Dedicated to helping others learn, play, compose and record music. Updated Mondays.

New here? Read the Beginner's Guide to Becoming a Musician.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Importance of Music to Humankind

I can't think of anyone I know who doesn't love and/or express music in some way. I have one roommate who plays guitar and piano, another who sings and dances in stage productions. My dad plays multiple instruments in a church group. My best friend is the lead singer in a popular emo band. Everyone I know can talk passionately about either the music they make or their favorite music of others. People associate certain songs with specific memories and even develop emotional attachments to them. Heck, Guitar Hero, a game involving only rudimentary musical performance is far more popular than anyone imagined.

Clearly, music is a powerful force that drives all of us. Although I think the term "universal language" is misleading (play some modern heavy metal for your grandma to see what I mean), I still think there's wisdom to that statement, pointing out the deep, subtle and compelling influence that music has on our subconscious.

What is music? Why are we even capable of creating and appreciating it? Did music evolve specifically along with our other unique traits, like communication, strong memory and creative thinking? Was it once a necessary part of survival in some direct or indirect way? Or is our extraordinary ability simply an emergent behavior; just a lucky bonus that came along, unplanned, packaged in as a result of our innovative brains?

We can (relatively) easily trace other aspects of human behavior to evolutionary survival and social techniques. For example, we enjoy team sports because their main aspect, rapid coordinated group behavior achieving a goal, is built in to our DNA. Look at football: there's really not a huge difference between a group of players throwing a ball towards a goal and a group of hunters throwing spears at an aurochs. Communication was always important in a hunt, which, unlike most modern hunting for sport, involved a large group of people. This necessity for coordinated articulation initially led to sign language and eventually spoken language.

With such large groups of people living and working together their whole lives, communication had to eventually develop into something more abstract and versatile than simply the expressing of tactics. To develop camaraderie in a large tribe of folks, symbolic thinking and a sense of humor developed, which led to mathematics, visual arts and laughter.

This, and much more, are all things that anthropologists have known for years. But where does music fit in? This is more difficult to find out. Methods for recording music didn't exist until the 1800's, so while we have cave paintings or venus figurines to show us the visual expressiveness of our distant ancestors, we don't have an equivalent for music. We've found some prehistoric instruments, like 30,000-year-old flutes made out bone capable of a five note diatonic scale, but these don't tell much without us resorting to educated guesses. So all we have are theories of a relatively few dedicated musical anthropologists.

Is music unique among humans? Birds make a repeating pattern of notes that we call a "song". Whales will repeat hours-long sequences of clicks and whistles, presumably from memory, that we also label as "songs". Though, really, nobody has any idea what they're doing. Why is that great apes, who share more than 90% of our genetic material, display no musical abilities, while humpback whales might be writing day-long symphonies right under our noses? The questions just never end.

My point is that despite all the music that we have made and enjoyed in the span of recorded history, we still may have only scratched the surface of the full potential of music. It may in fact really be a universal language, and we've all forgotten how to utilize it in that way. Nobody really knows. If we can somehow figure out where music came from and how it emerged, we might all be able to tap into some long dormant part of our brain (which really hasn't changed in 250,000 years) and realize the true potential for music.

So here's my goal: to achieve a deeper understanding of the origins of music and to understand the "point" of it being part of humankind's physiology and identity. I will achieve this by 1) Understanding as much about music itself as possible, through playing, composing, studying and listening, and 2) Researching as much as I can on the subjects of anthropology, musical anthropology, evolutionary theory and biomusicology. You can bet that I'll write about my findings whenever I get to a point of greater understanding. Feel free to send me your own thoughts as well.

Here are some books I plan on reading. Check them out yourself if you're interested:

The Singing Neanderthals by Steven Mithin
Essentials of Physical Anthropology by R Jurmain, L Kilgore and W Trevethan
How Musical Is Man? by John Blacking
The Anthropolgy of Music by A Merriam and V Merriam

Monday, February 25, 2008

Guitar Hero vs. Actual Musical Skills

Ah, Guitar Hero. Who would've thought that hitting rainbow colored buttons on a Fischer-Price toy while watching cartoon characters dance on screen would be so popular amongst adults and teenagers, who are usually very self-conscious about that kind of thing? Everyone has wondered whether Guitar Hero skills translate to actual musical skills. Alas, just about every real musician will tell you that they don't. That's only the quick answer though, and it's not entirely true. I think there is some benefit to your musicals skills by playing with that little plastic toy guitar, even if those benefits are subtle, basic mental ones. I'm no neuroscientist, but I decided to do some research on the subject and then come to some hasty conclusions after that. Here's what I found.

