Background

Making music in ensembles has a wide range of benefits. Not only do you improve your musical ability, but ensemble performance has also been shown to benefit social and personal skills, create a sense of community and even improve your health and wellbeing. The UK Government’s National Music Plan recognizes these benefits, recommending that ‘Children from all backgrounds and every part of England should have the opportunity…to make music with others’.

Yet in parts of the country such as Cornwall, where many people live in geographically remote communities, it’s often difficult to find the opportunity to make music with other people: either there are not enough musicians living in one place, or the time and expense of travel prevents regular participation.

Aim

Our aim is to design a way of making music online that enables a meaningful and enjoyable musical experience by amateur musicians and children who live in geographically remote communities. This approach was showcased for the first time at our inaugural Online Orchestra performance on 12th July 2015, which featured musicians from around Cornwall performing together online. We will also share our approach, so that other remotely located musicians anywhere in the world can in the future form their own online orchestras.

Connecting disconnected musicians

Music making is a social activity. We form creative connections – and ultimately communities and friendships – when we make music together. We ask: how can we make meaningful musical connections when performers are in fact in different locations?

Equipment and cost

In order to achieve an immersive experience online, sound and video quality are important. But the higher quality that is required, the more expensive the equipment needed, and that equipment might be out of the price range of amateur musicians. We ask: what is the minimum set up required to achieve a meaningful musical experience?

Equipment and complexity

The more equipment used, the more specialist skill that is needed to operate that equipment. We ask: how can we make our technical set up as simple – and as invisible – as possible, in order to allow focus on the music making?

Echo and feedback

When multiple locations each have active microphones and speakers, echo and feedback can form: the sound of me coming out of the speakers in your computer is picked up by the microphone in your computer and sent back to me. How can that echo, and the potential for feedback, be suppressed in order to make music online? And how can this be achieved in a way that does not degrade the quality of the audio signal, and that allows multiple locations to make sound at the same time?

Latency

Whenever a signal has to travel over a network there is a short delay before it arrives – the signal latency. When performing music – which often requires musicians to make sounds at the same time – that latency disrupts the possibility of playing together. What techniques can we use to limit latency? And how might we compose music that seeks to embrace latency as part of its content, rather than seek to avoid it?

Bandwidth

Audio and video signals can use large amounts of bandwidth. Compression of these digital data streams – using encoding and decoding – can reduce the amount of bandwidth required but typically at the cost of increased latency. What is an acceptable trade-off between quality audio/video streams and latency in networked music collaborations? And how can that quality be maintained when communities are many miles from the high-speed Internet connections that other locations now enjoy?