Sonar composition.

May 8, 2011

This casual music-making tool from the blog littleover. is a great introduction to composition. The premise couldn’t be simpler: click on boxes to add notes to the looping, sonar-like “strum.” As you add notes you start to get a feel for what the low (“bass”) notes bring to the piece, how multiple notes stacked together (“chords”) can add richness, and how overstacking leads to a muddled, less desirable sound. You start to hear potential melodic lines as the highest notes in a pattern begin to stand out, and you begin to appreciate the value of space and variety when planning rhythms and harmony.

The low barrier to entry is what I like most about this little widget. While aesthetically similar to Soundprism, it functions more as a tool for brainstorming and warming up the creative juices rather than formal composition. Its repetitive looping led my brother to dub it: “instant Radiohead.”

It’s surprisingly addicting, too…


Video Games: Some Musical Insights

October 18, 2010

Cruise Elroy is a self-proclaimed “blog about video games and, especially, video game music.” It combines a spartan page design, solid insights, and embedded musical examples to give the reader a stronger appreciation of the artistic merit of video games.

Of all the blogs I subscribe to, this one gives the biggest return in terms of content. Take this particular insight from a post on “Irregular meter in video games”:

“Remember the race results screen in Mario Kart 64? Most likely you skipped past it with barely a glance at the scoreboard, but if you stuck around for a moment you’d have heard this gem from composer Kenta Nagata… Despite being in 11/8, I think this rhythm feels pretty natural. Kudos to Nagata for smoothing over the strange time signature.”

The skill required to take an unusual time signature and make it sound altogether natural should not be underestimated. (Dave Brubeck’s classic jazz album Time Out is one of the most famous explorations of this concept). We are conditioned to “hear” things in 4/4 or 3/4 time. It’s the rhythmic basis for most popular music, and the easiest rhythm to learn (at least to my Western ears). Irregular meter feels unnatural at first, which leads me to believe that composers writing in an odd time signature are simply not thinking about the time signature. It’s akin to writing a novel without thinking about the conventions of punctuation and paragraph structure, or painting with complete disregard for the nature of the paint and brushes.

Here’s another great insight regarding one of my favorite tunes from Sonic the Hedgehog, in the post “Spring Yard Zone”:

“Why does this work? I suspect that years of jazz and pop harmony have trained our ears to accept all kinds of modifications to ii-V-I chords: sevenths, tritone substitutions, altered chords, and so on. Given that context, using m9 in place of m7♭5 doesn’t seem like such a big deal. The Spring Yard Zone theme does push its luck, as it were, by prominently featuring the F♯ in the melody, but I found that to be a pleasant dissonance and not an ugly one.”

Here’s to filling our lives with pleasant dissonances and not ugly ones.


Music Philosophy: Lyrics as Graphics

September 8, 2010

While neither philosophical nor particularly musical, the designer Mico has applied his graphic design prowess to music quotes. Enjoy. “Music Philosophy

(You can also snag poster versions of your favorite quotes over at Etsy)

Related post: “Music philosophy,” combining music and graphics


Musical Insights

August 4, 2010

The TED Conferences (self-described as “riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world”) are a highly acclaimed series of presentations from the world’s most influential thinkers, innovators, and artists. Brilliant minds speaking about important topics in an approachable way.

I wanted to draw attention to one music-focused talk that I found particularly interesting. Watching the video would probably be one of the better uses of 20 minutes you ever spend in your life, but I wanted to point out some highlights and insights:

Benjamin Zander on music and passion

  • Zander, in a compellingly funny and animated way, attempts to prove that A.) no one is tone deaf, and B.) that classical music is not dead. Both lofty ideas that are convincingly explained.
  • I’m not gonna go on until every single person in this room, downstairs, and in Aspen, and everybody else looking, will come to love and understand classical music.” You may be skeptical at this point, but aside from that: why does this statement matter? He goes on: “You’ll notice there’s not the slightest doubt in my mind that this is gonna work… it’s one of the characteristics of a leader that he not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people he’s leading to realize whatever he’s dreaming. Imagine if Martin Luther King said ‘I have a dream!…. of course I’m not sure they’ll be up to it…’ “
  • He proceeds to play a Chopin prelude and, with some explanation (“This is a B, and this is a C. And the job of the C is to make the B sound sad.”) and one simple seed of an idea, transforms the listener into fully appreciating the piece on an emotional level. He includes comparisons to Shakespeare, Nelson Mandela, birds, Irish street kids, and an Auschwitz survivor along the way.
  • The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound… he depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful. My job was to awaken possibility in other people.”

While music is one of the best ways to tap into emotions and creativity, I also argue that music is another form of philosophy. It’s one of the reasons I chose to study music at a university level, and why I continue to apply musical theory to almost every endeavor I take on. It’s a facet that Zander seems to appreciate as well. Studying and listening to music can unlock and refine a whole array of skills that are as useful in the music world as they are in other disciplines.

  • The sheer art of listening (which is a learned skill, mind you, and requires lots of practice…) is probably the most essential ability one can possess when working with colleagues or holding a leadership position. Studying music teaches you to listen differently, more carefully, and to be perceptive of nuance and subtlety.
  • Playing music with other people makes apparent the necessity for generosity, trust, cooperation, and teamwork. None of these things are ever mentioned when playing a 12-bar blues with some friends, but the best musicians (and leaders) practice all of them at all times.
  • Music theory blends mathematical concepts with imagination, emotion, and creativity. This delicate balance of structural integrity and freedom is a struggle faced by most entrepreneurs and CEO’s the world over. Building an organization, whether it’s a church or school or community or business, requires a successful balance of Policy and Ideas. Procedure and Dreaming. This is something musicians practice daily.

Music-as-Philosophy is a topic best saved for a separate post, but the point is: music appreciation leads to the appreciation of other facets of life. Music is simply a means to an insightful end.


Music and Hands

June 13, 2010

The Hands Symphony is an interactive website sponsored by the American Heart Association. Choose from one of three styles of music, then click your way through various “hand instruments” as you introduce them to the piece.

If nothing else, this is a great example of using the barest of essentials to create. Remember this website when you keep insisting to yourself that you NEED that new instrument/program/pedal/gadget etc…


Music Thoughts

December 26, 2009

Music Thoughts. A great source for a little wisdom from the waves…


From The Basement

December 21, 2009

Here are some fresh, live acts From The Basement.

This site is a great example of what happens when you synergize design and performance. It’s not enough to have a website full of exclusive clips of great artists. Here are some reasons From The Basement engages the viewer, besides the quality performances:

  • The link to each performance is a screenshot of said performance, and the photo is LARGE. Large photos are inviting and compelling, and the fact that it’s a screenshot gives the site an honest, transparent quality.
  • The look and feel of each screenshot (and, therefore, each performance) is consistent. This is not a collection of random performances at different venues. Each act performs in the same space, giving the whole site cohesion.
  • There are not a lot of words. Actions and visuals  speak louder. The site is as immediate and up-front as a live performance.
  • The artist selections were clearly governed by taste and preference, not charts and numbers. I find it appealing that the selection of artists is not Top 40, and not strictly independent, but a carefully chosen hybrid of the two. This site is not trying to please the masses, they are trying to please themselves.

There is an inherent sense of quality in the choices made on this website. Content is not always king. The way in which you deliver content matters.