Archive for the 'Music' Category

Programming the brain with music

I’m sure most people are, by now, sick of me repeating my belief that emotions are merely physical sensations felt in the body, often the viscera. (If you’re not, here’s a good, detailed rundown.) Basically, I see the process as a computational one. Your brain received some input, say, your girlfriend announcing that she’s been having an affair with your brother, and your brain/body outputs emotion in the form of felt changes in the body like a stomach ache, the tightening of the chest, involuntary gnashing of teeth etc.

I’ve been working on a score for a short horror film lately and am realizing how much of my job is to program the viewer’s brain to have an emotional response. So if character is walking towards a house with a killer in it, I use music to ratchet up the tension, to cause chills to run down the viewer’s spine (or some similar symptom of fear.) Am I succeeding at this? In some cases yes, in others no. It’s a delicate art, one I haven’t really figured out. It’s a matter of learning what specific musical “tools” cause what specific emotional reactions. With horror you end up working with a lot of dissonant chords and melodies, even getting into atonal music. (Atonal means there’s no clear main chord that the music can resolve to. This works perfectly for scenes of unresolved ambiguity.)

Ultimately, it would be nice to really map out the connections between music and emotions so that you could literally program people’s emotional by playing a piece of music. Then I could program unwilling victims to become my army of the night, to go forth and commit heinous acts in my name. And when the police arrived at my doorstep and I would merely blush and say, “What, me? I’m just sitting here playing the piano.”


Why must music be unique?

I continue to read David Cope’s “Computer Models of Creativity” which documents his process of creating computer software that can compose music. One point he makes is that context plays into how we respond to music. If we know a musician led a troubled, tragic life we imbue their music with a certain emotional resonance that might not really be there. Or, if we are told the music is about something meaningful, we hear meaning. Cope tells a story of composing a piece of music mainly as an exercise. He was then asked to compose a piece of music for a friend’s memorial service. Being short on time, he used the aforementioned composition. People at the memorial commented on the sadness and “funereal sense” the music provided, even though the music was written as an academic excercise.

In the book, Cope describes another contextual property of music: its uniqueness! He explains…

Since 1980, I have made extraordinary attempts to have Experiments in Musical Intelligence’s [his computer composition software] works performed. Unfortunately, my successes have been few. Performers rarely consider these works seriously. A friend of mine has noted the intimidating nature of the number of outputs possible from computer programs. Uniqueness, he feels, is an extremely important factor in human aesthetics. Knowing that my programs represent an almost infinite font of such works apparently renders them less interesting, no matter how beautiful and different from one another they may be. For many, knowing that I could restart my program at any time, and program a thousand more works, apparently lessens their interest in the one. … This sense of uniqueness is heightened by the fact that for human-created works at least, composers die.

Speaking to that last point, we see this all the time. Jimi Hendrix is alive and well and that 45 he recorded ten years back is worth X dollars. Suddenly he dies and it’s worth much more, even though it’s the same item it was a day previous.

And I think we all understand the general sense Cope is speaking of in that paragraph. It is why a handmade item is worth much more than a factory assembled item which may be of much sturdier construction. This is why people pay millions of dollars for a painting and 30 bucks tops for a poster.

But why does uniqueness drive value? Evolutionary psychology posits a general answer. Those who possess unique things are demonstrating their power and power is an aphrodisiac which increases your ability to pass on genes etc.

I wonder whether we are entering an age of computer produced art, music, film, fiction and what not, and whether that emergence of that age will deflate the market for creative products. I don’t simply ask whether we will pay less for the arts, but whether will we actually enjoy them less? Will knowing that the music we are listening to could have been created in a nanosecond by an artificial intelligence program (regardless of whether it actually was) deprive us of its pleasures?

In closing, I ask you to make note of my subtle yet dramatic use of italicization in this post.

The computer music of David Cope

Lately I’ve been reading a book called “Computer Models of Musical Creativity” by David Cope. Cope is a musician and programmer who has created software which composes classical music, usually within the style of existing historical composers. The method by which the software does this is complex – you basically have to read the book to understand it – but it does create “human sounding” music that is good, if not great.

One question I’ve had while reading the book is why Cope limits himself to (western) classical music. He explains…

Popular music, for the most part, relies on lyrics, particular timbres, performance context, and many other factors my program cannot control. The mere fact that we know most popular music by its performer, rather than its composer, should confirm the problem.

(Italics are Cope’s.)

He makes a good case, especially in regards to timbre. A song originally played on electric guitar but transferred to zither will not have the same impact. The electric guitar has a certain beefy, manly machismo that gets lost with other instruments. Cope’s point is that it’s not the notes themselves that drive, say, “Black Dog” by Zeppelin, but the notes combined with the guitar tone and various other factors and nuances of performance. On the flip side, Bach’s first invention is largely driven by the notes on the page (combined, one hopes, with a good performance.)

