UCSC Review Winter 1995
Mozart had a reputation for down-to-the-wire composing. In fact, it's said that he finished writing Don Giovanni only the day before it premiered in Prague on October 29, 1787, leaving him precious few hours to hand copy his masterpiece for roughly 35 performers. Court composers like Haydn could simply turn their music over to royal scribes, but less privileged composers like Mozart spent many a pre-performance evening trying to ignore stiff and cramping fingers while frantically reproducing a completed piece.
Cramped hands were an occupational hazard for composers long after Mozart's death. While printing techniques through the ages have been well-suited to text, only one--copperplate engraving--has been precise enough to accommodate music's beautiful but intricate notation. That technique is labor-intensive and expensive, not recommended for a poor composer in need of more than 20 copies of a score in less than 24 hours.
No one devised a better way to print music until the Electronic Age, when computer programs offered ways to display musical notes on the screen and to reproduce entire scores easily and affordably. Computers have not only changed the way that music is published, but the way it is composed, taught, and studied.
"Computers have revolutionized the way we approach music," says Leta Miller, head of UCSC's Music Department, which is home to a number of scholars recognized internationally for their innovative work with computers and music. Computer notation is one of the most significant developments in the field, used by music publishers, scholars, composers, and students alike. The process is accomplished by inputting music through a synthesizer or a letter keyboard into a computer using a program that turns the performance into written notes.
Edward Houghton, a music professor and dean of the Division of the Arts, was one of the first musicologists to take advantage of this new technology as it became commercially available in the mid- 1980s. He now uses a program called Finale to transcribe the Chigi (KEE-gee) Codex--a Franco-Flemish manuscript of 20 motets and 20 masses painstakingly hand copied some 500 years ago. He is reconstructing the music for modern audiences because, he says, "It would be even harder for a modern musician to understand the notation of the Chigi Codex than it would be for a modern reader to understand the language of Chaucer." When he began the project in 1981-82, Houghton used to spend about 30 days transcribing a major piece by hand. "Now," he says, "it takes about three."
Among others at UCSC involved in this groundbreaking marriage of music scholarship and computers are composers David Cope and David Evan Jones and ethnomusicologist and composer Fredric Lieberman. Their work has not only generated whole new ways of applying computers to music, it has been a boon to their students.
An example is Hear Training, an ear-training program developed just last year by Cope and funded by a grant from the Arts Division. Ear training helps students become adept at identifying chords, notes, and other elements of music without seeing a written score. Traditionally, a student works one-on-one or in a small group with a teacher on the piano. In a course with 20 or more students, therefore, the opportunities for ear training are limited. But students who come to the Arts Instructional Computing Lab at UCSC's Porter College can get in as much ear training as they want using Hear Training on one of the lab's 23 computers.
Lab users also have access to Palestrina, a program created by Jones to teach music-theory students the principles of sixteenth- century counterpoint. (Counterpoint is a style of music characterized by an interplay of simultaneous melodies.) "A student can write a piece of music following the rules of counterpoint, hit the return key, and get X's over the notes that don't follow the rules," Jones explains. "Then the program provides an explanation of those rules in the menu."
Jones has also designed two programs to assist composers and composition students. Counterpoint Assistant is a labor-saving program. When a composer inputs one or two lines of a piece and provides strict constraints, the program can create additional lines. For example, a composer inputs the music for the soprano voice in a four-part choral piece and asks the computer to produce the music for the other three parts. Jones nicknamed the program "CPA." "That reminds me that it's just a tool, crunching numbers."
Jones's other program is used with the Disklavier--a computer-augmented piano. Disklavier Assistant is useful for beginning composition students who are not fluent on an instrument. Rather than constructing music as a sequence of individual notes, Disklavier Assistant allows users to compose in broad mathematical curves of scales and pitches that the Disklavier can play back for them.
Lieberman is in the vanguard of those applying computers to music analysis. He has created a computer-driven tool that produces sonographs--visual images of music. The multitextured line graphs can be interpreted to determine types of rhythms, tempos, timbres, and other elements. Lieberman has used them in his study of the music of Native Americans of the Northwest Coast. "Sonographs can help us to understand music systems we aren't familiar with," he explains. "They also allow us to understand characteristics of a piece in ways we couldn't possibly do with our ears."
One type of sonograph is used quite commonly to help in identifying speaking voices, but Lieberman is one of about a dozen people in the world to use sonographs for the analysis of multiple voices and instruments. His expertise led to his involvement in a high-profile court case in 1993 when he served as an expert witness for pop singer Paula Abdul. Lieberman helped win the case against a disgruntled back-up singer who claimed she sang lead vocals on several tracks of Abdul's "Forever Your Girl."
The pace at which computers are breaking new ground in music is breathtaking--inventions that seemed small miracles just a few years ago promptly become mainstream. With advances in the technology occurring so swiftly and computers becoming ever more powerful and affordable, what does the future hold for music?
Lieberman is confident that computers will soon become a standard tool for music scholars. "The current generation of kids has grown up with video games from Day One," he says. "They will have no reservations about using computers in their work."
Despite his flourishing relationship with the computer, Jones admits to having "very mixed feelings about the technology." "We have to be careful not to get reliant on it. As a tool it is useful, but computers remove that level of intimacy with the music--it is a bloodless model of an interaction and should complement the process, not replace it."
Cope concurs. "This is only a tool. But it is a tool that can do tasks for us in a few seconds that used to take a lifetime."
He adds, "I don't think there's a musician throughout the ages who would not have considered using some of his or her royalties to buy a computer. And Mozart, who had such a playfulness and love of the new, would have been first in line."