Most people may not have heard of Will Harvey, but he was responsible for one or two iconic games from the 80s that everyone knew such as Atari’s Marble Madness. But when he was fifteen, he also made a little program called Music Construction Set which EA published in 1984.
Back in the 80s as PCs began pushing into homes everywhere, users and hobbyists who tapped furiously away at their favorite pieces of hardware such as the Apple II and the Commodore 64 often felt that the ability to access other worlds was only a few keystrokes away. The kilobytes of memory floating within integrated circuits and transported by plastic floppies could take their audiences on grand adventures.
But aside from shoot ’em ups, beat ’em ups, and interactive fiction, PCs could also teach.
Will Harvey created his first game written in assembly called Lancaster. But it was missing something, and that was music. So he went about writing his own music editor to help him create some and that program became the Music Construction Set which turned into a major hit for Harvey and Electronic Arts.
Music Construction Set’s beauty was that people didn’t have to know anything about music to get started in it.
Using a joystick (no mice yet), players could manipulate an onscreen “hand” and pick up notes and lay them down on the staff. The manual (whose contents page has a bust of a smiling Harvey Smith greeting readers) takes the player through the process of using the program from start to finish while describing concepts such as copying and pasting measures to describing the notes themselves.
Though it glosses over some of these elements, there’s nothing to keep players from using the MCS’ hand to begin making music and start playing around immediately and it was fairly powerful.Would-be composers could preview notes where they placed them, rearrange music on the fly, and save their work for later without worrying if they might break something. Instead of erasing notes and tapping things out on a keyboard, MCS’ ease of accessibility let users experiment as much as they wanted.
The application even has the ability to print out the actual sheet music that would-be Mozarts have just composed or save their work to disk for play later. Or take existing music on the disk and change it up, blend things together, or even study if they so choose. Anyone with a PC now had access to a digital toy box for making music and learning about it at the same time.
MCS was also ported to a number of other computers and would even take advantage of certain features available on a few of them to expand its capabilities in surprising ways. On the Apple IIgs, it made use of its built-in wavetable. The Amiga version, which debuted as the Deluxe Music Construction Set, made use of its advanced sound capabilities and had even allowed users to type in their own lyrics.
It’s almost unbelievable today, given how much heat EA has taken from various quarters, that they would gamble on something like Harvey’s Music Construction Set. But for many companies, the 80s were the glory years of intense innovation and daring risk where programs like the Music Construction Set aimed make things such as music accessible to everyone without having to save the world from evil aliens or wicked dictators.