The Role of Nonlinear Dynamics in Musicians' Interactions with Digital and Acoustic Musical Instruments

Mudd, Tom; Holland, Simon and Mulholland, Paul (2020). The Role of Nonlinear Dynamics in Musicians' Interactions with Digital and Acoustic Musical Instruments. Computer Music Journal, 43(4) pp. 25–40.



Nonlinear dynamical processes are fundamental to the behaviour of acoustic musical instruments, as is well explored in the case of sound production. However, such processes may have profound and under-explored implications for how musicians interact with instruments. While nonlinear dynamical processes are ubiquitous in acoustic instruments, they are present in digital musical tools only if explicitly implemented. Thus, an important resource with potentially major effects on how musicians interact with acoustic instruments is typically absent in the way musicians interact with digital instruments. 24 interviews with free improvising musicians were conducted to explore the role that nonlinear dynamics play in the participants’ musical practices, and to understand how such processes can afford distinctive methods of creative exploration. Thematic analysis of the interview data is used to demonstrate the potential for nonlinear dynamical processes to provide repeatable, learnable, controllable and explorable interactions, and to establish a vocabulary for exploring nonlinear dynamical interactions. Two related approaches to engaging with nonlinear dynamical behaviours are elaborated: edge-like interaction which involves the creative use of critical thresholds; and deep exploration which involves exploring the virtually unlimited subtleties of a very small control region. The elaboration of these approaches provides an important bridge that connects the concrete descriptions of interaction in musical practices on the one hand, to the more abstract mathematical formulation of nonlinear dynamical systems on the other.

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