written by Dr. Victor Ezquerra
This is the first of a two-part blog about the immense musical potential that can be found in the palms of our hands—literally. This part discusses the many ways that digital instruments can be utilized by musicians. The second part of the blog will identify specific applications that can be used to accomplish different musical objectives.
What is a digital instrument?
Digital instruments are frequently overlooked as musical tools, despite the fact that they can tackle nearly every type of musical task. Before being referred to as one of “the world’s foremost iPadists” (funny, but true), I was wary of conceiving of a phone or a tablet as a musical instrument. It took some time before I realized a smartphone or tablet is a musical advancement just like any other: new, exciting, progressive, rejected by traditionalists, and embraced by those with imagination.
I use the term “digital instrument” as a catch-all that encapsulates devices that can be used to engage music on many levels. Some technologies included under this umbrella are smartphones, tablets, MIDI controllers and computers. I have chosen to concentrate on smartphones and tablets and avoided other digital instruments for two reasons. First, smartphones and tablets are ubiquitous. Second, the capabilities and functions of other digital instruments can be much more specific and complex, which would warrant further depth and investigation.
A smartphone or tablet is an instrument just like any other. It takes practice and dedication to play a digital instrument well. Making high-quality music on a digital instrument requires technique much like traditional instruments. Similar to pressing keys on a piano, the magic doesn’t come from the ability to press down on keys (or a screen), but more so the ability to do it “correctly” in a way that creates intended sounds. I am not advocating removing or replacing more traditional instruments with digital ones; I just wish to illuminate another pathway towards the love of music.
Digital instruments have incredible accessibility. First, nearly everyone has access to a digital instrument, be it a computer, smartphone or tablet. If you’re reading this, you’re using one. Second, there are many means of making music digitally that you might already own or can afford. Devices are often already owned, like a phone, or easily purchased. Once you have a device, there are endless music applications, websites and programs that can be downloaded for free or used online. Third, they’re portable. It’s much easier and more practical to carry a phone or tablet than it is to lug around an instrument (particularly a piano).
Finally, anyone can use a digital instrument. Simplicity allows beginners to learn; customizability lets advanced players explore new horizons. A vast array of resources and options caters to people of all ages, backgrounds and interests. Because digital devices only require a simple touch, even young children or those with disabilities can successfully make beautiful music. Digital instruments can open the door for everyone who wants to be a musician.
Digital instruments can aid with nearly every musical endeavor—listening, producing, learning, writing and performing.
The most prominent musical use of digital technology is listening. Listening practices can include streaming music through apps, downloading music, uploading music for others to hear, and sharing music through social media. Online media allows people to listen to, discuss, analyze, promote and critique music. These platforms serve as an important outlet for musical engagement.
Digital instruments’ processing power make them excellent at editing, mastering, producing and recording music. Not only can they record audio and video performances, they can also edit them to create a finished, polished work of art. One can record any instrument with a simple voice recorder, or use a studio-quality interface and microphones to capture sound. Music production can be done with professional-level software, or basic apps that allow users to create music using in a simple, fun, out-of-the-box manner.
Music education is made more engaging and dynamic with the aid of digital devices. Countless websites and applications facilitate learning music theory, aural theory, music history, music culture, etc. Organizing and notating music can be done more efficiently and with much less paper. Games, video courses and software let users refine and cultivate their music learning to their wants and needs.
Lastly, digital devices can be used as musical instruments themselves. Traditional analog instruments and be connected to and transformed through digital interfaces; doing so unlocks possibilities that were never before expected. A digital instrument can be made to sound like any instrument in the world, or create a totally new tone. Some apps and programs offer precision playing of a single instrument, others allow the player to switch between a multitude of instruments effortlessly. Different devices and platforms give musicians the option to play together, or play alone quietly with headphones. Several apps can provide their own accompaniment with drum tracks or backing tracks. It could be argued that digital instruments are the most versatile, dynamic and user-friendly instruments ever created.
Phones and tablets are calendars, voice recorders, word processors, painting canvases, maps, and a long list of other tools. They are also musical instruments. They have the capability to enable musicianship. Digital instruments are extremely accessible to people of all walks of life, and can be used for almost any musical undertaking. In the follow-up to this blog, I will provide some specific examples of software applications that can be used to develop musicianship.
Have any questions for Dr. Ezquerra? Drop them below!