MIDI Classics files can be shown with individual voices on separate lines.
Most guitarists know the frustration of looking at the sheet music
of an unfamiliar tune and wondering what it will sound like.
Will it be hard to play? Will it sound good? Will it be worth
the time it will take to learn it?
As a beginning classical guitarist, Phil Sabatine found himself
staring at a lot of music he'd never heard. Few student level pieces
ever get recorded, and those that do generally reflect the performer's
interpretation, ability, and taste. Sabatine wanted to hear
"plain vanilla" performances: nothing more than what was on the printed page.
Sabatine decided to use MIDI software and his personal computer
to turn written notes into sound. MIDI is a specialized computer language
used for writing music. At its most basic level, it defines each note as pitch,
duration, and volume. A string of notes can be put together to form a track,
and one or more tracks can be combined to make anything from a simple melody
to a full symphony. Once a piece of music has been stored in the form
of a MIDI file, it can be played back or edited with a wide array
of MIDI software or hardware.
A former student of Frederick Noad, Sabatine began by transcribing
Noad's collections of early music for the guitar, The Renaissance Guitar
and The Baroque Guitar, into MIDI files.
He went on to translate a number of standard pieces for beginning to
intermediate classical guitarists, including studies by Sor, Carcassi, Coste, Aguado, and Giuliani.
For more ambitious players, Sabatine transcribed all of Bach's music for lute,
and virtuoso works by Albéniz, Tárrega, and De Visee.
These transcriptions are now available through Sabatine's mail-order company,
MIDI Classics. Copyright issues have kept Sabatine from transcribing
much contemporary music, but he does offer MIDI versions of a number
of Beatles songs transcribed and arranged by Joe Washington or Eric Schoenberg,
as well as some guitar blockbusters, including Mason Williams' "Classical Gas,"
Jorma Kaukonen's "Embryonic Journey," and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."
To use MIDI Classics files, you'll need a multimedia computer; a dedicated
sequencer/synthesizer; or a sound module, computer (either PC or Mac),
and MIDI interface.
As with anything involving personal computers, the promise of "plug and play"
isn't always fulfilled. Each brand of MIDI software has its own built-in
assumptions about how MIDI files should be handled. These assumptions affect
the way a given piece of MIDI software or hardware will translate a "generic"
MIDI file into its own proprietary format.
I opened up some MIDI Classics files with four different brands of MIDI software
for the Mac (Finale 2.6.1, Concertware Pro 1.5, EZVision 1.0, and MusicTime 2.0)
and got slightly different results each time. MusicTime and Finale were able
to capture all the details contained in the files on the first try.
The older programs needed to be fussed with a little. Generally speaking,
the newer the software or hardware, the fewer problems there are.
Like many MIDI files, MIDI Classics files have trouble capturing the subtleties
of rhythmic feel. This is because they're based on notation rather than performance.
In standard notation, all quarter notes are equal. In performance, a guitarist
may play a note a little before or after the beat to make it swing. A "straight"
version of a piece of music that's meant to swing, such as a Chet Atkins solo,
will always sound a little stiff.
What can you do with a MIDI file? Sabatine's original idea was simply to provide
a way of hearing a piece before you decide to learn it. Noad sees MIDI files
primarily as a learning tool. "They're more valuable than an artistic performance
because you can slow a piece down to a snail's pace and learn it inch by inch,"
he says. My own students confirmed MIDI Classics' value as a learning tool.
After a particularly tricky lesson working on "Classical Gas," they could appreciate
being able to hear the music, or just a section of it, played over and over again
at any tempo they chose.
Those considering using MIDI Classics files to learn new tunes will probably
still have to buy the sheet music. Standard guitar music is written on
the treble clef an octave higher than it sounds. MIDI Classics files appear
on screen at pitch and often in the bass clef. Individual voices in a piece
will often be shown on separate lines. It takes some fussing to translate
a MIDI Classics file into standard notation.
Since MIDI files are just musical data, you can do a lot more with them
than just listen to a piece over and over again. Most music software will let you
edit music. You can change note values or pitches, change tempos, extract parts,
transpose the music into a new key, or change the instrumentation. Using advanced
notation programs such as Finale and Encore, you can, with a little patience,
create a score in standard notation and then translate it into tablature.
If a file calls for more than one guitar, or a guitar plus other instruments,
you can play one part while your computer accompanies you.
MIDI Classics are a good supplement to records, sheet music, videos, and other
learning methods. In letting users hear a piece as slowly as they want
and as many times as they need, MIDI files take advantage of computers'
greatest virtue as a learning tool: patience that exceeds that of even
the most saintly teacher.
December 1995 ACOUSTIC GUITAR
This article originally appeared in Acoustic Guitar December 1995 pp. 77-79.
We only added emphasis, changed the address to our new PO Box,
and added links to our pages.
Copyright © 1995, Stephen Dick. Reprinted by permission. Revised 8/16/2011