In recent years, countless smartphone and tablet apps have appeared in the “Music” category. Together with radio and music playing apps, a part of these offerings are apps with which users can transform their mobile device into a musical instrument.

Thomas Hampson using a tablet for his concert in the Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin © Peter Adamik | Pierre Boulez Saal
Thomas Hampson using a tablet for his concert in the Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin
© Peter Adamik | Pierre Boulez Saal

More and more musicians are experimenting with apps of this sort. For a long time, tuners and metronomes have been part of the daily life of both amateur and professional musicians. These are frequently joined by a tablet, mounted on a music stand, showing the printed score. To these, rhythm and sound apps have been added with which the palette of sounds from a conventional instrument can be expanded, using a wide variety of electronic elements: these sounds are especially loved by the young. Music apps give children and young people the opportunity to actively make music together without the need to clock in long years of practice. The resulting digital zoo of instruments creates enormous potential for collaborative music-making, which may well then stimulate them to learn a musical instruments. But also, the music apps take children and young people away from their everyday life and onto the stage, including the ability to speak to sections of the community often ignored by those traditionally responsible for concerts. The Credo of all these developments is that smartphones should not be banned from cultural activities but should be made a part of them.

Matthias Krebs, head of the music app department in the research department of the Universität der Künste Berlin (Berlin Career College), had this to say in a German language interview with CCB Magazine: “I observe the way in which digital and traditional instruments complement each other in every conceivable type of music-related projects, whether on the the concert platform, in the theatre, in the rehearsal room or in education; they are increasingly used in conjunction with each other. He is therefore enthusiastic about the future: “Ten years from now, hybrid approaches (traditional musical instruments being combined with music apps) will be established in all fields of musical practice; one result of this is that the hard boundaries between different musical cultures will soften.” For nine years now, the DigiEnsemble Berlin, founded by Krebs, had been performing successfully at congresses, award ceremonies and even in concert halls: they play classical works only on tablets and smartphones.

It’s not just musicians for whom the technological future promises a broadening of possibilities: there are also benefits for audience members. With an app created by Dutch Jazz trio Tin Man and the Telephone, the audience can directly influence the course of the concert by voting together on what should be the mood and tempo of the music that’s about to be played.

Similar experiments have been happening in concerts of classical chamber music, in which the audience are given a choice between a selection of prepared works. With the help of an app on mobile phones which are now ubiquitous, it’s possible for a substantially larger audience to vote on the way a concert proceeds. In our modern society, in which the individuals of responsible adults are more and more taken into consideration, it’s a logical development.

Another possibility that’s opened up by apps has already seen widespread use in museums. There, visitors can download a digital guide which enables them to hear about each item on display, in their own time. A similar concept has been tried out in the concert hall by the Philadelphia Orchestra, who developed an app in 2014 entitled LiveNote. Disappointingly, it’s only available in North America: with this app, concertgoers can inform themselves about the background of the works being played while the concert is taking place, simultaneously learning about the objective of the work being played and accessing written programme notes about selected passages. This satisfies the thirst for knowledge of many concertgoers, who can now hear relevant background information about the music at exactly the time that it is being played. However, the design of this app does not include functionality to reduce the light coming from the phone’s display, and the information does not automatically appear on the screen, its use is only permitted in specific areas of the hall (the Balcony) so it won’t disturb your neighbour.

A similar app, developed by Johan Idema and named Wolfgang, is also available in Europe. In the Netherlands and Belgium, this concert guide app has been in use for three season by an increasing number of promoters, festivals and some symphonic orchestras within their concert halls. This app has been downloaded some 20,000 times; it works with reduced display light so that once can read programme notes without disturbing one’s neighbours with noisy turning of pages.

In their current season, the Munich Symphony Orchestra are the first in Germany to deploy the app. SInce October 2018, in selected subscription concerts, they have been offering programme notes for one of the works, synchronised with Wolfgang. The reaction of the audience has been highly favourable, especially from older listeners, because the phone screen is not continually lit up, and the texts are notable for their brevity and relevance. Even an experienced concertgoer can find things to interest them in Wolfgang, which can make a well known repertoire piece sound new. There’s a touch of neurobiology going on here: a musical instrument which has been specifically brought to one’s attention is likely to be heard more clearly.

A few years ago, the Concertgebouw Orchestra helped to develop some of the necessary technology, with the help of an EU-funded project by the name of Phenicx. A prototype was demonstrated successfully in March 2016 in Barcelona, showing that it was possible to read a musical score live while the music was being played, thus gaining a clearer understanding of the musical structure. Sadly, the project is no longer currently being worked on: the likelihood of this kind of app turning into a distraction was considered too great by those responsible. However, part of the technology developed for Phenicx was used in a follow-up project named Trompa, which seeks to open up the full treasures of historic European musical material available to music lovers and professionals.

Translated into English by David Karlin.