My history in music

At the end of each year, I have a tradition of sharing a bunch of music. It started out as a little antidote to Christmas music, but then I started to focus on a different theme each year.

Today, I’d like to share music that represents my personal trajectory. I started listening to music in high school–and by that I mean actually choosing music for myself instead of just listening to whatever’s playing on the radio. At first, I gravitated towards electronic and techno. From there I started following a few individual rock bands. Then I went into more niche genres.  There were several different threads running in parallel, and I’d like to share a few examples of each.

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How to hear FM Synthesis

A big reason why I enjoy dabbling in electronic music production is that it’s a way of directly transforming math into physical sensation. It’s math you can literally hear. One of the most incredible examples is FM synthesis.

FM stands for frequency modulation. That means that you change the frequency of a note over time, generally in a cyclical pattern. Our ears interpret frequency as pitch, so this may sound like a pitch that fluctuates over time. However, if the fluctuation occurs fast enough, our ears can no longer track it, and it begins to sound completely different.

Try listening to these demos:

Demo 1

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Music appreciation

Just some idle thoughts on the practice of music appreciation based on personal experience. I’ve searched briefly, and there is a lot of scholarly work on this subject, but I have not read it. Perhaps in the future I will read about it and learn that I was wrong.

Fast and slow hedonic curves

In music, there is the concept of the hedonic curve. At first, when you listen to a piece of music, you may not get it. But as you hear more of it, your appreciation may grow and grow. But eventually, the novelty may wear off, and you want to move on to something else.

My anecdotal theory is that different people experience the hedonic curve on different timescales. Some people may go through the hedonic curve very quickly, while others go through it very slowly. If you go through the hedonic curve very quickly, you may frequently seek new things, and eventually learn to love an eclectic list of genres. If you go through the hedonic curve very slowly, you may be the kind of person who mostly sticks to one genre, and finds a handful of things to listen on repeat.

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The queer musical wilderness

Every year I write an article sharing a list of music. Last year, the theme was “outsider” music, defined as music coming from outside the musical establishment. I remarked that the outsider genre seems to come from an earlier era, when such music was difficult to find. Today, anyone can self-publish their own music–and I speak from personal experience.

If I were to reformulate “outsider” music, I would dub it the musical wilderness, and it wouldn’t be a genre. Rather, it would be a way of exploring and discovering music without totally ignoring the long tail. It’s considered hipster to say “you’ve never heard of the music I like”, but there’s really nothing special about that–that’s literally just most music. The point is not to celebrate obscurity nor to scorn popularity, it’s just simple truth that if you’ve never listened to music nobody else has heard of, then you’re neglecting the vast majority of what’s out there.

To create this list, I searched the “queer” tag on Bandcamp, using the “surprise me!” setting. Why “queer”? Several reasons: a) an unconventional tag will is the quickest route to the wilderness, b) it doesn’t confine my list to any particular genre, c) if I’m going to highlight some random artists, might as well support queer artists, and d) aren’t you curious what kind of music an artist will choose to tag as queer?

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Musical maturity and bad statistics

Among music-likers, it’s often said that your musical tastes are defined by what we enjoyed at age 14, or that our favorite music came out when we were 14. This claim comes from a 2018 article in the New York Times titled “The Songs That Bind” (paywalled). This article contains dubious statistical analysis, and its claims are probably false.

The article uses Spotify data, “on how frequently every song is listened to by men and women of each particular age.” There are two distinct ways of analyzing this data:

  1. The person level – Look at each individual, and see which songs they listen to most.
  2. The song level – Look at each song, and see which individuals listen to them the most.

So let’s read the article carefully and determine which analysis was used.
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Xenharmonic music theory part 3: Tuning theory

This is the final part of a series introducing xenharmonic music theory. In the first part, I talked about musical perception, especially the perception of microtones. In the second part, I explained roughness theory, which is an empirical theory of dissonance independent of musical tradition. The first two parts overlap with conventional music theory, but in this third part, I finally reach the music theory that is more particular to the xenharmonic tradition.

I’m just going to scratch the surface here, with an eye towards how you would actually use it in practice, if you were a composer. Most readers, I imagine, are not composers. It’s okay if it’s just a hypothetical for you, as long as you learn something.

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Xenharmonic music theory part 2: Dissonance Theory

See part 1

Dissonance in music is analogous to conflict in a story. Dissonance sounds “unpleasant” in the same way that conflict is unpleasant to the characters within the story, but then it would be an odd to have a story without any conflict. The opposite of dissonance is called consonance. Music commonly alternates between dissonance and consonance–creating tension, and then resolving it.

Conventional musical theory comes with a bunch of ideas about what’s consonant or dissonant. 400 cents, the major third, is considered consonant; 300 cents, the minor third, is considered dissonant. There’s some physical basis for these ideas, but arguably a lot of it has to do with tradition. 300 cents is more dissonant than 400 cents because that’s the meaning we’ve absorbed from our musical culture.

When you go outside the usual tuning system, musical tradition offers less guidance on what’s more or less dissonant. So this is the part of my intro to xenharmonic theory where I discuss a theory of dissonance that is independent of musical tradition.

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