SoundPrism

April 7, 2011

“Music like you’ve never seen before.”

SoundPrism is a brand new app that completely reimagines musical notation and how sound is visualized. The imagination required to do this is impressive, but it’s the nuanced execution and beautiful design that make it noteworthy.

At its core, SoundPrism is simply a music sequencer that is beautiful and easy to use. But that completely undersells what’s going on here and the level of consideration that went into its creation. To get a feel for what this app is all about, check out this introductory video:

Here are three key takeaways I want to point out:

“SoundPrism is based on the theory that music is interesting if you create tension and release it.”

This quote from the clip is absolutely true, and the foundation of all Western music theory. Music is a beautiful, elaborate departure from the “home” note (the tonic of whatever key you’re in) through various cadences and chord progressions that lead to the chord furthest away from home: the dominant, or V chord, thus creating a faint sense of unease (which I think we’ve all felt when we’re away from home…). The journey back to the tonic note leads to a sigh of relief as the tension is released. Everyone from Chuck Berry to Bach created music with this principle in mind, if only subconsciously. Ever hear of 3-chord rock? The three chords are the I, IV, and V of a key. The progression from I to V and back again is part of the propulsive force that makes the music so dynamic and exciting (along with the rhythm, of course). So while Beethoven’s journey through the 5th Symphony is undeniably epic and complex, blues is simply a distillation of the same tension-and-release principle, boiled down to the most essential chords while keeping the music interesting.

What makes SoundPrism so great is that its creators made a point not just to make the app easy to use, but to make the manipulation of tension and release easy to control. Why? Because it’s an essential part of making interesting pieces of music. It’s a fact that, to my knowledge, has never before been acknowledged by creators of musical software.

You don’t change keys, you change colors.

It’s a synaesthetic‘s dream. When you scroll up on the interface the hue shifts like the Northern Lights. There is no mention of being in F-sharp or B-flat, but rather in “green” or “purple.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the word “tone” is used by both visual artists and musicians to refer to roughly the same concept.

Major and minor modalities are treated independent of key.

Usually one will refer to the mode and the key at the same time. For example, “This song is in D major,” or, “We’ll be transposing this piece into G-minor.” But in SoundPrism you interact with modes in the same way you interact with notes, which is a massively different way of conceptualizing music-making. The odd-numbered horizontal lines are slightly brighter, and gestures along those lines will result in notes in the major mode. The even-numbered horizontal lines are slightly darker and correspond to the minor mode. The SoundPrism creators refer to these modes as “happy” and “sad” respectively, which isn’t a new comparison (this is how most musicians first learn the difference) but somehow seems more appropriate here.

This app, especially in its Pro version with upcoming Core MIDI support, shows a lot of promise for film scoring, demo production, and ambient soundscape creation. But what may be more exciting is what it could bring to the non-musician community, as it strips away some of the layers of technical skill and knowledge required to compose music in the first place.

The future definitely looks bright… and colorful.

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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.


Platonic… Music?

July 9, 2010

Courtesy Jay Kennedy

“Looking at Plato’s works in their original scroll form, he noticed that every 12 lines there was a passage that discussed music.” – excerpt from NPR.org:  “A Musical Message Discovered In Plato’s Works

This article is fascinating to me, not because of the DaVinci Code-like revelation, but rather the emphasis on the number 12. It is a story that, yet again, links mathematics and music. It also dovetails nicely with a post of mine from January 2009 (“Twelve“), while referencing Pythagoras and the importance placed on ratio and proportion (also detailed here, “The Golden Page“)

There is no real conclusion drawn from the NPR feature, so we are left wondering why the preeminent thinker of 300 B.C. felt strongly enough about music to encode its defining principles into an otherwise non-musical work. The real takeaway here, and this is irrefutable: Plato felt compelled to draw connections between various arts and disciplines. Perhaps by conceptually linking disparate ideas, Plato believed he could reconcile the conflict and strife that always seem to arise when concepts appear at odds. (Science vs. religion, math vs. art, sculpture vs. painting, etc…)

These links and connections, as expressed through music, are what BlogSounds is all about.


A Master Class in Songwriting

June 18, 2010

This is brilliant. Paul Simon sits down with Dick Cavett to discuss music, and he uses his then-unfinished song, “Still Crazy After All These Years,” to demonstrate his take on songwriting and music theory. His bridge begins with a D9 chord, which he introduces for the sole purpose of introducing C and C-sharp—two notes that haven’t been used in the song yet. He even gives a great breakdown of a guitar’s standard tuning and the fact that all of those open strings actually do form a legitimate chord… two actually: E minor 7th and G6: Both chords are identical in the notes they include.

Aside from the sad fact that you would never see this type of discussion on a talk show these days, I find remarkable the topics that get introduced along the way:

“It’s one of those lines that has the right inflection… it swings.” – Paul Simon drops this offhanded remark after Dick Cavett playfully interjects, “Have you ever reached for your C-sharp and gotten your C-natural?” Paul picks up on the cadence and rhythm of Cavett’s sentence, not its meaning.

