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?

[Read more…]

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.
[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

Xenharmonic music theory part 1: Perception of microtones

Microtonal music is music that goes outside of the standard western 12-tone tuning system. There are many microtonal traditions throughout history and the world, but xenharmonic music refers to a specific modern musical tradition that makes a point of being microtonal.  If you’d like to listen to examples, I have a list of popular xenharmonic artists. Xenharmonic music is associated with music theories that might be considered heterodox. Heterodoxy is good though because conventional music theory is too narrowly focused on a certain European classical music tradition, and we could use an alternate perspective.

This is part of a short series introducing xenharmonic theory. Part 1 is about the perception of sound, with a particular focus on small differences in pitch. Part 2 is about dissonance theory. Part 3 is about tuning theory. The first two parts overlap with conventional music theory, but focus on aspects that are independent of tuning. Part 3 is where we get into theory that’s more specific to the xenharmonic tradition.

I freely admit that I don’t know everything, I just know enough to point in some interesting directions. The idea here is not to write an authoritative intro to xenharmonic music theory (which might be better found in the Xenharmonic Wiki), but to write an accessible intro with a bit of a slant towards what I personally think is most important.

[Read more…]

I made an EP

A while back I wrote about my forays into electronic music production. I dropped that project for quite a while, but when I went back to listen to what I had produced, I still really liked it. So I went back, tweaked things to make it presentable, and released an EP on Bandcamp.

It’s ambient/drone in 18edo tuning.

I could say more about the music, or the experience of making it, but probably not unless readers express interest. It’s a modest project, and I’m pleased if even a few people like it. I’d like to make more music in the future.

Paper: The statistical mechanics of music

Today I will discuss:

“The structure of musical harmony as an ordered phase of sound: A statistical mechanics approach to music theory” by Jesse Berezovsky in Science Advances (2019). Publicly accessible

I don’t remember where I found this paper, but at some point I wrote it on the back of my hand, so to speak, and it sounds intriguing. This paper uses statistical physics methods to try to explain music. In particular, it’s interested in explaining tuning systems, especially 12 equal divisions of the octave (12edo), as a way of minimizing dissonance while maximizing musical possibility.

Initially I’m quite skeptical, and you should be too. If I were more familiar with world music traditions, I’m sure could point out several traditions that violate this paper’s assumptions, including traditions that don’t use 12edo, and traditions that aren’t clearly trying to minimize dissonance. Even in western musical systems, there’s quite a lot of emphasis on the dissonant major 7th, which calls into question how much minimizing dissonance is really the goal. Nonetheless, it seems an interesting exercise to see how much we can predict from these assumptions, and if the predictions don’t match reality we can later back up and consider where it went wrong.

[Read more…]