A version of this blog post is being republished in the forthcoming book, Technology for Unleashing Creativity, set for release in 2022.
Musicians across all genres of music have heard of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI). What is interesting, and rather mind-boggling (to be honest), is that music teachers (myself included) trained in university classical music programs either never heard of it or have heard of it but just don’t really know what it does. Music educators graduating without modern musician skills and knowledge is an issue discussed in another blog post. Those who have had experience with making music electronically or have dabbled in a bit of recording would possess this knowledge, but mostly those training to be general music or secondary music specialists may not ever embrace this versatile computer protocol. Full disclosure: I only recently learned about the power of this file type and since really beginning to understand it feel rather jaded that I was not even introduced to it throughout all of my schooling either. The MIDI standard that we understand was invented in 1983 and is used in every genre of music-making from classical to pop, in some form, to this day. Now, enough of that, what is it and how can you use it in your classroom?
What is MIDI
Musical Instrument Digital Interface protocol is a way for musical instruments and computers to communicate. When a file is saved in MIDI (.mid) format, that file contains pitch, rhythm, instrument, and tempo information that can be transferred to any software that can read MIDI information like a standard notation (Musescore, Flat, Finale, Noteflight, Sibelius) or DAW (Logic, Ableton, BandLab, Soundtrap, GarageBand) software.
It is very likely that a classically-trained music teacher has dabbled, more or less, with some type of notation software like Finale or Sibelius. MIDI protocol is how those sounds you hear during playback are produced. But did you know that using a MIDI device, you can input notes right into your notation software? You don’t need to keep clicking and dragging notes into one place, you can literally play the notes on your controller and even input chords as quickly as you can play them. MIDI controllers/devices usually resemble a keyboard instrument but can be a drum pad and sometimes even a guitar! This also means that apps or programs that can produce music with MIDI can be imported to your Notation software with a couple of clicks. And it gets written out in Staff notation or tablature.
Many modern keyboards and electronic pianos have USB MIDI connectors. Older models have the 5-pin MIDI connectors. Nowadays, though, you can buy MIDI to USB connectors to bypass an interface.
Using the same technology, a person can input MIDI into a Digital Audio Workstation like BandLab, Soundtrap, GarageBand, or any other offline version too. As mentioned earlier, MIDI created in a DAW can be transferred to notation software and manipulated there and vice versa. Some notation software interprets a MIDI file better than others however. Drum machines are all built on MIDI too that can also be transferred to notation software. Although, just because you can translate does not mean you need to. It is an incredibly useful tool for learning how Western Staff notation works but knowing how DAWs work and how to treat music on them are useful skills too. Not to mention, MIDI graphic notation is better at showing note values and beat relationships. Not everything in music education is a means to understanding Western Staff notation, nor should it be.
What Apps Can I Use to Explore MIDI?
I put together this useful chart to help you garner ideas for MIDI exploration or to see how it could fit into your classroom.
|App||Import||Export||Create||Manipulate||Compatible with MIDI Controller||Other useful facts|
|BandLab||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔||Web-based, free DAW. Has all the basics of the industry standards. Includes an Education walled garden. Many collaborative elements.|
|GarageBand||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔||For Apple products only. All the basics you would expect of any DAW.|
|Soundtrap||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔||Free individual accounts, but has the option to try the Education walled garden accounts. Completely web-based. All the basics you would expect of any DAW. many collaborative elements.|
|Chrome Music Lab||✘||✔||✔||✘||✔||The Song Maker app specifically can export MIDI in two tracks and preserves instrument info well.|
|Groove Pizza||✘||✔||✔||✘||✘||A very cool drum machine. Fully integrated with Noteflight and Soundtrap, but can export MIDI to any notation software, just not as efficiently.|
|BeepBox||✔||✔||✔||✔||✘||Exports MIDI in four tracks. Does not translate well to notation software. Glisses, specifically, do not integrate with notation software. They do translate well to a DAW. Uses standard MIDI Grid notation. Great for creating retro game music.|
|Bach Google Doodle||✘||✔||✔||✘||✘||Makes your melody into the style of Bach. Seems to integrate well with Finale and Musescore. Not great with other notation softwares I’ve tried. Works very well on most DAWs.|
|Flat.io||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔||Web-based notation software, integrates with Google Docs and works similarly. Not great at interpreting MIDI info.|
|Musescore||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔||Contains a great online database. Interprets MIDI info well.|
|Noteflight||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔||Web-based notation software. Just alright at interpreting MIDI info.|
|Finale Notepad||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔||Offline notation software. Download from MakeMusic.com. Interprets MIDI info well.|
What I’ve noticed is that even though MIDI is a standard protocol for communicating musical information to computers, each software handles it slightly differently. It is as if each software that interprets it speaks a slightly different dialect. Best practice is to try it out and see how well it integrates with the software you have. For example, Chrome Music Lab to Soundtrap retains pitch, rhythm and tempo information well but not instrument. Once imported to Soundtrap, you will need to create a new track with the desired instrument sound and drag the clip to that track. The above chart will be a good place to start if you are unsure how well they will integrate.
Now, you might be wondering: That’s cool but what can I do with it?
Each app has its strong points and weak points. Creating something in Chrome Music Lab is versatile, but it has limitations. Using a DAW, you can add loops, beats, or other MIDI instrument parts to enhance it. I see the Bach Google Doodle as a way to completely rearrange a short Bach piece using actual melodies he wrote. Of course, you would have to input each excerpt one-by-one into the generator but it could produce some very cool music. These are just two suggestions. I know you can come up with many more. Perhaps this was your inspiration.
How have you used MIDI in your classroom? Let me know how you use it.
Until next time, Happy Musicking.