Domo Arigato Tempo Rubato

An overview of musical expression, and some corresponding expressive capabilities of LinnStrument.

Image from

Image from

“The bow can express the affections of the soul: but besides there being no signs that indicate them, such signs, even were one to invent them, would become so numerous that the music, already too full of indications, would become a formless mass to the eyes, almost impossible to decipher.”

-Giuseppe Cambini

One of the great joys of playing an instrument is expressing thoughts and feelings through it. When played in solitude, a musical instrument can act as a relief valve for accumulated stress. When played in public, it can serve as a medium for expressing musical ideas and emotions. Music played expressively can even elicit emotional responses in the listener.

Of course, instruments vary in their capabilities for expressiveness, and there are many facets of musical expression. Let’s take a look at some of these facets.

Understanding musical expression

As Giuseppe Cambini articulated in the quote cited previously, it’s not practical or even desirable to notate all the “affections of the soul” in written music. I would add that expressing ones own soul, and often the soul of the composer, is the joy and privilege of the performer. Facets of this expression include pitch variations, dynamics, timbre, and phrasing.

Pitch variations

On instruments that support it, one very effective means of expression is the act of varying of a note’s pitch while it’s being played. Common examples of this include portamento (pitch bending and sliding), and vibrato (pulsating change of pitch). In a recent conversation with Roger Linn (inventor of LinnStrument) the discussion turned to musical expression as it relates to pitch variations. Here is an excerpt of what he had to say on the subject:

“Subtle variations in pitch are, I think, the largest part of how we identify a particular performer’s style. If someone’s playing, for example, a guitar, the volume and timbre of a note can’t be changed by the performer after it’s plucked. The only thing that can be changed is the pitch. Most people that are familiar with rock guitar music would be able to identify the vibrato of Jimi Hendrix from Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck as being unique and different after only a couple of notes. But the truth is that they were all playing the same guitar, a Fender Stratocaster, through the same amplifier, a Marshall. What makes them unique and different is a particular style, in large part characterized by subtle pitch variations produced with string bends and vibratos.”

On LinnStrument, pitch variations are accomplished very naturally by moving your fingers along the X-axis as if each row is a string. To perform vibrato, wiggle your finger horizontally. To bend or slide a note, move your finger along the row to the desired ending pitch.  The following brief video of the flute solo intro in The Marshall Tucker Band “Can’t You See” demonstrates slight pitch variations and vibrato on LinnStrument:

Let’s move from discussing pitch variations to examining the use of volume variations, more formally known as dynamics, for musical expression.


Another very effective means of musical expression is to vary the volume (loudness) of notes, which is often referred to in musical terms as dynamics. Some dynamics such as pianissimo (very soft), and sforzando (forceful accent) are concerned with the relative volume of notes when first played. Other dynamics such as crescendo (gradually becoming louder), and tremolo (pulsating change of volume) indicate changes in volume while a note is being played.

Most instruments allow you to play a note at a desired volume, but not all of them allow you to vary the volume of a note as it is being played. For example, you can vary the initial volume of a note on the piano with the velocity of a key press, but the subsequent volume of the note is not usually under your control. By contrast, most wind instruments give you continuous control of volume.

On LinnStrument, volume variations are accomplished very naturally by varying the downward (Z-axis) pressure of your fingers. To increase the loudness of a note, press harder on the note pad. To perform tremolo, repeatedly increase and decrease pressure on the note pad.

Now that we’ve discussed varying pitch (X-axis), and volume (Z-axis), we’ll move on to varying timbre (Y-axis) for a third dimension of musical expression.


A sort of catch-all category, timbre is what makes two notes that have the same pitch and volume distinguishable from each other. For example, a note played on a trumpet has a much different timbre than that same note played on a cello.  Timbre is often referred to as tone color or texture, and characterized by terms such as bright, warm, and harsh.

Varying the timbre of notes is a very effective means of musical expression, as evidenced by many of the flute solos that Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull has recorded, such as his flute solo from “My God.”

On LinnStrument, timbre variations are accomplished very naturally by rolling your fingers forward or backward on the Y-axis. The resulting variation in sound is dependent upon the corresponding feature in the synthesized instrument.

Please take a look at this video of Roger Linn demonstrating on LinnStrument the three dimensions of expression (pitch, volume, and timbre) discussed to this point.

There are, of course, more facets of musical expressions than just varying pitch, volume, and timbre. One of these facets, known as phrasing, is concerned with varying note durations:


One of the most natural ways to express oneself musically is to intuitively vary the duration of notes, shaping the notes in time. This concept is known as musical phrasing, and one of the core ideas is to use “stolen time” (tempo rubato in Italian) from some notes and give it to other notes.

So, domo arigato tempo rubato, portamento, vibrato, pianissimo, sforzando, crescendo, tremolo, timbre, et cetera, for enabling musical expression!

James Weaver
Twitter: @JavaFXpert

My God! It’s full of stars!

Images from and (click to enlarge)

In the Space Odyssey series when Dr. Bowman approached the monolith in space and was pulled inside, he observed that “It’s full of stars!”  I was reminded of that quote when first looking at the chord and scale constellations (shapes) superimposed on the monolith-shaped LinnStrument in the Roger Linn Design website.  Please take a moment to study that page, and then refer to the following graphic from the page as we dive into relevant concepts and put them into practice.


