Thursday, June 16, 2011

Anybody remember DOS?

Does anybody remember DOS?

The computer I first interacted with looked like an electric typewriter. It was wired into a mainframe elsewhere. You typed in the commands (I was learning to program in BASIC), waited, and the results typed out magically in front of you. For me, it was pretty addictive stuff.

I remember writing a simple program to calculate how long it would take to cut the grass in my back yard. The program's result was correct within 30 seconds. Exciting stuff! It also made cutting my grass that time a lot more interesting.

Even though DOS was slower and more work, there was a joy of understanding in having the power to control that little machine in front of you.

Eventually, along came Macs, Windows, bulletin boards, html, Netscape, Firefox, Chrome, Facebook, Netflix, iPhones, android, iPads...
I wonder what names I'll need to add to that list in ten years.

Would anybody seriously suggest going back to DOS? (or punched cards before that?)

That brings me to my point (I usually have one): trombones have to deal with tenor and alto clef. I'm not ready to dump tenor, but alto? Have you ever played Prokofiev with some of the crazy changes between bass and alto clef...usually right in the middle of an exposed passage? Why doesn't somebody just re-write the parts to make them easier to read?

How about the offstage parts in Pine of Rome? Bass clef transposed?

Jumping over to French Horn and Trumpet: why do they continue to learn all those transpositions? They're not using tuning crooks anymore.

Or to really annoy everyone: Why are the musical instructions in a foreign language (just playing Devil's Advocate here)?

My point is this: in technology, even though we may feel proud about mastering the intricacies of an earlier system (such as DOS) we don't cling to it. Yet in music, we do. We don't move on, upgrade or innovate in the world of music notation. 50 years from now, trombonists will still be slogging through studies in alto clef. Hmm, why not learn mezzo soprano clef or baritone clef?

I can almost hear someone saying, "If I had to learn transposition, you're going to have to learn it as well. It builds character!!"

Is that person still entering commands
at the DOS prompt?

Post blog comments:
1. Actually, I think tenor clef is the most natural clef for tenor trombone. What if we just started beginners in tenor clef?

2. If music were a more profitable business, innovations would have appeared long ago. I suspect music publishers can't afford to rework all those transposed parts.


David Bobroff said...

Remember DOS? Sure I do, even though my first computer was a Mac PowerBook. Since then I've moved to a non-Mac computing environment (co$t$ le$$). I also keep my previous Intel-based hardware around to run a Linux distribution. Linux is an operating system that looks and acts like Unix. It has a windowing environment available but there is also the even-present command line interface (CLI) which looks (distressingly to some, I'm sure) a lot like a DOS prompt. Like a DOS prompt it can me far more powerful than the mouse. Even though a CLI can be far more powerful for the user than the graphical user interface (GUI) the latter has become very popular.

[NB For an entertaining read about computer OS's go here: ]

Who wants to go back to DOS? Who wants to go back to no indoor plumbing? Who wants to go back to chasing down dinner or going hungry? There are some atavistic souls who take pleasure in these activities. Lots of us like cook-outs, hunting/fishing and camping, too.

What does this have to do with clefs?!

Technology has been progressing at an ever increasing rate since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Regarding computers, Moore's Law is still in force. Computer power doubles every 18-24 months while the price drops to half. With all this computing power available we don't need no stinkin' DOS! But, what if you want to run some cool old program that only runs in DOS? Maybe you can fire up that old 386 clunker that's been gathering dust in the garage. Aside from that you could find yourself an emulator to run on your latest Intel-octo-core-Quadfloopium machine.

You still haven't said anything about clefs!!

A lot of music today is done with whiz-bang electronics. Reading music is not even a prerequisite for this. Think, "Paul McCartney."

As trombonists, however, we're deep in PONG emulation mode. This is particularly true for the orchestral types. Unless someone is going to "port" all those old "programs" to run on modern wetware we're stuck with DOS. The nice thing about wetware is that it's quite flexible and powerful (like the CLI).


David Bobroff said...

To respond to a few points:

Prokofiev (and Shostakovich, for that matter) trombone parts employ bizarre use of alto clef. The clefs are relics of the days when trombones came in a consort of sizes. I suspect that the odd use of alto clef in the scores of some Russian composers is due to lazy copyist work, or absent-mindedness on the part of the composer. I agree that tenor clef is the "natural" clef for a tenor trombone. This clef puts the core range of the instrument right on the staff plus a ledger line or two.

B-flat bass clef parts in Respighi? The tenor tuba parts for R. Strauß's "Ein Heldenleben" and "Don Quixote" are in B-flat bass clef (with a few passages in B-flat treble clef sounding a step rather than a ninth lower). There is also a part in C for "Heldenleben" but I've never seen a published part in C for "Don Quixote". I believe this is due to the parts having been written in anticipation of military bandsmen playing these parts and the military band parts were written in tranposing bass clef. Go figure. Recall that the parts in traditional British Brass Band music is all in treble clef except for the bass trombone.

Horn and trumpet parts in all different keys? Same story. Who's going to "port" those old DOS parts to a modern OS? Also, what orchestras are going to go out and buy new sets of parts? Most orchsetras blanch at paying the musicians a living wage.

"Why not learn mezzo soprano and baritone clef?" Indeed, why not? Take an etude book and play the studies in different clefs and octaves. This creates more connections in your brain and gives you etudes in different tessiture all for the price of one book. Such a deal!

Why are musical instructions in a "foreign" language? They aren't. At least they weren't for the composers who were writing them. Well, ok, Wagner and Mahler used Italian as well as German (their native tongue) and Berlioz used Italian as well. But then, Italian was the first language we know of that actually used words to give performance instructions to musicians. The Renaissance in Europe began in Italy and was followed by the rest of Europe. I guess they got first dibs on what language to use for music.

David Bobroff

john said...

Those playing in American idioms learn bass clef and treble, usually 8ba. Big bad lead would work much better in treble, alternating to bass for low notes. Maybe it's prettier to put C on a line than a space, but treble has won that battle, and sticking with tenor is like, well, DOS.

Were it not for copyright, scanning orchestral parts and transposing seems like it would be common.