Tidbits: MusicWorks – Making Music with Classic Macs

Throw away your Yamahas, Rolands, Synclaviers, and other synthesizers – because you can create music with your Macintosh computer.

Okay, maybe that’s not a good idea. (Although a lot has changed in software synthesis since the 1980s.)

One of my goals after getting my vintage Macs up and running was to try to get MIDI playback working by installing a software synthesizer. After all, I have MIDI playback working on all of my other computers – from the IBM ThinkPad T42 (OpenMPT) to my MintTin (TiMidity++.) 

Unfortunately, I could never get any of the MIDI softsynths to work with my vintage Macs. ConcertWare, which is about the only MIDI playback program available for pre-System 7 Macs, didn’t want to load MIDI files – rendering it useless. Arnold’s MIDI Player, which I’ve covered in my Basilisk II post, requires a machine running System 7 with a better processor and more memory, as it relies on QuickTime for the playback. 

ConcertWare did not want to open MIDI files, despite claiming to have MIDI playback capabilities – just like in Mini vMac.

My Macintosh Classic with 2 MB of memory and its Motorola 68000 processor wasn’t going to cut it.

However, while experimenting and trying to find a software synthesizer that works, I came across a music program that is pretty decent for its age, although it doesn’t have any MIDI capabilities.

MusicWorks was an early music program for the Macintosh. It was released in 1984 by MacroMind Inc. as an early music notation and composition program for the Macintosh. 

MusicWorks was released in 1984 by MacroMind, which would later become a part of Adobe.

The program allows you to create songs by placing notes and music symbols on a staff. It also provides an “overview” look at part of the song, and – most importantly to me – allows you to play a sample of the song.

A screenshot of MusicWorks, with the “Jazz” sample loaded.

While I love listening to MIDI files and have talked about software synthesizers before (OpenMPT, Arnold’s MIDI Player, TiMidity++, etc.) – I’m not a musician. In fact, the only time I’ve learned about reading traditional music was back in elementary and middle school. Therefore, I haven’t been able to compose my own songs using MusicWorks.

But don’t worry. You don’t need to be a musician or composer to listen to MusicWorks’ output. It comes with 45 sample songs that you can open and play out of the box – no real music knowledge required. (And you don’t even need to open MusicWorks to listen to them. Using the 1991 Macintosh Classic and my trusty Creative SoundBlaster PLAY! sound card to record audio to Adobe Audition on my modern MacBook Pro, I recorded all 45 songs for listening. You can access them here.)

I recorded all 45 sample files, which you can listen to here.

Remember how I said MusicWorks doesn’t support MIDI? Unfortunately, that’s true – MusicWorks doesn’t support MIDI inputs or outputs, and definitely doesn’t support MIDI playback through software synthesis. MIDI was a new standard at the time, as it was only introduced in 1981 and didn’t really take off until 1983-84. The Macintosh, along with the IBM-PC and other popular computer systems at the time (e.g. Commodore 64 and Amiga, Atari ST, etc.) would gain MIDI capabilities by the end of the ’80s. (In fact, Apple released an interesting promotional video showcasing the MIDI capabilities of the Macintosh.)

A 1988 promotional video by Apple promoting the MIDI capabilities of the Macintosh.

Although it lacks MIDI support, MusicWorks is still an interesting piece of software to play around with. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder of what very early Macintosh software looked like, with its spartan yet easy-to-use interface. It also serves as a reminder for how far we’ve come. Just compare the interface and output from MusicWorks to GarageBand running on your iPhone.

Post written on a 1991 Macintosh Classic using Microsoft Word 4.0.