Opus One

Opus One

Critics of computers in education often argue the investment in technology detracts from the arts. T

Did you ever wonder how Stevie Wonder can play just one keyboard and yet produce an orchestra of sounds? The easy answer is because of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface. The MIDI is essentially a networking protocol that allows musical instruments, synthesizers, recorders and computers to communicate. In the case of Stevie Wonder, the one keyboard he plays triggers a variety of synthesizers and generates a remarkable collection of sounds.

Now, why should K-12 schools care about any of this? Because the same tools that allow Stevie Wonder to impress his audience also can make music composition, expression and performance a part of the educational process. These tools provide the scaffolding required to allow even young children to realize the most sophisticated of musical ideas. For less than $500 any classroom can

be equipped with a composition/performance/recording studio consisting of a musical keyboard and powerful music software. This technology offers an opportunity to reinvigorate arts education and help schools come alive with the sound of music.

Unlike many high-tech standards, MIDI has withstood the test of time. Since 1983 synthesizers, controllers and computers have spoken the language of MIDI.

MIDI is a bi-directional pipeline allowing connected devices to share data. That data is a series of numbers describing a musical note-its pitch, volume, length (sustain) and instrument. Anytime you turn an event or data into a code remembered by a computing device you are digitizing that information. Striking the key on a MIDI keyboard turns that middle-C into a set of bits capable of being manipulated. It is the potential for the manipulation of musical gestures that makes this technology so powerful in an educational setting.

Most people are familiar with the popular electronic keyboards that allow the player to change instrument sounds or play-along with accompaniment. Some of these keyboards are MIDI controllers as well. That means that it can be played like a piano and be used to control infinite sounds, multiple instruments or even record a performance digitally. These devices are connected to each other via MIDI cables and to computers via a MIDI interface.

The cost of a MIDI interface starts at about $50 and goes up depending on how many devices you wish to control. Older MIDI interfaces required a serial port, but most new ones use USB. MIDI hardware and software is available for Macs and Windows. Like many visual artists, Macs are popular among musicians.

If you are looking to purchase an electronic keyboard, be sure it has a GM logo on it indicating that the device is General MIDI compliant. General MIDI is a refinement of the MIDI standard ensuring that your piccolo always sounds like a piccolo and not a tuba, regardless of the device generating the final sound. You should also remember to invest in headphones for each musician.

Other MIDI devices include drum machines, electronic wind-instruments (imagine playing a trumpet and hearing a violin), synthesizer modules and digital recording decks. Not every synthesizer, the computer producing digital sounds, needs to have a keyboard, drum pad or wind controller attached. Many synthesizers are housed in small boxes often mounted in racks off-stage and out of view.

Most computer operating systems possess the ability to play MIDI files. QuickTime uses General MIDI as its standard and will play most MIDI files. The great thing about MIDI files is that they are so compact you can easily add complex music to a multimedia project or Web page without using too much disk space or bandwidth. For example, a commercially produced MIDI arrangement of Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour" requires only 48K of disk space.

Royalty-free and commercial MIDI files are easily found on the Web. Depending on the license granted by the copyright owner, you may use these files in your own projects.

The microcomputer is MIDI's best friend. It may be used to compose and playback music; edit and master recorded music and store musical ideas for future manipulation. The processing power and storage capabilities of the personal computer are essential for the production of digital music. The music synthesizing abilities of most personal computers are primitive when compared with dedicated musical synthesizers. It is for that reason that you should connect a hardware synthesizer to the computer and play the music through the device when performance is the goal.

Gary Stager, gary@stager.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.