Music and The Home Computer - Multimedia Music Appreciation and Entertainment Software
John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
n this article of the series, we'll focus on music appreciation and multimedia entertainment software. While this segment of the software market has undergone some contraction in recent years with the loss of some excellent programs, there is still a substantial amount of good software to choose from. Some of the programs described here may no longer be readily available, but are worth having if you can find them.
Fifteen years ago, only the most dedicated computer-philes and music lovers could set up and run sound and MIDI capability on their computers. Even then, the hardware was too slow to display graphics and play sound at a rate that could keep the interest of all but the most dedicated computer "jocks". This situation has changed so much that almost any computer purchased for home use in the last ten years will have a fast CD-ROM (16X or better), at least a DVD-ROM drive capable of playing sound and video, a wavetable sound card, speakers, and fast enough surrounding hardware (processor, memory, hard disk) to bring all musical applications to life. In fact, most older sound cards have MIDI capability built right in that can be accessed through the MIDI/joystick port on the back of the card. Chances are that, if you're reading this on the Web, your computer has all you need to experience most, if not all, the musical applications we'll discuss in this series. If you don't own a computer, you can get one new for well under five hundred dollars that will have enough multimedia power to "knock your socks off"! One comment for the purchaser: don't skimp on your speakers. The speakers packaged with some computers these days are their weakest features. By spending another $50 or so, you can get decent computer speakers with a separate sub-woofer that will let you really experience good computer sound. Even though essentially all computers with CD-ROM drives can play audio CD's, we won't discuss that here since that is probably not the home computer's most valuable use for music lovers.
Learning music appreciation has come a long way from the sometimes mind-numbing lectures on musical forms that many of us remember from high school or college. The latest music appreciation software is so good that it is truly entertaining as well as informative. In the following discussion, hypertext links under the software titles will take you to our detailed review of the package. You'll also find links to places you can buy the software online.
The best music appreciation programs are easy to navigate, have great sound and superb graphics. Some, like Introduction to Classical Music, provide adults and older children a historical and cultural context for all of classical music, in addition to the opportunity to hear the music itself. You can explore the works of a single composer, period, or form or just jump around as things interest you. Not only do you get to listen to the music, but you can learn about its composer, the history of the time, or look at sections of the score as you listen. This program, like the others discussed here, is not only an aural treat, but a visual feast as well. The graphics are good enough to remain interesting to anyone old enough to read. The fact that you can buy the CD-ROM value pack online containing this program with 9 other high quality CD-ROM's for only about $25 for the whole package makes Introduction to Classical Music all the more attractive.
For those who want to use their computer to immerse themselves in a single great work, there is no better choice than Microsoft's Multimedia Composer series, including discs on Beethoven, Schubert, Stravinsky, and Mozart works. For example, Multimedia Beethoven gives a highly accessible and interesting analysis of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; you can just listen, follow the score with a noted music critic, learn about Beethoven, his times, and the forces which motivated him to write such a revolutionary work. If you're so inclined, you can follow the score line-by-line with the critic as he tells you what you're hearing and how it fits into the structure of the whole work. Even if you're not interested in the details, you'll find the graphics, sound and commentary in the Multimedia Composer series to be compelling. At least one such program, Multimedia Mozart featuring Mozart's Dissonant Quartet, is available as a part of at least one CD-ROM ten pack for a distributed price over all the CD-ROMs of about $2. At that price it's simply a steal!
If these sound a little too staid for you (or your teenagers!), then you can "take a walk on the wild side" with Digital Beethoven on Cyberspeed. This CD-ROM is a personal tour of some of the works of several composers by a Juilliard-trained classical-musician-turned-punk-rocker whose stage name is "The Great Kat". Digital Beethoven on Cyberspeed is offbeat (to put it mildly) and great fun. It has some of the most fascinating graphical effects you'll find on any kind of disk anywhere. Digital Beethoven on Cyberspeed doesn't have the depth of some other multimedia music CD-ROM's, but the music and the surrounding history are explained by The Great Kat with an "in your face" verve that will make you laugh. It's a little too intense for small children, but if you want music appreciation that makes the journey as much fun as getting there, take a look at Digital Beethoven on Cyberspeed. You can get Digital Beethoven on Cyberspeed for under $6 online.
Young children present special problems and opportunities for design of music appreciation software. Their shorter attention spans and lack of familiarity with classical music mean that CD-ROM software written for adults and older children will be too involved and maybe even boring to them. Fortunately, there is some wonderful software which teaches elements of music appreciation through bright graphics, fun games, and a discovery approach which indulges the natural instinct of a young child for exploration.
MiDisaurus is an engaging and interactive program that guides the young beginner through various musical concepts in a non-threatening manner. The software provides a number of lessons, activities and songs that keep students alert and interested. It should be a welcome addition for the teacher who caters to the younger beginners, from ages 4 to 10 years old, as well as those parents who would like to supplement their child's music learning programs at home.
It's always dangerous to predict the future, especially that of computers and software. Nonetheless, some trends are apparent. New processors and faster video cards will provide extra speed that make video technology in CD-ROM's even more compelling than it is currently. Similarly, DVD technology allows more to be packed on the disc. The result of both these technologies will be the ability to display actual orchestral performances on CD-ROM's making the experience more lifelike than ever. Similarly, the general availability of cheap wavetable sound cards (cards that produce more lifelike instrumental sounds by storing actual samples of the instrument sound in the card's ROM) is making the sound that computers can generate better still.
It is apparent that the technology is going to make music appreciation and entertainment software more comprehensive and compelling. The question is whether we, as parents and musicians, will place enough importance on educating our children musically to generate a market sufficient to motivate the production of new CD-ROM's that use the new technology to best advantage. In any event, it's clear there is no better time than now to unlock the musical potential of your PC!