When you play Guitar Hero, you are sort of performing a simplified version of sight reading: watching as the nodes come down the line and then hitting the associated note. Now, obviously you aren't reading from a real musical scale, and you only have a maximum of five notes to keep track of. But there's one crucial difference between Guitar Hero and actual sight reading: Timing.

In sight reading studies, people display two different eye movement behaviors, saccades and fixations. Saccades are the rapid movement of the eye from one location to another, and fixations are when the eye lingers on a particular note. Though the musician is keeping time, this is not necessarily true for their eye movements. A musician may choose to occasionally move his or her eyes ahead briefly to see what is coming up, or they may have to perform rapid saccades when the melody gets complicated. With Guitar Hero, the "musical staff" is continually moving, forcing both the player and their eyes to keep up. The player cannot see very far ahead, so they can't plan. During the first several rounds of a song in Guitar Hero, the player goes through some very rigorous sight reading exercise. Now, if someone would make an educational Piano Hero, with a moving musical staff (thanks Joe, for that idea), we could have a truly amazing way to learn to sight read.

There was a study done in 1997 by FE Truitt on peripheral visual input. This refers to the ability of the eye to capture more data around the point of focus without actually moving. The study found that even the most skilled sight readers could only see about 5 beats ahead when focusing on one note. Unskilled sight readers could only see about 2 ahead. With a constantly moving "staff" and a very short viewing distance, Guitar Hero is most certainly exercising your peripheral visual ability. Both the musician and the guitar hero will be exercising their short-term musical memory, storing what notes they can, and processing them to be played. Will Guitar Hero help with sight reading actual music? Nobody knows for sure, but it probably can't hurt.

Of course, after several rounds of a particular song, the player is mostly relying on pattern memorization. But really, the same is true for musicians. A musician, when practicing a piece, will play a particularly difficult part over and over again. A Guitar Hero player is forced to play the entire song at the same tempo every time, where a musician can play however they want. Once again, the guitar hero is only playing different combinations of the same five notes, so they have a severe advantage over the musician.

Of course, the most obvious benefit of playing Guitar Hero would be the exercising of the fingers of your 'fret' hand while hitting the five buttons. I don't believe this really does a lot for your fret ability on a real guitar, since that involves moving your hand in very bizarre and unnatural positions. But it does exercise your finger muscles and improves your coordination, which can translate, at least, directly to better piano skills. For your left hand, anyway.

So does being a master at Guitar Hero make you a better musician? I'm going to say no. Does it help with some basic motor skills that are required for a good musician? After doing some simple research, I would say yes. However, the amount of time some people spend becoming a truly scary Guitar Hero hero might be better spent actually learning guitar or piano instead. At least then you have the potential for real groupies instead of pretending to have them.

This is certainly not an exhaustive report, just me gaining a little bit more knowledge on the subject. There's plenty more to read about neuroscience, muscle coordination, sight reading and all manner of other things related to pushing giant, brightly colored buttons to a beat while pretending to be cool.

For the record, I absolutely love Guitar Hero, but I'm embarrassingly bad at it. Guess you never can tell, eh?

Some interesting reading:

Wikipedia - Eye Movement in Music Reading

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Forget Genres!

One of my favorite things to do when I'm working on a song is to occasionally ask myself "What would happen if I introduced rock drums into the piece?" This almost always leads the song in fun and interesting directions. I have a tendency to write my songs without any idea where they're going, and most of the time I get interesting results out of that philosophy.

For instance, my song Falling Gracefully starts out low-key with simple, almost jazzy keyboard playing. It then becomes a sort of ambient thing with a choir and adds some electronic percussion and violins for, uh, maybe a new age sound? After that part I actually asked myself the aforementioned question and found out the answer by adding some rock drums and loud synthesizers and hammer instruments. Finally it ended with oboes playing some mellow chords. You can hear the whole thing here.

