It’s been a while since I did a music post, hasn’t it? Well, nothing good lasts forever so it’s time for another one.
In his famous deconstruction of the techno genre, cultural critic and doctor of musicology expert Strong Bad observed basically everything you need to know about techno music, and electronic music in general: You need the beat, the lead music part, a high part, and some kind of movie quote / sound sample. As someone who listens to a lot of electronic music I can say this is funny because it’s true.
Once again I need to remind you that all of this is either badly wrong, or an over-simplification of something that real musicians have known for centuries. I’m literally just posting observations as I make them, like someone learning to read exclaiming, “Have you noticed that there are two different shapes for each letter!?” It’s sort of true yet incomplete and sort of wrong but not totally. I have no idea how real musicians can stand to read these.
Sooner or later I’m going to need to stop this musical finger-painting and share something useful. But not today!
Music seems to tickle the pattern-recognition parts of our brains. There are only so many different types of patterns you can perceive at once. If I have three pianos all playing different sequences of notes, but they’re all playing staccato quarter notes in the same octave, then it’s probably not going to sound like three different things layered together. It will all blur into one big mishmash of notes.
But if one piano plays long low notes, another plays rapid high notes, and the other one runs up and down the scales like a crazy person, then you’ll be able to hear each of them distinctly.
There’s a sort of soft cap on our aural bandwidth:
- Tempo of sounds. Rapid notes are distinct from slow ones.
- Duration of notes. Long notes are distinct from brief ones.
- Pitch. High notes are distinct from low ones.
- “Waveform“. This one is complicated and could probably be split into some sub-categories. A pure frequency (like a sine wave) is distinct from a burst of white noise. A sound that is constant in volume is distinct from one that falls off sharply, which is distinct from one that rises and falls gently on the ends.
In the real world, you’re limited by physical instruments. This song has four parts because there are four people in our band. It doesn’t have a section where three guitars play at the same time, because we don’t have three guitarists. Our music is shaped by the people who perform it and the instruments they play.
But in electronic music we do away with all of those limits. You want half the song to be all keyboards and the other half all guitars? You can do that. In the real world that would be prohibitively impractical, but when you’re mashing notes together on your computer box it’s not any different from creating any other arrangement of instruments.
The problem with unrestrained composition is that limits usually make for more interesting art. I (usually) enjoy a nice rhythmic rhyming verse more than rambling free-verse and I (usually) like paintings of specific things more than random abstract patterns. But electronic music is kind of like composing with no limitsOther than the fact that all your instruments end up sounding “canned” and don’t have the richness a physical music-making apparatus can provide. I don’t have an ear for it myself, but for some people this is a huge loss.. And so – freed of the normal physical limitations – a lot of electronic music feels like an attempt to “max out” our sonic bandwidth. You can just keep cramming more parts in there until you’re covering every part of the tempo / duration / pitch / waveform spectrum and the average ear can’t usefully detect any more patterns. It’s an attempt to maximize the “interesting-ness” of the music by giving the brain lots and lots of sound to process.
Of course, making a song with “lots” of sound isn’t any better than making a book with “lots” of words. We’re looking for mental stimuli, not filler.
But as a composerIs it okay if I call myself a composer? I won’t tell Mozart if you don’t. I find this leaves me rudderless. How do I know when a song is done? With no goal or constraints, there’s nothing to do but add more crap until the song is full of notes. It’s like abstract painting as a kid. “Well, I’ve used all the colors, and I’ve totally covered the canvas, so I guess I’m done?”
My most well-received songGoing by direct feedback, not going by social-media “thumbs-up” ratings on Soundcloud. so far is Best Part of the Storm. I wrote it specifically to be something that made some kind of musical sense. It could, in theory, be played by real musicians. It doesn’t feature a piano with ten octaves, a drum-kick that sounds like a gunshot, a saxophone playing a long series of 64th notes, and eleven bass guitars. And those constraints helped me make something interesting instead of just aimlessly filling up the soundscape with no greater goal.
Which brings us to movie quotes. Thinking about the above, I decided to use a quote from the movie “Amadeus” where Emperor Joseph II tells Mozart that his composition has “Too many notes”.
I still filled up the soundscape, but this time it felt like I was doing it on purpose? Or something? I don’t know. It was really a lot more fun to have some kind of idea to build a song around besides, “Fill time until you run out of ideas.” The music was about something.
Clearly this was an idea that needed to be explored further. So I took the popular AWESOME BUTTON quote and made a song around that. Again, the purpose and direction helped me shape the song. OF COURSE the song would need to be high-tempo and OF COURSE I’d need to follow the quote with the sound of an explosion. The song practically wrote itself.
So I guess that’s why so many electronic songs have old movie quotes of pop-culture preferences in them. Because otherwise it’s just too abstract.
Other things of interest:
“Too Many Notes” really was designed to have too many notes. Here is what the project looks like:
I’m sure you can’t even hear half the crap playing at any given moment. It just gets lost. Compare that with AWESOME BUTTON:
A lot simpler, obviously.
Too many notes is my first song with a key change. In the above image, the beige sections are in C major and the blue parts are in… A minorThe cyan and pink sections are where I shift between the two.. Yeah, that’s not much of a change. It’s the same notes, but using minor chords instead of major ones.
So far almost everything I’ve done has been in those two scales, simply because those scales use only the white keys. In the program I’m using, the note grids are color-coded according to white / black keysEven if you’re mapping out notes for a guitar, it still uses “piano” style key coloring., so it’s really easy to see what you’re doing. I wish the program offered a way to change how the grids are shaded to make working in other keys a little easier.
AND THAT’S WHEN WHEN YOU PRESS A BUTTON SOMETHING AWESOME HAS TO HAPPEN.
 Other than the fact that all your instruments end up sounding “canned” and don’t have the richness a physical music-making apparatus can provide. I don’t have an ear for it myself, but for some people this is a huge loss.
 Is it okay if I call myself a composer? I won’t tell Mozart if you don’t.
 Going by direct feedback, not going by social-media “thumbs-up” ratings on Soundcloud.
 The cyan and pink sections are where I shift between the two.
 Even if you’re mapping out notes for a guitar, it still uses “piano” style key coloring.
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