For centuries, musicians and philosophers have wondered about the secret power of music. Why does it make us feel so many different kinds of emotions? Some believed that songs drew their power from a metaphysical source. Others thought that melodies imitated nature, like patterns in a bird song.
None of these great thinkers realized that one day, in the near distant future, some of the world's most popular music would be composed from 2D unicorns and politically incorrect frog memes. Thanks to the experimental music theory channels hosted by youtube creatives like Andrew Huang, music memes are rapidly evolving in an interesting new direction.
That's right, we're talking about the wonderful world of MIDI art. Here's a quick overview of what we cover in this article:
What is MIDI Art?
MIDI art can be broadly defined as any visual art created in the piano roll of a Digital Audio Workstation, displayed to the listener for their amusement. Not all MIDI art sounds good, but it usually expresses a visual concept. Musical cryptograms may be the one exception to this rule, as they artfully encode non-visual meaning into MIDI.
The emergence of MIDI art owes its success in large part to video content on Youtube and other social media channels. Content creators have carved out a niche that is quickly evolving. Songs that may be mediocre on their own are elevated to new heights as the viewer realizes that the sounds they're hearing are the direct result of the 2-D art they are seeing.
The viral nature of these videos are undeniable. The MIDI solar system above has broken the threshold of 1.5M views. This musical map of Europe has over 5m views. Why are these memes so popular and is there any historical precedent for them?
Where did MIDI Art come from?
MIDI art as we know it today is a playful misuse of music composition software. It's not a religious concept by any stretch of the imagination. But historically speaking, you could argue that it exists as part of a timeline dating back several centuries, to the illuminated manuscripts of the church.
Artists of antiquity were sometimes commissioned to bring sheet music to life with biblical images and divine ornamentation. These religious songbooks were considered sacred. Churchgoers would enjoy the music without ever laying eyes on the secret imagery. You might say that this lent the music a kind of invisible power.
The tradition of combining sheet music with imagery has continued into the modern era, mostly in secular neoclassical circles. Musicians and artists merged as they let their imagination roam free, transforming musical staves into a world of wonder. Religion is no longer a pre-condition for combining art and music. The notes themselves double as visual objects and melodic symbols.
So when exactly did these playful transformations of sheet music evolve into the MIDI art and music memes that we know today?
Let's keep this brief so you don't fall asleep on me.
The history of MIDI editor technology goes back about 40 years, when visionary Dave Smith conceived of a digital interface for synthesizers. The idea was to create a common language between MIDI keyboards like the Roland JP-6 synthesizer and Sequential Circuits Prophet 600. These were the foundation of midi controllers as we know them today.
As MIDI moved from synthesizer hardware to digital audio workstations, there was an emerging need for graphic representations of music notes. Conventional sheet music, popularized by classical music, had less practical utility in the digital world.
Music theory concepts like key signature and complex rhythmic notation were a barrier to entry for musicians who could play but didn't know how to read sheet music. The piano roll was a faster MIDI editor tool, more accessible way for novice musicians to review and modify their MIDI recordings.
Assigning Pitch Colors in the MIDI Piano Roll
The introduction of MIDI pitch color was a major innovation in DAWs like Logic Pro X and Fruity Loops. Originally this feature was designed to help musicians spot different pitches at a glance. Some piano rolls allow you to assign colors to individual notes, rather than forcing a pitch to always correlate to a specific color.
In a way, these color codes signify the ongoing departure from traditional music theory. But they're also connected to a multi-decade process of gamifying music performance through the correlation of notes with colors. We saw this in early titles like Guitar Hero and later in music-training software like Synthesia.
If you want to change the MIDI note color in your DAW, we've compiled a list of tutorials here for some of the major workstations.
Logic Pro - Change Note Color
Fruity Loops - Note Colors
Reaper - Note Colors
Cubase - Coloring Notes
Studio One - Colorize MIDI notes
Don't have a DAW? Beginners can use this online MIDI sequencer to practice making pixel art in a piano roll, right in your browser.
Meme lords quickly seized the opportunity to transform this composer aid into a funny and subversive medium for sonified pixel art. If people were already toying with the idea of turning midi shapes into art, pitch colors elevated their trolling to a whole new level.
MIDI Drawings That Actually Sound Good
Early MIDI art began as a novelty that could stand on its own, even if the final product sounded bad. Over time, as the concept became familiar, the bar was set higher. People want to see live MIDI art that actually sounds good. One of the most popular creators in this scene, Glasys, uses MIDI controllers to make pictures before your very eyes.
Glasys is a prolific live MIDI artist on youtube, with an entire Live MIDI art playlist dedicated to the art form. He's not the only one shocking the world with his MIDI keyboard performances. Musical savant Jacob Collier released a similar performance for New Years 2021. As talented artists swarm into this niche, the quality of the drawings will only improve.
Some of the best MIDI art can't be performed live, due to its visual complexity. A great example of this can found in the scrolling MIDI drawings that take listeners on a linear journey. Through simple visual storytelling, a composer can connect MIDI images to coherent musical structures.
Unlike the Boba Fett pixel art, listeners have to watch the full video to hear a scrolling MIDI drawing. When these songs sound good, it's strangely sastisfying. You find yourself on the edge of your seat, wondering what the next set of pictures might sound like.
MIDI pixel artist Mari Lesteberg has assembled one of the most popular youtube playlist for these scrolling animations, with over 1.5M views across all of the content. Another popular example is this Master Sword animation that turns a classic Zelda theme into an iconic image from the series. The ability to recreate existing chord progressions as pixel art is an impressive feat.
Virtual Reality and the Future of MIDI Art
So have we reached the end of the road for MIDI art or is this just the beginning? There are plenty of indications that music and visual art are going to reach new heights as they evolve from 2D linear modalities to 4D virtual realms.
Immersive VR games like Virtuoso for Meta Quest let players create music through interactions with virtual objects. In a way, the VR headset and controllers are going to be turned into their own kind of musical instrument. Will live MIDI art make its way into this new medium?
Virtuoso is only one of many virtual reality music making experiences available. LyraVR similarly lets musicians compose original tracks through interactive objects, as shown below. The barrier to entry is low, similar to the way primitive objects are used to construct entire worlds in Minecraft.
It's only a matter of time before Digital Audio Workstations cross over from flat desktop interfaces to immersive virtual ones. As streaming platforms like youtube grow in popularity, the temptation to create worlds of sound will emerge again. History has a way of repeating itself through time, in new and creative ways.