Nonetheless, I don’t see why Cope or some other programmer couldn’t create music that takes timbre into account. I could envision a music creation program that tracks trends in instrument timber and then predicts what will be next and generates some very hip music!

Here’s an example of some of Cope’s music. It’s a bit stiff as it is being rendered by a computer (as opposed to being played by a human (which it could be)), but gives you the picture.

Yet another stupid Rock and Roll article

For years I’ve gnashed my teeth while reading idiotic articles that present the history of rock and roll through the lens of punk rock. According to these authors, rock was born a free and rebellious movement, was co-opted by corporate America in the 70s, tried to wrestle free via the punk and grunge movements (insert tear stained worship of Saint Cobain here) and was then finally put to death. These authors never concede that many forces have affected Rock through its history and they certainly never concede that punk rock is – by and large – absolutely worthless dog feces disguised (poorly) as music.

As such, it was quite a pleasure to come across one of these articles and find that it is almost universally panned in the comments section. I can only imagine the young author thought he would achieve some degree of acclaim by parroting the talking points of his Sociology 101 professor but instead found himself mocked and humiliated by his peers. I only pray that such a virtual ass kicking leads him to experience a lifetime of sexual inadequacy.

You can read the piece here: How Technology Killed Rock And Roll. I’ll highlight some of the great replies.

“This is the least cohesive article I’ve ever read on MTT.

Really? Rock n’ roll is dead because of technology? Really?”

“Oh noes! You’ve pushed at your straw man with all your might, and now it’s fallen over.”

“Sorry but this article is complete and utter nonsense,”

“We need a timeline on public announcements that rock and roll was dead, starting maybe in the 1950′s, when it was about to be replaced by trad jazz.”

And on and on…

I.O.U. Soundtrack

I can’t believe I forgot to post these samples from a comedy soundtrack I recently recorded. I can’t believe it!

The harmonic convergence

Music is traditionally thought of as having four components: harmony (chords and counterpoint), melody, rhythm, and timbre (the sound of an instrument.) Music has developed throughout history by experimenting with these components. Bach’s music is relatively simple rhythmically and harmonically (at least compared to, say, Coltrane or Mahler) but very complex melodically; just observe the way his snake-like melodies—sometimes four at a time—interweave amongst themselves.

I want to talk about the component of harmony here. Over time, it has gotten more and more advanced. Baroque music had relatively simple triad harmonies like a major chord (made up of a root note, third, and fifth.) As music changed, more notes were added and we ended up in the realm of Debussy and early 20th century jazz where 13th chords (which contain every note in a scale in one chord) were developed. Chord clusters were also put to work in atonal and “vaguely tonal” music. These are chords containing notes very close together that generate that “cat walking on a piano” sound that’s often used in horror soundtracks.

However, here we are in the modern era and most popular music is again pretty simple harmonically. Chords in pop are generally triads (root, 3rd and 5th) with the occasional 7th chords (root, 3rd, 5th and 7th – four notes total.) One might be tempted to say we are regressing but I suspect we’ve just reached the end point of what we can do to develop harmonies. There’s simply nowhere else to explore, at least that will sound good to most ears.

And pop music is extensively exploring another component of music: timbre. The sounds coming out of guitar effects and synthesizers these days are unusual and revolutionary.

Thus I have spoken.


A while back I stumbled across an interesting and much discussed speech that one of the White House Economic Advisors gave at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Here’s a link to an NPR piece which discusses it and also links to the text of the speech. I think the speech offers a good analysis of the music business and can also be applied to many other industries. I think it also points to a grim, probably unavoidable future for mankind.

The crux of the speech is this. If you were a singer in 1860, you had a limited audience you could service. If you lived in St. Louis, you were limited to people in St. Louis (unless you traveled to New York at which point you could not longer play for people in St. Louis.) Distance basically limited how big you could get; you had to actually be in front of people to sell your product – your voice.

The result was that you had a lot of people in a lot of towns making a living as singers. No one one got really big but they basically got by. Imagine a pie chart representing the potential audience of the world. In 1860 that pie chart would be divied up into tens of thousands of tiny slices owned by each singer in each town etc.

Then radio came along, as did records, tapes, cds etc. Suddenly you could sell your product – your voice – without actually being in front of people. You were much less limited by distance. Certain performers (Al Jolsen, Bing Crosby etc.) grew to be considered the best and grabbed a much bigger slice of the pie. The losers crawled into an alley and died.

Now we have Beyonce and Jay-Z owning a giant chunk of the pie while unappreciated talents such as myself toil in obscurity. (My dad made an interesting point about this – Michael Jackson is still selling tons of albums and he’s dead! With recordings, even death is no barrier to doing business.)

