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Interfacing with Music in the Digital Age

The iTunes interface
More interesting interfaces
Suggestions for a better digital interface
Potential of multimedia for narrative extension

Potted History of Multimedia Interface Extension

The iTunes Interface

The following focuses upon Apple's iTunes application as a reasonably representative example of the visual impoverishment presented by mainstream digital music interfaces.

More interesting interfaces than iTunes

Neither of these applications really addresses the issues raised here, but they're more fun than iTunes...

Suggestions for a better digital interface

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.

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.

Potential of Multimedia for Narrative Extension

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:

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).

Potted History of Multimedia Interface Extension

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.

Colin Buttimer
February 2004
Published by Me