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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The ethics of music in public spaces

On multiple occasions, I have toyed with the idea that it is unethical to play music in public places. It’s an idea that is difficult to take seriously, because it’s just so contrary to the culture we currently live in. Current norms surrounding public music seem to work just fine, so why try to fix what ain’t broken? And yet, it’s difficult for me to say exactly why the status quo is okay.

What follows is my argument as to why playing music in public spaces might be wrong. The goal is not to persuade you of the argument’s conclusion, especially when it’s a conclusion I don’t believe myself, but to persuade you that it’s a nontrivial question.

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A music post for 2018

So, I’m disappearing for the rest of winter break.  I leave you with my annual music post, where I share a few bits of music that I enjoyed in the past year.  See you in 2019.

1. The Mercury Tree & Cryptic Ruse – The Cold Flame Burns

You know how earlier I was talking about microtonal (or xenharmonic) music? Well here it is, the best xenharmonic rock.  In general, I think both Mercury Tree and Cryptic Ruse are the best current xenharmonic artists.

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I tried microtonal music and liked it

The pitch of a note is determined by its frequency, and frequency can vary within a continuous spectrum. And yet, in the western music tradition, we only use frequencies with discrete values. That’s not a bad thing, but it implies a whole world of possibilities not explored. Microtonal music, also known as xenharmonic music, sets out to make use of the unused frequencies.

I recently tried listening to a lot of microtonal music, because I discovered that you can find lots of it through the microtonal tag on Bandcamp. Sure, a lot of it isn’t very good because anyone can put music on Bandcamp, but there were enough gems that I continued to peruse the tag. I’ll share just two examples. First, I selected Brendan Byrnes, because I think his music has the most pop appeal, while also being unapologetically microtonal.

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