Interfacing with Music in the Digital Age
The following focuses upon Apple's iTunes application as a reasonably representative example of the visual impoverishment presented by mainstream digital music interfaces.
- Lack of the visual - this is the biggest complaint. Poorly addressed
by providing a little window for covers. Once one has more than, say,
15 titles, itÍs difficult to differentiate between each one. I find myself
never choosing certain albums because my eye isn't caught by its title.
This is different from scanning cd shelves, seeing colours, typefaces
and layout. My almost desperate attempt to deal with this is to insert
dividers between title and artist in the Source pane e.g.
Harold Budd |´|´| Luxa
Jazzland =´= Atomic, Boom Boom
Skyphone ´+´ Fabula Terje Isungset \•/ Iceman Is Tim Wright )•( Thirst
- Our experience of music and books is synaesthetically mediated by cover design, layout, typeface, etc. iTunes and its equivalents are organisational tools not presentation tools. Did a music lover design iTunes? iTunes standardises the experience of the music it organises, in so doing it sucks out the vitality from the transaction, enforcing a form of clinical vampirism which leaves only a pale and dessicated corpse for the eye to behold.
- iTunes doesn't display the musicians or the producers or the graphic artists or the label, etc, etc. You can add details in the notes section, but it's not a useable solution as the interface makes the information difficult to view. This is particularly inappropriate for jazz and classical musics, but also for many other genres where there's a reliance upon recognition of players and associated producers etc which serve as guides to discover new music. The same applies for great visual design which is an important part of the purchasing decision for many. The AllMusicGuide is a poor substitute for the direct access to information provided by an album cover.
Neither of these applications really addresses the issues raised here, but they're more fun than iTunes...
- Clutter which does just that Æ allows you to display your albums almost literally as a mess of covers spread across your desktop - fun, though not a useable interface for more than say 30 albums
- MP3Voodoo Æ similar idea, more orderly, better thought out. Allows for back as well as front covers. More adaptable display of information than iTunes. Kiosk mode. Downsides - a lot of scrolling necessary, small graphics, etc. (Not too sure when it was last updated.)
One way forward is to adopt the practice of the real world cd/vinyl interface at the same time as exploiting the multimedia power of modern day computers e.g.
- cd spines display in mp3 player allowing for different colours, fonts, the whole shebang - displayed across the whole screen not just in a single column. Albums able to be organised by drag and drop however you want - alphabetical, genre, colour, random, etc. Database allows linking to spine graphic files as well as front covers.
- Selecting an album displays a large image of the album's front cover
together with hotspots/links to:
- View further parts of the cover. Able optionally to display graphics, textual information in still or animated format full screen. Also able to display graphics as slideshow displayed on a separate screen or projected while playing music
- Able to play the music via a standalone player from, say, the desktop if desired (provided the choice is not tied to a standardising interface)
- Possible to link to multimedia functionality such as videos displayed
full screen, narratives, textual content. The intent here is clearly
to focus upon the potential to develop truly imaginative elements
- such as the texts and graphics for Toop and Eastley's Buried Dreams, Glenn O'Brien's texts for Jon Hassell's City: Works of Fiction or Drexciya's (breathtaking) notes for The Quest, and design
- just think what Hypgnosis would have done with the possibilities of multimedia... imagine Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti cover with its brownstone windows animated as miniature narrative or abstract movies or the turning disc on Zep's third album for example. If less entranced by 1970s heavy rock then imagine Kim Hiorthoy's slideshow for 2003's Midnight Sun concerts (reproduced in Money Will Ruin Everthing) playing on your tv screen or blank wall while you listen to Food's Veggie, or Jon Wozencroft's images as you listen to Biosphere's Substrata etc, etc.
Much of this multimedia functionality is already provided via the iTunes Music Store and various media delivery technologies, but a) the former is entirely in the service of shifting product, not providing a platform for imaginative exploration of the potential of music, and b) the latter isn't integrated into any form of standardised delivery. The bottom line is that it should always be possible to choose to listen to the music without having to navigate anything more than the standard cd controls, while having the option to explore imaginitive interfaces if the listener so wishes.
On thinking about these ideas I made the rather obvious connection to the development of website interfaces and from there to the couple of designs I've undertaken, in particular the Jon Hassell demo and the website for Lob (the latter only functional in IE5+). In particular with Lob the desire was to explore the potential for storytelling and interpretation created by the group's music.Clearly, there's an increasing standardisation in website interfaces (actively encouraged by the likes of Jakob Nielsen) with which I've little problem. But something like an extended interface for music could be a fruitful area of exploration for all those web designers whose work might be curtailed by such online standardisation - there's much greater potential for creative exploration while listening to music than when searching for specific items of information for work, etc. The enlarged interface for music might initially be considered comparable to film DVD interfaces except that:
- unlike music, narrative film requires ongoing attention lest one miss important details relating to plot, etc
- most film is not directly interactive
- the vast majority of dvd interfaces and the content they provide are unimaginative, verging on banal - the only exceptions I've encountered are Wim Wender's outtakes/commentary for the dvd edition of Wings of Desire and arguably the accompanying materials/interface for Final Fantasy, The Spirits Within.
From the little I've seen of music DVDs they seem to singularly fail to explore the metadata potential of their content either. Herbie Hancock's Future2Future sounds interesting (multiple angles of concert footage), but I haven't had an opportunity to view it. The Farmers Manual DVD on Mego was marvellously perverse (can't play the music on dvd players, you have to copy the mp3 files onto a computer first).
Multimedia interfaces to music were last a popular subject when cd-roms appeared to be the future of interaction (Peter Gabriel - Secret World 1997 and Laurie Anderson - Puppet Motel c. 1995 being a couple of prime examples). The problem with these was their focus - what the listener is most interested in is the music: provide the music in an easy to use way (insert and press play), but then feel free to provide visual/textual materials to optionally interact with while listening. This is where record companies could fruitfully combat the mp3 threat (which is of course not a threat at all, but that's another issue widely discussed elsewhere). Even further back, some vinyl releases included ZX Spectrum programmes coded sonically into the grooves. More details here.
Creative music websites developed to explore the potential of extended narrative - in terms of visual, textual and multimedia - could be delivered right now although at present music artist websites seem generally only to function as warehouses designed to store and deliver a group's news/latest releases/discography, etc. There may be greater long-term potential in the dvd interface although there is no standardisation in this area. It would be an interesting project to explore. The underlying rule should always be to provide access to music on an album without interference or annoyance (same as Jakob Nielson's desire to facilitate pain-free accessing of online information), but also offer up the opportunity to explore multimedia content which extends the experience of that music (Drexciya/Toop & Eastley/Glen O'Brien & Hassell) in parallel to listening to the music. The development of some convincing examples in this area may at least initiate debate and with luck act as catalyst to begin to turn the tide on the visually arid desert of computer-facilitated music.