Composition? There’s an App for That… (Part 2)

This is the second post in a series addressing the idea of a ‘composition app’ and, more specifically, Joseph Freeman’s recent opinion pieces in the NYTimes: “Compose Your Own” and “Compose Your Own, Part 2.” The first post, “Composition? There’s an App for That… (Part 1)” involved the issue of sequence in music. [Note: While I initially had other topics I wanted to address, I will most likely end with this post.]

Audience-to-Artist Conversion

Freeman is driven by his desire that “everyone could share in this experience [composition] that I find so fulfilling” because he believes that “all of us are musically creative and have something interesting to say.” However, he laments that so few actually compose music despite increased music consumption. He cites the NEA 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, which found that only 12.7% of American adults play a musical instrument at least once each year. Freeman reasonably assumes (although it was not part of the survey) that those who compose would be fewer.

What Freeman does not seem to note is that this is the highest rate of participation among the performing arts. Only 2.1% of adults participate in dance related activities in a given year and merely .8% participate in non-musial theater (.9% participate in musical theatre). Individual visual arts fare little better with only, for example, 9% who paint/draw/sculpt, although the overall participation in visual arts appears to be higher with 6% in pottery/jewelry, 13.1% weaving/sewing and 14.7% photography/movies. Furthermore, creative writing holds at 7% despite the fact that most adults can at least compose in English.

What is it that keeps an audience member from becoming a participant? Given the statistics for other, non-musical artistic endeavors, the lack of participation in music appears to not merely be an issue of being too difficult for the layman to approach. Most Americans can effectively use the English language and understand what many words mean and yet they do not use this knowledge toward creative or artistic ends.

Denatured Musical Language

And yet, Freeman’s solution to increase audience-to-composer conversion was to simply denature composition into a pseudo-visual/auditory task of piecing together blocks of musical gestures in a web-based platform called Piano Etudes. The approach resembles Earle Brown’s Available Forms I. However, the ‘composer’ need not read music, given that all of the musical fragments are represented visually by pseudo-registral/durational notation.

Western musical notation has been a long time in development. However, the more-or-less standardized notation of the modern era is hardly an obvious choice for the music it is employed to represent. For example, most of our modern music relies on equal temperament (i.e., all adjacent tones are equivalent). And yet, it hardly appears that the interval between D-sharp and F-flat would sound the same as E-flat and E-natural despite the equivalent aural result.

One solution to represent modern music would be a graphic notation where notes can be plotted against an x-axis representing time and a y-axis representing pitch. The visual representation would be easily understood as analogous to the aural realization. Freeman uses precisely this notation.

While this approach has its advantages for visual representation, it also lacks in its convenience for reading. The standard five-line staff groups pitches and allows us to easily recognize pitches in reference to a fixed point. It becomes difficult to maintain a reference point on an equally-spaced graph across groups of 12 lines.

Need Music Participation be User-Friendly?

Perhaps one of the most unfortunate cultural shifts in the past century was the move away from the ubiquitous teaching of our children how to read music. In years past, such knowledge could be assumed and would allow for the participation in amateur performance, composition and the like that is not approachable by those with little to no knowledge of the musical language.

And yet, I also do not think that familiarity with the musical language would result in any more participation. Given the rates of participation across all of the Arts, I believe we are in a crisis of leisure. Average Americans are more likely to consume art than make it.

The question of whether it is worth making music more user-friendly seems to hinge not on those who do not currently participate and are unlikely to start, but rather on the efficacious nature of musical notation for those who would otherwise be currently involved. If I’m right about that, then I would suggest we are right on track. Experiments with other methods of representation don’t hurt, but we should not kid ourselves about increasing Arts participation by dumbing-down its means.

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