Ever since seeing Fantasia as a boy, I’ve been fascinated by animated renderings of music. Poking around online today I found two very different animations of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #6. Both are complete mappings of the musical score onto a scrolling visual display, and so both express the same information. I can’t decide, though, which one I think does a better job of communicating visually the flow and interplay of the composition’s several voices.
The comparison is not ideal, because the first clip animates the concerto’s first movement, and the second one animates the third. Also, the first clip features a far better performance than the second, which is obviously the output of a computer playing a programmed version of the score.
Both animations use vertical position to indicate pitch, and scroll horizontally through the score so that the notes currently being played are always in the center of the screen. Both renderings also color-code the individual musical voices. And there the similarities end.
The first animation, which is graphically far more sophisticated, uses colored circles to represent each note, strung along lines that mark off the half-dozen or so separate voices. As each note is struck, it appears as a circle whose initial size indicates the duration of the note. Each circle shrinks at the same rate, so that it has just shrunk to zero by the time the next note is struck. The circles bubble up on the right side of the screen, have their moment in the sun, then rush off to the left — solid before they are struck, and hollow afterwards. The visual effect is lively and effervescent, and in particular the vertically stacked circles that mark off the quarter-note pulse throughout most of the piece have a beautifully propulsive effect. It’s a marvelous piece of work.
The second animation is far simpler, but clearer too: it’s a simple graphic representation of exactly the same sort that one might see on a MIDI display of the score. The notes are horizontal bars, with vertical position representing pitch, and horizontal extension representing duration. As each note plays, it is is highlighted, then goes dark again. That’s it! There’s none of the fancy eye-candy we had in the first clip: the expansion and contraction of the horizontal scale as the circles approach the center, the changing sizes of the circles to represent the lifespan of each note, the passage from solid to hollow circles as each note is played — but the eye is much better able to follow the representation of each note, and to connect the visual input with the music. As much as I admired the creative ingenuity of the first animation, I found the second to be more effective in bringing eye and ear together in a unitary experience.
Have a look. Which do you like better?
(Also: was Bach a genius, or what?)
Oh, and lest we forget: here’s another way of doing this sort of thing.