My point is that I never had any idea of what genres I might be using when I started the piece, I just followed my intuition as I wrote and recorded. For Falling Gracefully, it worked fantastically. Sometimes it doesn't work as well, like in Quantum Foam, where the second half ended up with a much higher quality sound overall than the first, making it inconsistent as a whole.

But it is important to remember that while writing for a specific genre is perfectly fine, constraining a song or (more importantly) all of your work to one genre will eventually limit your creative output. Pop artists tend to stay in one genre because that helps them sell records. But think of legends like the Beatles and Queen, who experimented with multiple genres, sometime in the course of one song. Two of my favorite artists, William Orbit (the Strange Cargo albums in particular) and Matt Uelman (Soundtrack to the game Diablo II) thrive on making their music span all sorts of genres. It is their greatest strength.

Although it is completely possible that you will be able to write 30 pure rock songs (as many artists have done), you will be amazed at the worlds that open up to you when you try out new genres. It is an incredible thrill to see a whole new set of possibilities laid out in front of you. So don't let the concept of genres make you afraid of branching out.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

How Microphones Work

Microphones are probably the most abused piece of equipment in the music world. Those poor, diligently working devices are so delicate and precise, and yet they receive the most degrading treatment. Have you seen how pop stars and folk singers behave on stage? They make out with their microphone like it was a sweaty, over-eager lover. It's a gruesome sight that we all seem to put up with for some reason; I suppose in the name of "art". Maybe if singers knew more about microphones they would stop molesting them and actually try using them properly.

Before you can understand how microphones work, you have to understand how sound works. Sound is simply vibrating air particles. That's it. There's nothing fancy going on, just the molecules of air shaking around a bit. For some perspective, wind is actually traveling air particles. For an analogy, sound is like waves on a body of water. The water is mostly just moving up and down. But if you have a hose (wind), spraying water around, that's a lot different.

Microphones are a type of transducer, which means they convert one form of energy into another. In this case they transform the energy of vibrating air (acoustic energy) into electrical energy. A speaker is a precise opposite of a microphone. It converts electrical energy into acoustic energy. Microphones and speakers are so similar, in fact, that if you were to somehow wire up a speaker in the same fashion as a mic, you could actually pick up some rudimentary acoustics (some really weird sounding rudimentary acoustics). You could probably rig up a mic like a speaker and try to get some sound out of it, but I don't know anyone who's tried and I'm pretty sure you'd wreck the microphone in the process.

There are two types of microphones: dynamic and capacitor.

Dynamic microphones use magnets and either a small metal coil or a metal ribbon that vibrates when sound hits it. As it vibrates it generates a voltage at a particular level. Dynamic mikes are rugged but not as precise or, ironically, dynamic as capacitor mikes.

A capacitor mic uses two plates to make a, well, capacitor (which means it holds an electrical charge): a fixed plate and a very thin plastic and metal diaphragm. It looks like this:

When vibrating air pushes the diaphragm around, it changes the space in between the two plates, causing a change in the voltage that it gives out. Tada! A variable electrical signal! Because there aren't any magnets to provide energy, capacitor mikes need what is called a pre-amp; essentially they need to be powered so that the capacitor can always hold a charge.

In addition to their different methods of gathering sound waves, mics are always built to have a particular pickup pattern. This is important to musicians. The pickup pattern is the direction from which a microphone gets its sound. I've made a handy diagram here for you, representing the three most common pickup patterns:

Omnidirectional mikes tends to pick up sound from everywhere. This is good when you're trying to pickup the sound of many people talking or general ambiance. Bidirectional mikes pickup sound sort of in a straight line on either side of the mic. I know people use these since companies keep making them, but I'll be damned if I know why anyone bothers. Cardioid mikes are very common. They are sometimes incorrectly referred to as unidirectional. I say incorrectly, because, if you look at that pattern, you can see that the term 'unidirectional' is kind of misleading. Still, cardioid mikes are the most directional and are generally the best for recording instruments and sounds, since they tend to block out most sounds not in their direct path.

A good thing to remember when looking at microphones is impedance. Impedance is how well a circuit restricts the flow of alternating current. This is measured in ohms (Ω). Now, we're getting into really technical territory and any minute now my brain will jump out of my head, pack up its bags and high-tail it to the nearest Amish village if I don't stop soon, so really what you need to know is that the lower impedance you have in a microphone, the better. With a lower impedance, the mic will have less electrical noise, which means a cleaner sound for your recording.

