Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Ragtime Music and "Crowdsourcing"

I have been searching on Ragtime music, and found this great web page with MIDI files for some of the big ragtime pieces from the turn of the century.

Ragtime is unique because it was first original contribution from American culture to the world of music, and in many ways represented the beginning of consumer pop culture. The advent of inexpensive parlor pianos at the turn of the century created a market for sheet music, and somewhat later the player piano created a market for piano rolls.

Ragtime served the needs of both markets well -- by incorporating rapidly shifting chromatic accompaniments, the need for a perfectly tuned piano was lessened (one of the big problems with the less-expensive mass-produced pianos of the day). At the same time, a musical genre whose primary complexity was in voicing, chord sequences, and interacting melodies (as opposed to the obligatory performance nuances of classical piano pieces) made a perfect candidate for encoding on the "digital" player piano roll.

Furthermore, ragtime as a fusion of classical European melodic invention with the heavy backbeat of African rhythm was the first real representation of black culture in the parlors of white America (and white Europe for that matter), paving the way for the advent of Jazz as the definitive original American musical genre.

The availability of free MIDI files of ragtime classics, with MIDI being the modern technology equivalent of player piano rolls, brings ragtime full-circle -- an inexpensive, populist form of entertainment.

The final link will be the advent of a ragtime generator -- a piece of software that, given a starting motif or chord sequence, can generate a full ragtime piece. The ragtime generator could also start with a piece and then modify it in particular ways. Then the social phenomenon of ragtime "trees" can really take hold -- I generate a piece that I e-mail to you, then you use your generator to modify the piece and forward it on to another in the musicological equivalent of a game of operator.

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