Driving Music

Driving Music © 2014 Clipart.com

Not everyone can play a musical instrument, but most adult Americans can drive a car. That's why one engineer decided to combine the two experiences.


Driving music. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

(Audio: Music driven by Dr. Chew)

You might say that Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5 is driven by its bouncy rhythm. But in this case, it's being driven–literally–by Elaine Chew, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California.

She and her colleagues have created a computer system that lets you drive a piece of music just like driving a car. The score appears as a road, with twists and turns representing the composer's suggested shifts in mood.


Some just go screeching through the whole piece, and some sort of over time, they learn how to adapt and play around with the music.

She says the device allows novices to experience music in a new way, and seasoned musicians to experiment with different interpretations. I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

If you've played driving video games, at first glance Dr. Chew's system would seem very similar. The difference is that it's not getting to the destination, but the journey itself that's important.

Every piece of sheet music contains not only the notes of the piece, but also markings and abbreviations that tell the players how the notes should be played: louder or softer, faster or slower, smoothed together or separate and distinct, and so on. Every musician's interpretation of these directions, however, is slightly different. Some musicians or conductors may even choose to ignore these directions and take the piece in a new direction.

Dr. Chew's program allows even non-musicians to have that level of control over a piece of music. The notes of the piece play automatically. To help the user understand what the composer intended, the programmers represent each piece of music as a road. The road contains built-in cues that tell the driver what to do next. For example, a curve in the road might signal the driver to slow the music down. However, the driver is free to whip around the curve at top speed, just to see what that sounds like.

It may sound simple, but allowing non-musicians to take active control over music, rather than just listening to it passively, can help people understand music from a deeper point of view. Dr. Chew says that even experienced musicians could benefit from the program – for example, by allowing them to play, record, and compare different interpretations of a piece of music very quickly, without having to practice them on an actual instrument. In the future, programs like these could even become a useful tool in music classes.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is the purpose of this computer program?
  2. How does the road represent the composer's choices in the music?
  3. What aspects of the music does the user control? What does the user NOT control?
  4. If you are a musician, do you think this program would help you? Why or why not? If you are not a musician, do you think this would expand your understanding of music?

For Educators

In the NY Times Network lesson Pens, Paper, and … Cellphones?, students consider the benefits that so-called "disruptive" technology (like video games and cell phones) can have in the classroom, then design class activities that feature such technology prominently.

Illuminations’ Sound Sketch Tool is a java applet that allows students to sketch and quantify sound using two different representations.

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