Atari Music Composer

Karl Zinn & David Zinn


Name: Atari Music Composer
Type: Music
System: Atari 400 or 800, 8K
Format: Cartridge
Language: Machine
Summary: Very well done at
a simple price.
Price: $59.95
    Atari. Inc.
    1272 Borregas Ave.
    Sunnyvale, CA 94086

We've been using the Atari Music Composer in home education and some school situations. We would like to share our initial experience and preliminary ideas here, and suggest other things that could be done.

The manual for the Music Composer suggests it can be used to develop skills in listening, perception, music notation, composing (melodies, harmony and counterpoint), musical relationships, and building musical structures from simple parts. We found we could do all these things and more, always in a pleasant and rewarding educational environment. Nearly all of our trials were in a home setting: but some were in a summer class for 8 to 14 year-olds interested in using computers.

For those who know other music boards for small computers (ALF, MicroMusic, MicroTech, Symtek), this one is comparable with five important differences.

1) Nothing extra is needed. The circuitry is built into the Atari and the audio is amplified by the TV set (or monitor) which is used as the display device for the computer. You can also take the audio out of a 5-pin jack on the side of the Atari 800 to feed any other amplifier.

2) Most people will use it as given. Since the Composer software is in ROM it can't be changed. Programs can be written in Basic either to generate data files that can be read by the Composer, or to play the Composer's data files with other tonal characteristics.

3) Use is very straightforward, with most of the options so obvious that a manual is not needed. The user works through menu pages linked in a hierarchical structure, with clear mnemonics and using normal keys for insert, delete and cursor control.

4) The system protects rather well against common user errors. New users, without previous experience with computers, get melodies to play back about as they intended them, and are not likely to lose them accidentally.

5) The user has little or no control over tone quality, attack and decay, crescendo, and the like.

The basic building block is a musical phrase: up to ten can be stored in memory. Phrases are arranged in up to four voices, with dynamics, repetition and transposition specified in a list of statements which looks like a computer program. Indeed, the composition activity can be used to develop programming concepts such as sequencing and iteration. Building a melody and counterpoint from phrases is good practice in music education as well.


Phrases, voices or an entire composition can be saved on tape or disk, and retrieved later, perhaps with new arrangements. We much prefer disk because it is faster, but the cassette was adequate when we put only one data file on the beginning of a tape. (You will have discovered this problem with positioning the tape when reading a file from the middle of a tape if you use cassette on the Atari. We have heard that this software problem in cassette control will be fixed by Atari in a future release of the operating system.)

We already said we hardly needed the manual. This should be true for almost any experienced computer user, and perhaps many novices. We find a five-minute demo to be enough to get anyone started; a few things may not be obvious, such as "FN" as the abbreviation for "File Name" in a prompt, and the prefix "D:" needed to specify that the file is to be retrieved from (or saved on) disk instead of cassette. But the manual is well-organized with clear descriptions and photos of the screen in various states. We recommend it to those who would rather learn systematically than by exploration. One part provides an overall description with things to do; another provides the file structure for those who wish to do things with Basic as well; it includes programs for listing files, composing music, and arranging harmony. A last part summarizes each of the commands.

We have many stories to tell about our use of the Music Composer, and plan to do so in a later article after we have experience with a greater variety of users and in other educational settings. Perhaps you can get an idea from these brief notes: Piano music entered into the Atari was played and displayed by the computer in a regular way which made obvious some syncopation which had been hard for the student to catch and perform otherwise. Some band music was entered so that the cornet player could practice (at home) with the other parts played by the Atari. A band part in the Atari was used as a model (and a metronome) for repeated practice of a difficult sequence, gradually coming up to the required speed. Music heard only on the air was entered and reviewed (and played for fun), exercising notation, interval recognition, note duration, time signature, key signature and other music components. The pleasure of this activity for kids contrasts with the reluctant response of some students to "dictation" exercises.

Music already stored in the Atari was modified in various ways (e.g.. tempo and counterpoint) to change the style. Musical rounds and fugues were explored, pushing the complexity until the sounds were no longer pleasing to the arranger or composer. Timbre (tone quality) was explored by writing parts in unison and then transposing them to various partials (harmonics) one octave away, an octave and a fifth, two octaves. etc. Original compositions were developed by entering familiar melodies in up to ten phrases and rearranging them in interesting ways (such as those compositions of P.D.Q. Bach as discovered by Professor Peter Schickele!)

What we missed most while using the Atari Music Composer is a display of all four voices at once (as on a regular musical score or piano music). Sometimes it is difficult to find the part you wish to modify, since you can look at only one phrase at a time, and one measure in that phrase. Getting everything on the screen at once is a lot to ask of an 8K ROM application cartridge operating with an 8K RAM (yes, all these cartridges work on the 8K Atari 400 as well as our 48K 800) and displayed on an ordinary TV. If it weren't for the lack of resolution in TV rasters Atari might have avoided the problem of where to put the note stems by displaying each voice on a separate staff. Having a printout of the score would be really nice, and get around the TV display limitations.

At times we could enter music as chords instead of notes in separate voices. A good composer aid offer many options for entry of music. But being limited to one, entry in phrases and voices is the right one for this beginner's composer. Other advanced aids are also missing: tone quality, envelope (attack and decay). inversion, and other operations on musical patterns. We suspect that some of these can be done from Basic.

Although it is nice to be able to get all of the disk operating system from the Music Composer, working through it all to get a listing of what files are on the disk is a nuisance. One should be able to display the music files on the screen directly, and select one without the computer first erasing all the names. (It takes "D, <RETURN>. A.<RETURN>,RETURN" to get the directory on the screen. To get back requires a <RETURN> which erases the screen and then a "B.<RETURN> to get back into the Music Composer. The new DOS 2.OS for the Atari simplifies this slightly (fewer returns are required) but one is still limited to what was designed into the Composer ROM.

In summary, although we could ask for more, what is provided was done very well for home education and recreational activities at a simple level. Clearly some people thought carefully about what should go into the Music Composer to make it helpful in music education. We hope others who find themselves in the position of advising computer companies will also help make the entertainment products better for education.

The Music Composer is available for $59.95 from Atari Inc.. 1272 Borregas Ave., Sunnyvale. CA 94086.

Karl Zinn, University of Michigan, Center for Research on Learning & Teaching, Ann Arbor, MI 48104.

David Zinn, Greenhills School, Ann Arbor, MI 48104.

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