May 27, 2002, Monday


ARTS ONLINE; From a Few Colored Lines Come the Sounds of Music

By Matthew Mirapaul (NYT) 1271 words

A symphony is not what the bleary-eyed music students wanted to compose on a recent morning at Newcomers High School in Long Island City, N.Y. As the composer Tod Machover tried to coax a roomful of potential Mozarts into creating a central melody for their new work, a more Moby-minded pupil interrupted to request some pounding rhythms. Mr. Machover, explaining that the class was writing for a string orchestra, replied, "We're not going to have any drumbeats today."

Slowly, the first 25 seconds of the percussion-free piece started to gel. The class was using Hyperscore, software developed by Mr. Machover that allowed the students to shun the staves, quarter notes and sharps of standard musical notation. Instead they assembled their piece by drawing colored lines on a computer screen and listening to the results. Initially, Mr. Machover asked, "Do you want to start with the yellow thing or the blue thing?" By the end of the session, the students were making their own suggestions. One asked, "What if you curve that line?" Another heard a short passage and complained, "It's too fast."

Sure, everyone is a critic. But Hyperscore also demonstrates how computer technology can help anybody -- even someone who has never read a single note -- compose complex music. The software is part of Toy Symphony, Mr. Machover's broader initiative for technology-assisted music education, and it can be downloaded free from the Internet site

Mr. Machover is a composer and professor of music and media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. He was inspired to develop Hyperscore after discovering how few music-instruction options existed for his young daughters. Although children are encouraged to tell stories without knowing grammar and to paint without study, years of rigorous training typically precede Junior's Opus 1. "There seems to be a deeply embedded sense that you have to learn a lot before you can write music," he said.

So he set out to create software that would convert expressive gestures -- lines, patterns, textures and colors -- made on the screen into pleasing and variable sounds. The goal, he said, is to let children have "the direct experience of translating their own thoughts and feelings into music."

"Then music becomes a living, personal activity, and not a given which is handed down from experts or from history."

Howard Gardner, an educational theorist and an executive at Project Zero, a Harvard research project that studies arts-education programs, said that obviously musicians would have to learn to create music without technological assistance. But by providing a rapid entry into music-making, a tool like Hyperscore, he said, "represents a quantum leap -- rather as if one could speak in a foreign language simply by deciding what one wanted to say and using one's body in a natural way."

Hyperscore and programs similar to it might be thought of as graphical music-makers. They enable computer users to click, drag, drop and otherwise manipulate on-screen imagery and turn those actions into digitally generated performances. The composers Morton Subotnick and William Duckworth have created such programs, with Musical Sketch Pad at and PitchWeb at, respectively. A playful collection resides at the site. There are also dozens of CD-ROM's for sale that assist disc jockeys in turning instrumental samples and song snippets into throbbing dance music.

By offering a wide range of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic possibilities, Mr. Machover's software is an especially sophisticated example of this genre. This may have a cost. At least one Hyperscore user needed to upgrade the video card on a three-year-old computer before the software would function.

Nor is there an online manual yet, although one is promised by late June. Music can be produced with errant pointing and clicking, but an hourlong telephone tutorial from Mary Farbood and Egon Pasztor, M.I.T. graduate students who developed Hyperscore with Mr. Machover, greatly enhanced one's ability to operate the software; the public will probably have to wait for the user guide to be posted online.

Once the program was installed, however, it worked well. After assigning a color, green, to a musical "motive," a melody was assembled by dropping purple raindrops onto a beige rectangle. The vertical location of the drops determined their relative pitch, and changing their size altered the duration of each note. The motive was previewed, then fiddled with until a catchy tune was established. This process was repeated five times for motives in different colors.

Now it was time for Hyperscore to strut its stuff. Within another beige rectangle, called the harmonic palette, one could select a color and start to doodle. The temptation, of course, was to draw recognizable shapes -- a face, a house, a map of Uruguay -- but lines, curves and other conventional strokes provided greater control over the final results. Pressing the computer keyboard's space bar then caused the chosen motive to play as if a string section had been unleashed.

This was just the start. Put high in the box a motive would sound like a violin; a lower placement sounded like cellos. A series of broken parallel lines would produce a canon. Clicking buttons would activate chords, which could be made to adhere to major scales or spikier nontonal harmonies. Changing a line's texture would alter the instrumental timbre from plucked to bowed. A sliding bar increased the tempo.

As more colors were added, the piece's complexity intensified and the number of variables began to seem overwhelming, but Hyperscore made subtle adjustments in pitch, rhythm and harmony.

Although Mr. Machover is the composer of, among other works, the opera "Resurrection," the longest piece he and his team have produced with Hyperscore lasts only six minutes. "We worked very hard to put the right training wheels on the program," he said, "just so children would have the joy of making music from scratch. To do that, we put constraints on the program that aren't particularly useful to me as a composer."

As part of his Toy Symphony initiative, Mr. Machover and his team have been holding workshops that lead to concerts. In addition to pieces for children playing computer-assisted instruments, each performance includes orchestral renditions of one or two Hyperscore works composed by local young people. The Toy Symphony program had its premiere in Dublin last month, and the next performance will be on June 2 in Glasgow, with the BBC Scottish Symphony under the direction of Gerhard Markson. Mr. Machover said Toy Symphony concerts would probably come to the United States next spring.

At Newcomers High the students used Hyperscore to define a melody that sounds like an excerpt from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," then collaborated with Mr. Machover to expand and augment the passage until it resembled the introduction to a Rossini overture. The students titled it "Opera."

The workshop music teacher, Jordan Sandke, who is also trying to train students to compose scores in standard notation, said an hour session was not long enough to master the software, and he did not know if the class would return to the exercise before the school year ended. But he said he recognized that his students were more familiar with computers and video games than with a blank page of sheet music. Hyperscore, he said, "is definitely a much more direct way, a more familiar way, of reaching these kids."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company