Tae Hun Kim, Software Developer on Piano & Music Composition

What I love the most about playing piano is that it’s one of the most versatile musical instruments. No other instrument can play melodies and accompany themselves across such a wide range of notes and dynamics. I love its expressive potential – it’s exciting to explore how much more I can take advantage of its expressiveness.

My name is Tae Hun, and I’m originally from South Korea. I’m a software developer at Skoove, where we develop an app for piano education and strive to improve technology to help people learn the piano online. I have been mostly involved in music-related projects, such as music score customization, audio/midi processing, and more.

In my early teens, I always thought I was going to become a classical musician. I spent hours practicing the piano and composing music every day. Then, when I was in high school, I was introduced to electronic and computer music. I had always depended on acoustic instruments, and the idea that I could create my sound from scratch was mind-blowing. So, I decided to study music technology at university. However, during the summer vacation before my first semester, the university notified me that the faculty member in charge of music technology had left the school. Therefore, they couldn’t offer the program anymore. I thought that if I study both music and computer science, I could eventually understand music technology. While studying computer science, software development became more interesting, and I later pursued music technology as a developer rather than a creator. After I finished my Master’s thesis, I joined my current job to take advantage of both my music and technical background.

I was born in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. I spent the first half of my life in Korea. Several years after I committed to studying classical music, I convinced myself to continue it in Western countries. I was fortunate to meet a composition professor from the US, and I followed him to New York City. I spent three years there, attending high school and a music school. For a university and Master’s degree, I later moved to Chicago and Barcelona respectively. When looking for a job in the music technology industry, I knew that there were not many cities I could choose; it’s a relatively small industry. After I received my job offer, I moved to Berlin; I have been living here for almost three years now. I had been here before, so I knew that it was English-friendly. Also, the city hosts many classical musicians thanks to the Berlin Philharmonic and conservatories, which means that I always could find some of my former classmates here. So, relocation was pretty easy for me.

Outside of work, I love piano, music composition, and writing software for music theory analysis. I first became interested in piano when I was four years old, and my family moved to a new apartment. Near my new home, there was a music academy teaching the piano. I always heard music coming out from there and was curious about it. So, I started learning the piano, and I haven’t stopped since then.

For classical music, I often listen to Martha Argerich. In my opinion, she always stays creative with her musical interpretation without losing any technical details. Before the Covid pandemic, she had a concert in Berlin. It was amazing to watch how she could play the piano flawlessly when she’s almost 80-years-old. I also like French composers from the 20th century, such as Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. Their harmonic progressions always give me wonder, and their style was very influential when I composed my music. Outside classical music, I enjoy listening to a Jazz pianist called Art Tatum – his skill and creativeness on the piano while improvising is simply incredible. It’s a pity that he died when he was only 47.

I did several piano performances when I was a student. Thanks to my schools, I had many chances to play in public with my classmates, friends, and several charities. I once gave a joint recital with other performers at Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall, New York. Perhaps the most meaningful performance was my graduation recital, for which I had to compose a one-hour program. I was very proud of myself.

Looking at my other activity, I also love Music Composition. While learning the piano, I had to study some basic music theory as well. I noticed that I was good at it, which motivated me to take composition classes. It was fun, and I continued.

When I compose music, I start with a pencil and paper for a general outline. I often play on my keyboard quickly or VST for a big ensemble. For synthetic sounds, I like playing with PureData and SuperCollider. I’ve been using Ableton Live merely for recording and basic DAW functionality, but I’m learning it deeper for its live performance capabilities.

What I love the most about composing music is the fact that I’m in control of the sound that interests me the most. I improvise a lot on my keyboard, but I don’t always write it down because my interest in a specific sound or motif can be temporary; I may find it very interesting today, but not tomorrow. It is liberating to be able to improvise and compose on the fly today and start again with fresh new sound tomorrow.

As a classical musician, I wasn’t familiar with sequencers or synthesizers. When I first used a DAW, I created tracks based on sampling only. So every day, my journey was walking around with a microphone, trying to record intriguing sounds. One day, I decided to record birds singing, so I had to wake up very early. I noticed that there was a totally different soundscape early in the morning. It was a pleasure to be able to observe it. In processing many sound clips, it surprised me that random noise (even annoying noise) could be put together to sound musical. I had to question what constitutes music and how far I could expand it. I think it was an experience that opened my mind.

In the future, I plan to play and record Gaspard de la Nuit by Maurice Ravel on the piano. Back in college, I learned its first movement, Ondine, and played it in front of a MasterClass. I think it was the pinnacle of my piano performance. After that, I became more engaged with studying computer science and engineering, and I could not finish learning the last movement. It’s always been my goal to play the whole piece. For composition, I don’t have a clear goal. I often improvise on my keyboard, but it doesn’t necessarily become a solid piece. Recently, I was looking for intense electronica music with colourful chords, but I wasn’t satisfied. Perhaps this can be my next composition.

I see a few similarities between writing a piece of music and developing a software feature. I have to plan its structure, how it’s presented to others, and define criteria to finish it. I think that finishing is an essential aspect of both music composition and feature development. At some point, I have to call it a day, show it, and move on. On the other hand, playing the piano is like improving the performance of the software and fixing a bug. There is always room to improve, and it’s an open-ended question.

My technological career is directly related to music, so there are undeniable benefits. For a while, I was working on a project to automatically format and generate piano music scores. Because music scores may contain hundreds of distinct symbols, it required a thorough understanding of music notation. Had I not studied composition and music notation, there would have been many obstacles. My technological background helps me understand the physical properties of the piano and sound waves. Pianists like to describe how they touch keys, but I was curious to experiment with how different touching can alter envelopes of sounds. It provides new perspectives and insights.

I believe that the most important thing about playing the piano or composition is to imagine one’s own ideal sound and interpretation before playing anything. It’s tempting to start with a specific medium that produces a physical sound, whether it’s the acoustic piano or a DAW. But if one starts off by playing a physical sound, their musical imagination may be imprinted and limited. I always insist on avoiding it.

There is always more than tech. I think that for technology to advance in the right direction, it needs an understanding of the creative process. I often see intelligent and innovative music interfaces touted as technological advancement. Still, musicians are hesitant to adopt it because they don’t understand the significance of this new technology. When technologists themselves have creative and musical passions, they know both sides. Not only can their voice suggest the subsequent technological development desired most, but they also inspire other musicians to adopt the new technology and enhance their music as well.

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