The radio, sound-playing object. For all the world has changed, music playing is not so radically different when you think of objects and applications. Photo (CC-BY) get directly down.

Same as it ever was:

With talk of the cloud, streams, special proprietary devices that pipe vendor-specific sounds to particular home stereos, intelligent, always-on access to entire music collections, tablets and set-top boxes and … all of that … it can be tough to look into the future of music and audio. I spent the last weekend at Project Bar-B-Q, a mind-bending retreat of audio tech industry sages and engineers, on a team that looked at the issue. It’s not time yet to share those discussions, but as we face the dizzying array of possibilities ahead, this one quote stands out, pointed to me by someone in my BBQ group.

The article is from June, but as “cloud music” talk heats up, it’s worth pasting to your wall. The ever-insightful Sasha Frere-Jones writes for The New Yorker

…the near future of listening to music looks a lot like 1960. People will listen, for free, to music that comes out of a stationary box that sits indoors. They’ll listen to music that comes from an object that fits in the hand, and they’ll listen to music in the car.

Full story: You, the D.J.: Online music moves to the cloud.

I think a corollary is that, even with the big box playing music for free, people will want to own a collection of music and own things they take around with them, alongside the free things. Exactly where that line falls and in what way remains the sticking point.

But why stop at music listening, or even music creation? The idea above could lend perspective to any conversation about design and technology. The dimensions of the virtual, digital universe and its possibilities are indeterminate and difficult to conceive. But the dimensions of human beings are not.

my first "walkman" - from 1984

The Walkman may be gone, but handheld music sure isn’t. Photo (CC-BY) Blake Patterson.

I look at my Android phone and iPod touch and see something that rests comfortably in the palm of my hand. Keyboards and pianos sit before me at waist height and stretch within reach of my arms. The netbook to which I’ve just taken a strong liking I notice is the near exact size and weight of one of my favorite paper sketchbooks from a few years ago. It folds under my arm. (The dimensions of an airline coach row are applicable here, too, but one could think of those as the economic extensions of how closely you can pack humans and still get them to buy tickets.) The iPad, embraced recently by musicians, is sized to a music stand and could easily replicate manuscript paper, which in turn could be the net of multiplying staves sized to human hands and handwritten dexterity. The ubiquitous knob may be just an endcap on the electrically-convenient potentiometer, but it’s also a physical manifestation of the fact that human beings have opposable thumbs. The grip of your hand is, literally, the reason we talk about “tweaking.”

It’s not just a matter of ergonomics, though if design causes discomfort or you can’t see a user interface, that obviously matters. Human scale is part of what allows us to grow emotionally attached to certain things.

Felted knob - "Rosebud"

The knob, matched to your opposable thumbs. A felted knob (CC-BY-SA) the marvelous and talented Becky Stern.

And it should also be apparent that while the tech headlines and reporting focus on platforms or vendors — Apple! iPhone! Cable TV box! BMW car stereo! — humans, quietly, keep using objects that are fundamentally more or less the same. The rest is just a bit of icing. It makes you wonder why we don’t ask the fundamental questions first and worry about the details later, instead of the other way around. That would bring some humanity, sanity, and a longer view to technological discussions. (A shock, I know.)

Think in human terms, and sometimes design answers or the future of music are within arm’s reach. Just ask an accordion.

  • Great post!

    The turntable seems like a great example of human factors keeping a thing alive – an interface device which works well with natural wrist motion (circular) and provides haptic feedback.

  • Greg

    "It’s not time yet to share those discussions."

    " . . . could easily replicate manuscript paper"
    1024×768 vs. offset lithograph, then get into interface issues?
    You're joking, right?

  • @Greg Perhaps the iPad could automatically turn the sheet music pages – think of the convenience for a flautist trying to manage a page-turn and a tricky semi-quaver run simultaneously 😉

    Great post btw Peter.

  • @Greg/Henderson: There are already page-turn solutions for iPad; I actually need to write them up. Resolution needs to be higher for engraving. But as for something that's sized to a music stand, that holds – and obviously you've never seen how terrible my chicken scratch looks when I'm composing with paper. (I still intend to continue doing it.)

  • Cloud music servers put take the control of music distribution out of the hands of artists, labels, and record stores and gives it to the data storage companies and internet service providers/cable companies. In other words, they take the control away from anybody who has a personal, emotional, all in, commitment to music and convert into just another kind of digital media content used as bait to seduce users into paying for services provided by some of the most unethical organizations in existence.

    As such, I think there will always remain people who are committed to producing and consuming music outside the digital paradigm. Records & tapes will continue to be vital for the distribution of underground music. Even if only as a means to filter out the 'virtuals' from those with the commitment and authenticity to produce something more personal and tangible.

  • @bluegreengold: Yep, I'm glad I'm not the only one worried about that. But then, maybe that's why so far Rhapsody and Napster and (defunct) Yahoo Music haven't exactly taken the world by storm. Maybe there's something missing.

    The 1 billion dollar question is what happens when Apple enters the arena, but even then maybe you're hitting what is important to people.

  • Greg

    @ Peter.
    My point is that any digital situation *needs* a "page-turning solution."
    Why don't you just "turn a page" in a "book" or "turn over a sheet of paper"?

    Do a lot of other musicians read, much less perform from, the first drafts of your handwritten manuscripts, Peter? Do you send your timpanis and violas lilypad files? Really?