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Exploding Art Music Productions 

6.2: The Computer or Digital Appliance?

Andrew R. Brown

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 efficiently.


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 feature sets.

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 borrow them!

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.


Andrew Brown

Lecturer in Music

QUT Academy of the Arts, Brisbane, Australia.

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