Just like people, computers are capable of speaking to each other in different languages. MIDI (short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is one of those languages. …and, like all languages, MIDI has a number of different variations. Luckily, two organizations (including such famous operating system developers as Microsoft and Apple as well as famous music companies like Gibson, Roland and Yamaha) got together in the early 90s and agreed upon a “generalized” MIDI standard. “General MIDI” as it became known, allowed instruments made by different manufacturers to communicate with each other for the very first time. Thanks to General MIDI (now in its second generation as “General MIDI 2”), keyboards could speak to computers, rack-mounted control units could speak with guitars and musicians could easily translate their performances into printed score. It’s not an overstatement to say that General MIDI revolutionized the global music industry. …but to understand how, we first have to understand what MIDI is.
MIDI Isn’t Audio
In short, MIDI is “word processing” for music. Consider the following analogy: You live across town, but you want to say “Hello” to me. So, using our common language, you type “Hello” in an email and send it to me. I open my email and hold my ear up to it. It doesn’t make any sound. …but if I read it, interpret our common language and use my internal voice to say say “Hello,” I can hear what you wrote! MIDI works the same way. The first “MIDI device” is you. The second is me. The MIDI file is the email. It doesn’t contain sound (just like the email didn’t), but it does contain the necessary instructions for me to make the sounds you intended. My voice and yours won’t sound exactly the same, but it will be very close – and I can choose to speed up, slow down or raise/lower the pitch of my voice if I so choose.
What General MIDI Does
In short, General MIDI allows certain electronic devices to communicate with each other. Here are a few of the benefits:
- It helps your computer play music.
- It allows performers to use one instrument to control a whole bunch of other instruments.
- It lets musicians create fantastic layered musical textures.
- It gives players the freedom to edit music and print out the notation.
- It gives players the freedom to mute some parts and play along with others.
- It allows software to communicate with musical instruments for interactive learning.
- It allows software to engage select songs at precise moments in a program or video game.
Commonly used in video games, computer programs and digital music instruments, General MIDI is a powerful and flexible language that helps musicians create, edit and enjoy music. You’ve probably been using MIDI for years without knowing it. Modern digital pianos, especially, use General MIDI as their core communication language – allowing them to play songs created by print music publishers (like Faber, Hal-Leonard, Alfred, FJH, Bastien and more); to record performances for later editing or audio conversion; or even to control features within the piano at key moments during a song. The sky’s the limit!
Thanks to modern wireless technologies (like Bluetooth), MIDI is gaining further popularity among musicians. With Bluetooth MIDI, musicians can control their instruments in real-time using an iPad, smart phone or other mobile device. This frees teachers up to walk the room and interact with students while they practice a song. It makes recording a song and emailing it to your teacher for evaluation quick and easy. It even makes changing sounds, playing songs or operating the metronome on your piano possible from anywhere in the room! Bluetooth MIDI is once again revolutionizing the music industry by connecting musicians to a universe of music apps. …and it’s no surprise that Roland digital pianos (one of the companies who helped create General MIDI in the first place) was among the first to adopt this powerful wireless technology for use in all their current digital pianos.
Thanks to modern versions of General MIDI and Bluetooth MIDI, we have more teaching tools and entertainment features on our pianos than ever before. Get to know MIDI a little bit more and you might find yourself lost in a musical universe of your own making!