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Music and the digital age

September 23, 2011

Lately, I’ve been seeing a rash of musicians using iPads for scanning music, displaying music, and even performing. It’s been in my Facebook feed from my musician friends, on personal blogs, and on NPR’s classical music blog. Using computers for performing isn’t new, Harry Connick, Jr. has been doing this for years, but it hasn’t been exactly usual either.

It’s pretty exciting to think about what the digitization of music can do for individuals and groups. In purely practical terms, when I was in music school, my instrument case often weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, most of which was the weight of the music I carried around on a daily basis. Having all that music and more at my finger tips without the weight would be fantastic. There are no more worries about page turns. Simply press a button or touch a footpedal and the page turns. No more concerns about planning page turns in advance, copying pages out and taping them back together again, a page not turning properly or turning more than one at once. Some applications will even let you do half page turns. Plus, if you’re scanning your own music, you can trim out overly large margins to optimize the size of the music on your screen.

At the same time, there are significant challenges using an iPad or computer as the sole deliverer of music. Any musician can tell you that playing outside is a pain, and not just because it puts extremely expensive instruments at risk for water and temperature damage. For one thing, wind and paper don’t mix. Using clothespins to secure music works pretty well, but it makes turning pages very difficult. With a computer screen this is no longer a problem, but screen visibility in changing light situations becomes a concern. With a backlit screen, you don’t need a stand light when playing in a pit, but you also can’t see the screen as well in bright light. And about those margins: a large portion of music in the classical repertoire is printed on nonstandard sized paper. You see everything from 4X6 and 9×12 to contemporary music printed on much larger sized paper. Viewing the music on a standard screen size would work very well for certain music and much less well for others.

And what do you do if your system crashes? Harry Connick, Jr. scoffs at this, saying that it would never happen with his band because their computers only run one program. How many iPad users can say the same? What about notating the music? With paper you can scrawl a note while counting rests. What options are out there for digital music?  We also can’t ignore the push-back factor from conductors or audiences. Violajack has faced some of these issues as a freelancer.

I don’t have an iPad myself, but I am extremely curious to see how the practicalities of being a performing musician translate to the digital world. Does anyone have experience with this? Please, let me know!


From the Department of Random but Related:

  • Cleaning out Ives’s Closet. An article from Slate about the fate of American composer Charles Ives’s estate. It’s probably no surprise to most of us in the information profession that if estates are not planned well in advance, we stand to lose significant cultural history.
  • How Music May Help Ward Off Hearing Loss as We Age from NPR. It’s a bitter irony that musicians are better able to hear and decipher a wide range of sounds but we are also at significant risk from hearing loss as a result of the incredible decibels we sustain on stage. Many musicians wear earplugs, but this report suggests that it is the connections our brains make at an early age that can help with hearing loss.
  • How Much Do Music Artists Earn Online from Information is Beautiful. Love Spotify? Consider loving your musicians more.
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