Seeing the Notes-- The Piano Roll
Date: January 11, 2013
One of the great benefits of multimedia technology is the myriad ways that we can "visualize" sound. When you are comfortable reading music, you understand that the written score is a pretty advanced way of visualizing sound, but we don't always have the luxury of singers who are uniformly competent in reading (although we should always be reinforcing it!). A great "proto-reading" stage can be to demonstrate relationships of sound and silence using the Piano Roll feature found in many MIDI programs.
The piano roll is a representation of a pitch and duration. The name comes from the old player piano rolls, although MIDI piano rolls can contain more information (namely volume, but also attack and decay in advanced cases). Generally speaking, people understand graphs pretty well.
(Which sound do you think lasts longer?)
This is the premise behind displaying sound and silence using a piano roll.
I know-- it doesn't look much like written music that we're used to... except it kind of does. Notes correspond vertically to higher and lower pitches, just like in a score. Follow the graph all the way to the left and you see the corresponding piano key for each pitch. Length of the box different colored bars correspond to the lengths of sound of each note. Different colors (purple, green, peach in this case) correspond to different voices or parts. (The vertical columns in the bottom are the dynamics for each note. Not surprisingly for computer music, there's not much interesting happening here)
When we actually can see a chart of each note, interesting questions can appear obvious even if our musicians aren't all fluent readers. For example:
You could take it to an incredibly detailed level and ask voices on sustained pitches where their pitches should be loudest or softest, point out staggered entrances that require terraced dynamics or moving aside for entrances, etc. For those of us who teach sight-singing or reading, it's also a great way to assess their understanding of note relationships: give students an excerpt of piano roll and ask them to write in possible note values for the corresponding lengths of note.
In addition, you can quickly demonstrate different articulations or uses of space/cutoffs. For example, what's the difference between these?
Does anyone actually use this, or is this a theoretical exercise?
Most programs that use MIDI at their core have a piano roll mode. Sound production programs like Reason, Cubase or FruityLoops are heavily based on this mode of editing and entry. A quick search for "Free Piano Roll Software" gives many options for a range of hardware and needs. There's a catch, though: you have to get the music into MIDI format in order to be able to see it as piano roll notation.
You know the adage about the picture and the thousand words-- we also know that most of us, as conductors, talk too darn much. If you can visually represent what you're trying to communicate, you can often save time, frustration and distraction for all involved. Again, the purpose here is not to replace or make irrelevant the skill of reading music. By visualizing sound and silence in different ways, though, we can approach understanding of multiple voices, lines and styles from different perspectives.
How About You?
What else could you demonstrate using the piano roll? What other questions could you give your musicians based on this kind of view?