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The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

Seeing the Notes-- The Piano Roll

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:
  • Where are we all silent?
  • Are there patterns (rhythm, melody, etc) that appear in multiple voices? Where is there imitation?
  • Which voice is most active at each point?
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.
Two suggestions:
  1. For short examples, like the articulation example above, just draw it into your piano roll software. Editing and entering data in this notation is pretty simple when you're trying to enter something from scratch.
  2. Convert it from Finale, Sibelius or your other favorite notation program. Notation programs can export any piece of music as MIDI data, which you can open in your piano roll program. To get it in Finale, play it in using your keyboard, draw it in, scan it in, or everybody's favorite-- give it to a T.A.!
Save Words!
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?
on January 15, 2013 3:38am
Piano Roll editors (IMHO) are the best for getting a score into the computer.  The reverse of say notation programs.  There seems to be a shortage (if any) of these programs around.  In fact, I'm still using my copy of Freestyle by MOTU from 10 years ago.  The problem is, it's not supported by OSX. I contacted MOTU every 6-8 months back in 2002-2005 - they have/had no intention of continuing to support/update the program.  I've tried also to find a repalcement but so far have found nothing remotely comparable. So I have two, yes - two, old school macs (remember CRT monitors) around just to run that program!  
The program is amazing as I'm able to input anything I've ever come across in a score, with simplicity and ease.  I will record live (hyperscribe in Finale speak) then edit from there (quantize, adjust velocities, etc.) The best part is that the piano roll view lists all tracks at once (based on color) so you can see/hear everything for precise editing.
There are programs that do similar functions for example Garageband is close but not powerful enough while Logic is WAY too powerful (which equals complexity) and the quantize function seems to only adjust the note "start" point rather than the both the start and the "end" point.  
Anywho, if anyone out there knows of a program that IS available and works on computers smaller than a large dog - I'm all ears.