Not everyone likes using computers. Come to
think of it very few people do, most simply put up
with it. By the time you've plugged in a monitor,
CPU, keyboard, and speakers, then waited for it to
start up only to have to navigate some arcane
software that pretends its a desktop in order to
find the application . . . its time to pack up.
Compare that experience to setting up a guitar.
Sure the guitar needs tuning, but for ease of use
the guitar leaves 'user friendly' computers in the
dust. But this is not a call for banning computers,
but rather a call to consider how they might be
more usable for music education. We need to
rediscover dedicated digital music appliances as an
alternative to beige boxes.
In 1988 Kevin Purcell and I presented an article
at the ISME conference in Canbera, Australia
arguing that the computer should be "invisible" to
the music education process, and it seems to apply
moreso now. This does not mean that there is less
use of computers but that they are more integrated
into the process, less considered a 'special' tool,
and much easier to use.
In the past ten years there have been some
changes toward making the computer 'invisible' and
some factors working against that outcome. The most
significant hurdle to the invisible integration of
computers has the been the rapid advancement of
computer technology itself.
The computer has become more and more powerful
in processing music to the extent that the most
economical way of getting a compete composing,
publishing, recording, and CD burning workstation
(with the emphasis on work) is to get a personal
computer with numerous hardware add-ons and
software. While there is no doubting the potential
of these computer-based systems, they have indeed
become more complex as the number of functions
increase exponentially. And its not only the music
software and hardware that is increasing in
complexity but the operating system and all
associated elements as well.
For music education we often only require a
small subset of the capabilities of such systems,
but we are induced by marketing campaigns to
acquire more features and more powerful computers
just because we can. But there are less complex and
less highly featured computer-based devices
available, such as MIDI-file players, keyboard
workstations, digital multirack recorders, even
electronic tuners, metronomes and drum machines.
I call these devices "digital musical
appliances". In digial musical applicances the
"computer" is less overt. What charracterises the
MDA? They start immediately. They need little
maintenance. They are often portable. They have
dedicated physical controls rather than a QWERTY
keyboard and mouse, which might include piano
keyboards, sliders, play and stop buttons and so
on. They usually do their specific job very
For example, the singer and song writer
Björk does her song writing on a Yamaha QY20
which about the size of a VHS cassette. I have also
done resaearch with students using QY-20's and
found that the size of the feature set was not
siginificant in the usefulness of the devices.
However, the 'types' of features made a significant
difference to the 'styles' of music the device
supported. It is clear that "appropriate" feature
sets are required in digital musical applicances in
order to enable musical creativity, not large
In school settings digital music appliances have
other advantages too. The lack of configurability
means they always present a consistent interface to
the student. Their size means they can easily be
moved from room to room or secured in a cupboard.
Because they are good for little else but music no
other area of the school wants to own, control, or
Computers come in many forms, not just as boxes
with large monitors and a mouse. The invisible
computers inside digital music appliances still
provide many of the advantages of personal
computers but without the hassle.
When thinking about employing computer
technology in the music program don't forget about
digital music appliances, they may be more
efficient and save you a lot of aggravation. And,
just perhaps, increase the musical output.