Where Science Meets Muse

What’s to Come of Present Innovations in the Future? It’s All in the Beginnings

Posted by Plish on June 25, 2010

Here’s the scenario: 

You play the piano. You need to come up with a system for transferring musical notes into something that a computer and other keyboards and electronic instruments will understand. 

Odds are, you’ll come up with something like MIDI.  MIDI stands for “Musical Instrument Digital Interface.”    It’s a protocol that enables electronic instruments to communicate with each other.  Go to any non-classical music concert and odds are, somewhere in the mix, MIDI is playing a role (The pun really isn’t intended).  The interesting thing is that  MIDI doesn’t actually transmit any music per se.  It transmits information such as when a certain note stops and starts, its pitch, loudness and what type of instrument is sounding the note. 

So, what does MIDI look like? 

When people see MIDI instruments working, all people usually see are a bunch of cables connecting everything together.  What they don’t see is what the information looks like when depicted on a screen. 

When writing songs and depicting a piece in MIDI you use something called a piano roll.  

Piano Roll Courtesy of Musikality.net


The piano is depicted along the left hand side.  Time moves from left to right.  The above example shows each measure of four beats. You hit a virtual key on the piano at the left (or on an actual electronic piano connected to the computer) and a corresponding square at the proper time gets colored in indicating that note.  Those little squares, along with some instrument identifiers (even drums can be communicated via MIDI) ,  contain the information that dictates what you’re going to hear coming out of the speakers. 

It’s actually pretty minimalistic and elegant.  

It’s also based on the piano (and the piano roll comes from player pianos!). All digital instruments, whether they’re guitars, trumpets, vuvuzelas, or drums, somehow are described by the same basic parameters (note on, note off, loudness, pitch) that are present when someone hits a key on a piano. 

What really is fascinating though is how the MIDI technology, like all technologies, like all systems, had to start somewhere.  MIDI started with piano.  But, what if it was a guitar that drove MIDI’s protocol? 

Description of Guitar Courtesy of guitarsforkids.com


In that case, one bit of  information would be the fret location of fingers on the neck (the note played).  Other inputs would come from hitting the strings to make the sound.  But how do you capture whether you hit the strings with a pick (which could be stiff or flexible giving a different sound), your fingers (which give different sounds depending what part of your finger hits), or stimulate them to vibrate using an electro-magnetic  E-Bow?  The location of the strike makes a difference as well – is it closer to the neck or to the bridge of the guitar?  Meanwhile, is the finger that’s holding the string down (and the other fingers) moving so as to dampen the sound or create a vibrato?  

Using the guitar (or trumpet or some other non-keyboard based instrument) to create the MIDI system would probably be quite complicated.  But, would it result in a more robust system in the future? 

Innovations build on what’s come before in some way or another.  It’s important then to be cognizant of the beginnings of any system or product you’re developing.  If it’s meant to be something that’s universal in some way,  use your imagination and dream about what impact your system will have on your future users.  Don’t just bask in the glory of the fact that everyone is using your system.  Extensive use of something doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone likes it.  Look at Windows operating systems.  

Spend some time thinking about how your current system can be used with other components, systems or people.  Of course we can’t predict the future.  What we can do is look at the robustness of our basic system, the variables that go into it and the outputs created.   

Think of your system/product as a language.  Have you limited the alphabet to 5 letters or 50?  Can you add letters?  Can the rules of grammar be changed down the line or are you stuck with what you have? 

MIDI is a standard that has some flexibility but it’s at the point where substantial changes  are pretty difficult to implement.   The rules of grammar are difficult to change.  Adding more letters to the alphabet isn’t possible.  It’s at that point where elegance and simplicity will seriously suffer if substantial changes are made. The infrastructure just isn’t there. 

And it’s because of the piano. 

Do you want future generations to look at your product or service and say, “We could really do some great things if it wasn’t for the fact that Company Y took over the market with this cumbersome standard.”? 

Because, if they say that, odds are someone else is working on disrupting the market with something else that brings a new way of looking… 

…of communicating… 

…of creating music to the ears of future generations. 

There’s an in-depth discussion of MIDI and its piano based heritage, and the best way of depicting and communicating digital music here.   It’s a well written, provocative, if not a wee bit technical, exposition on MIDI and its future. It’s actually the inspiration for this blog entry


2 Responses to “What’s to Come of Present Innovations in the Future? It’s All in the Beginnings”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by cdmblogs, Michael Plishka. Michael Plishka said: What's to Come of Present Innovations in the Future? It's All in the Beginnings: http://wp.me/pkQcg-yU […]

  2. […] more… […]

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