Genius Composition

How professor Tod Machover and a group of MIT scientists are creating the future of music.

By DAVID KUSHNER | Boston Magazine |

ON A WARM NIGHT IN BOSTON, music fans file into Symphony Hall to celebrate the 125th season of the Boston Pops. Conductor Keith Lockhart leads the audience into the past with selections from Brahms to Brubeck – a tribute to founding conductor Arthur Fiedler, who led the Pops from 1930 to 1979. Then Lockhart takes a surprising turn.

He starts innocently enough, with a sing-along of Beatles songs. Then, behind the orchestra, a 42-by-21-foot screen appears and shows an animated movie of the Fab Four. But it’s not a Yellow Submarine-era cartoon. It’s from a video game: The Beatles: Rock Band.

The game was, of course, developed by Harmonix, and the moment could easily be seen as the ultimate validation for the company – and for the ideals that guided its formation. Lockhart, for one, is pleased with the power of new music technologies to engage and empower new generations of listeners. "Anything that brings great music and great art forms to larger groups of people is worth exploring or experiencing," he says.

But the moment is also a conspicuous reminder of what some skeptics find off-putting about the direction music and technology are headed. "One of the problems in virtual reality is that the line is blurred between actually being able to do something and virtually being able to do something," says Lockhart, "and I find that a bit frightening." (As if to acknowledge this concern, this fall Harmonix will release a new version of Rock Band that allows players to perform more authentically on real six-stringed guitars.)

Machover believes the music – not the technology – is the message. And if this means alienating the purists who think that all these gadgets are somehow inauthentic next to a violin or cello, so be it. "What’s authentic is anything that allows an individual to communicate," he says.

He thinks the next 25 years will take music technology to a more intimate level. "We have just scratched the surface of how the expert-amateur boundary will be blurred with games like Guitar Hero. Over the next five years we will see an explosion of music created specifically to be mixed, mashed, and morphed by users, leading to personalized expression at an unprecedented level," Machover says. "Most profoundly, we are on the cusp of understanding much better why music affects us at all, how it modulates our emotions. This will lead to ‘personal music,’ fine-tuned to an individual’s neurology, experience, and mood. I can’t wait to hear that."

For Machover, the future of music is expression, not expertise. "Music is about conveying human emotion and ideas with other people," he says, "and it doesn’t matter if you play a wrong note."