Computers: Keying in to the digital music revolution: David Hewson on how to play Rachmaninov with orchestral backing in your own home

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The only computer I know which can honestly be described as 'fun' is 5ft long, has 88 black and white anonymous keys and bears a remarkable resemblance to a piano. There are even people out there, people like the Royal Academy of Music, who treat these things as if they were pianos, which is stretching it a bit. After all, what piano can talk to your computer and let you write a slapped bass line in one session, mimic Jimmy Smith on the Hammond organ in another, add in the drums and then play the lot back as a finished composition? What piano allows you to compose an entire symphony in C, realise, as the last crochet is crocheted that it would be better in A flat instead and then automatically transpose the notes of the entire thing into a new key in seconds?

We live in the era of digital music. It blasts at us from TV screens, the muzak monitors of shopping malls and the talentless pop stars who liberate the drum rhythm of a hundred quid Dixon's keyboard and propel themselves into the charts. As the worlds of computers and keyboards collide, much of the drudgery and tedium that chase people away from traditional music skills can be made to disappear.

Two things have revolutionised home music-making in the last five years. One is the arrival of digital pianos - traditional-looking instruments in which the sounds of real piano notes take the place of hammers hitting strings. The other is the spread of a common musical computer language - Midi, musical instrument digital interface - which covers a range of instruments and computers and, increasingly, is the basis of new music composition.

A good digital piano can - and I emphasise that word, since these things vary in quality and we vary in our expectations - sound and feel like the real thing; needs no expensive retuning; is unaffected by heat and minor changes in humidity; and may be played silently, through headphones. Hook it up to a personal computer through the built-in Midi interface and you walk into a world of astonishing musical possibilities.

Midi is a digital language for music, not a form of recording sound. Play an E flat gently on your piano and your computer will note what you have done, not what it sounds like. When you come to play it back, the sound is provided by whatever Midi instrument you have attached to your system.

So the Midi files are small enough to be handled by even modest computers and they are extraordinarily adaptable. You can play a line on the piano, watch the computer convert it automatically into musical notation, then play back the same notes as harpsichord, bagpipes, drums or whatever sounds you have on your system.

You can take a piece in some fiendishly difficult key such as D flat, transpose it into C on screen, print out the music, retune your digital piano so that C is now D flat on the keyboard then play the entire work in the easier format, but the right key. You can practise the piano part of a concerto to the backing of a real orchestra or take the lead in a genuine jazz trio.

These are tools designed to supplement human tuition and conventional musical instruments, not replace them. They are also tools which are gravely misunderstood by large sections of the conventional musical education community who view technology as the work of the devil. True, digital pianos will not replace a Steinway, but they are a lot better than the rugby club piano-smashing contest escapees who form the primary training fleet for too many of today's budding musicians.

If you have a computer and are thinking about buying a second-hand piano, you really should brave the prejudice of the die-hards and consider the electronic alternative instead.

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