This is only a very basic overview of microphones. There's a lot more to learn about pickup patterns, transducers, acoustics, and microphone types. But at least now you know a little bit about the subject so you don't have to sound like a total audio weenie in the recording studio or at the music shop. And if you ever get sound out of your microphone, tell me about it, then punch yourself in the face since you just ruined a perfectly good mic.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Listening to Music Intelligently

You've listened to music for years. You have favorite songs that you listen to over and over. You've probably memorized every tiny aspect of a favorite song to a point where you can not only sing the lyrics with the exact same eccentricities as the singer, but you can recreate the unique sounds of the instrumentation. You know who you are.

But are you really listening to your music intelligently? Listening intelligently can make you a much better musician and can help you appreciate a wider variety of music overall.

In order to listen to your music intelligently and appreciate every aspect of it, you first need to actually listen to it. You should set aside time to listen to the music without any other distractions. Sometimes driving in the car can fill this role, as long as you aren't one to get road rage. However you do it, find time to just sit down and listen in a nice environment without working or doing anything else. Now you're ready.

So take a song that you love and ask yourself, what is it about this song that I love so much? Is it the melody? The overall groove? The lyrics? The singer? Remember that the lyrics and the sound of the singer are two very different things. Maybe it's something more subtle that you like about it, like the constant juxtaposition of two melodies, or that it just seems to almost overwhelm your ears with sound and music (known as a wall of sound; one of my favorite techniques). Understanding precisely what it is about a song that you like so much will help you find other songs that you'll enjoy.

Keep listening. What else is good about this song? What else did the artists simply get right? If it really is a good song, it probably has a nice flow from beginning to end, meaning it never gets boring and no individual part outstays its welcome. It also probably has interesting and pleasing chord progressions. Interesting chord progressions are key to a great, memorable song. Artists who enjoy enduring popularity over many years all tend to have that in common; they all know how to make interesting melodies and chord progressions. You can say all you want about the importance of lyrics, and you would mostly be right, but I can guarantee that the Beatles' Yesterday would never have been remembered if McCartney wrote it in the style of, say, Jane's Addiction's (lack of) melodies and chords.

Also, think about what genre or sub-genre the song most closely resembles. Are they incorporating multiple genres? Are they adding some style in this particular song that they don't usually do? Maybe a different time signature than the usual 4/4?

Now get a little more technical with your listening. Try to locate and differentiate each individual instrument. Where in the stereo mix is the singer, guitar, bass, percussion, keyboards, synthesizers, strings, voice samples, saxophones, sousaphones, whatever? How loud is each part in comparison to the others? Do you notice an excessive amount of bass? Or maybe not enough? Sometimes you'll hear a song that, while clearly well written, will sound kind of blah or flat to you. This isn't just some ethereal impression you're getting; it may be because of the way the song was recorded or mixed. If the recording doesn't fill the whole spectrum of human hearing, it is at great risk of sounding underwhelming to the listener, regardless of how good the music itself is.

Clear, crisp high end (hi hats, egg shakers), rich middle-range (vocals, guitars, cymbals), and deep, satisfying bass (kick drums, timpani, low horns), all need to come together to make a truly fantastic listening experience. To really understand how this works, get and listen to both Queen's first album (self-titled), and their fourth album, A Night at the Opera. Go do it now. I'm serious. I'll wait.

Both albums display incredibly good compositions and musicianship. But their first album is low-budget: it's scratchy, distorted and is completely lacking in satisfying bass. The treble sounds muffled and frankly, kind of weird. On the other hand, A Night at the Opera was the most expensive album ever produced for its time, and it shows. Notice how, in the newer album, Queen's music opens up in a completely new way. Hear how the whole frequency spectrum is filled? You can really hear the kick drum properly, the acoustic guitars are crystal clear, and their trademark opera choir (which is really just the four of them overdubbed like 10 times) is loud, powerful, and never once overloads. Yell into your crappy computer microphone if you want to hear exactly what 'overloading' sounds like.

A well-produced album will have presence. It will transcend the speakers that they're playing on and become part of you, the listener.

