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How technology is changing the music

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

The technological changes affecting most aspects of our lives typically generate as much concern as enthusiasm, so what about the music?

Innovative music has always been linked to technology, but the pace of change is now so rapid it raises some big questions. If the pleasure of art is in the way it moves us in unexpected ways, what about music composed by an algorithm?

Are our musical tastes being shaped by the digital platforms from which we purchase music, and if so, what does that mean for the future of music? Can we really learn how to play an instrument from an app?

Understanding how technology applies to music is an emerging area of both research and teaching at the School of Music, University of Auckland, and one which is being developed by lecturer and coordinator of Music Technology, Dr Fabio Morreale, who joined the School this year.

Dr Morreale did his BSc in computer science at the University of Verona, Italy, but began combining computer science and his own guitar-playing interests at Masters level, and completed his PhD in Human-Computer Interaction as applied to Music Technology at the University of Trento, Italy.

One of the many possibilities offered by technology is the creation of new musical interfaces that allow for new ways of playing traditional instruments.

While working as a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Queen Mary University of London Dr Morreale created the Magpick, a technologically-based guitar pick that senses subtle movements of the hand and transmits the signal to a pedal board, allowing for a much more nuanced control of guitar sounds.

"Traditionally, guitar sounds are created when you pluck and then release the string," he says. The sounds of the electric guitar can also be manipulated with pedal boards, but that involves using feet "and we don’t have a lot of dexterity in our feet."

"With the Magpick you can modify the sound of the guitar, with subtle movements of your plucking hand above the strings, without touching them." It was so popular with guitar players that he and his team considered manufacturing it. "But we’re not really entrepreneurially minded people."

Dr Morreale notes that technology has long been used in the production of music, but is now increasingly used in composition, performance, in musical analysis and music education.

He and Associate Professor David Lines, Coordinator of Music Education, are beginning a research project looking at the countless apps that can be bought online which promise to teach people how to play a musical instrument, quickly and easily, without years of theory or practical learning.

Do they actually work? We don’t yet know, says Dr Morreale. "They might teach you to play the right note at the right time, but that’s 5 percent of playing music. Maybe they will help create an interest in a particular instrument, but will we be able to use that to play a traditional instrument?"

"I really feel that we need to find out if they are an effective way of learning music," he says.

Technology is also having a huge impact on what music we are exposed to. Just as Amazon knows what we like to read as well as we know ourselves, so Spotify knows what we might want to listen to.

"But what is guiding their recommendations for music? We don’t know, as they have they own proprietary algorithms. Is it really based on your musical taste? Or are they trying to push the artists of the three largest music labels, Universal, Sony and Warner Music, who are key stakeholders in Spotify?"

So many questions. "That is why we need to study the impact of technology on music and with a critical mind," says Dr Morreale. "We need to understand and design the future of music, the way we listen, the way we compose, the way we access it."

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