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Saturday morning quotes 4.43: Paper or plastic?

March 7, 2015

As we notice the infiltration of electronic devices into every dimension of our lives, we also notice how dependence on one’s phone seems to have resulted in complete erasure from memory the recollection of phone numbers.  All it takes is the loss of your phone, the crash of your hard drive, loss of an internet connection, to bring modern life to a screeching halt.  We all seem to be supremely confident that all will be restored very soon and we can resume life as normal.  But is this a realistic assumption, especially in view of so many examples of efforts to rewrite history?

“The past, he reflected, had not merely been altered, it had been actually destroyed. For how could you establish even the most obvious fact when there existed no record outside your own memory?”

– George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair, 1903 – 1950), Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part 1 Chapter 3 (1949)

There are far too many political reasons to rewrite the past to gain control of the present and future, such as recent destruction of important traces of past civilizations.

“It’s a crime against Assyria, against Iraq, and against humanity. Destroy the past, and you control the future. The Nazis knew this, and the Khmer Rouge – and the Islamic State clearly understand it too.”

Tom Holland, historian, as quoted in the Guardian

If you spend most of your time buried in old music with the goal of recreating sounds from the past, it is almost essential to work from printed paper scores with pencil in hand to clarify ambiguities, correct original written or printing errors, and scrawl interpretive ideas and notes to self.  We now hear of musicians reading from electronic score pads on music stands, and this seems wrong.  What if some evil hacker in the audience decided to add wrong notes to the electronic scores, and an elegant string quartet by Mozart suddenly morphed into nightmarish notes of Bartok?

We have remarked on this theme in the past. Aside from this weekly bit of tapping on the laptop, which oftentimes includes links to information we cannot verify as the accurate truth, we read books printed on paper—and we prefer to play from paper scores.

This interesting article suggests that people who read and handle books printed on paper actually absorb and retain information more effectively.

Some of the earliest forms of writing, such as Sumerian cuneiform, began as characters shaped like the objects they represented—a person’s head, an ear of barley, a fish. Some researchers see traces of these origins in modern alphabets: C as crescent moon, S as snake. Especially intricate characters—such as Chinese hanzi and Japanese kanji—activate motor regions in the brain involved in forming those characters on paper: The brain literally goes through the motions of writing when reading, even if the hands are empty. Researchers recently discovered that the same thing happens in a milder way when some people read cursive.

In most cases, paper books have more obvious topography than onscreen text. An open paperback presents a reader with two clearly defined domains—the left and right pages—and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself…Turning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail—there’s a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled. All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text.

At least a few studies suggest that by limiting the way people navigate texts, screens impair comprehension. In a study published in January 2013 Anne Mangen of the University of Stavanger in Norway and her colleagues asked 72 10th-grade students of similar reading ability to study one narrative and one expository text, each about 1,500 words in length. Half the students read the texts on paper and half read them in pdf files on computers with 15-inch liquid-crystal display (LCD) monitors. Afterward, students completed reading-comprehension tests consisting of multiple-choice and short-answer questions, during which they had access to the texts. Students who read the texts on computers performed a little worse than students who read on paper.

When reading on screens, people seem less inclined to engage in what psychologists call metacognitive learning regulation—strategies such as setting specific goals, rereading difficult sections and checking how much one has understood along the way. In a 2011 experiment at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, college students took multiple-choice exams about expository texts either on computers or on paper. Researchers limited half the volunteers to a meager seven minutes of study time; the other half could review the text for as long as they liked. When under pressure to read quickly, students using computers and paper performed equally well. When managing their own study time, however, volunteers using paper scored about 10 percentage points higher. Presumably, students using paper approached the exam with a more studious frame of mind than their screen-reading peers, and more effectively directed their attention and working memory.

– Ferris Jabr, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens,” Scientific American, Thursday, April 11, 2013

  1. Joe Harris permalink

    “If you spend most of your time buried in old music with the goal of recreating sounds from the past, it is almost essential to work from printed paper scores with pencil in hand to clarify ambiguities, ”

    I feel the need to chime in regarding this topic. I almost exclusively play Baroque Lute and I actually use printed paper far less than I do a tablet. As technology gets better, you will find that one’s workflow can have increased productivity as a result. I use a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 which is a tablet that has a pen for drawing. I can make all of the annotations I want and even make them with different colors.

    I am in college and I carry my tablet around with me every day. As a result I have, at all times, a vast collection of manuscripts on me that I can play from or study on demand. The gigabytes of PDF’s I have would be impossible to carry around if they were in printed form.

    I believe that right now the Surface pro 3 is the best available tablet for general purpose music making, but mark my words in a couple of years, tablets will get so advanced that they will be come the standard for note taking and music reading,.

    Regarding backups, the vast majority of tablets have cloud based computing functionality so regardless of your device, the data exists on an external backup.

    One other note: When a musician turns pages with actual paper it is hard to do so silently. With a tablet and a pedal, there is no noise. Hard to beat that if we are concerned with the sound…

    Here is a Weiss Allemande that I have annotated with my tablet.

  2. Thanks for your comments Joe.

    In addition to having grown weary of technology and the way various devices have become a mediating necessity in so many aspects of daily life, I also admit to having developed a healthy mistrust of cloud computing and cloud storage.

    I could remark that many archivists are now realizing the folly of depending upon electronic storage of important information—such as public and legal records, financial information, and documents or works of art of a great value—and are now devising complex ways to return to the use of paper records management. There are far too many ways this information can be compromised when stored and transferred in electronic form. But there is also a growing awareness that digital degradation simply happens, especially when storage media seems to change on a daily basis—bugs in software, new hardware, modified firmware. Microsoft’s prime objective is to make consumers feel as though what they have today is outdated and they need the latest thing, whatever it may be.

    But my main concern is that having an electronic device mediating the experience of recreating music that was originally scribbled on paper actually introduces additional distractions that prevent the player from focusing his attention entirely on the nuances of the sounds he is producing. I simply can’t believe the quality of light from the screen, the visual distraction involved in scrolling, the thought of remembering and the act of tapping that foot pedal, do not enter your mind when reading from a pad of whatever sort.

    I played the lute obbligato in a performance of Bach’s St. John Passion a few years ago (Betrachte, meine Seel’ and also continuo on the following tenor aria, Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken) with a pair of gadget freaks who played the viola d’amore parts. These two were professional players but were so caught up in following the score on their ipads prior to our entrance that they seem to have forgotten to fine-tune their fiddles. And how to play together. I have to admit that I have a high standard of empathy when accompanying and have no patience for those who are satisfied with playing their parts near the singer, rather than interacting with the singer. But I found this gadget distraction extremely irritating.

    Playing the lute is an aural-tactile experience that demands one’s full attention. I am of the opinion that having a back-lit lcd screen and remembering how the software works would tend to filter that full attention. And I guess I care less about having all the scores ever written stored on my hard drive (acquisition and quantity), than about playing the particular piece or concert program I’m working on at the moment. Spending too much time with the music in the most direct way possible seems to allow us to focus on empathetic performances.

    As I stated already, the more I mature as an empathetic person and musician, the more I seem to find tech toys simply tiresome.


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