Reviewing “outsider” music

In past years, I’ve made lists of drone and xenharmonic music. This year, I’d like to review examples of “outsider” music. Also called “naïve” or “incorrect” music, it’s frequently defined as music made by people who lack formal training, or who come from outside the musical establishment. I think the definition is a bit bogus though, because many of the most famous examples don’t actually fit. I would describe it as music with unconventional appeal, often standing diametrically opposite to what is considered “good” in music. And usually there’s a narrative (true or not) about how the artist is leveraging their lack of skill or experience in order to produce something especially unique or authentic.

This is not the sort of article where I praise each and every artist, or advocate for the value of the outsider genre. Rather, my goal is simply to listen to outsider music and give my honest opinion. This list was compiled by looking through other people’s lists (such as this list on RateYourMusic) and selecting those who were most frequently cited. I also threw in a personal favorite.

I think it’s easy to form a self image of being Not Like Other Music Fans, where your favorite music is the weird stuff, and the weirder the better. And that’s me, I have been that guy. But this is hardly a coherent preference, because there are just so many different ways to be weird. And one thing I have learned from writing this article, is that the outsider genre spans quite a large range. What I personally find valuable about the outsider genre is its ability to reveal where one’s preferences actually lie.

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“Red Dress” is incredible, people are toxic

Recently there’s been a music meme going around, “Red Dress” by Sarah Brand:

It sounds to me that the singer has some variety of tone deafness, causing her pitch to be consistently off, sometimes by more than 50 cents. It should be said that many singers bend their pitch slightly, still feeling like the correct note but adding texture and heightening emotional expression. To my ears, Sarah Brand is doing something similar, but in a much broader range such that to many listeners it sounds like it’s no longer the correct note.

And I love it. It’s fun and catchy, and I would listen to more. I’m not even joking.

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A Guide to Xenharmonic Artists

Microtonal music is music that uses pitches that fall between the standard 12 notes used in western music. Xenharmonic is a synonym of “microtonal”, but it often connotes a deliberate effort to incorporate microtonality in a noticeable and essential way.

Xenharmonic isn’t a musical genre exactly, but a characteristic that can apply to music of any genre, from hip hop to pop to rock to metal. However, it is a genre, in the sense that there are people who are especially interested in producing or consuming xenharmonic music. And xenharmonic music does have a predilection towards instruments for which microtonality is easiest to achieve–namely electronic synthesis, guitar, and voice.

Besides its musical characteristics, the most notable thing about xenharmonic music, is that it is outsider music. If you look for xenharmonic music, most of it is not commercially produced, and is instead very roughly produced by enthusiastic individuals still finding their footing (that’s the nice way of saying it’s bad, but FWIW it’s also me). Xenharmonic communities such as the Xenharmonic Alliance are more geared towards creators rather than listeners. If you’re a listener, it takes some dedication to find the stuff that resonates with you most. But that also means you can find some truly unique creative visions.

To help the would-be listener of xenharmonic music, I’m providing a list of “stars” in the xenharmonic scene, artists who are fairly popular within this space.

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In which I program music

In my life I’ve tried many different art forms, and recently I’ve added a new one to the list. I’ve started making music, using programming. No music worth sharing for now, I’m just going to talk about the experience.

To create music, I use a tool called Csound. Csound has its own computer language, which I’ve been intermittently teaching myself over the past year. It’s not an easy tool to use, but it suits me because I’m comfortable with the programming and math, and because I want to full control over the creation of instruments.

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A music theory analysis of SUNN O)))

I’ve complained before about music theory, and how it fails to actually address any of the music I actually like. One kind of music I have in mind is drone music. Consider, for instance, this reddit thread on the music theory of SUNN O)))

Honestly most drone is fifths and minor scales, it’s not really complicated.

The attitude being expressed is that drone music is too simple to require any music theory. This is a failure to engage with the music on its own terms. If that’s all there is, then what, pray tell, distinguishes different songs and artists? Are they just all interchangeable?

While it may be the case that drone music is particularly simple, I feel that this only makes the lack of a music theory all the more frustrating. Most music theory is frankly too complicated for me to understand, and it would actually be nice to have some simple music theory for once, if only music theorists didn’t think it was beneath them. In any case, I think the theory behind drone music is likely more complicated than they are making it out to be. Drone is highly preoccupied with texture (aka timbre)–a subject so difficult that music theory as a field has basically given up on it.

Anyway, in the spirit of being the change I want to see, I analyzed the spectrograms of a couple SUNN O))) songs.

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My guide to drone music

In lieu of my annual music post (my antidote to Christmas music), I’d like to dedicate a post to the drone genre. I will discuss the challenges of drone, how to appreciate it, and share some of my favorite examples, with an eye towards newcomers. Readers are also welcome to skip the discussion and just try the music.

How to appreciate drone

Drones—sustained tones—are one of the oldest musical elements, and appear in all sorts of music. However the present focus is the modern genre of drone, a subgenre of ambient music that prominently features drones. We should also consider adjacent genres such as drone metal, post rock, and shoe gaze; and examples of drone in (20th century) classical music and film soundtracks.

Some music can be difficult because it’s too complex to figure out, but drone tends to be difficult because it seems there is nothing to figure out. It feels like it’s either one note played for ten minutes, or a single phrase repeated ad nauseum for ten minutes. Do fans of drone just like keeping it simple stupid, or is there some hidden complexity you’re missing? Answer: it’s both.

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Measuring musical dissonance

An empirical approach

When we hear two musical notes played together (either in succession, or simultaneously), we often characterize those notes as “dissonant” or “consonant”. But instead of having a sharp dichotomy between dissonance and consonance, it might be more useful to speak of a spectrum between the two. Then, the question before us is how to quantify the dissonance of any pair of notes.

12tone is a cool music theory channel, and he recently published a video discussing the solution thought up by the 18th century mathematician Leonhard Euler. I include the video below, but be warned that I’m going to trash Euler’s answer. I believe that any measure of musical dissonance must, at some point, refer to empirical observations of dissonance. Euler’s answer relies on mathematical supposition, and thus I would deride it as numerology.

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