ASET logo
[ EdTech'94 Contents ] [ EdTech Confs ]

Computing in performing arts education and practice

Andrew Brown
Academy of the Arts
Queensland University of Technology

The performing arts have traditionally made limited use and showed limited acceptance of computing technology. There are cognitive, physical, environmental and social influences on the use of computers in performing arts. This paper will examine the practise of the performing arts and its implications for the use of computers in supporting education and practice in those areas. Implications for the learning environment, infrastructure, interface design, industrial design, and software functionality will be considered. Although many of the issues raised in this paper are common to all visual and performing arts, there are significant differences between visual and performing arts which would require abstraction of the concepts presented in this paper beyond the more practical focus intended. In particular there are differences in human involvement in the presentation of a work, and the transitory verses static nature of time in art products.

What are the performing arts?

The performing arts consist of a number of discrete areas including music, dance, drama. Although there are significant differences between these disciplines, for example music is unique in its focus on sound, they are often grouped together in both educational and performance arenas. It is the similarities between the performing arts which will be examined in this paper. The benefit of looking at the use of computing in these areas as a group is that fundamental issues come to the fore which might be obscured by the idiosyncrasies of one or another of the individual disciplines.

Current usage

The use of computers across the performing arts varies greatly, both between and within disciplines. A brief overview of current usage is outlined below to provide context for the reader unfamiliar with these disciplines. The use made by practitioners is the focus of this study, therefore, technical and other supporting roles will be ignored in the main.

Musicians are by far the most prolific users of computing technology within the performing arts. This is due primarily to the ability of digital technology to adequately store and manipulate sound and the strong notational basis for representing music which is also well supported by computing technology. Musicians use such technology in the main for composing and arranging, there is a growing use of it for performance rehearsal and musicology, and pockets of use in performance of particular musical genres.

Dancers have made limited use of computer technology. Current computing forms do not lend themselves obviously to dance. Choreographers have made some use of computers for the storing and manipulation or dance steps in the form of choreography notation.

Actors and directors involved in drama productions perhaps make the least use of computers in their art. Besides word processing of scripts little evidence of significant computer use can be found. Use is made in lighting, sound and set design for theatre but these are supportive of human performances in most cases.

Features of the performing arts and their implications for computing

Kinaesthetic nature

The performing arts are linked by their use of human movement to express their art. At times this movement is substantial, as in dance, at times it is minimal, as in some music performances.

Computing copes poorly at present with kinaesthetic activities, most degrading significantly as the size of movement increases. The smaller movements of a musicians hand are not too difficult to monitor, however the stage position of an actor or limb movement of a dancer are less easily traced.

The appropriateness of gross movement tracking by computer has yet to be determined, however the introduction of virtual reality capabilities, particularly video capture and position sensing, may prove fruitful.

Time based presentation

Performing arts presentations exist in a linear time scale. Although they can be captured on recordings, video or other medium these representations are reviewed in a similar time scale. Still images of dramatic and dance performances are possible however musical performance eludes the 'viewing' of static segments.

The computing consequences of this are significant. Firstly, real time processing power can be quite demanding and is often a limitation or bottleneck to the realisation of computing involvement in these areas. Secondly, the storage of performances as either, or both, sound and vision is memory intensive in the extreme. The data required to store a static image is multiplied by orders of magnitude for durational material. This requires either large amounts of storage and efficient ways of dealing with it, and/or methods of reducing the amount of data required to depict the works.

Repetitive rehearsal

The kinaesthetic movements of performing artists are perfected through repetitive practice. Actors rehearse lines and movements, dancers refine sequences of movements and musicians develop repertoire and skills through repetition.

At a superficial level computers have proved useful in repetitive tasks in many areas, for instance robotic assembly lines, and drill and practice educational software. Musicians have used metronomes extensively to maintain consistency of repetitive tasks while dancers use music recordings to rehearse against. I would suggest that the ability of computers to support repetitive tasks, particularly if they can become adaptive in specified variables, is a launching pad for exploring future application of computers in the performing arts.

Activity spaces

Performing arts activities usually take place in spacious, flexible and open areas. Such areas include dance studios, stages and concert halls. The furniture in these spaces is designed to be movable and storable. Lighting and sound systems are integrated into the spaces and also emphasise adaptability to new situations.

Computers as we most commonly know them are poorly designed for such environments. A computer for a performing artist would best have no wired connections for power or communications; It would be light weight and portable; It would operate in a variety of lighting and sound level conditions; It would not require a desk and a chair to be functional.

Individual and group activities

Solo and ensemble performances requirements are different but both forms are required of performing artists. The confidence and exposure of individual performance contrasts with the sympathy and cooperation required for group performance. Although performing arts are often a solitary experience they are also a social experience.

The implications for technology are that computers should be adaptable to the individual using them. They should be customisable and adaptive to the needs of the artist, in this sense a personal tool. They should however, support communication between members of a group. This requires communications standards, quick and flexible data interchange, and output to other media for distribution.

