Formatting Keys to Play

by Roger Moseley, author of Keys to Play: Music as a Ludic Medium from Apollo to Nintendo

This guest post is published in conjunction with the just-concluded annual conference of the American Musicological Society where Keys to Play was awarded the 2017 Otto Kinkeldey Award


Those who write about play from scholarly perspectives are caught in a double bind: the sober imperative to take play seriously is hard to ignore, while the pressure to be suitably whimsical can be equally stifling. When I started tapping on my computer keyboard to form the strands of text that would eventually become Keys to Play, I lacked a clear sense of how the book would trace the course of its ludic subjects (which range from Apollo to Nintendo by way of Mozart) and could not foresee how those strands might be braided in order to bear structural weight.

As someone committed to the history and analysis of media, however, I was all too conscious of the extent to which works of art, fields of play, and discursive parameters are defined by their material affordances and constraints. Perhaps it should have been no surprise, then, that solutions to my quandaries could be found in the multifarious formats—both digital and analog—in which Keys to Play was to be published.

From the start, I was delighted that the book was to appear under the imprimatur of UC Press’s open-access Luminos program. Like many others, I was attracted by the notion of making my research accessible to a broader readership by removing the barrier of cost. What I didn’t initially realize was the degree to which the complementary formats of print-on-demand, PDF, EPUB, and Mobi would help me appreciate how the ludomusical phenomena under discussion could be experienced. In particular, they led me to consider how the book’s audiovisual elements, which include audio recordings I made with my Cornell colleagues and video footage of digital games, might best be integrated.

While companion websites to books on music and the other arts are commonplace, the print and PDF versions of Luminos titles improve the experience by incorporating not only digital object identifier (DOI) links, but also QR codes that, when scanned by a smartphone camera, take the reader directly to the media in question. The EPUB format, which is compatible with both Google Books and Apple’s iBooks, goes one better by embedding audiovisual materials within the document itself: upon tapping any video still or musical example, it starts to play. Keys to Play was the first book in the Luminos program to take advantage of this functionality, which I believe has the potential to transform scholarly writing about music, games, and other media.

The EPUB version of Keys to Play also allows readers to jump around the main text and the endnotes by tapping the note markers. The nonlinearity of this type of navigation guided me toward the structural solution I’d been seeking from the outset. Instead of five traditional chapters, the book comprises five “keys,” each of which consists in turn of five miniature keys.

This recursive arrangement reflects the book’s media-archaeological method as well as the interface of the keyboard itself. Moreover, it enabled me to inject a degree of combinatorial playfulness—one of the book’s central themes—by composing the final miniature key (“Replay: A Cento”) as a permutation of sentences drawn from each of its predecessors. In the EPUB version, tapping the relevant note markers reveals the source of each sentence, which in turn leads back to the concluding section.

With all that said, and despite the exciting opportunities that formats such as EPUB and Mobi present, I must confess that the print-on-demand version of Keys to Play remains closest to my heart. It’s somehow comforting to know that, with the click of a button, the book’s contents can still be tangibly materialized, gathered, and bound. What is more, the speed with which the analog version’s full-color images can be randomly accessed with a flicking thumb puts the search-and-scroll performance of its digital siblings to shame.


Roger Moseley is Assistant Professor of Music at Cornell University. Active as a collaborative pianist on modern and historical instruments, he has published essays on the interface of the keyboard, the performativity of digital games, the practice of eighteenth-century improvisation, and the music of Brahms.

Keys to Play is published in University of California Press’s Luminos open access book program. Click here to download a free digital copy.

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