LCD Sound - MIDI Tutorial

A Short MIDI Tutorial.


MIDI is an acronym; (a word formed from the initial letters of other words); which stands for 'Musical Instrument Digital Interface'. It is an industry-standard protocol that enables electronic musical instruments and computers to 'talk' to each other. MIDI devices do not transmit an analog audio signal: they send digital data to each other, messages about the pitch and intensity of the note, (how loud the note is),- and in more recent years-, vibrato and other signals. Nowadays, MIDI meta information even stores song lyrics, and other notation information! As an electronic protocol, it is notable for its widespread adoption throughout the music industry. MIDI protocol was first defined in 1982, and is now standard throughout the music industry.

All MIDI-compatible devices (and software) must follow the same specification, in order to communicate effectively with each other. Even so, there are other implementations by some manufacturers with device-specific features. Currently, MIDI 1.0, and General MIDI, or GM, is the standard. Remember- MIDI stores music as instructions; not as actual analog audio, so a MIDI file is quite a lot smaller than the usual analog version of the music.

Who uses MIDI? Not just musicians!

You may be suprised to know that MIDI is employed in many cell phones! It's also standard fare in most personal computers. MIDI can be used to control stage lighting, and special effects at a concert or a theater. There are MIDI equipped electric guitars, and I've seen large church organs that are equipped with MIDI. This lets musicians play their own performances over- even on someone else's instrument. Or perhaps you could save that perfect guitar performance to savor again and again. MIDI can also be used for training perposes, it can help you learn to play a MIDI keyboard, for example. And it can judge how well you have learned your lessons! Another use for MIDI is recording the music (even a large orchestra) that becomes a movie soundtrack. MIDI makes it easy to change or re-score the production without having an orchestra play a part over and over again, like we used to do in the studio years ago. (Okay, this is take fifty- from the top again!).

How do we get music into MIDI format?

Music is most often performed on a MIDI keyboard (called a synthesizer), by a trained musician. It can also be recorded on a personal computer using appropriate software. Much music is also written on computers using "Sequencers" and/or "Digital Audio workstations". Other MIDI-equipped musical instruments may also be used, including digital drums, digital guitars, wind instruments, and more.

Your personal computer may have the ability to play MIDI files, often by using it's own built-in hardware, or by connecting it to a seperate synthesizer, or a keyboard.

MIDI synthesizers made today are far more complicated and capable than those made just a few years ago. Some devices reproduce instruments with great clarity, and are even capable of having their 'voices' edited to sound differently. Or perhaps you would like to create a new instrument sound; it's possible.

So, how does MIDI make music?

Recall- MIDI is nothing but a binary data stream (binary means the signal is in one of two states one or zero; on or off). Unique patterns of this binary data describe (among other things), which note is being playes, is the note sounding or quiet, and how loud the note is. The MIDI instrument receiving this binary information decodes it and creates the music it represents. It is exactly the same as if you were seated at the instrument and playing it yourself! (I presume you can play).

So, remember- MIDI IS NOT MUSIC. It is computer data conforming to a set standard that represents musical notation.

In case you are thinking of getting a MIDI instrument...

So you think you may be interested in a MIDI instrument?

Some MIDI instruments are fairly simple, and others are loaded with all kinds of features, and can mimic many different instruments at once (called polyphony- see my glossary). The more features you have, the higher price you may expect to pay. I've seen synthesizers big and small in homes and recording studios- ranging in price from fifty dollars to five thousand dollars or so. If you are just learning how to play the keyboard, and aren't sure whether you will stick with it, a less-expensive keyboard may be a good choice. And always seek the advice of an accomplished musician before making a purchase, especially if you are just starting out, or when used equipment is on your wish list.

Here's a bit of interesting information. I once was doodling around on a MIDI keyboard at a music store in town, and decided to let the instrument record what I was playing. The instrument gave a very neat musical score on its screen- but it looked dreadful! I thought I was playing quarter notes, but the instrument disagreed. It let me know my quarter notes were not all exactly the same duration! It turns out that this particular instrument could quantize, or correct the slightly imperfect timing of my playing, by making all the notes last the intended duration.


MIDI is not for everyone. It will NOT make you a wonderful musician overnight; so don't tell your Mom/Dad that I said to zip out and buy you a new keyboard right away. MIDI IS a great aid to music enjoyment and production. It can sometimes HELP you improve your musical skills. However, it takes time, dedication and a lot of practice to become a good musician. And I believe music teachers still make you play scales.


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  And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares that infest the day
Shall fold their tents like the Arabs
And as silently steal away.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Day Is Done