There is a variety of levels of complexity associated with familiarity. When an individual works with a computing device they can become quite familiar with it, and hopefully it with them, the level of communication could be customised and abstracted to the point where others may not easily interpret the communication. Group communication requires that a level of understanding be established so that base level communication should always be available and higher order commands should be able to be deconstructable to an appropriate level for communication within the current ensemble. This may imply some ability of computer communications to assess the level of sophistication of the receiving user in order to communicate most efficiently.

Similar priorities have been observed as necessary for computing in business environments and others where people balance an individual and corporate existence. To make the most of this observation in the performing arts area, software will need to operate using the communication systems already established in these art forms.

Arts as symbol systems

The arts have been described as symbol systems (Gardner 1982). There are musical phrases or physical gestures which are understood within a community as having specific meaning. These 'symbols' can come in and out of usage, change meaning, be extended or abbreviated and placed in and out of context to alter perceptions. Emery and Hammond maintain that "The arts can therefore can be defined as communication systems or 'languages' in that they have the capacity to represent experience. Although they do not function in the same way as verbal or mathematical languages, the arts nevertheless have their own conventions, codes practices and meaning structures" (Curriculum Corporation, 1993:3).

It is arguable that, not only artistic, but all human communication is symbolic. It is certain that computing is the manipulation of symbols. For the effective use of computers in the performing arts the medium of symbolic representation, the social roles and norms regulating activity, as well as the symbolic 'language' and syntax would need to be understood (Csikszentmihalyi 1990). This implies that sound and vision capabilities of computers may need to become more efficient to work most effectively in the performing arts. Computers are currently sophisticated in two dimensional visual output and audio output is not a major problem; quality issues aside. Three dimensional spatial ability is still poor, as is intelligent sound and vision recognition. Technological advances in these areas are progressing and it would be worth considering the potential implementation of such technologies as they become viable.


Aesthetic considerations in the arts are fundamental. Much education in arts over the past decade or more has focused strongly on the education of aesthetics. (Reimer 1989) Aesthetics contain personal values and often are related to emotion and meaning.

Such words are not commonly associated with computers. Aesthetic, or artistic, understanding by computer may, or may not, be a worthwhile goal. However, ways in which computers can support human aesthetic understanding certainly are. Analytical and reflective processes are considered effective in developing such understanding. Analysis requires deconstruction and pattern recognition processes. Reflection requires revisiting and reinterpretation of experience. These processes seem quite likely to be supportable by computer. Playback of stored performances for review is not difficult for computers, and if meaningful symbolic chunking by computer and/or user is possible then reorganisation of that material for reinterpretation should also be attractive as an application.


In this paper I have shown that while use of computers across the performing arts varies greatly, both between and within disciplines, there are similarities between the practice of these fields which impact upon the use of computers in these fields. In particular the performing arts share a focus on kinaesthetic ability, are presented linearly in time, require repetitive practice to achieve excellence, make use of environments which are sparse and flexible in furniture layout, and they require both intrapersonal and interpersonal skills for individual and ensemble performance.

These aspects make demands upon computers which are different to the more common business, home or classroom use of computers. In particular computer interfaces need to support a variety of gestural inputs; they need to respond accurately in time critical circumstances; should be effective in supporting repetitive activities in rehearsal; need to be highly portable and provide multi-sensory input and output and communication in symbol systems common in the performing arts.

Many of these areas are being addressed by current research, such as pen based and natural language input, form factor is decreasing and software has been written for some symbol systems, such as music. There are however many challenges left unsolved. In particular, natural language and audible sound processing are underdeveloped, gestural interfaces are limited in particular with reference to three dimensional space, appropriate levels of computer intelligence in the artistic domains is unclear, and operating systems are not always designed to support time critical applications but take control of system clocks as they deem fit.

I feel that the use of computer technology in the performing arts is an exciting area in that it offers challenges in both computing and the art forms. The partnership between the arts and technology can be a stimulus for humanisation of the technology and for innovation in the ways in which the arts are prepared and presented. I look forward to the enhanced support of human aesthetic understanding and expression through the answering of the questions raised in this paper.


Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). The Domain of Creativity. In Runco, M. A. and Albert, R. S. (Eds), Theories of Creativity. Sage Publications, California.

Curriculum Corporation (1993). A National Statement on the Arts for Australian Schools. Emery, L. and Hammond, G. (Eds). Melbourne, Australia.

Gardner, Howard (1982). Art, Mind and Brain: A cognitive approach to creativity. Basic Books, New York.

Reimer, Bennett (1989). A Philosophy of Music Education. Prentice-Hall Inc, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

Author: Andrew Brown, Queensland University of Technology, Locked Bag 2, Red Hill, QLD 4059

Please cite as: Brown, A. (1994). Computing in performing arts education and practice. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 24-26. Canberra: AJET Publications.

[ EdTech'94 contents ] [ ASET Confs ]
This URL:
Last revised 24 May 2003. HTML editor: Roger Atkinson
Previous URL 21 May 1999 to 30 Sep 2002: