Sunday, March 30, 2014

Classical Music for Smartphones: Composition, Part I

In this concluding article of the series, I explore apps related to composition. Touch screen devices are well known for being excellent consumers of content, but poor producers of it. Music creation app designers have had to devise new interfaces for their software, for touch-based interfaces are very intuitive but offer a limited number of gestures compared to a full keyboard and mouse combination. Filling a screen full of buttons and menus is impractical on the smaller screens. Using a smart phone for creating music is further troublesome because the relatively small screen size makes attempting anything resembling traditional notation impossibly tedious. For this reason, most serious music creation software is available solely for tablets, which feature a larger screen slightly smaller than a piece of paper.

While proponents of free and open software praise Android’s open platform and great customizability, Apple’s standardized software and hardware configurations make it much easier for developers to write good music creation software for iOS. Further, iOS was released earlier than Android, giving its developers a good head start. Combine this with the benefits of a tablet’s screen size, and the platform of choice for music creation apps is the iPad (for more information, see professor David Brian Williams’ page on tablet music). Still, developers have found clever ways of using smaller devices’ hardware to create music, such as in the 4’ 33” - John Cage app (see the first post in this series), which allows users to “compose” using ambient sounds captured with their phone’s microphone.

There are many apps that seek to emulate real-world instruments. When combined with recording capabilities, these can become very useful tools for classical composers. An excellent example is Pianist Pro by MooCowMusic ( Similar to other virtual piano apps, Pianist Pro allows users to customize the look of the on-screen keyboard and select from multiple “instruments”. Where it really shines is its ability to record what the user plays as both audio and MIDI files. A MIDI file can then be uploaded to the user’s computer and imported into their notation software. Even better, Pianist Pro acts a MIDI controller via WIFI or a special hardware adapter, enabling the users to record directly into compatible notation software. I prefer the feel of an actual keyboard to a piece of glass, but I could see using Pianist Pro or something similar to enter notes into notation software as a faster means than using a mouse.

(Stay tuned for the conclusion in Part II)

Check out all the articles in the Classical Music for Smartphones Series:

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