Soft instruments

Today I attended a very nice tribute to Marvin Minsky, an all day event inspired by his ability to improvise music in the style of Beethoven.

There were many interesting intellectual discussions over the course of the day. One that stood out concerned the relationship between composing and improvising. Some thought that they are on a continuum, others contended that improvising is a subset of composing, and one person asserted that they have absolutely nothing to do with each other.

One thought that occurred to me is that our notion of “musical instrument” might be too restrictive. Generally we think of the “instrument” as the physical object you interact with to perform music, such as a piano or a guitar.

But if we look at how we use these instruments, we can see that their physicality is not their essential feature. Rather, their essential feature of a musical instrument is the fact that it has been carefully constructed beforehand, as a mechanism to support musical performance.

But by this token, shouldn’t we include any computer software that is written for a similar purpose? Perhaps a program that helps us create trills, or progressions around the circle of fifths, or just a temporary transposition to the minor.

In the broader sense, anything that has been created beforehand, which then supports a real-time performance, is a kind of instrument.

One might say that if it exists as an object in the physical world, then it is a “solid instrument”. But if it exists only as a digital object, a thing of code and algorithm, then we might as well call it a “soft instrument”.

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