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What's Wrong with Current Musical Instruments?

Updated December 15, 2011

 

By Roger Linn

 

When I occasional give talks on my LinnStrument and new musical instruments, I am sometimes asked "Why do we need new musical instruments? What's wrong with the ones we've already got?" This a valid question and I'd like to answer by pointing out below some of the advantages and disadvantages of the some of the most popular instruments.

 

 

Guitar

 

+ Good note expression, able to vary pitch over a note's duration by vibrato and bends

+ Polyphonic, up to 6 notes

+ Fairly easy to learn to play pleasing tones

+ Portable

+ Easy to transpose-- just slide your hand or capo up or down

- Always produces a fast attack / long decay envelope

- Difficult to play chords and melody at the same time

- Because of equal temperament, somewhat difficult to play just 3rds or 5ths

- Inefficient use of hands: requires both hands to play a single note

- Because of the odd 3rd interval between the B and G strings, playing a specific chord or scale requires 3 different fingerings depending on which strings are used.

- Because of the string physics, notes are big at one end and small at the other.

- The strings go out of tune

 

 

Piano

 

+ Polyphonic

+ Easy to play pleasing tones

+ Note layout emphasizes naturals and is therefore easy to learn and play simple music in selected keys

+ Easily adapted to sound synthesis

- Always produces a fast attack / long decay envelope

- Poor note expression, unable to vary loudness, pitch or timbre over a note's duration

- Because of the key layout, playing a specific chord or scale requires a different fingering for each of the 12 transpositions.

- Because of equal temperament, can't play just 3rds or 5ths

- Because of the original design constraint of needing to place a string behind each key, the keyboard is long and wide and therefore difficult to see both hands at once.

- Heavy and not portable

 

 

Bowed strings (violin, viola, cello, double bass)

 

+ Excellent note expression, able to control loudness, pitch and timbre continuously over the note's duration.

+ Can slide from note to note

+ Violin and viola are very portalble, cello less so

- Difficult to learn to play pleasing tones

- Because of the lack of frets, it is difficult to play in tune

- Because of string physics, notes are big at one end and small at the other

- On violin, because high notes requires very short strings, notes are very close together and therefore difficult to play in tune

- Can only play one note at a time, sometimes two

- Limited pitch range for each instrument (violin, viola, cello, double bass), requiring 4 different instruments to produce full pitch range.

- Violin and viola must be held uncomfortably between neck and shoulder

- In order to play low notes, the double bass is very large and not very portable

 

 

Wind instruments (brass and woodwinds)

 

+ Excellent note expression, able to control loudness, pitch and timbre continuously over the note's duration.

+ Portable, except for bass instruments

- Difficult to learn to play pleasing tones

- Limited pitch range, requires multiple instruments of each type to cover entire pitch range

- Can't play more than one note at a time

- Note layout is optimized for the opening and closing of holes in the instrument, not for ease of playing.

- Difficult to transpose; for a given scale, it is necessary to learn a different fingering for each of the 12 transpositions

 

 

In reading the points above, you may notice two recurring themes:

 

1) The human interface of mechanical instruments is severely compromised by the need to produce acoustic sound.

 

For example, the violin must have a very short string length and body in order to produce its high tones. But this requires that you hold it uncomfortably between your shoulder and chin, and it is very difficult to play in tune because of the tiny fingerboard.

 

2) The human interface of each mechanical instrument is different, requiring that you learn the new instrument in order to produce its sound.

 

In the age of synthesis, why must I learn a new instrument fingering merely to produce its sound?

 

 

 

The promise of synthesis

 

The promise of synthesis was that you'd be able to produce any instrument sound polyphonically from a MIDI keyboard, a human interface that most of us already know. And synthesis has made tremendous advances in its note expression capabilities. However, if you've ever tried to play a convincing guitar, sax, violin, clarinet or cello solo on a MIDI keyboard, you've found it to sound static and lifeless. This is because keyboards can't do much more than turn sounds on and off at different volumes, and their bend and mod wheels aren't a big help. For truly expressive performance, you need to capture the same sort of human gestures that are used to play solo acoustic instruments, including continuous gestural control of each note's loudness, pitch and timbre.

Guitar-to-midi controllers have proven to have many of the same limitations in producing realistic non-guitar tones. And although playing synthesizers from electronic wind controllers like the Akai EWI/EVI can produce quality note expression in the right hands, these controllers have the same problems of their acoustic counterparts: only one note can be played at a time, and the note layout is difficult to learn and play.

Another problem of keyboards is that they aren't isomorphic-- for any given chord or scale, you must learn a different fingering for each of the 12 keys.

 

 

So what is needed in a new musical instrument?

 

In my view, if the goal for a new instrument is to perform highly expressive music based on 12-tones per octave, then I think the following are good design requirements:

 

* The human interface should be optimized for ease of playing, not limited by the need for acoustic sound generation. For this reason, the sound should be generated by synthesis.

* It should be polyphonic.

* It should be highly expressive, able to control each note's loudness, pitch and timbre continously over time. It should be able to perform convincing performances of expressive traditional acoustic instruments.

* The note layout should be isomorphic-- for any given chord or scale, the fingering is the same for all 12 musical keys.

* Efficiently use of hand/finger gestures. Like a piano keyboard, only one finger should be required to produce a single note.

* Easy to play in tune, yet subtle pitch nuances are possible. You should be able to easily play notes in tune while also playing vibrato, bend and other pitch nuances.

 

These are the ideas that drove the design of LinnStrument.

Roger Linn Design  •  Berkeley, CA, USA

Roger Linn Design  •  Berkeley, CA, USA