life. It turned me from one who reads into one who writes. I got better at improvisation and it didn't take me long to realize if a series of notes was good enough to play once then it was good enough to write down and play again. I also felt the need to improvise more than one note at a time, chords. Maybe its a lucky thing I didn't already play piano or the urge to write for groups of musicians may never have come to me. The need to figure out what notes went together, and why, led me to take guitar classes in school and reverse engineer the songs. Reverse engineering, for the uninitiated, is where you take something apart to figure out how it was put together. I was told where to hold my hands to play the chords but I had to figure out for myself why. Before long  my compositions became more complex and I was writing for combos, and then 9 saxes, and then a whole Big Band (about 20 musicians). As the tunes gained greater complexity the task of loading the whole tune, up to that point, into my memory and maintaining that sound picture in my mind, before I could continue revising it, became horrendous. It was great training but I hated it. I would spend 2 to 4 months writing a conductor's score then hand copying all the individual instrument parts from that score being careful to make it so readable that a musician wouldn't make a mistake and ruin my music. Then I had to photo copy each part, knowing full well not to trust musicians. Eventually the day would come when I would get some unsuspecting Big Band to read through once, then record my music. Only at that moment would I know for sure what it sounded like. Often they would call me to their chairs to point out a note that they thought must be a mistake. Usually it was not, but verifying that fact often wasted valuable time. When it was a mistake it only showed up in playing because it was not until then that I could hear it myself. What I needed was a robotic jazz band that would play the right notes on the right instruments with impeccable skill and always be at my beckon call. I'm not kidding when I say the I really had those exact thoughts years before anyone had a home computer.

I had written some 20 odd big band scores and was doing pretty well when my father brought home a Texas Instruments TI-99 4/A home computer with 16k of ram and a cassette deck for saving programs. It had a simple synthesizer that could play up to four notes (sine waves) at once but only if you typed in line after line of code saying the frequency (which you looked up on a chart) for each simultaneous note and the duration in milliseconds. Each command was a slice of time so if one note was longer than the next you had to put the time they played together as one command then extra length of the longer note as an additional line of code. My father was blown away when I sat down in one continuous session typed in a long tune from top to bottom without any editing and it played right the first time. I still have it on tape and it took me years to realize how amazing and how pitiful it was at the same time.

I've spent a lot of words up to this point because I was afraid that without that background you would not appreciate just how colossal an improvement MIDI sequencing is. Today MIDI Sequencing software gives me everything I wanted in 'the old days' and then some. I can hear my music the second I create it. I have a nearly infinite variety of musical instruments at my disposal and I can try out new ideas that I can't hear in my head to see if they have merit with very little effort. I can easily print out conductors scores or individual musicians parts which I rarely do since my musicians are usually electronic. After hearing a finished tune I can easily make major changes and hear it again with no muss and no fuss. If I had access to these amazing tools when I was just starting out there is no telling what I could have learned or how fast I would have gotten to this point. It was very useful to learn how to do it in my head. But, let me put it this way: Long walks are healthy but how many of you walk to work every day? With today's MIDI and digital audio sequencing software anyone with a computer, a sound card, speakers, and some time can learn to be a musician and how to compose music without the need for the good graces of dozens of musicians just to hear what you have written. In the following paragraphs I will attempt to explain what MIDI is and how it works and give a brief orientation on digital audio then explain how you would use this knowledge to make music using a MIDI sequencer.

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