Accomplished musician’s e-book allows people to ‘see’ music


By Karen Billing

Local musician Donald Barra has found a way to let people see music happen. His latest electronic book, “Bending Music,” employs the use of spectrograms to help the reader/listener visualize what’s happening in music with a colorful reproduction of soundwaves in the air.

“Bending Music” is Barra’s first in a series of books and he believes it is a new way of teaching and understanding all kinds of music.

“I’ve always been interested in how music works, what makes it appealing and how to create great performances,” Barra said. “[The book] tries to get to the inner workings of music, not just from a technical point of view but from a listener’s point of view — how and why music turns us on and how can we exploit those things to create exciting music.”

Barra said music is “in his blood” and he hails from a family of musicians. He became involved in music right away, conducting the junior varsity band for the last two years of high school and he was part of the church chorus.

“I’ve just been doing it all my life it seems,” Barra said.

He attended the Eastman School of Music for his undergraduate degree, the Julliard School of Music for his master’s degree and Columbia University for his doctorate. He has conducted orchestras throughout the United States, Canada and Europe, and spent 21 years as the professor of music and director of orchestras at San Diego State University, and was the artistic director if the San Diego Chamber Orchestra. During those 21 years he also juggled serving as the choir director at the Village Church in Rancho Santa Fe.

Now semi-retired, he still works as a guest conductor but has turned his attention toward writing “Bending Music.”

Barra’s interest in spectrograms began 40 years ago. As a music teacher in New York City, he was looking for a way to reach his students in his music appreciation class.

“Surprisingly, music appreciation is the hardest course to teach,” Barra said. “A lot of kids don’t read music and it’s difficult to focus their attention on what’s actually happening in the music.”

When Barra first started out creating spectrograms, he employed an airbrush artist to make them. As technology has advanced, now Barra creates his spectrograms at Stanford University’s Computer Center for Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA).

“To me they’re incredible because it shows exactly what music is as it happens,” Barra said.

Barra’s graphs match the color spectrum to the sound spectrum—flutes are represented by blues; trumpets and bass are very brilliant, bright colors.

A fully graphed piece can look like a work of art with all of the different colors to corresponding sounds.

“Bending Music” features 60 pages of graphs, several dozen pieces from all different kinds of music. The e-book allows the reader/listener to follow the soundwaves as the music plays.

“It allows you to see how music is, in fact, a universal language, you can see the similarities between a Japanese chant and a Louis Armstrong jazz piece, or between an Egyptian sitar and a violinist in concert.” Barra said. “There’s just not anything like this out there, it’s a totally new way of seeing music happening and it’s not just for musicians.”

To purchase the book or for more information, visit