Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

High notes go high tech

Self-tuning pianos? Squeaky toy orchestras? Music technology isn't just for pop anymore.

(Page 2 of 2)

At the other extreme, the group has created digital musical toys for children, a kind of "training wheels" for budding musicians ready to express musical ideas but who haven't yet developed the skills to play an instrument.

Skip to next paragraph

Musical Shapers, the size of a grapefruit, are covered with a patented thread containing sensors that react to the way the child handles them. The child manipulates a preprogrammed "little seed" of music and helps it "grow" by the way he or she shapes it. A percussion toy, Beat Bugs, can be networked so several children can play them together, allowing rhythms and melodies to jump between the bugs.

The aim of the toys is to help children fall in love with the creative part of musicmaking before they have to "learn all the details" of playing a conventional instrument, Machover says.

Those inventing new musical instruments today are trying either to find new timbres (distinctive new sounds) or intonations (new intervals beyond the traditional 12-tone scale), says Mark Applebaum, a composer and professor of music at Stanford University.

He's invented "sound sculptures" - instruments he plays and for which he composes works. They're created out of everyday materials like threaded rods, nails, wire strings, plastic combs, doorstops, shoehorns, and mousetraps. Meant also to be visual works of art, he admits they have a "postmodern humorous quality about them."

For many years, jug-band players have blown into bottles and scratched washboards, showing that anything can become a musical instrument if it is put to use in that fashion, Professor Applebaum explains.

What were once strange, exotic instruments often become conventional over time. Marimbas, for example, once conjured up thoughts of exotic South America. Now students major in the marimba at respected American conservatories. When Mozart used the triangle in one of his 18th-century operas, the audience saw it as representing far-off Asia Minor. Today, the all-American triangle is one of the first instruments children play.

"Just as all formal religions begin as cults, similarly all musical instruments at one point are newcomers to the game," Applebaum says.

Duck call? Bring in the percussionist

The chief way in which today's orchestras have subtly but radically changed, observers agree, is in the percussion section. Beethoven might have called for one percussion player using a timpani.

"Now you have orchestral pieces with half-a-dozen percussionists playing a huge battery of instruments of all sorts of ethnic origins," some of which aren't really percussion instruments at all, Applebaum says. "If a piece calls for a duck call, it's the percussionist" who makes the sound.

Where electronic music has crept most pervasively into the orchestra is through imitating conventional orchestral sounds, observers say.

On Broadway right now, the musicians' union is battling producers over the size of the orchestras for musical shows. Producers want to save money by cutting the number of live musicians in the pit and substituting synthesizers. If the musicians strike, the producers say they'll substitute "virtual orchestras" without any live players. They believe audiences won't be able to tell the difference.

The future of innovation in music seems almost surely to be in digitally created music whose origin is either purely electronic or in imitation of acoustical sounds, "rather than string instruments growing extra strings or things like that," Applebaum says.

Machover envisions a time in the near future when consumers will buy a digital recording of a Beethoven symphony with three different performances: perhaps a Leonard Bernstein version, a Joseph Levine version, and a version by a hot young conductor.

They'll put it on the next generation of a Playstation game console and use the joystick to navigate all three, bouncing between them and then mixing them into their own interpretation.

• For information about hyperinstruments and musical toys at For more on sound sculptures, visit www.markapple To learn about experimental acoustical musical instruments, go to