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New Music


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The first idea Id like to suggest is that we all love music a great deal. It means a lot to us. But music is even more powerful if you dont just listen to it, but you make it yourself. So, thats my first idea. And we all know about the Mozart effect -- the idea thats been around for the last five to 10 years -- that just by listening to music or by playing music to your baby [in utero], that itll raise our IQ points 10, 20, 30 percent.

Great idea, but it doesnt work at all. So, you cant just listen to music, you have to make it somehow. And Id add to that, that its not just making it, but everybody, each of us, everybody in the world has the power to create and be part of music in a very dynamic way, and thats one of the main parts of my work. So, with the MIT Media Lab, for quite a while now, weve been engaged in a field called active music. What are all the possible ways that we can think of to get everybody in the middle of a musical experience, not just listening, but making music?

And we started by making instruments for some of the worlds greatest performers -- we call these hyperinstruments -- for Yo-Yo Ma, Peter Gabriel, Prince, orchestras, rock bands. Instruments where theyre all kinds of sensors built right into the instrument, so the instrument knows how its being played. And just by changing the interpretation and the feeling, I can turn my cello into a voice, or into a whole orchestra, or into something that nobody has ever heard before.

When we started making these, I started thinking, why cant we make wonderful instruments like that for everybody, people who arent fantastic Yo-Yo Mas or Princes? So, weve made a whole series of instruments. One of the largest collections is called the Brain Opera. Its a whole orchestra of about 100 instruments, all designed for anybody to play using natural skill. So, you can play a video game, drive through a piece of music, use your body gesture to control huge masses of sound, touch a special surface to make melodies, use your voice to make a whole aura. And when we make the Brain Opera, we invite the public to come in, to try these instruments and then collaborate with us to help make each performance of the Brain Opera. We toured that for a long time. It is now permanently in Vienna, where we built a museum around it.

And that led to something which you probably do know. Guitar Hero came out of our lab, and my two teenage daughters and most of the students at the MIT Media Lab are proof that if you make the right kind of interface, people are really interested in being in the middle of a piece of music, and playing it over and over and over again.

So, the model works, but its only the tip of the iceberg, because my second idea is that its not enough just to want to make music in something like Guitar Hero. And music is very fun, but its also transformative. Its very, very important. Music can change your life, more than almost anything. It can change the way you communicate with others, it can change your body, it can change your mind. So, were trying to go to the next step of how you build on top of something like Guitar Hero. We are very involved in education. We have a long-term project called Toy Symphony, where we make all kinds of instruments that are also addictive, but for little kids, so the kids will fall in love with making music, want to spend their time doing it, and then will demand to know how it works, how to make more, how to create. So, we make squeezy instruments, like these Music Shapers that measure the electricity in your fingers, Beatbugs that let you tap in rhythms -- they gather your rhythm, and like hot potato, you send your rhythm to your friends, who then have to imitate or respond to what your doing -- and a software package called Hyperscore, which lets anybody use lines and color to make quite sophisticated music. Extremely easy to use, but once you use it, you can go quite deep -- music in any style. And then, by pressing a button, it turns into music notation so that live musicians can play your pieces.

Weve had good enough, really, very powerful effects with kids around the world, and now people of all ages, using Hyperscore.