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Given that nowadays people can compose and play via a mobile phone or computer, what could or would some possible reasons for wanting to be able to play an instrument by hand be?

Can't you just try out your tunes via a computer interface and play them when you want?

Then what is the difference?

What is the advantage (of playing by hand)?

Thanks.

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    I don't see how this is getting so many answers or upvotes, really. It's just an argument from incredulity.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Aug 21, 2022 at 18:51
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    Well there is also the option of taking up the organ and playing with your feet. Let us not succumb to a false dilemma where only two horns are proposed when there exists a third option.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 14:54
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    Do you prefer to type on a real keyboard? Or an image of a keyboard on a touchscreen? Why? Is your goal to play? Or to listen?
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 15:17
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    I think the answer will also depend on your motivation. Are you a music producer who just wants to get the sounds of various instruments? Or do you want to actually be able to play the physical instrument? I'm also having a hard time understanding what you're asking in a way. Fwiw, the "famous" Seinfeld bass lines are all done on a keyboard. Does that make it any more/less appreciated?
    – BruceWayne
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 15:34
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    I’m voting to close this question because "list-type" questions should not be asked, as attested in the Help center Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 20:01

11 Answers 11

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What is the advantage (of playing by hand)?

Expression. How much space is between the first and second notes? How much space between the second and third? Which of those three notes is the loudest? Which is the softest? Is each note held at the same volume or do some of them crescendo or decrescendo or perhaps one and then the other? Is one note held a few milliseconds longer than the other two? Are they tuned slightly differently? All of these microscopic details and more are part of an expressive performance, and so far I'm only considering three notes.

This level of detail is not notated in sheet music, and applying it to a computerized performance is a painstaking process that goes far beyond "try out your tunes via a computer interface." It's a useful tool, but it's not going to yield a comparable result to a human musician without a lot of work.

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Can't you just try out your tunes via a computer interface and play them when you want?

Then what is the difference?

The difference is the same as that between playing NBA on the Playstation or XBox and playing real basketball on a basketball court with your friends and teammates.

The second requires the development of physical skills and deepens social connections, both of which give a great deal of pleasure and sense of achievement. The first can also give a sense of pleasure, albeit more onanistic in nature.

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    I'm not sure about the comparison. Playing a computer game requires developing physical skills, perhaps comparable to those needed to play an instrument. Commented Aug 21, 2022 at 16:39
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    Whenever I play piano, it's pretty much always at home and alone. No deepening any social connections there.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Aug 21, 2022 at 18:18
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    @Dekkadeci that's like doing sports such as cycling alone through the wild then. It's still much more than playing a video game of the same thing. Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 14:48
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    @user1079505 I do both and music is more strenuous and difficult, if less addicting
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 15:15
  • The analogy with sports games is interesting, because sports games aren't necessarily worse versions of the sports they're inspired by - they're different skills that have the potential to be just as deep and satisfying for different reasons. (Whether certain games reach that potential is arguable, but beside the point.) Similarly, writing music using a computer isn't a worse version of playing an instrument - it's a different activity that tests a different set of skills. Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 17:55
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There is a great difference between playing piano by hand and writing for piano on a computer (I do both). It's much easier to write down things on the computer but the recorded sound is different. Also there is tactile feedback when playing an instrument (at least on piano or clarinet or bass or accordion or organ) that does not occur when using a computer.

I tend to go back and forth between the computer and the piano. Feedback from piano to computer and vice versa is useful.

Mostly, it's sound and feel.

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  • "It's much easier to write down things on the computer": in what sense? Are you comparing the time required to put the piece into the computer against the time required to teach yourself to play it? In that case, this statement is probably not true for the most accomplished of pianists nor for less difficult piano pieces. Or do you mean something else?
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 11:37
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    My handwriting isn't that good. I tend to play things on the piano and sketch out the melody on manuscript or blank paper (and maybe a bass line) with a few chord symbols. However, then it's much easier to fill the actual chord patterns and expand the instrumentation with Finale or something similar (nothing for Android yet.)
    – ttw
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 15:08
  • Thanks, that makes sense. My handwriting stinks, but I don't do a lot of composition :-)
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 16:46
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There are three components:

  1. Ability for a computer to reproduce a sound of an instruments. This is done using virtual instrument, which developed a lot last years. It is certainly possible for a virtual instrument to sound like a real instrument – after all, most of them base on recordings of real instruments. What's still challenging is reproducing all nuances of articulation.