Chord and scale shapes. Image from (click to view page)

Locating the C stars (LEDs)

Representing the default LinnStrument tuning, there are 17 blue LEDs on the Chord and scale shapes figure above, five of which are middle C.

Middle C. From

Middle C. (

The five middle C LEDs are easy to locate, as they appear near an imaginary diagonal line drawn from the upper-left corner to the lower-right corner of the playing surface.  On a parallel line above the middle C LEDs are four blue LEDs that represent C on the treble clef (this blog will refer to these as treble C).  On a parallel line above those are two blue LEDs that represent C above the treble clef (this blog will refer to these as high C).

Similarly, on a parallel line below the middle C LEDs are four blue LEDs that represent C on the bass clef (this blog will refer to these as bass C).  On a parallel line below those are two blue LEDs that represent C below the bass clef (this blog will refer to these as low C).  Please take a moment to locate all of these C LEDs on the Chord and scale shapes figure above.

Using the C LEDs to locate all of the notes on the playing surface

Because the default LinnStrument tuning uses a perfect fourth musical interval between each row, any given note pad on the playing surface is a perfect fourth (five semitones) higher than the note pad directly below it.  Looking at the Chord and scale shapes figure again, notice for example that the note directly above each C is always an F.  By extension, the musical interval between any two note pads on the playing surface is the same as any other two note pads that have the same spacial relationship.  For example, the note directly below and two columns to the right of a note pad is always a descending minor third musical interval.  As a result, notice on the Chord and scale shapes figure that when the starting note is C, the note directly below and two columns to the right is always an A.  By familiarizing yourself with the spacial relationships on the playing surface of the musical intervals in the following figure, you can locate all of the notes in the vicinity of a given note pad.  This is useful for identifying notes relative to a C LED, or relative to a note currently being played.

Intervals related to center note pad

Spacial relationship of intervals to a given note pad

Another aid that I’ve found helpful for memorizing the location of notes in relationship to the nearby C LEDs is the following figure:


Natural note relationships to C LEDs

Notice in the figure above that there are three blue LEDs that represent three Cs in consecutive octaves.  These LEDs may be mentally lined up with blue LEDs while playing the LinnStrument to locate any note on the playing surface.  For an additional aid in locating notes on the playing surface, see the following figure that contains the location of the natural notes on the musical staff:


Location of the natural notes on the musical staff (click to enlarge)

Playing scales on LinnStrument

The Chord and scale shapes figure suggests a pattern for playing a major scale in a single octave.  That pattern is also represented by the C major scale in the top three rows of the Natural note relationships to C LEDs figure shown previously.  There are, of course, additional patterns for a single octave major scale, one of which is represented by the C major scale in the bottom three rows on that same figure.  A two octave major scale may therefore be played by combining these patterns as shown in that figure.  These ideas for playing major scales may be applied to other kinds of scales as well.

Playing chords on LinnStrument

Please take another look at the Chord and scale shapes figure, noticing that it suggests shapes for some commonly used chords, including a major triad in all three inversions.  There are, of course, additional shapes possible for the chords shown in the figure.

Guitar players may find some of these shapes familiar, namely the shapes that are played on guitar strings 3 and lower.  For example the shape of the fingered notes in an open E chord on the guitar is the same as the major triad 2nd inversion on the Chord and scale shapes figure.


Guitar open E chord

When playing chords and scales on LinnStrument, it is beneficial to experiment with various fingerings, including the use of thumb and pinky (little finger).  You’ll find that some fingerings are more comfortable than others, increasing the potential for playing accuracy.  You may also find, as I do, that the pinkies are very useful in some chord and scale shapes, but they require extra practice to approach the strength and accuracy of other fingers.

Thus Spake Zarathustra

In keeping with the theme of this article, I’d like to play for you a well-known piece from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey on LinnStrument.  This is the initial fanfare, entitled “Sunrise”, from Thus spake Zarathustra (Strauss), which demonstrates some of the concepts discussed in this article.  I’ve taken the liberty of annotating the triads and their inversions in the video.

James Weaver
Twitter: @JavaFXpert

Exploring a Musical Matrix

Morpheus: I know *exactly* what you mean. Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Neo: The Matrix.

I’ve played various musical instrument as long as I can remember, focusing my younger years on piano, trumpet and guitar.  As a lifelong software developer, I instinctively put information in matrices,  and have always felt the desire to play an instrument whose notes were arranged in that manner.  This led me to play instruments such as the Chapman Stick, and to create a mobile tablet-based instrument that I named ZenGuitar3D:

Along the way, I was intrigued with the instruments that colleague and occasional NullPointers bandmate/frontman Geert Bevin (second from the left in this video thumbnail) …

… played, such as the Eigenharp and most recently the LinnStrument:


Like Neo in The Matrix, I recognized that this brainchild of Roger Linn was a manifestation of what I’d  been longing for:  An instrument whose notes are arranged in a grid pattern, and enable musical expression found in keyboard as well as stringed instruments, demonstrated by this video in which I play Paul McCartney’s Blackbird.  The left side of the video contains the accompaniment, and the right side contains the melody played while listening to the accompaniment recorded a few minutes earlier.

In upcoming posts I plan to explore facets of LinnStrument that help you get up to speed on playing it, should you decide to take the red pill like I did 🙂

James Weaver
Twitter: @JavaFXpert