The New E-xpressionists18

The Draw of Music

Music has proven to be one of the most important shaping forces in computer science.

Music can be viewed from three very powerful and complementary perspectives. It can be considered from the digital signal-processing point of view--such as the very hard problems of sound separation (like taking the noise of a fallen Coke can out of a music recording). It can be viewed from the perspective of musical cognition--how we interpret the language of music, what constitutes appreciation, and where does emotion come from? Finally, music can be treated as artistic expression and narrative--a story to be told and feelings to be aroused. All three are important in their own right and allow the musical domain to be the perfect intellectual landscape for moving gracefully between technology and expression, science and art, private and public.

If you ask an auditorium filled with computer science students how many of them play a musical instrument, or how many consider themselves to have a serious interest in music, most hands shoot up. The traditional kinship between mathematics and music is manifested strikingly in contemporary computer science and within the hacker community. The Media Lab attracts some of its best computer-science students because of its music.

Childhood avocations like art and music, which are intentionally or unintentionally discouraged by parental and social forces, or else viewed solely as a relief valve to the pressures of scholastic success, could shape the lens through which children see and explore entire bodies of knowledge hitherto presented in one way. I did not like history in school, but I can date almost anything from milestones in art and architecture, versus politics and wars. My son inherited my dyslexia but nevertheless can read wind-surfing and ski magazines avidly, from cover to cover. For some people, music may be the way to study math, learn physics, and understand anthropology.

The flip side is: How do we learn about music? In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, playing music in school was common. The technology of recording music curbed that. Only recently have schools started to return to learning music by making it, versus just listening to it. The use of computers to learn music at a very young age is a perfect example of the benefit computers provide by offering a complete range of entry points. The computer does not limit musical access to the gifted child. Musical games, sound data tapes, and the intrinsic manipulability of digital audio are just a few of the many means through which a child can experience music. The visually inclined child may even wish to invent ways to see it.

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