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 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…

99 Ways To Play Better

July 26, 2009


99 Ways to Play Better – A great post over at the Guitar Player website, which includes quotes from famous guitarists about ways they keep their playing fresh, inspired. Some of my favorite quotes form the list:

“Moving into uncharted territory is a key ingredient to making your practice sessions a success. Playing the same stuff over and over will only take you so far.” – Joe Satriani

“If you’re in a rut with your electric playing, pick up an acoustic. There’s something about playing the acoustic guitar that makes you think about songs.” – Buck Dharma

“Learn everything you know in all keys.” – Joe Pass

“In the long run, it’s more important to look at paintings than to listen to the way somebody plays bebop lines.” – Jim Hall

“Over-indulgence in anything is wrong—whether it’s practicing 50 hours a day, or eating too much food. There’s a balance with me, as there should be with everything and everybody.” – Jeff Beck

“Keep your guitar out of the case and handy. Practice short periods—anywhere from five to 45 minutes—many times throughout the day, rather than for one prolonged period. Often times, five minutes is enough time to work on a technique or musical passage. The whole idea of practice is to get your reflexes working like a gunfighter’s, so you can pull out that gun and be instantly hot.” – Barney Kessel

“Play a new thing every day.” – Ry Cooder

I would add that it’s also important to seek out quotes like these, to read guitar magazines, to take part in message boards full of guitar players… you need to find resourcs like these that can keep feeding your desire to learn more, to practice more, and to stay interested.

Boredom and familiarity are the enemy, and you need to actively beat them away.

Music from a Tree

July 19, 2009


“Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations, the latter (like the river banks) forcing the spontaneity into the various forms which are essential to the work of art or poem.” – Rollo May

Diego Stocco is a man who once saw a tree and decided to make music with it. Armed with some microphones, a modified stethoscope, a bow, and a Pro Tools LE system, he composed an entire piece of music using only unmodified sounds formed from the tree itself. Check out the final result here: Diego Stucco’s “Music From a Tree”

[Related post: “By Any Other Name…“]


February 16, 2009


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.

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:

You Don’t Know Diddley

June 3, 2008

Rock and Roll legend Bo Diddley died on Monday, June 2nd. His influence cannotbe underestimated. His signature lick was a rhythmic pattern sometimes referred to as “shave and a haircut, two bits.”

You all know it. You’ve heard it countless times, as this rhythm has formed the backbone of so many great rock and roll tunes. It started with Diddley:

Here’s an example of the original “Bo Diddley” rhythm:

Here’s U2 using the rhythm in “Desire”:

The Rolling Stones used it in “Don’t Fade Away,” which is a cover of Buddy Holly’s original:

The Bow Wow Wows famous rendition of “I Want Candy” by the Strangeloves:

 “Willie and the Hand Jive” by Johnny Otis:

George Thorogood playing “Who Do You Love”:

“Faith” by George Michael:


You’ll hear it everywhere, and for that reason Bo Diddley will live on…