September 10, 2012


by Chris Randall

I'm currently doing some research and experimentation with a full-sized (22") multi-touch screen; I'll put up more info about that specifically as I learn/create, but in thinking about what I'm doing with that, I keep finding myself pondering the nature of what, exactly, an instrument consists of.

After giving it some thought, I've decided that an instrument, at its base level, needs to allow for three things:

1. Expression. Any instrument has to be capable of triggering a range of emotions in the listener (since, after all, that is the point of music.)

2. Virtuosity. In order to be an instrument at all, our instrument needs to have facets that can be mastered, and it has to have a depth of usefulness to warrant that mastery.

3. Purpose. An instrument is mainly an instrument (that can, occasionally, be something else) and not something else that can also be an instrument.

For instance, take the spoons. I don't think anyone could deny that there are people that are very, very good at playing the spoons. So that might satisfy our second rule. But as for the first and third, that's open to interpretation. Not a terribly expressive instrument, as such. And spoons are always better at being spoons than being a musical instrument. As opposed to, say, a guitar, which might make a serviceable hurley bat, but really, is much better at just being a guitar.

On the other end of the spectrum, here's a thought-experiment: is Ableton Live an instrument? One can at least re-create a huge range of expression, and one can also master it. And it is most assuredly purpose-built for making music. I've often found that people that don't "get" Live tend to look at it as a DAW, while people that do tend to look at it as an omnibus instrument.

In any case, my goal is to create something that satisfies all three of my criteria above, and utilizes a flat plane with visual feedback as its playing surface. We'll see how things turn out, but once more in to the breach...


Page 1 of 3

Sep.10.2012 @ 9:05 PM
Any latency ?

Sep.10.2012 @ 9:54 PM
"Any instrument has to be capable of triggering a range of emotions in the listener (since, after all, that is the point of music.)"

Is that true?

Sep.10.2012 @ 9:56 PM

Sep.10.2012 @ 10:30 PM
My opinion is that the difference between a toy and a musical instrument is this: when you play an instrument, you make mistakes. And when you first start playing that instrument, you make little but mistakes. But then you practice and you make more music than you do mistakes, and eventually you can produce music with emotion and little to no mistakes. Maybe you can even have a unique style on the instrument. That's why when I see those Tenori-on grid things that play a pentatonic scale I think, that's nice for synth collectors who can't play a D major scale. But it's not quite Ivy League now, is it.

Sep.10.2012 @ 11:21 PM
I was thinking about something along these lines recently, with regard to how instruments have evolved in different cultures. Specifically, the effect that the idea in western cultures that music should be a part of standard education of the upper classes. As a result, we've developed a whole range of instruments that are reasonably easy to notate how they are played. Some form of pictogram works well for most instruments common in european cultures.
But when you look at instruments from places like africa, that virtuosity you were talking about becomes integral to the process of learning the instrument, because it's almost impossible to make a simple notation of how to play. Can you imagine trying the tabulature for a Kora would be like? Or a Maliian one-string guitar?
And let's say you took the time to figure out the notation for something like this: link []
Do you think you could ever find instruments that were set up the same as those?
I guess what I'm getting at is that in western traditions, replayability seems just as important as virtuosity, but in much of the rest of the world it's of almost no concern.

Sep.10.2012 @ 11:23 PM
Jesus. I should not post things online when my blood sugar is low. Reading that, you'd think I failed every english class I ever took.

Sep.11.2012 @ 3:12 AM
I disagree with point 2. Virtuosity isn't a characteristic of an instrument. Its a characteristic of the player.
The spoon players are an example of that.

And if you agree with that. Then nearly anything can be used expressively, in the right hands.

Also point 3 seems circular. An instrument is an instrument if its purpose is to be and instrument?

Sep.11.2012 @ 5:11 AM
The Saw Lady refutes 3? A good old saw is more interesting, and perhaps even better, as an instrument than merely ... a saw. link []

Can't anything potentially be a musical instrument facilitating performances of both emotional and technical value in the right hands, whether or not it was intended as such in the first place? Live is an instrument, Logic is an instrument, your whole studio is an instrument. Instruments within instruments, networked into 'super instruments'?

I any case, I'm certainly looking forward to what you'll come up with.

Sep.11.2012 @ 5:27 AM
The question wether Live is an instrument is analog to asking wether MS-Office is a typewriter.
Among other things, Live can get used as an instrument. I once had much fun using a laptop with its built in microphone, a rubberband spread among the laptop (from lid to bottom), and Live for doing an expressive performance, live looping etc.
Thing is that a real instrument should be tangible. That's why they invented the reacTable, to have a tangible interface for a software instrument.

Sep.11.2012 @ 6:48 AM
I'm with boobs.

Page 1 of 3



Sorry, commenting is closed for this blog entry.