Music and Technology

A recent New York Times story looks at the efforts of the Borromeo String Quartet* to incorporate more technology into their music making, including playing from full scores displayed on MacBooks controlled by foot pedals. One thing that I thought was really interesting, and was a good example of the give and take that comes with any changes in tradition or practice, was this little discussion of the costs and benefits associated with switching from parts (each musician only has the music for their instrument) to score (all musicians see all four parts):

Having the whole score in front of them is an immense help in playing new works. Complicated passages are immediately comprehensible. There are no long discussions in rehearsal that start, “What do you have there?”
Seeing the score as they play also deepens understanding of composers’ intentions. “The parts are our convenience,” Ms. Motobuchi said. The score “is exactly the direct picture they had in their mind.”

Mr. Tong — at 29, the youngest and newest member of the group — resisted the most. He still sounds not completely happy with the situation.
Seeing the music of his colleagues on the page can detract from the magic of chamber-music-making, of communicating through hearing, he said. “When first learning a piece,” Mr. Tong said, “it’s a constant battle to open up the ears. For a long time I felt that the more I was seeing, the less I was hearing.”

37 responses to “Music and Technology”

  1. I find that Tong’s comment fascinating, both in that it’s the youngest member and his comments themselves. I’ve recently met a lot of nouveau-traditionalists, not in the musical sense, but in a “mentality” sense, who resist things that end up being contrary to their musical upbringing… It’s great to see him work through that, even if it’s not how he looks at music.
    I see what he means, too; while it’s easy to see the interactions visually, especially with more complicated musics, he fears that it’ll be a sight-reaing exercise or something of that sort. Very fair, and a real issue to composers: how should we write our scores? Obviously a balance is between “for the performer” and “for art’s sake.” I ran into this with my modern piano miniatures — I found myself not breaking the series when it’d make sense to so that the staffs corresponded with the hands, confusing people who sight-read it.

  2. If Mr. Tong can adapt to the situation he will eventually hear just as much as he heard before when his ears were his only tool. I’m singer, and I have a lovely voice that is very well trained. But I do not have a great ear. I have experienced the opposite of this in the past few years. While in choir we had sheet music for everything and we went through our parts to learn them.
    Then I was intorduced to new systems of music and they didn’t use music or go through parts. iw as expected to create or find my part by ear. That kept me from participating at times. I wasn’t able to hear my part among the others without a lot of practice and coaching. I had to learn to hear better.
    And, I did. This make it much faster and easier for all of us to get throgh rehearsal. But I can still read music and being coached on my part comes much faster as well. I imagine having the score makes it a lot faster and easier to get through a new piece of music for this group and I’m guessing it will develop new skill without completely replacing them.

  3. I remember vaguely hearing a story about a composer in the 1800’s trying to do the kind of foot-pedal contraption that would turn his pages for him, but he was a better musician than a tinkerer, and the pedal squeaked too much. I wish I could remember which composer it was… The tree-hugger part of me says YAY to less paper, the musician in me says BOO to not being able to write on your score…

  4. A great example of constructive use of technology.
    I’m a professional composer and had to be dragged kicking and screaming to a computer over 12 years ago to use the Sibelius programme after a lifetime of writing on paper. Not only has it enhanced the way I work,taking away a lot of the drudgery
    but allows me to email scores anywhere I like,generate parts and share ideas.
    I believe the Harry Connick Junior band use a similar system.

  5. I love how technology is constantly a game changer these days.
    Very cool topic, and dealing with something i knew so little about (and still do…), but now have a flavor for what it actually is all about.
    Now if only music, real music, made a comeback
    *Fingers crossed*

  6. This sounds very good for the world of music; however, for me, I would have to highlight my part so that I wouldn’t begin accidentally playing someone else’s.
    What I am still waiting for is a composition program (like Finale or Sibelius) for iPad w/ stylus so that I can compose my music as close to actually “writing it” instead of point & clicking 🙂

  7. I’ve often envied those who have digital music stands, but you raise an excellent point with your post. How will technology (or really, WILL technology) detract or add to the music listening experience? Being a piano player, I’d say digital music would probably be helpful (with so many pages to turn), but do you then add a 4th pedal to the piano to turn the page? Will we then create music stands that automatically “turn” pages when they hear a certain chord progression in the music?
    Kudos on being FP!

  8. I enjoyed this article too, and found it fascinating that the oldest member of the 4tet was the first to want to change over to the high tech mode, and the youngest was the last on board. You’d think it would be the opposite! I’m sure it takes a lot of adjusting, especially to the full score idea. I can see that there would be gains and losses both, in terms of processing the music. I’d love to try this someday!

  9. This is very interesting. I teach a music technology course at a college of music, and we talk about things like this all of the time. What impact does technology have on music making? When music is created not through formal notation but rather through a combination of sound clips, is it still music? The questions just keep on going.

  10. I thought that intelligent musicians who are serious about performing as a string quartet studied the score before they came together to rehearse. Well, it used to happen back in the day.
    This will not increase insight into the music.

  11. Thanks for the post! It is an interesting concept for sure.
    As an instrumental musician I can definitely see the benefits of seeing all the parts, but I agree with Mr. Tong. Music is about listening – both to each other and the product as a whole. I like using my ear and really working as a team to create something beautiful. Definitely something to think about!

