This article discusses two separate areas of music technology.
1. MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE)
2. Polychromatic Music
With the introduction of MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE), combined with the relatively recent releases of innovative, and almost futuristic, instruments such as the Continuum by Haken Audio and more recently, the Seaboard from Roli, it was only a matter of time until MIDI officially added MPE. The news came on January 28th, 2018, from the MIDI Manufacturers Association’s (MMA), an update for which I am incredibly excited to watch the future off. MPE is a method of using MIDI which enables multidimensional controllers to control multiple parameters of every note within the MPE-compatible software. In standard MIDI, channel-wide messages such as Pitch Bend are applied to all notes being played on a single MIDI channel. In MPE, each note is assigned to its own MIDI channel so that those messages can be applied to each note individually. Writing about MPE doesn’t do it justice, so check out the examples below, showcased on two of innovative instruments I referred to earlier. The first is the Continuum from Haken Audio, the second, the Seaboard by Roli.
I believe MPE to be a huge step forward in how we’re going to both play, and approach music creation in the future. There’s no doubt that already having this level of MIDI expression has been opening up new worlds for musicians to explore, giving us more control over writing music than ever before.
What is Polychromatic Music?
Polychromatic music is less straightforward to convey in a text format. I believe it would be beneficial to first watch this short introduction video to the subject, with both visual and audio examples from Dolores Catherino.
It’s worth noting that this video is almost three years old, I just wonder why there aren’t more people discussing Polychromatic music and finding ways to implement it into their workflows.
Rather than just having pitches in a linear, chromatic system, such as pianos and all modern MIDI keyboards, polychromatic gives you access to pitches in a vertical axis too, using colours to differentiate between the tones in this added dimension. She explains in the video how the instruments in use have been configured to 106 semitones per octave, instead of the typical 12, the chromatic scale gives you. If you’re wondering what these extra pitches are, I’d recommend looking into microtonal music. Microtonality is the use of intervals smaller than the usual whole-tones and semitone of the best know Western European compositional traditions, although the use of such intervals is a routine feature of many world music.
Another example could be: On a piano, if we were to play the C major scale (all of the white keys), you can hear the jump between each key, this is apparent because of the differences in pitch, ascending in semitones (or whole tones). If you compared this sound with say an air siren, you can hear how smoothly the siren transitions between it’s starting and ending pitch; it’s seamless. Dividing the piano into 12 equal semitones makes sense, and obviously works perfectly well. But what if we could take this one step further and have access to new pitches to create never before heard pieces of music by combining them?
If you would like to further explore the world of Polychromatic music, I would recommend these articles written by Dolores Catherino, as well as her TEDx Talk.
Polychromatic Music | Dolores Catherino | TEDxSacramento