The tragedy of MIDI

Back when MIDI first came out in 1982, it must have seemed like the greatest thing in the world. Finally musicians could hook up their instruments and computers to a common standard — the machines could finally talk to each other, communicating musical expression freely.

Depending, unfortunately, on what is meant by “freely”. MIDI came out of a tradition of controlling music through keyboards. Pressing or releasing a piano key is a discrete event, and the MIDI protocol is very good at capturing such discrete events.

But other instruments, such as the violin, work in a way that is far more subtle and difficult to describe. A violinist can make literally hundreds of subtle changes per second to the sound that emerges from her instrument — and the best violinists do. There is no provision in MIDI for accurately capturing this kind of continuously shaded nuance. Similarly, a MIDI encoding cannot begin to preserve those aspects of a cello performance by, say, Yo-Yo Ma that truly matter.

I think of “the tragedy of MIDI” as emblematic of the great devil’s bargain that lies at the heart of our continual embrace of new technologies for expression. Society will just about always adopt a new technology if it results in a more efficient means of distribution (thereby increasing the net potential wealth associated with a creative act). The phonograph record and its many progeny replace the parlor piano, and movies push aside live theatre, just as the computer data tablet edges out the pencil.

Yet in almost every case, the older technology permits some subtle nuance of expression that the more efficient newer technology does not. This is to be expected, since new technologies for transmitting artistic expression don’t win out because they are “better” in any objective sense, but rather because they are more scalable — one person can hear you play the piano in your parlor, but millions of people can listen to your recording.

Younger generations often have no idea what has been lost, so of course they don’t feel as though they are missing anything. Intellectually I can understand my mother’s rapture in explaining her girlhood days listening to the radio (where heroes were impossibly handsome, and monsters scarier than anything you could ever see on a movie screen), but emotionally I cannot “get it” — the world she describes no longer exists.

I still marvel at how much more powerful and expressive is a simple #2 pencil for drawing than any combination of data tablet and software yet invented. Yet the computer contains complementary advantages — the line you draw is instantly captured, reproducable, mutable, perfectly undoable — that the world cannot resist. Economic and scalability benefits trump pure expressiveness.

If there is any consolation in all of this, it is that the newer and more efficient, yet so often less expressive, modes of creation don’t seem to actually kill off the older ones. Rather the older modes end up surviving, in their lower wattage but often more expressive way. We can have attend live theatre, play a piano in the parlor, go to hear Yo-Yo Ma play the cello in concert. We can still hear radio broadcasts (although we can never return to the magical world of radio my mother knew as a child)

And when I really want to draw a picture to express a visual idea that is particularly delicate or fleeting, I ignore my computer altogether and reach for my #2 pencil.

One Response to “The tragedy of MIDI”

  1. Mari says:

    I had to use MIDI, as recently as 2004 with a robot (GutiarBot) which took MIDI note info, but I also started with tape splicing (!) so I appreciate our music history and how we evolved. Indeed my violin can do so much more than MIDI and my main problem has always been its scaling, like 0-127. Now things are -1. to 1. but I often still have to use manual scaling (like drawing a table) to fit what I need. Probably it is a mistake to try to make computers to act like me.

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