  12. Interesting. I didn’t catch the NY Times article. I used to sing opera, and usually one works from the score. Also, in choral music one sees all the singing parts, SATB, and a piano reduction of the score — however, I think as a principal, especially, it’s very important to see all the music, because the more you understand what’s going on, the better you can relate your line to the rest of the music. I would think it would be the same for chamber musicians. Of course everyone is different, and as Mr. Tong points out, he feels overwhelmed by seeing and would prefer just hearing, but in all honestly, if I have to come in on a certain note as a soprano and know that the orchestra has it just before my entrance, it’s much easier to see it in the score, highlight it, then listen for it. Sometimes all the sounds of an orchestra can be very confusing!
    Enjoyed this post alot.

  13. mm….good post. Thoughts of the sort that Mr.Tong has had do give me pause….whether learning that read will diminish my capacity to hear. That, combined with the fact that im a little old 23, and started playing the (electric) bass late (20) causes me to stop.

  14. Being a former flutist, I can understand the hesitancy to have the entire score — by listening to each other we became one and understood each other’s nuances in playing and interpretation — something a written score can not give you.

  15. I think it is a cool idea, but at the same time I don’t really like it. I know that if I had the score in front of me I would just get lost, if not start looking at the other parts instead of my own. I mean, have you ever seen a score? They can look crazy sometimes!

  16. I actually tend to agree with Mr. Tong. While I don’t know how focus on the whole score will affect performance, the beauty of small ensembles, string quartets especially, comes from the ability for each of the musicians to play off what the others are doing. I feel like taking focus off the “sound” and, instead, focusing on the score will detract from the subtle nuances that often come from hearing each other and, ultimately, will affect the quality of the performance.

  17. […] Music and Technology (via The Mouth of the Beast) Posted on 18 January, 2011 by Jarle Petterson A recent New York Times story looks at the efforts of the Borromeo String Quartet* to incorporate more technology into their music making, including playing from full scores displayed on MacBooks controlled by foot pedals. One thing that I thought was really interesting, and was a good example of the give and take that comes with any changes in tradition or practice, was this little discussion of the costs and benefits associated with switching f … Read More […]

  18. It is almost always so that a new technology, method, approach, whatnot, simultaneously gives and takes away. There are at least two things to bear in mind:
    1. Do not automatically reject something because it removes an old advantage or automatically support something because it brings a new advantage. Look at the overall picture instead.
    2. Any one method is unlikely to be superior to another method in every area, which means that it can pay to use several, even many, different methods in order to gain the greatest benefit. (Even when one particular method is by-and-large the best and is given the majority of the time.)

  19. An interesting posting under “Freshly Pressed” but heavy for the average reader. I have no doubt that if one was musicially inclined this would be considered a great posting. Congrads on making “Freshly Pressed.”

  20. In the New York times story, it noted some orchestras are now displaying video during their concerts. Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but it seems as if it would diminish rather than enhance the music (sensory overload). Does this seem like a bad idea to others?
    I enjoy closing my eyes and just listening to the music (although it is a bad habit when driving in traffic).

  21. I think I’d be somewhere in the middle of this argument. I also think It’d take quite a bit of adjustment (specifically on faster passages) to get used to reading off a score. Personally, I can see myself line-jumping across the page and oops – there I go reading a violin part just because it’s at the top of the page (and no, violin is not my instrument)…
    I also agree that perhaps it would detract from the listening ventures involved in making chamber music. As it is, we trust the page too much. This may only add to the crutch.

  22. As someone who’s had the privelege of playing in an orchestra, I can definitely relate to that comment made by Mr.Tong. Listening seems a much more active process than seeing, because when you see the music you may *think* that you’re actually processing the other parts played by other instruments fully, but you’re not. Whereas in listening, you’ll know right away if you’re hearing what you should be hearing because it will reflect in how your own melodies/harmonies/intonation jives with that of the other musicians in the group.
    As for music and technology, recently I posted on the topic here in my own blog, talking about David Cope’s composition-generating software giant Emily Cope. Fascinating stuff. And somewhat controversial.

  23. re 29, the youngest and newest member of the group — resisted the most.
    Interestingly when I returned to college to do a Masters in photography in 2002, the ones who’d adopted digital were the oldest in the group, whereas the youngest were ‘film purists’.
    I’m a ‘blues musician’ and it makes me laugh the purists who want to only use National Steel guitars as they are more ‘traditional’: they were utterly radical when they were first used, as was paper when it replaced papyrus and vellum! Personally accepting or rejecting technology purely because it is new is absurd: surely we should consider everything on merit? As a professional writer, I have used word processing since my first Amstrad in 1986, but I still draft article or script ideas with pen and paper because the initial part of the process is not linear process, and, for me, pen and paper is more suited to the task, and a more pleasant tactile experience than typing on one of these things!!! BUT my Mac allows me other advantages !

  24. Thanks for the comments everybody. I’m sorry it took so long to moderate–I have email notifications turned off and didn’t even realize it made the “Freshly Pressed” page. I think Anya has a great point: it’s not that we should turn our backs on new technology, just be aware that new technologies have unintended consequences to the way that we make music. Every new technology in both high tech (multitracking making it less important for bands to have a finished song before recording) and low tech (metallurgical advances making string instruments sound louder) fields has an effect.

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