Computer Music - The myth and the reality


Composer Tim Paton looks at the myths and realities of writing music in the computer age. They certainly don't make writing good music any easier for one...

Tim Paton"A lot more people are writing music for brass band now because it is easier, they do not need to know as much".

"You just play a tune onto the computer, and it does the rest for you".

These are not my comments, they are an example of the kind of thing that I hear being said by other people. I will attempt to address these typical comments shortly. Before I do that however, let me be clear about what I am referring to when I say computer music. I do not mean the kind of music heard on machines in an amusement arcade for example, I am speaking of music created with the help of the computer as a tool, where the screen becomes the paper, and the keyboard and mouse become the pen.

I will start with the second comment, "You just play a tune onto the computer……." I remember back in the 1980's, when I first discovered the use of MIDI, (musical instrument digital interface). I was amazed by software like Notator and Cubase. Yes, you literally could play your synthesiser into the computer, and it not only recorded the notes, it also placed them on a musical stave. I remember hearing of the professional desktop publishing tool Finale, and not long after that Sibelius. It is true that these and many other pieces of software can also be set to harmonise a melody for you, as the rest of the comment says, "……..and it does the rest for you". Does it?

It does not take a lot of thought to realise that letting a piece of computer software harmonise a melody for you is a long way from creating and scoring a composition or arrangement for brass band, whether it be a test piece or a simple pop song.

Before I elaborate on this a little more, let me remind you of some of the first comment, "……………they do not need to know as much" It is true that the software does lighten the task for you, and the brass band template is already there on your screen, but what is this about not having to know as much? Lets take the idea of letting the computer harmonise your melody as a starting point. You will get the basic chords and rhythms that the software is programmed to, it will not introduce interesting, original harmonic structures, counter subjects, obligato and so on.

What about the transposition and range of the various instruments, the template may have already transposed the notes for you, but you will not get very far without understanding the transposition in the first place. What about interesting rhythmic sequences? Of course, there are lots of other things to consider also, like scoring, tone colour and balance. What about _expression and dynamics. I think I have said enough!

"A lot more people are writing music for brass band now because it is easier". I do not like the word ‘easier', it is certainly far less tedious. You do however, still have to have the knowledge and experience required to write music. Let me give you a comparison. I am at present writing this article on a word processor, a lot less tedious. However, it will not do it for me. I still have to be able to read and write, have a plan and a structure, understand spelling and grammar. 

It is true that a lot more people are now making their music available to brass bands. These people however, were not created by computers, they have always been there. Before the days of music notation software and the internet, composers and arrangers relied on the publishing houses. It was not commercially viable for them to publish every piece of music submitted to them, however good it was.

For every writer fortunate enough to be published, there were many others who were unpublished. There were one or two brave people who did very neat handwritten copies, then invested a large amount of money into photocopying, advertising and distribution. In the 21st Century, it is true that "a lot more people are writing music for brass band", but this is not because writing the music is easier, it is because the music publishing software and the internet have made it possible for them to make their music available and get it played.

Tim Paton


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