  2. The virtual instrument interface. Presently the most prevalent standard is MIDI. The most basic information is a note start, note end, and its velocity. This may or may not be sufficient. Consider e.g. a violin note, with changing bowing, dynamics, vibrato... in order to transmit information about articulation one can use additional MIDI information, like pitch bend or modulation wheel, aftertouch, or additional fake notes which instruct the virtual instrument to use different articulations. This varies from instrument to instrument and is often non-intuitive.

  3. The human interface. I think this is the most important part. You can input MIDI notes using a MIDI controller (e.g. a keyboard), or by typing them in a DAW or similar program. This is a quite different experience from playing a real instrument. A MIDI controller can certainly be learned, but it may have different capabilities from the instrument which sound you want to reproduce, resulting in different music. In turn, when programming the notes, you loose the immediacy of making music. You no longer actively respond to what you hear. Such process differs significantly from playing a music instrument.

Virtual instruments are widely used today. This depends a lot on the instrument and on the music style. For example in rock and metal recordings programmed drums are sometimes even preferred to a real drummer, due to consistent articulation and timing and easiness (read: low price) to make the recording. In turn jazz drums typically are recorded by the musicians, as the style requires use of subtle articulations and interaction between the musicians.

Virtual instruments are used successfully in music applications and music styles where the listener either doesn't pay to much attention to the details of the sound, or doesn't care if the sound of the original instrument is reproduced accurately. These areas are still changing as the technology evolves.

Since decades already there are many electronic instruments used which don't even attempt to reproduce accurately sound of any acoustic instruments. Synthesizers, electronic drums and more. There are whole music genres based on electronic sounds. You make this music either by programming, or by using a controller of your choice.

There are many ways to make music, and it's up to you to decide what you like. If I were to advise a new musician, I would tell them to try out many things, and decide based on their own experience.

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With modern technology, it's pretty easy to just type some words on your phone and have a computer voice read them. Given that, why do people still speak words using their mouths? What's the advantage?

The answer, of course, is that for most people, speaking is much faster and easier than typing words and having a computer voice read them. If I have something I want to say, I can just say it without having to type it.

Of course, a lot of people have disabilities that make it difficult or impossible to speak, so for those people, assistive devices and software can be very useful.

The same goes for musical instruments. If I'm a skilled pianist, then playing the piano is much faster and easier than entering notes into a computer program and having the program play them. If I have something I want to play, I can just play it without having to enter it into a program.

Granted, most people are not skilled pianists. But playing the piano fluently is a skill that can be learned.

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    Good analogy, but I'd say that's not the reason people speak. I can type faster than I can speak (on a good keyboard), but I still dislike texting people. Because speech carries more than text, and in particular the being-together-and-talking bit is a whole extra dimension that text can't capture at all. Similar with music. Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 14:44
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Playing with others won't be the same - although Zoom et al may negate that. And I wouldn't want to be taking my computer to a party/gathering or suchlike. Just like I wouldn't drag a keyboard along..!

I guess the future may well incorporate that sort of playing, but thankfully it's a fair way off (for me at least) right now!

Interesting concept (+1), and certainly futuristic, but how would one actually go about playing live n such a way?

