Thursday, November 08, 2007

Technology And The Magic Of Music

The most concise—and reasonably meaningful—definition of computer programming I’ve ever seen was coined when European computer scientist Niklaus Wirth titled a book, “Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs.”

I’ve never seen an equally concise definition of music, but some book on jazz composition I once read summed up “music” simply as what you get when you combine melody with harmony and rhythm.

Now, polyphonic instruments—keyboards, guitars—instruments which can play multiple voices simultaneously, can make music. Single voice instruments—trumpets, oboes—can play melodies. (Yes, I know jazz sax players can honk out intervals, but that’s hardly normal sax playing.)

With modern synthesizers having such great sound-modeling abilities, why does any musician choose to limit himself (or herself—Hi, Angie!) to a melody-centric instrument, a single voice instrument?

When I was very young and wanted to learn some instrument for making music, I gave my choice a lot of thought. Many different elements contributed to my thinking. Trivial, simple things like as a writer I already spent hours every day at a keyboard so I wanted to avoid just moving to different shaped keys. But I also considered more complicated things like polyphony and I liked the idea that guitars are actually fingers-against-strings with no mechanical intermediary.

Instruments like flute or oboe playing a melody certainly can be beautiful. But chords are so central to modern music—harmony, that is—that I couldn’t imagine myself limiting my playing to just one voice.

So I learned guitar.

But in the back of my mind I always envied the beautiful, sustained singing possible with woodwinds and horns.

Of course, synthesizers came along and then keyboards (and now guitars, too!) could fire off ‘sound-events’ built on profiles of any instrument in existence. At first samples and sound-profiles were crude and sounded awful. Now digital sampling and profiling is so sophisticated only very good ears can hear a difference between synthesizer and real. (And, I believe, in many cases even a good ear will be fooled.)

What’s going to happen to flutes? Oboes?

I know different types of instruments have their own ‘working’ traits—preferred ranges and troubled intervals and such—but a synthesizer player can learn such things very quickly.

Now, with synthesizers and keyboard controllers (or guitar controllers!) any musician can get all the benefits of polyphony along with any traditional instrument sound ever played (and the ability to model any new sound he or she can imagine). Keyboards and guitars give you access to melody, harmony and rhythm. And, now, all the sounds of the universe. Why ‘settle’ for a device which creates only pretty melodies in one sound?

Are woodwinds and horns going to go the way of the brontosaurus?

Is there any reason they shouldn’t?

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