The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

'The music's not in the piano'

I like Howard’s take on the iPad a lot—he describes it not as a device but almost as an undevice. And I like this bit:

In the middle 1980s, [computer pioneer Alan] Kay visited Alaska for a lecture and was interviewed in the Anchorage Daily News, articulating intoxicating ideas that helped awaken me to the brewing information revolution. He was careful even then to caution against focusing too much on devices. “The music’s not in the piano,” he said. “If it was, we’d have to let it vote.”

The music’s not in the piano! That’s mantra-worthy.


Berry K says…

“The music’s not in the piano.”

True. But remember, at the time of its invention the pianoforte was a revolutionary advance on the harpsichord that enabled the release of quite a bit of wonderful music. A specific device does not create magic, but it may enable it.

Great point; well-stated.

I wonder to what degree a piano player (or a player of any instrument) would say that their instrument “gets out of the way.” I never got good enough at the French horn (sigh…) to really know if this is the case… does the process of mastery feel like the instrument is melting away, and it’s more of a direct relationship between, like, your brain and the sound? OR is it more like you actually dive deeper into the specifics of the instrument—its “deviceness” becomes even MORE apparent?

(Did that make any sense?)

Alan Kay says…


I would say that Berry K. has understood both sides of the aphorism. And McLuhan would also agree.

And, to Robin, if you are a fluent reader of words, then you will know what it is like to be a fluent player of music. It’s not that the instrument melts away (per Berry) — it remains as a landscape of possibilities — but that the effort of getting through “intermediaries” to *meaning* has melted away. One does not think the same way when playing each of the keyboards (harpsichord, clavichord, organ, piano — they are all quite different), or guitar (in my case jazz guitar). It’s more like you “become the character” of the instrument — it is a role.

I think it takes about 5 years of 2-3 hours a day (about 5000 hours) to get to the first level of level of real comfort on a type of instrument.

By the way, it’s probably more accurate to say that the piano was a kind of improvement on the clavichord, since it could also exquisitely produce a very wide dynamic range (wider than the piano), but it couldn’t produce enough sound to be used in public — it was a practice instrument. This was Bach’s reason for trying to get the musical instrument makers of the day to improve the piano enough to be above threshold for art (Silberman was a particular target of Bach’s criticisms).

I say “kind of improvement” because the clavichord has something the piano doesn’t and that is the ability to control pitch while the note is sounding — you can produce vibrato and portamento effects (to make it really sing as no other keyboard can), and you can also sustain chords indefinitely if you get really skilled.

So it’s better to think of any decent instrument as a kind of artist’s tool kit with its own set of colors and brushes and possibilities.

This is where people should go crazy over what the computer really is, but most people have no idea nor have they taken the trouble to try to understand what the computer really is.

Best wishes,


I almost used an analogy to reading in my post; wish now I had.

As Raymond Chandler said, there are two kinds of writers: those who write stories, and those who write writing. I have always been especially impressed by writers whose prose seems simply to become a window onto the ideas or scenes they are presenting.

Two examples come readily to mind: David Remnick in “King of the World” and nearly anything by John McPhee.

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