A version of this blog post is being republished in Technology for Unleashing Creativity, from Oxford University Press 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?
Practical uses for MIDI in the music 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.
Keyboard MIDI controller with drum pads.
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.
Typical 5-pin MIDI INPUT and OUTPUT .
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.
List of apps to use and how they interact with MIDI information.
BeepBox translated to BandLab.
Bach Google Doodle translated to Finale NotePad 2012
Bach Google Doodle to Soundtrap
Chrome Music Lab to Noteflight
Chrome Music Lab to Finale NotePad
Chrome Music Lab to BandLab
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.