is the music inside the piano?
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is the music inside the piano?

There are several movements underway in Australia to get more computers into schools "A laptop in the hands of every school child" etc.

I'm in favour of the idea (as a technologist and a futurist) but it strongly reminds me of this quote from Alan Kay:

"Think about it: How many books do schools have—and how well are children doing at reading? How many pencils do schools have—and how well are kids doing at math? It's like missing the difference between music and instruments. You can put a piano in every classroom, but that won't give you a developed music culture, because the music culture is embodied in people."

"The important thing here is that the music is not in the piano. And knowledge and edification is not in the computer. The computer is simply an instrument whose music is ideas."

'Greg' on Fri, 22 Aug 2008 04:57:53 GMT, sez:

And it is the 'graduates' from schools without pianos that brought us rap

'Alan Kay' on Fri, 22 Aug 2008 08:12:31 GMT, sez:

The point of my quote was not to take away from schools books, pencils and computers because more is needed besides them, but to add what is needed in terms of culture mostly carried by adults to foster reading, mathematics, computing, etc.
Greg might be right, but the schools that only have pianos won't produce much in the way of developed music (such as classical or jazz) either.
Pretty much any art form that has undergone development is not going to be rediscovered by any single isolated generation -- only pop forms will usually happen.

'SM' on Fri, 22 Aug 2008 09:31:37 GMT, sez:

It's not fair. Alan Kay has said all the brilliant things that will ever be said in our field.

'Einar W. Høst' on Fri, 22 Aug 2008 10:00:39 GMT, sez:

"It seemed to me that every time I got a guitar, the notes that T-Bone and all my other idols played, they weren't on my guitar. Just my luck!"
-- B.B. King

'Omer van Kloeten' on Fri, 22 Aug 2008 10:24:37 GMT, sez:

I agree that the tool is not as important as the use you make of it. If you don't teach kids how to use the computer properly, then you may as well not give them one at all.

The piano reference is incorrect, however, since most people don't have access to a piano and hidden talents may arise from such exposure. Most people in developed countries have computers at home already and the exposure will have already occurred.

'mike' on Fri, 22 Aug 2008 11:42:44 GMT, sez:

@Greg -- I'm not a great fan of rap, but it's not a form that can simply be dismissed by people who look down on it. Rap, hip-hop, calypso, and other talk-sing musical forms derive from a culture (not ours) that is highly verbal and that puts a huge premium on verbal inventiveness. Don't forget that in their original manifestations, these forms were both improvised and, often, performed in competitive forums. The culture that produced rap also produced jazz, blues, and some mighty powerful oratory. The fact that a lot of what is produced under the umbrella of rap is, um, not memorable (to put it mildly) can be said of every single other art form you care to name.

The movie "8 Mile," a thinly-disguised bio of the rapper Eminem (presumably with much literary license) presents this aspect of rap -- as a competitive art form -- quite well. In the extra on the DVD there's an interesting segment on how they auditioned people to perform as rappers whom Eminem ultimately bests in these competitions.

If you want to sneer at a musical form, I suggest smooth jazz. :-)

'mike' on Fri, 22 Aug 2008 11:46:56 GMT, sez:

Incidentally, the composer Quincy Jones recounted in an interview that he was inspirted to become a musician by having access to a piano at a local recreation center:

"I went back into the room and slowly went over to that piano and I felt goose bumps... I had touched a piano before, but I had never thought about myself being involved in music. And from that day on, thank god, that changed my life. That was the crossroads for me."

'Michael' on Fri, 22 Aug 2008 12:07:52 GMT, sez:

I have a similar concern with the OLPC project as well. We're handing out laptops to kids in developing nations, spending so much money on R&D, production, and distribution while at the same time there are kids in some parts of the world who are literally dying from thirst. They're dying because they don't have water and gladly drink the dirtiest water you could imagine because it's the best they can get (when there is anything). A single country's OLPC laptop order, or a single US or Australian school's computer order could save thousands of lives.

At the same time, though, I'm extremely excited about the OLPC program and all the innovation that has gone into it. I just wonder sometimes if we have our priorities straight.

