Music and Mechanics

The Age of MIDI

The pianola roll was, like the cylinders and discs of the musical box or the barrels of a barrel organ, a set of instructions for a musical instrument to carry out. But, unlike the cylinders or discs, which contained short tunes that were repeated after one cycle, the pianola roll could be a continuous piece of music - a whole movement from a piano sonata, for example.

The age of the musical instrument digital interface - MIDI - was dawning.

Like a pianola roll, MIDI is a means of telling a computer what sound to make - and any instrument can be adapted to give these instructions. Usually, MIDI is operated by a keyboard. But MIDI can be operated by a guitar or, as above, by a flute.

As electrical power became more available, it became possible to control sound creation far more accurately, leading to the development of the oscillator, producing a wide variety of waveforms and frequencies. Oscillators can produce a smooth waveform resulting in a pure tone like that of the tuning fork, or a more complex waveform resulting in a buzzing tone.

This brings us back to the simple wheels that Robert Hooke and Felix Savart developed - or, even, back to that fly, beating its wings a certain number of times every second.

This method of generating sound electronically was further developed so that a musician could control the pitch using a keyboard. Not only could the pitch be varied; the waveforms could also be altered resulting in a wide variety of sounds available to the performer. This is how the engineer Robert Moog developed the ‘moog’ synthesiser. Pictured below is the Moog Satellite Synthesizer.

Not only has it become possible to play these instruments, it has become possible to programme them to play different instruments - either electronically synthesized imitations of instruments or recorded samples of actual instruments.

But, as we come to the end of our exhibition, we should remember that the computer programmes that can replicate the sound of orchestras are not that different from the sheet music written hundreds of years ago. Both are sets of instructions to be carried out - either by machines or humans.

The manuscript above of Beethoven’s Music to ‘Egmont’ Op.84, handwritten by Beethoven himself, is a list of instructions: it’s telling a musician or set of musicians to play a certain note at a certain time for a certain duration. It’s very similar to the rather more sterile-looking MIDI instructions, shown earlier, which tell a computer to do the same thing.

However, these manuscripts are much more than mere instructions, as they are the nearest we will ever get to seeing into the minds of the composers as they created their works. And, as more musical manuscripts from the fantastic musical repositories around the world become available on Europeana Music, it becomes easier to view many different composers’ works, all from one website. How lucky we are to have them!