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How Does Classical Music Look?


Musical theory for beginners: the method of extravagant composer and musician Stephen Malinowski.

In the 1970s, American composer and pianist Stephen Malinowski had a hallucination: he saw a musical score manifested in colors, instead of symbols and notes. Inspired by this, he began to work in his Music Animation Machine which, in few words, opened wide the windows towards the visualization of classical music.

His interface, instead of using traditional notation, uses geometrical figures and colors to visualize sound, therefore lightening the complexities of a score by Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, for example, for those of us who aren’t fluent in the intricate language of musical notation.

When you’re watching an orchestral score there’s multiple instruments proceeding in parallel and you have to direct your attention around different places at different times to see where the action is—and then integrate that into one image of what the music is doing. […]So my idea was, let’s try and make a score that has all the information that a complicated score has, but in a simpler view.

In this video we see and hear brilliant Malinowski interpreting Debussy’s Clair de lune; undoubtedly one of the most outstanding examples in his collection. By watching it, one can even be moved by the color bars and “feel what they feel” when they light up —or think that each of the rectangular lamps are neuronal synapses that light up in our brain to the rhythm of the score, like tiny melodic light bulbs the same color as the animation.

If one closes one’s eyes intermittently throughout the video and lets oneself be taken by the same logic as the visualization —which is somewhat synesthetic—, one can perceive the placement of the bars and, perhaps intuitively, one can come to understand that it makes sense that Malinowski represents them exactly in this manner. His animation machine seems to operate with a familiar mechanism.

The composer explains that each block represents the sound of the piano, each type of pitch (C, middle C, D, middle D, etc.) has its own color, and the colors are chosen when they map the musician’s “circle of fifths”, with the artist’s “color wheel”. A more detailed explanation of the process is found on his website. But the Machine of Musical Animation spares us precisely of having to understand musical theory in order to follow a score as beautiful and complex as Debussy’s.

Music moves, and can be understood just by listening. But a conventional musical score stands still, and can be understood only after years of training. The Music Animation Machine bridges this gap, with a score that moves — and can be understood just by watching.

Thanks to this eccentric and diligent musician we have a whole new imaginary at hand to understand classical music. We can borrow his colored bar method to enchant our own listening experience.  Perhaps the capacity to join two senses, sight and hearing, in something as sublime as music, will momentarily illuminate our apparent darkness.


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