Musicalc - the player piano of the 1980s?

Music is a means of giving form to our inner feelings, philosopher George Santayana once commented. Traditionally, musicmaking has been a process requiring hours and hours of practice just to produce the basic element, the sounds, that music consists of. Only then comes the creativity that can put form to feeling.

Efforts to get around this problem for people who have a largely recreational interest in music have been under way for decades. Player pianos are an example. So, too, are the electronic organs with the keys that light up to tell you which one to push next.

But today music is undergoing a revolution. It is being synthesized, digitized, and computerized in rapid fashion. As a recent editorial in Keyboard Magazine puts it: ''If you've been living in a cave in the Himalayas since 1978, you may be surprised to learn that computers have invaded the musical instrument business in a big way.''

As a result, the public is being presented with the player piano of the 1980 s: a home computer with software that turns it into a rudimentary music synthesizer. Low-cost computers like the Commodore 64 and the IBM PCjr come with circuitry that allow them to create a large range of sounds. These can be plugged into a home stereo to provide a respectable, though limited, version of the music synthesizers that have successfully invaded the professional music world.

Computer hobbyists can tap this potential by writing their own programs. But most people will prefer to use commercial products like Musicalc from Waveform, which runs on the Commodore 64 with a floppy disk drive. This $50 piece of software allows the operator to create music in much the same way a professional musician does on a synthesizer.

True to the player piano tradition, Waveform's president, Thomas A. McCreery, claims that Musicalc ''eliminates the prerequisite training one must go through before enjoying the creative experience of playing and composing music.''

The justification for this claim is that the program includes a number of canned rhythms and melodies that can be played straight or modified in various ways. Also, the program can set up the computer keyboard so that the operator can play along without hitting a sour note.

But these claims are excessive, argues James Aikin of Keyboard Magazine, who has reviewed the program. ''Sure, you can program nice-sounding things without much practice or digital dexterity. But to do anything professional with it takes several years of practice, just as it does with conventional instruments, '' he explains.

Still, Mr. Aikin considers Musicalc a remarkably capable program for a home hobbyist. The sounds the Commodore puts out are not pure enough for professional use. But it does generate a surprising variety of pleasing tones, and it can play three voices, or notes, at one time. And Musicalc turns it into a real, albeit limited, musical instrument - not just a toy, he says.

During a demonstration at Waveform, the Commodore managed to make nice harpsichord-, flute-, electric guitar-, and percussion-like sounds. But it cannot mimic acoustic string or piano sounds very well. ''You have to think of the computer as a unique instrument. It has its own sound,'' Mr. McCreery explains.

Some music software - Music Construction Set from Electronic Arts, for instance - allows you to compose music using a quasi-traditional approach of putting notes on a musical scale. Musicalc takes a different approach. Loading the program brings up a two-part display on the computer screen. On one side are representations of sliders like those found on a music synthesizer. These control such things as the sound quality and tempo. The other side shows a grid with three moving dots that bounce across the screen, representing the computer's three voices.

To someone not familiar with synthesizers, the program seems confusing at first. But after about a week of playing, it begins to make sense, says McCreery. Once a person learns the commands, it is easy to compose a song, then repeatedly to change its tempo and timbre. A second, $35 program will translate a composition into standard music notation, either on the computer screen or on paper, if you have a compatible printer.

According to Keyboard's Aikin, a person who wants to make electronic music professionally would probably be better off buying a synthesizer, the least expensive of which are now selling for $1,000. But for the person who has a home computer and would like to make some music just for the fun of it, a program like Musicalc can open up a whole new realm of creative experience.

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