Making Music Modernly

November 16, 2008 at 9:11 pm 1 comment

On my drive over to the Deluxe Town Diner for brunch with my brother, I caught the tail end of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday.  It was a short spot on Music and Technology, featuring Tod Machover, MIT Professor/Composer/Inventor.  Outside of our field, he is best known as one of the creators of the ubiquitous video game Guitar Hero.   He talked a little about his hyperinstruments (such as his hypercello for Yo-Yo Ma) and this great initiative called “Music, Mind and Health.” Both deserve more attention here, and perhaps they will in the future, but what really intrigued me was what came at the tail end of the interview.

Machover was asked: “What’s your vision for the musical future?” His response:

What if you took something like Guitar Hero and imagined what that would be like if it were truly expressive, truly personal, truly creative. The wonderful thing about Guitar Hero is that it opens up the door for everybody to be not just a passive listener but a real active participant in music.  I think that is the future of music: music that is a collaboration between what we traditionally think of as composers and performers and the audience.”

In the back of my mind, I began thinking what something like that might be and how it would work…

An hour and a half later, after one of the best greasy breakfasts I’ve had in a while, my conversation with my brother invariably turned to iPhones.*  He usually points me towards new/interesting music-related iPhone apps, some of which work on my lowly iPod touch, including “More cowbell,” “Pandora,” and “Shazam,” which is currently featured on an iPhone TV Commercial.  Today he showed me “Ocarina“.  It completely blew me away.

For a quick intro to it, check out this (amateur but informative) video:

As Ocarina’s design company, Smule puts it:

Ocarina is the first true musical instrument created for the iPhone. Both experts and beginners will be amazed by this innovative player. Ocarina is sensitive to your breath, touch and movements, making it even more versatile than the original. Unlike other musical applications, there are no pre-compiled riffs so musicians will find unlimited opportunities for self-expression. Advanced options allow you to choose between diatonic, minor and harmonic scales. Or channel your favorite video game adventurer with Smule’s Zeldarian mode.

An example of Zeldarian Mode (as opposed to Ionian, Dorian, etc.):

(Although I’d love to talk more about my love of Zelda and computer game music, that is a subject for another time.)

More advanced, but not all that different from “More Cowbell,” this iPhone app has taken the Ocarina, an instrument that has been around for thousands and thousands of years, and modernized it.  Unlike “More Cowbell,” they’ve also created the potential for global musical interaction. For example, Smule has established an online forum where people can create and share music, including a score generator.  In the few weeks since this $.99 app launched, more than 200 “scores” for playing familiar and original tunes have appeared on the Smule website.  People who can’t read music can easily follow the diagrams. Check out this example of Minuet in G.  People unable to figure out a tune for themselves can put in requests for a transcription.  Dave Brubeck’s Take Five is one such example.

Connecting all this to the above mentioned NPR spot, I also see potential for an interaction akin to Machover’s vision for “truly expressive, truly personal, [and] truly creative” musical collaboration.  The online forum is one step in this direction.  However, if you watched through the first video (about the 1:44 mark), you get a sense of how Ocarina begins to push this even further. Melodies played on your iPhone ocarina are transmitted to the world–anyone with a similar devise can hear your music and react to it.  Using Ocarina in “global” mode allows you to be both musician and audience.  The interaction here is currently limited to hearing another person’s melody and broadcasting your approval with the push of a button. Although no setting yet exists that allows two or more musicians to collaborate with each other, say a duet or trio created and performed on separate continents, such a function can not be far off.

The simple interface allows non-trained musicians to express their musicality and share it with the world.  It is unlikely that an anonymous group of Ocarina users will create a collaborative symphony, but given the unlimited creative potential such an app makes possible, new compositional forms will surely emerge, blurring further that traditional line between composers, performers, and audience.


* My brother runs an iPhone app development company.  In the interest of full disclosure, none of the apps I mention here are his.   Though I higly suggest their newest: Poetry Singer

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1 Comment

  • 1. Rob  |  November 16, 2008 at 9:44 pm

    It is interesting to hear about Tod Machover’s musings on blurring the lines between performer and audience. Anything that breaks with traditional methods of musical performance seems interesting to me. The Flaming Lips introduced the Headphone Concert in 1999, where audience members were given a pair of headphones to get higher audio clarity while still experiencing a live performance.

    As for Ocarina, thanks for the shout-out, brother. I was also blown away by the application, which was originally shown to me by my pal Rush Hambleton at Babson.



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