“You’re Theatre People. Theatre People come at music from another direction.” – Paul notes that your relationship with music affects your knowledge of it. Paul, being a musical architect of sorts, knows the engineering of it, naming chords and resolving cadences. Cavett, ever the entertainer, adores music (enough to have a conversation like this on television) but through a different lens. It’s an astute observation by Paul: music means different things to different people.

“I imagine the same principle would hold true in comedy…” – Comedy?! Yes. Right in line with his comments about the timing and inflection of Cavett’s “joke,” Paul compares music theory to comedy, and rightfully so. Timing, delivery, freshness, variety… all adjectives at home in both worlds.

The point here is that a topic like music invariably opens up conversation into the rest of the humanities. I truly believe that the arts are somehow linked on a primal, atavistic level and that all artists are using the same creative fuel.


Context

September 20, 2009

major-key-chord-chart

I was in a meeting recently with some members of my company’s executive team. It was a brainstorming session regarding the “big picture” roadmap and how we can effectively drive our customers to use the more advanced features and options our product has to offer in order to improve their businesses.

My two cents amounted to this: we need to think more musically.

When you begin learning about melody and harmony as the organizing principles behind the establishment of a key, you begin to realize that notes, in and of themselves, don’t mean anything. A note only begins to make sense when there is another note before and after it. And, in harmonic terms, a note only begins to take on “meaning” when additional notes are added on top of one another. An E played by itself does not suggest anything. It could be a note of any number of millions of melodies, and it could be either the root note or the add9 of any number of chords. It could be the V or the I, the ii or the VII…

Until you give a note context, you have not actually created anything. A note by itself is nice, but it is only when you combine it with certain other notes that you have created something of value. Context creates the music.

Don’t give customers features, give them several features that combine to create a solution. Play them chords.


Rubato

February 16, 2009

Rubato

Rubato must emerge spontaneously from the music, it can’t be calculated but must be totally free. It’s not even something you can teach: each performer must feel it on the basis of his or her own sensitivity. There’s no magic formula: to assume otherwise would be ridiculous.¹

There is a concept in music called rubato. It is essentially rhythmic improvisation—an unrestricted tempo indication that breaks passages free of their strict metronomic pulse and open to a more visceral emotional interpretation.

In a piece of music, the composer will mark rubato in the same way he or she will mark allegro, presto, or adagietto. There is actually a standardized vocabulary that composers use to best describe the approximate speed a piece should be played at. I do stress “approximate.” For instance, andante is literally translated as “walking” and indicates what is essentially a walking pace. But if one is a particularly fast walker then this direction can be grossly misinterpreted…

Rubato, when used tastefully and in accordance with a music’s ebb and flow, can bring heat and vigor to the composition. It is also the mark of a generous composer. When one dedicates months, often years, to create and refine a work down to the finest of grace notes and layered rhythms and chords, it is only the most confident among us who can let go of the reigns, if only for a few measures, and let the musician off the leash. Depending on the mood of the player, the age of the instrument, and the happiness of the audience, the rubato section can take on very different feelings from performance to performance. (For more on the power of an audience to affect reality, look no further than The Observer Effect in physics…)

To me, rubato is the act of letting go, both for the composer and the musician. The composer must let go of her work and leave it in the hands of the performer, and the performer must let go of  his innate tendency to read music visually instead of emotionally.

Rubato, then, is simply the art of living. It is one’s ability and willingness to use plans and goals (and sheet music) to guide the journey rather than govern it.

(Rubato is also featured in pop music. The most obvious example can be heard in Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes.”)

[1] Maurizio Pollini, interviewed by Carsten Dürer (editor in chief of PIANONews) – Deutsche Grammophon.

Resolutions

January 21, 2009

chord_resolution

A new year arrives, and so do the resolutions. January is the Month of Resolve. And it’s in this way that we can all learn a thing or two from music theory.

Music (Western music, that is. The Chuck Berrys, Beethovens, and Thelonius Monks…) is built almost entirely on the need for resolution. Resolution is the movement from dissonance (the jarring sound of notes that don’t sound quite right together) to consonance (the satisfying sound of that final chord of a favorite tune.). Music is actually compelled to come to a resolution. And its the drama of tension-and-release, consonance-and-dissonance, that skilled composers wield when crafting a piece of music. This is harmony. The sound of cooperation and agreement.

In the key of C, a G7-chord makes your ear CRAVE the sound of a C-chord. Your ears need to hear it next. And when they do, when that C-chord is finally strummed, you feel at ease. Imagine for a second that someone is singing “Row Row Row Your Boat”:

Row, row, row your boat

Gently down the stream

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

Life is but a…

This uncomfortable feeling of incompleteness is the dark side of harmony. But I find it interesting that people, like sounds, have a compulsion to come to a resolution. The trick to keeping your new year’s resolutions, then, is to somehow link your inability to follow-through with the unfinished line of a nursery rhyme. An incomplete resolution should bother you as much as hearing “Happy Birthday” without the final “you.”

That’s the ‘key’ to completing any task: it should bother you enough not to leave it undone. If music can care enough to resolve, then you should probably care enough too.