The speech gave evidence of something I think we suspect to be true – that “the best” in the world of music may be partly just “luckier” (and better marketed, branded etc.) Once the hype machine gets going, people figure it’s easier to just buy some album that’s been given the stamp of approval by the masses than take a chance on something unknown.

As we think about it, we can see that this process applies to more than just music. Let’s say you want a cola drink in 1860. I suppose you go down to the local drug store and buy a cola drink made with syrup from a semi-local cola manufacturer. Maybe it’s “Bob’s Cola.” No one can really dominate the cola market because the barrier of distance prevents any one manufacturer from getting into every city in the U.S. But trains start to get better and distribution networks develop and suddenly Coke is king (and Pepsi not far behind.) “Bob’s Cola”, which used to have a small slice of the cola pie, is now gone.

Basically, over the course of the past 150 years we’ve had an increase in networking and distribution and that has enabled market victors to increase their share over various markets. But this is just the beginning. The world is becoming even more networked at a dizzying rate. Will the victors increase their share of the pie more and more until they own the whole thing? Are we headed towards an increase in unequal distribution of wealth? Will hordes of cannibalistic zombies rise from the earth and seek human flesh? The answer to all these questions can only be “YES!”

The era of electronic music

I’ve long loathed the pretentious writing of New Yorker music writer Sasha-Frere Jones. I’ve spent considerable hours envisioning his screaming body being dipped into a vat of boiling hot AIDS. Nonetheless, he has a pretty good recent post about the challenges for musicians in the Spotify fueled era of free music.

What about an excellent, working band like Dawn of Midi, whose new album, “Dysnomia,” received a score of 7.9 in Pitchfork this week? (I’d say 8.9 but who’s counting?) This band uses a grand piano, an upright bass, and a drum set to make their music; touring means they either play venues with grand pianos on site (relatively common) or that they rent a very big van (uncommon, if we’re talking about small bands trying to drag around a grand piano). More to the point, their music needs to be recorded in a well-equipped live studio by a skilled engineer; Garageband and other popular home-recording software programs are of no use in properly capturing a mechanically traditional band, that is, despite an advanced aesthetic vision. Some kind of business model needs to remain in place, or we won’t have albums like “Dysnomia.”

This makes a point I’ve been thought about. In this new era, where the music is essentially a giveaway (hopefully to build audiences for live shows or increase t-shirt sales), music produced electronically has a distinct advantage. If you have even a bare bones digital music recording set up (such as Garageband which is free with Macs) and some good samples, it’s not that hard to produce good sounding music. (I’ve recorded plenty and posted it here. You can argue about the quality, I suppose, but some of it has gotten on television and in short films.) All you really need to invest is time. But if you want to record live instruments (guitars, drums, tubas, voice, etc.) you need space to record them (ideally space designed for proper acoustics), expensive mics, maybe some amps, etc. The proposition gets a whole lot pricier.

Here’s a scenario that illustrates the issue. Let’s say you’re doing a film score and the director says, “I want some slow, soothing chords over this scene.” You could write out some music for four cellos, hire the players, rent a studio, mike the instruments and record them; this might take days. Or you could sit down at your MIDI keyboard, find a “soothing” patch and knock out a minute’s worth of music. This could be done before lunch.

Now I would generally agree the first option is going to sound better but’s going to cost a lot more.

Soul Bounce

Here’s a new funky instrumental tune I just finished. A lot of the work on this one was getting those bass lines to have that classic 70s funk groove. The 1970s – when women were women and men were pimpin’! Booyahh!

Outsourcing art

Everyone freely concedes that globalization has affected a lot of manufacturing type jobs in 1st world countries. Companies can pay people to assemble widgets in China or Indonesia for a much smaller paycheck then they would in the U.S. or Europe. Customer phone support is another job that has been famously outsourced to places like India.

Years ago I began wondering if creative arts, especially music, would be hit with a similar drag on paychecks because of outsourcing. I was thinking of a scenario where someone might be recording a song in some Hollywood studio. These producers need a killer guitar solo but instead of calling up some Santa Monica hotshot who gets 500$ an hour, they peruse a web directory and find a guitar wiz in China. They pay him 20 bucks (which for him is the equivalent of a thousand) and deliver a hit tune to Ke$ha.

Obviously I don’t think has happened yet. But I just saw something interesting. AudioJungle is a web site that offers music for sale, usually aimed at corporate presentations and videos (I’ve submitted a few tunes.) On a page discussing the successes of some of their members they note:

In some parts of the world, the money you can make on the marketplaces far exceeds what you can make in a normal job. Countries mentioned include Indonesia, India and even Italy.

My suspicion has long been that artistic and creative jobs – often presumed to be above the paycheck minimizing effects of technological innovation and globalization – will be shown to be no more secure than factory or phone support jobs. And artists and musicians will roam the streets hungry and destitute, begging for alms.