When composing music, the majority of us will either use MIDI sequences or musical notation to convey our ideas and the question must be asked; which is more effective? Is traditional notation here to stay or will MIDI programming become a new standard of notation. I believe the answer to this question is essentially both.

Musical notation has been around for centuries, and in terms of being a performing musician is by far the most effective way to read music. But is it the most effective way to write music? I don’t believe it is. I have come to this realisation through being a performer and a composer and seeing music through two different languages – the language of traditional western notation and the language of MIDI. To many people it is a choose one and stick with it scenario, opting to simply dismiss MIDI in favour of notation or vise-versa, and this is where I think the problem begins, by thinking it is simply a matter of choosing sides. There are no sides in music. Music is a language that transcends borders, cultures and beliefs – it is the universal language after all – so why should it be thought of as something that must follow a rigid and (in my opinion) erroneous way of thinking? I pay homage to all of my favourite composers and respect and admire them for adding such a wealth of knowledge to humanity and the argument of music vs. MIDI is in no way meant to be radical or revolutionary. I am not trying to destroy the foundation that my heroes have laid, in fact I am attempting the opposite – to add to our wealth of musical expression.

Notation is vital in honing skills as a performer and understanding music theory, this is undeniable. A concept that I do deny, however, is the thought that music must be written as it has been for centuries if the composer is to be taken seriously and make music that can stand the test of time.

I have a solid understanding of music theory and can write scores by hand but in terms of being creative, MIDI sequences are a far more effective way to write. With a MIDI sequence there are no consequences for writing something that sounds bad, because with MIDI you know straight away if it sounds bad. Why? MIDI gives the composer the ability to listen back instantly without being a slave to an instrument – imagine if Chopin couldn’t play piano, would he have been able to write the music he did? Probably not. Being proficient in piano performance has been a way for composers of the past to work their ideas into compositions that they know sound good, but this was before the advent of MIDI. When MIDI was invented in the 1980’s it was a revolutionary way to make music that many creative people embraced. Many people who had good artistic taste combined with knowledge of the fundamentals of music were able to hear their compositions performed in real-time – the computer took the tyranny of the piano away and let us think subjectively, it freed us from the technical constraints of having to being able to play our compositions to know if it worked or not. With MIDI, we are able to use our ears and know that something sounds good.

To write effective MIDI one must first have knowledge of music and although it may be fun to just start composing in the MIDI domain, if you don’t have a musical foundation it is like trying to find a needle in a haystack – you may get lucky once but would unlikely be able to keep creating at an advanced level.

When I write my MIDI sequences I use all of the skills I have learnt studying music theory. I have learnt these skills through music notation. MIDI and notation is a symbiotic relationship where one is not stronger or better than the other, rather each element combines making new ideas possible. When you hear a melody in your head how do you notate it to sound like it should, without bias, and ensure that someone who has never heard it before will play in the exact manner that you have in your head? The answer is through aural training, completing hours of exercises that sharpen the skills – like melodic and rhythmic dictations. How do you know how to create compelling chord progressions or how do you incorporate counterpoint? Through musical training. How do you get your own personal orchestra to play your compositions at any time of night or day? MIDI. How do you listen subjectively without using mental energy on performing? MIDI.

Excerpt from Frank’s Violin Sonata

This post shouldn’t make you want to do one or the other, it is not a competition, it’s music. Trust your training but more importantly trust your ears.

A guest speaker appeared at the Melbourne Conservatoruim last week and tried to convince the crowd that his compositions were intuitive and that he couldn’t really explain how he did it. I think that his statement was so wrong it should be criminal. To think that you can blindly pick notes and put them together to make a composition that has substance and meaning is folly, the very word compose means to put together, so an inability to describe how the process works demonstrates an ignorance and lack of musical understanding. Music, like any art-form, builds from the foundations that others have laid for us and to scoff at these foundations would be to scoff at music itself. This is why I felt compelled to write this post, because I am trying to build upon the musical knowledge that is already available and with the aid of MIDI I believe this is possible.

Think of a Bear. That’s right, a Bear. In cities that are close to Bear populations, residents may find an unwanted furry-friend digging through their garbage. It may be dangerous to take out the trash while the Bear is rummaging through your bins, but researchers have found that they do this because it is easier than hunting. The researchers went on to theorise that this runs true in most living organisms, that they will find the path of least resistance, a system of survival that will expel the least amount of energy. So why can’t this be true of MIDI and music? Surely MIDI sequences expel less mental energy than thinking in terms notation.This isn’t a matter of being lazy or unwilling to perform, it is a matter of maximizing your mental efficiently – at the very least, MIDI sequences require far less mental exertion than playing your latest piano concerto yourself!

I believe that in the future MIDI will be an accepted norm and notation will simply be a means for musical study and for performers to communicate our ideas. The future may be closer than you think if you look at AAA games, Hollywood and the recording industry, where MIDI is lauded and utilised.

To summarise, notation is a vital tool for music theory and performance, while MIDI is indispensable for workflow and subjective listening. The two are closely related and shouldn’t be thought of in isolation, they should be skills that composers know are fundamental to the way music is written. By lowering the cognitive load of having to perform, composers are freer than they have ever been, freedom that can translate into musical development and new discoveries, making it possible to build upon a foundation that was so lovingly paved by our musical icons. Don’t choose one, choose both and always stay creative! 😀

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