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.



November 27, 2009

At a jazz history seminar in college, my professor worked his way through the canon of standards and artists. From ragtime and stride piano, all the way through bebop and the “cool” period and beyond. But it was Miles Davis’s 1970 release Bitches Brew that drew the most controversy of all.

A bearded man in his 50’s felt, confidently, that this album is full of noise, not music. He dismissed it as indulgent and pretentious. Some other students agreed to some degree, while others defended the work as a stroke of genius and a pioneering leap in the history of jazz, influencing countless other musicians.

Regardless of opinion, Bitches Brew was one of Miles Davis’s best-selling albums. From Wikipedia:

“Upon release, it received a mixed response, due to the album’s unconventional style and revolutionary sound. Later, Bitches Brew gained recognition as one of jazz’s greatest albums and a progenitor of the jazz rock genre, as well as a major influence on rock and funk musicians.”

My contribution to the jazz seminar discussion was this: an album like Bitches Brew requires a certain level of trust from the listener. When a popular musician releases a different, challenging album, it usually shakes things up. The album may merely be a self-indulgent experiment and a mess of sounds with meandering concepts. But the thing that will bring you past the first-listen opinion of “I don’t get it” to the fifth or sixth listen of “now it makes sense,” is trust.

You need to trust that the musician you loved before did not lose his mind and go off the deep end. You need to trust that his good taste and insight you loved before is present in the new release as well. You need to trust that the album does, in fact, make sense and that it will reward repeated listenings. If you don’t trust the artist, and have good reason to believe there is no sense beneath the experimentation, then the first listen will likely be enough and you can dismiss at will.

The point is this: if you trust the artist, then make an effort before drawing a conclusion.

Dr. Cornel West on Jazz…

June 22, 2009


“In classical music, love is based on bitin’ — imitation. It’s not based on interpretation. A jazz musician, if he plays someone else’s song, has a responsibility to make a distinct and original statement.”

Dr. Cornel West, philosopher, author, professor (b. June 2, 1953)


March 26, 2009
Duke Ellington writing music.  Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Duke Ellington writing music. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Many people like to assert that creative endeavors, such as writing music or watercolor painting or graphic design, are simply work and should be treated the same as any other job.

Those people are wrong.

The act of creating, which is ‘creativity’ in its truest sense, requires a much longer period of incubation than, say, spreadsheet revisions or database entries. The shuffling of papers and carrying out of daily tasks in an office are routines, and are work only insofar as they take up time and earn money for the doer. That’s not to downplay their importance or relevance, or disrespect those whose work matches that description (I happen to be one of them at times), but those tasks can often be executed with little regard paid to attention.

By contrast, Guitarist Carlos Santana once said that when he practices at night the first two hours are spent going through chords, scales, modes, exploring noise and effects, essentially doodling with sound… until he finally breaks into a groove and a spirit where inspiration takes over and he actually begins creating. This is when he starts recording his ideas, building on them, and adding to them later in an organic and diligent act of creation.

Note that creative work is engendered by a slow and steady method of focused attention. Your habits and routines need to respect this necessity. Though original flashes of insight can occur quickly, the actual creation of an enduring work of art or writing or design takes time… the kind of time you cannot glean from commercial breaks or the 20 minutes before a night out. If you attempt to create within the spaces of your day you will be left with work that is equally as disjointed.

Be methodical. Create routine. And use plenty of time!

Incubate your ideas.

Thelonius Advice

February 2, 2009


Advice from jazz legend Thelonius Monk, as written by drummer Steve Lacey (1960)

The music of productivity.

January 17, 2009

sidewalk art

Sidewalk art by James De La Vega, spotted in New York’s East Village 

There is a current trend of so-called “productivity” blogs that have been popping up all over the internet. What many consider to be the original, Lifehack, has now spawned countless others: ZenHabits, 43Folders, Get Rich Slowly…… you know what, just peruse the list compiled here. You’ll get the idea. The goal of these blogs is first to inspire readers, then provide them with tools and advice for optimizing their lives, achieve their goals, make more money, and become as efficient as possible.

The irony of this overwhelming glut of productivity advice is the fact that the sheer effort required to read all of it is immensely counterproductive. It’s a gigantic distraction feed. I have no faith that the value gained from the tips outweighs the lost time in reading them in the first place. A cursory glance over a handful of top productivity blogs, over the course of a couple weeks, should give you just about everything you need to know. The rest is filler and book-hawking.

I like to distill overly complex themes and ideas into completely simple guidelines. In the case of personal productivity and efficiency (that is, actually getting things done), these guidelines are reflected perfectly in music:

Get into a rhythm – Being productive is about consistency over time, not inspirational fits and starts. Create a groove, don’t wait for one. Set a schedule and stick to it. Record your schedule in Google Calendar and set it to send you text message reminders. Stick to your schedule no matter what. This rhythm will give way to habit. Habit gives way to routine. You will churn out results when your metronome is steadily clicking.

Limit background noise and feedback – The best way to get things done is to stay focused. The best way to stay focused is to control your environment, not your behavior. A guitarist doesn’t play louder to be heard over street noise, he simply soundproofs his studio. Do your creative work in a designated work area, and keep it free from distractions. No gadgets on the desk, no extraneous photographs. When you limit your surroundings there is less to be distracted by. It’s the same principle that people use when dieting: instead of restraining your urge to eat a candy bar, just don’t keep a candy bar in your house in the first place.

Play your part and play it well – Do one thing at a time. This is a principle applied passionately by jazz musicians, where a soloist’s role in a combo is extremely important. You can’t afford to do more than one thing at a time. When another musician is playing, you listen. When you’re playing, you play. Give and take, but not at the same time. Multitasking is the biggest cause of counterproductivity. The mental effort required to start a task in the first place demands that you stick with that task until it’s completed. Starting a task, then starting another task, and then returning to the first task will result in poorer quality overall, and a much longer timeframe for completion. Do one thing at a time, and make each thing you do an exercise in excellence.

Give it some soulVan Morrison said, when speaking of Sam Cooke, “If a singer is not singing from the soul, then I do not want to even listen to it. It’s not for me.” The same is true with your own project or career. Inject your endeavors with soul or else they’re not worth a damn thing. You need to actually care about something in order to do it well. Work with passion and honesty and grit. Love what you’re doing. Your intensity comes through naturally in whatever task you’re performing, and intensity is infectious.

Let it breathe – Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was a huge proponent of playing the spaces. “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,” he said. In this way, a single note must carry the weight and emotional load of 10 lesser notes. When there are fewer notes in a piece of music, each note becomes more important. View your tasks, errands, and endeavors as musical notes. Don’t fill your day with too many of them, and fill the rest of your day by “playing what’s not there.” Relax. Have fun. Make your periods of work intense and productive, but limit them. Give them “end” times. Respect those work periods and don’t let them bleed into your “free” time. Weave both together like lines of counterpoint instead of segmenting them off from one another completely. Play the notes, but live in the spaces.

It’s all music.

Recommended reading:

How Jazz Can Change Your Life

November 2, 2008

“When someone reaches up to kiss you or says, “I love you,” those acts are reductions of that bigger feeling. But if someone figures out how to communicate that big feeling–how to master a moment of soul–he or she just looks at you with directness and honesty and love. Eyes alone can warm your entire body.”

Wynton Marsalis, on the power of jazz

That quote is from Wynton’s new book, Moving To Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life. There’s also an interview on the page. (just follow the link)

Great interview. Great book. Check them both out.