The end of music as we know it? A short exploration of how MIDI took over musical creation.

To many, this may seem a rather belated contribution to a debate that has already been won but it is a truth universally acknowledged that all modern music must contain midi. A study of the development of the MIDI (or Musical Instrument Digital Interface) phenomenon can help us to understand how modern music has transformed our understanding of leisure and how we enjoy ourselves. I decided to study and summarise some of the changes by using MIDI orgs excellent history of midi: https://www.midi.org/articles/the-history-of-midi.

The first mechanical music machines can give us some background to the development of MIDI. An interesting reference for ancient mechanical musical instruments was published as far back as 850 AD by a Iranian group of brothers called Banu Musa. In the Book of Ingenious Devices they describe two automated musical instruments that played music with interchangeable cylinders. In the late 19th century and early 20th century mechanical pianos further developed the mechanical music phenomenon. It is quite striking to think that if you wanted to hear music at this time you would have had to have been a skilled musician, relatively wealthy or own mechanical piano roll. In fact, it is particularly striking to compare the old piano rolls with modern musical interfaces such as logic:

It is quite striking how similar this system is to our own modern music making devices:

In addition to piano rolls, orchestrions contained multiple mechanical instruments and were meant to recreate the real life orchestra. The orchestrion is recreated by the great pianist Pat Metheney who loved the orchestrion sound and remembered visiting his grandfather and remarks on the mixture of ancient and modern that the orchestrion represented:

The orchestrion reminds us that the creations that are brought to fruition on our modern interfaces still must have their basis in real life sounds and experience. Another interesting study of this way of creating sound is offered by Wintergatan and his machine shows a clear insight into the interplay of creativity and randomness in mechanical musical creation:

The slow evolution of the electronic musical instrument has a long history which stretches back to the late nineteenth century. Instruments like the Telharmonium and the Singing Telegraph were first seen shortly following the pioneering uses of electricity following Heinrich Hertz’s developments in 1887. The eery Theramin sound originates from this period:

The Theramin which originated from an attempt to measure the change of gas in a defined area can be played using hand movements between two electrical fields and affecting the circuit and creating an analogue sound.

In the 1950s music synthesisers were developed and pioneers such as Dr Rober Moog developed these instruments for use by musicians such as Wendy Carlos who used them to transform the music of Bach (Switched on Bach (1968)). Instruments such as the Mini Moog could now control music not through piano rolls but control voltages. The trend for electronic instruments continued to build with the development of microprocessor based instruments. These were instruments which utilized integrated circuits that contained all the functions of a central processing unit of computers. The golden age of the synthesiser was now dawning! However, compatibility still proved to be a sticking point. The problem was finally solved through the development of the universal synthesizer interface. Dave Smith provides a fascinating final word regarding the huge final decision to integrate the various interfaces in 1983:

The interaction between the teams provides a fascinating insight to team work and the attempt to decide how to integrate the different sounds created by various devices.

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