'lb' on Fri, 22 Aug 2008 12:21:25 GMT, sez:

thanks for feedback!

is that really alan kay who responded? i do hope so ;-)

i *am* a big supporter of putting computers in every classroom.

i'm also a big supporter of including more environments for programming on every computer.

for example:

MOST computers have software but no tools for software development.

(in my darker moments) i think of such computers as providing a CD-player when a full instrument kit should've been made available.

still: word processors, drawing programs, chat programs -- these are all outlets for creative and communicative potential.

maybe what i want is a way to get those kids who were inspired by great teachers -- and turn those kids into teachers too. some kind of recursive system that brings about an increase in inspiration.

also -- i'm glad mike stood up for rap. i'm not the target audience for rap music, but i can definitely appreciate it on a lot of levels. and sorry mike, but even smooth jazz has a lot of value in it.

MOR. now that's worthy of ridicule.

'Matthew Martin' on Fri, 22 Aug 2008 21:17:39 GMT, sez:

Hear hear. Lets start seeing computers that come with an kid friendly IDE pre-installed. I learned to program with my Atari 400 because BASIC was built in and in your face when you turned it on.

'Alan Kay' on Fri, 22 Aug 2008 23:29:15 GMT, sez:

With reference to the use of a taken out of context comment by Quincy Jones ...

Quincy has been a friend for more than 30 years, and I know the actual story, but interestingly part of it is also in the following paragraph in the article and yet the commenter did not follow its implications.

Yes, it is good to have pianos, pencils and computers around because they can spark interest. But because the "music" isn't in them, learning the highly developed forms that required lots of invention by many past generations doesn't happen without more being present (e.g. a "music culture") than just the tools themselves.

In Qunicy's case, it was both learning the trumpet in school, and the huge influence on him by Ray Charles that got Q into both reading and writing music and into studying the highly developed jazz forms that had started to emerge in the 30s. Quincy was 14 in 1947, so not just swing but very sophisticated bebop was really happening at that time. Here is the rest of the quote from the article:

Jones says that when he was 14, he learned to read music from Ray Charles, who was 16 at the time. "We used to spend most of our midnight hours staying up writing arrangements on Dizzy Gillespie songs... .

"From the very first moment, I understood the concept that four trombones or four trumpets, separately or collectively, could make that great sound...playing the same syncopations without the same notes... Something about it just fascinated me and I knew that's where I wanted to live the rest of my life."

So we have *both* the availability in media (radio) of the stuff, and some instruments (piano, trumpet) in rec centers and schools, and then we have the tough part, which was adult expert practitioners who helped the learners in a variety of ways to perfect their craft and art.

This is whole point of the quote I made about the music not being in the piano. The same thing is true about computing, and other developed forms such as math and science.

'lb' on Fri, 22 Aug 2008 23:55:22 GMT, sez:


So we need a convergence of several things.

1. A cultural exposure to what this stuff can make possible. (the internet perhaps? [analogous to radio])

2. Exposure to the tools themselves ('computers in schools' in this case)

3. Adult expert practitioners to help out.

Providing a subset of those would be futile, but providing the whole package would be excellent. A powerful way to release the thought potential of a society.

So, where do I put down my credit card number?

'lb' on Sat, 23 Aug 2008 00:10:35 GMT, sez:


Something I'd love to know is what does Alan Kay think of this (draft) paper from 2006,
'The Camel has Two Humps'

(also discussed here )

personally i've discounted it as poorly conducted research -- but it had a lot of resonance with readers at the time.

i'd be very interested in your response to it.
(privately if need be: )


'Alan Kay' on Sat, 23 Aug 2008 10:30:55 GMT, sez:

To 'lb" --

I saw this a few years ago. They could be right, but there is nothing in the paper that substantiates it.

(How to do a short reply here?)

Notion 1: Good science can rarely be pulled off in an environment with lots of degrees of freedom unless the cause and effect relationships are really simple. Trying to assess curricula, pedagogy, teaching, and the learners all at once has lots of degrees of freedom and is *not* simple.