For the other end of the technical spectrum, try listening to a very old (around or before the 1940's) or very amateur album. As you listen to it in addition to really nice albums, you'll start to understand what makes a beautiful, full sounding recording. You will start to hear that presence I just mentioned, on a conscious, rather than subconscious level.

Listening to music with this kind of trained ear takes some of the mysticism out of music, and some may not like picking apart everything they hear. But for me, a composer and producer, the rewards for hearing everything with a heightened awareness are immeasurable. Understanding how different elements interact with each other and what makes good things stand out is extremely important when making your own music.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Efficiency: The Key to Writing Better

Here's a saying that I came up with for musicians, (though I'm not about to claim ownership of it): Nothing should get in between you and your music. I live by this all the time. The point is that anything that makes your music writing more difficult than it has to be should be removed as soon as possible. Everything inconvenient for you is hurting your music writing ability.

Here's an example directly from my experience. When I first put together the real Jupiterman studio, everything was built around an Apple Powerbook that I had:

You can see the laptop there, perched behind the keyboard. Now Cubase, my recording software, allows you to perform most of the functions with just the keyboard, which I did. Using a mouse is an easy but slow method of operating a computer. The problem was that to actually hit any of the keys I would have to stand up out of my chair to reach them. Now this doesn't seem like much of a problem, but I after awhile I felt like maybe it was being detrimental. So I bought a small wireless numeric keypad and attached it to the arm of my chair with Velcro. I then mapped all the functions that I normally used to that device, like play/pause, record, rewind, undo, etc.

Instantly I noticed a huge difference. Canceling and rerecording took a fraction of second, and I didn't even have to take my other hand away from the piano keys. Before, it took much longer. Suddenly I found it much less annoying to do multiple takes over and over. It was far easier to focus on simply working hard to make the music better.

If you are struggling to find a way to keep your sheet music in front of you, just get a stand. You'll be so much happier with it and you can put all of your energy each day into playing rather than carefully positioning your music in front of you or craning your neck. Sometimes your obstacle may be a little more abstract. If you write music on a staff, don't just buy a book of blank sheet music, buy 5 of them. That way, you won't feel the need to conserve your paper for masterpieces and can focus on just writing.

You should be totally comfortable, both physically and mentally, when writing your music. Learn from the best; see what professionals and other musicians do and see if you can recreate their techniques. The easier it is to make your music, the better your results will be. Nothing should get in between you and your music.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Originality in Music: A Brief Observation

My grandfather once asked me: since music is simply the arrangement of notes, and there's (for the most part) a finite number of notes available, how can there possibly be any new music out there at all? Looking at it statistically, everything should have been written already, and every artist is simply recycling ideas. It was an interesting observation, from a man who's main musical interest was opera, though I wasn't prepared to give him an intelligent answer at the time. Now I think I can.

As I'm sure you know, music isn't really just an arrangement of notes. Most of the time, when it's good music, it's multiple arrangements of notes playing simultaneously. That alone increases the number of possibilities from "a whole lot," to infinity. Or think of how much can be done with just one melody. I've heard the Super Mario Bros. theme played by an a capella group, a string orchestra, a ska band, two Tesla coils, a jazz duo, and several other groups. They're playing almost the same arrangement of notes but it sounds completely different each time.

Several years ago I met a guy at a local show in Maine who called himself Neon From Candlelight. He had a single electric guitar and about twenty foot pedals that he would arrange in a half-circle in front of him. He would pluck one or two notes on his guitar and then use the different pedals to warp the sound. It wasn't exactly exciting, but it made a fascinating soundscape if you were willing to get lost in it. Neon From Candlelight shows us that a musician has infinite possibilities with something as humble as a single note.

So I've proven my point to my grandfather. When you combine the potential of multiple simultaneous melodies with the potential of modifying individual notes, you really have no limit to how much you can write. As an exercise, come up with an interesting melody. Now see if you can make a whole suite of songs using just that melody in different styles. Try something slow and something upbeat. Try different time and key signatures (modifying a melody to fit into a different time signature is particularly challenging.) Put different lyrics to the melody. This is something that composers of movie and game soundtracks have to do all the time. It's a great way to both see how notes interact with each other and understand the true potential music has.