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    People are already running virtual instruments on tablets and cell phones, and portable MIDI controllers are a thing too
    – ojs
    Commented Aug 21, 2022 at 16:37
  • @ojs - I tend to let things run for a while before I jump onto any bandwagon. Still using Minidiscs! Basically so that wrinkles can be ironed out, and it's 'safe' to get on board. Not quite Luddite, but getting there!
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 21, 2022 at 16:43
  • I know. But just because you don't like something doesn't mean that others can't enjoy it.
    – ojs
    Commented Aug 21, 2022 at 17:23
  • @ojs - I haven't said they mustn't enjoy it, or shouldn't enjoy it. Each to their own.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 21, 2022 at 18:14
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The answer could be your listening preferences. If you prefer listening to midi instruments than live recordings in great studios, such as Air Studios in the UK then there wouldn't be any reason for you to practise instruments 'by hand'. From a technical perspective, the virtual instruments are not good enough creating overtones. When you hit a note, let's say on the piano, the piano creates side tones which are called overtones. Dynamics are another reason, computers are not good enough on dynamics. Again, it's all about your listening preferences. Nowadays, composers write both for computers and human players. I myself love and fond of virtual instruments including virtual pianos and virtual guitars and stuff but I don't think they can be a substitution. On the other hand, there are virtual instruments which are originally virtual. I mean, if you navigate to the native instruments or spitfire web page you can see many 'totally' virtual instruments.

I think you will enjoy reading this

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    Thank you for your answer. I do not understand overtones. The ones you mention, how do they work, or, how are they generated? Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 1:34
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    @ojs "virtual instruments are not good enough creating overtones" is a fair statement, although some might debate it (the most advanced virtual instruments are pretty close to the real thing; for example, state of the art digital pianos now model sympathetic vibration).
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 11:43
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    @phoog Yes, there's a great improvement. But I prefer the old style, these new digital pianos doesn't satisfy me as the real, even cheaper ones. Btw, which piano sound library do you suggest ?
    – user88063
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 12:27
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    @orhantorun I use digital instruments very infrequently and too casually to be a connoisseur of sound libraries. I agree that real instruments are better :-) I've just noticed that the degree of deficiency in synthesized music that seeks to emulate acoustic music has decreased in the last several decades.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 12:31
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    @orhantorun I know perfectly well what an overtone series is. The thing is that reproducing the overtones isn't difficult but also just reproducing them doesn't sound anything like the real instrument. This is why I suspected that you used the word to mean something different (like the sympathetic vibration mentioned in comment above).
    – ojs
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 18:13
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Let me ask you the inverted question: while I'm playing the piano, or playing soccer or ..., somebody tells me "I can do better than you" and he pushes some buttons.
... and indeed: what comes out of the button-machine indeed sounds better than what I produce, using my bare hands, so what?

You are 100% dependent of a machine you have absolutely no control of.
In top of that, there is no pride in pushing some buttons.

I'll will feel proud for what I can do, and you will feel even more proud for doing less and producing more (or better), and both of us will go separate ways.

Several years later we meet again, and what has happened? The machine producers have heavily increased their prices (the prices of the machines themselves, the prices of the usage, ...) and you will be poor!
I, however, still am enjoying my musical instrument, I'm still enjoying my soccer ball and I have even improved my skills, playing the piano and playing at soccer, and I will be rich!

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  • One is also less fun if your goal is to play, not just listen.
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 15:31
  • Why do you think computers are not a race to the bottom market like ... computers?
    – ojs
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 16:04
  • Very few folk become rich playing either piano or football.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 7:25
  • @Tim: although I used the word "poor" in a financial context, the word "rich" might have a financial one, but in my case it's more like a personal one: you have no idea how rich I feel when I create beauty at my piano! :-)
    – Dominique
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 7:30
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All good points above, but I feel the most important was left out. The difference is that playing music FEELS GOOD. Your body, mind, and instrument become one thing happening in real time. And this is what people perceive during a live performance that no amount of synthesis can achieve. Live music evokes JOY in the performer and audience. It's ephemeral, here in the moment and then gone forever. Digital composure and playback is certainly fun too, but not the same. Not to be overly graphic, but it's a bit like the difference between making love to your spouse or creating a sex scene using Blender or Unity.

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Most of the answers here focus on the result, but there is also the process aspect.

Playing an instrument can be deeply meditative, even if you do not play well enough to perform. It is a reason enough by itself, being therapeutic for body and mind.

A bonus side effect is when you get into the flow of playing, you get a lot of interesting ideas right at your fingertips. While not a complete substitute for methodical composing, this is definitely a great way to compose.

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This question is pointless, but I'll provide a wonderful (IMNSHO) counterexample:

Ludwig vanB composed orchestral work just fine without any sonic input of any kind.

Res Ipsa Loquitur
(Yes, I like HST's books)

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