YouTube as an Instrument

May 1, 2011


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.

Windows 98 Remix

October 10, 2010

Further muddying the waters between sound and music:

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.

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.

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…“]

Kate Earl – Best New Artist of 2009

June 13, 2009
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson, © All rights reserved

Photo by Todd V. Wolfson, © All rights reserved

I’m 1 for 1 on Best New Artist predictions so far (proof here in 2008…), so I suggest you take heed.

Her name is Kate Earl, and she just released her EP on June 9th. You can pick it up on iTunes or AmazonMP3: Introducing Kate Earl – EP

The EP is a playful and layered mixture: on top is Kate’s delicately powerful vocals, which are a foil to the beats and syncopation trading blows below. The tunes have dub-appeal—there’s a hint of reggae infused in there somewhere, but it’s the catchy (sometimes haunting) melodies that stand alone, and separate Kate from her peers on the music scene these days.

It’s soulful and  fun and relevant, but the reason I am predicting Kate’s profound success this year is because of her songwriting. These songs are hers, and the glossy pop brilliance is rooted in deceptively mature taste and craftsmanship. What I’m getting at is this: these songs hold up without the production, which is a notoriously difficult quality to find these days, especially in great singers. If you need proof, check out the video below which features Kate on solo piano playing her song “Melody:”