Sunday, September 6, 2015

New instruments with old interfaces

The title might give a feeling that this blog post is more about invention than about innovation. In fact, in the context of interfaces for musical expression, both invention and innovation have an offbeat sense.

Unlike consciously 'designed' user interfaces, the tangible interfaces of musical instruments (a guitar's being the fret board) are neither meant to accomplish a task, nor meant to reduce a 'learning curve'. While artists take years to master them, most musical interfaces have remained unchanged for centuries, allowing cultures to grow around them. An entirely new musical interface which is devoid of predecessors could have a tough time getting widespread adaptation as the interface of choice for artists, thus hampering the possibility of adding substantial musical value to the society.

I keep revisiting the history of the electric guitar to understand what led to its birth and popularity. It was in the early twentieth century when orchestras increased in size that the need to amplify the sound of the traditional guitar became apparent. After initial attempts to attach vibration pickups to the hollow body and the bridge of the guitar, the first fully electrically amplified solid body guitars that overcame the feedback problem associated with hollow-bodied guitars were introduced. The electric guitar has since then been redefining how a guitar sounds.

The electric guitar is a classic example of a redesigned instrument with an old interface. By adding 'colour' to the sound of the traditional guitar, it has helped develop genres such as electric blues, rock and roll, rock music and many more. The electric guitar was 'invented' with an attempt to 'innovate' on the traditional guitar without disturbing its 'interface'.

There are numerous old musical instruments that have stood the test of time. It would be exciting to see, and hear, their interfaces in the form of new instruments that not only add versatility to the playing style, but also make the old desirable.

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