So for example we've found it necessary to test any curriculum idea over three years of trials to try to normalize as much as possible to get a good (usually negative) result.

Notion 2: Most assessments of students wind up assessing almost everything but. This is the confusions of "normal" with "reality".

For example, in our excursions into how to help children learn powerful ideas, we observed many classrooms and got some idea of "what children could do". Then I accidentally visited a first grade classroom (we were concerned with grades 3-6) in a busing school whose demographic by law was representative of the city as a whole. However, every 6 year old in this classroom could really do math, and not just arithmetic but real mathematical thinking quite beyond what one generally sees anywhere in K-8.

This was a huge shock, and it turned out that an unusual teacher was the culprit. She was a natural kindergarten and first grade teacher who was also a natural mathematician. She figured out just what to do with 6 year olds and was able to adapt other material as well for them. The results were amazing, and defied all the other generalizations we and others had made about this age group.

This got me to realize that it would be much better to find unusual situations with "normal" populations of learners but with the 1 in a million teacher or curriculum.

I found Tim Gallwey, who could teach anyone (literally) how to play a workable game of tennis in 20 minutes, and observed him do this with many dozens of learners over several years.

I found Betty Edwards who could teach (again literally) anyone to draw like a 2nd year art student in one intense week.

And so forth, because what the exceptional teaching is doing is actually allowing assessment of what general human beings from a typical bell curve can learn from crafted instruction.

And, I think some of the keys here are in the metaphor of bell curve. Students will exhibit distributions of talent, motivation, learning skills, style, etc., and one will see these show up right away in any simple-minded form of instruction and curriculum.

But if the battle cry is "Learner's First", then what we really want to know is what can be done to help the different types of learners. Some don't need any help. Some need to learn some things before they tackle the main subject. Some need to be shown different POVs so they can see a route for them to learn.

Really good teachers want to get all the students to be fluent, and they often find ways to do this. "Regular" teachers often just want to get through the material. Some school systems want to use education to sort the population rather than to educate the whole population. Etc.

I don't know the general answers here, but our research groups in the mid-70s set a goal of 90% fluency for (say) 10-12 year olds, and then we proceeded to fail to achieve this until about 1998, when enough things had been done in the computer environment to provide hooks to many different kinds of children without losing the essential high quality of powerful ideas that was our goal.

I think as a teacher, one has to embrace the bell curve idea and be prepared to deal with at least three tiers of preparedness in the students. One could hope that a lot more general prep about thinking and symbolizing would have happened in K-12, but it doesn't in the US for sure.

There has been some very interesting work wrt to science teaching that seems parallel here (for example, by Tinker and others at Tufts). They not only found a pretest (could they interpret various kinds of graphs?) that would predict the grades of the 1st year physic students, but found that teaching the kids skills in doing well on the pretest (using some very creative ideas that Jerome Bruner would find familiar) would also vastly improve their performance in the physics class itself.

So the pretest was not just testing, but also finding some of relational and figurative thinking that some of the students needed skills in before tackling physics.

I think every musician who is reading this will know what I'm driving at here. Music is a lot of skills and types of thinking and few musicians are naturally good at all of them. The desire to be a musician plus decent music instructors will find the things each learner will need to work on to get fluent. The result is that most skilled musicians can play advanced stuff, but they are all rather different on their outlook, how they practice, what they practice, etc.

(Sports and art also ... and almost certainly the more holy subjects sanctified by society, and those pretenders to the throne such as computing ....)



'lb' on Sun, 24 Aug 2008 10:47:14 GMT, sez:

thanks for that amazing description Alan.

I'm turning your comment into a blog entry of its own, and providing hyperlinks to the researchers and educators you mention.

(I hope i'm not damaging what you've said)

in response to the 'Camel' paper -- i think perhaps the authors have devised a pretest that only asks:
"will this student be easy to teach?"

rather than
"is this person capable of learning?"

as they claim.

there's a vicious circle on top of that, where many programmers 'enjoy' the study because they see it as affirmation that they are part of a special/distinct group.

i really appreciate the time you took to write your response -- and i'm most bemused at the thought of you typing in the captcha text. ;-)



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