2020 08 23
Whenever I written to well-written music, there’s always parts that make an incredible impression on me. The arrival of the sample-chopped section a bit before the half-way point in Digital Love, for example.
They lead me to think, “Wow, that sounds absolutely crazy. I wonder what’s going on there?”
99% of the time, I find that - despite the incredibly powerful impression it makes - the music itself is never doing anything crazy within any one section. The immense effect is instead made by putting different musical ideas against one another that are incredibly simple in-and-of-themselves, but that are ingeniously chosen to complement each other to make an incredibly rich and vivid effect overall.
I think of it like a beautiful scene of nature:
Imagine if you were to isolate just a tree, just the mountain, or just the blue water with everything else as a white background - you’d realize that all of these elements are actually really simple in and of themselves. A certain magic arises when they’re all added together, however.
This is similar to a musical texture in terms of all of its accompaniment, too. It’s not that everything is doing a mind-bending solo at once, either (which would be overbearing anyway, as explored more in the Perceptual Foreground article) - it’s that the nature of each element is specially chosen so that the parts create an extraordinary sum.
As they say, less is more. What you do with that less, however, decides if you have more or the most!
2020 08 16
I’ve noticed a lot of statements from young adults online that express a difficulty to accept adulthood - they simply found themselves in it one day, and . If you go on any video of something like an old TV theme, you’ll find many examples of people people writing comments like this:
“Why did I have to grow up?”
“Most of us have grown up and now we’re stuck being adults; we’re forced into doing things that we may or may not love... It may seem impossible to move forward or you feel like you’re stuck in a rut... or you just don't want to be an adult anymore.”
“This may sound stupid to some people but listening to this music made me realize I had grown up. I'm in college now and I could not focus on studying and I just wanted to continue doing what I had always done since I was a kid - which was mess around without caring too much about anything. This made me realize I have to care, as I'm an adult now, and I have to do my best.”
Similarly, I’ve had conversations with friends where we noted that there’s a very passive aura to reaching adulthood. You more-or-less simply find yourself in it once you reach the ‘right’ age - there’s nothing active or glamorous about attaining it.
It brought to my mind the idea of the ‘rite of passage’, specifically coming-to-age. The content varies between cultures, but the idea seems to be the same: a definite, distinct challenge is presented that has to be actively achieved in order to wear the title of ‘adult’ or ‘man’.
Take the Australian aboriginal ‘Walkabout’ for example.
“Prior to the walkabout, the elders would teach the child all about adulthood, how to survive in the wild, and how to perform the ritual. The walkabout itself would last for around six months, and the child sometimes walked up to 1,600 kilometers (1,000 mi).
During this period, the child was expected to survive in the wilderness on his own without interacting with another human. This would prove that he could live off the land and be self-reliant as he would have to make his own shelter and find his own food and water.
The child would leave his tribe wearing nothing but a loincloth, though his body was likely decorated with paint and ornaments. Some tribes would remove one of the child’s teeth or pierce his nose or ears.
This ritual was not only a test of survival skills. The child was also meant to discover himself and communicate with his spiritual guides. As he was walking, he would sing ancient songs that were used to guide him through the land. These songs were called “songlines,” and their use was believed to invoke the help of spirits. Once the child successfully returned to his tribe, he was considered an adult.“
Or the Spartan ‘Helot killing’:
“In the Spartan society, the only way a male could be considered a man was to go through warrior training, at a place called the krypteia. Each Spartan boy would be taken from his family at the age of seven, and attend warrior training at the krypteia until he was seventeen.
When he turned eighteen, he would be sent off into the country with nothing but a knife, and had the task of killing as many state-owned slaves (called helots) as he could, while trying to return to his krypteia all in one piece. During all of this, he would have to go undetected, making this rite of passage all the more difficult. If he completed this task, he would be considered a man, and would be expected to marry and continue serving his state as a warrior.
This rite of passage follows the three-stage process: the first stage is removal from society, which happens to a Spartan boy when he is seven years old, when he leaves to train at the krypteia. This stage includes the ten years of training the boy receives. The next stage, transition, occurs when the boy goes on his quest to kill Helots and return to his krypteia. If he returns from this, he transitions into the final stage, reincorporation into society. He is now considered a man and a warrior, and is reincorporated into society with this reputation.”
Three things stand out to me on these:
The rite of passage is a vivid and active challenge - both physically & psychologically. It’s an incredibly visceral experience with a clear, definite goal to achieve.
It’s incredibly intense psychologically. It’s intended to be the point of climax in their life or training (at least up to this point), which gives the rite of passage a tremendous amount of psychological weight & significance.
They’re also thrown into a situation of chaos, in a sense - out on their own in the wilderness with nothing but their wits & training, where anything and everything can happen. It’s like being subjected to a form of complete psychological darkness - without definite form, distinction, or clarity - that they have to bring light to, all the while staring their mortality directly in its face for the first real time. There is no doubt that significant psychological growth occurs as a result.
There are true things at stake here - life & reputation. The fact that they could potentially fail makes the achievement of the rite of passage - and thus its reward of adulthood - feel all the more valuable.
The closest things to a rite of passage that we seem to have in modern Western society don’t hold anywhere near the same intense weight in terms of both visceral & psychological experience: say, a high school graduation or baptism.
I’d say that the traditional practice - in terms of modern Western culture - of sending kids off on their own at the age of 18 was the closest thing that matches those outlined above, but that’s increasingly rare nowadays.
This all has been on my mind as I’ve been putting together for a new entry of content for the site. This very same idea - an impressionable, formal distinction - pops up in both a well-structured life and a well-structured song. Listen to these two version of Daft Punk - High Life’s intro:
Do you hear how the active transition is so much more rich, and how it gives meaning & clarity to the arrival of the next section? Good songwriters are aware of the power of formal distinctions such as this & knowingly include them in their songs for a more powerful, impressionable experience.
To my mind, this is akin to the passive and active rite of passages outlined throughout this blog entry (interestingly enough, rite of passages are also known as "transition rituals").
My timer just went off as I wrote this, so I’ll call it an end to this write-up. I hope it gives some food for thought and points out a nice songwriting concept to boot. To those other young adults out there, looking to make their sense of adulthood meaningful as mentioned in the opening: perhaps the answer lies in undergoing your own vivid rite-of-passage.
2020 08 08
I remember a listening exercise that took place in my music appreciation class: the teacher put on a song and we had to tell him what naturally came to mind as we heard it.
After it was done, the teacher started the discussion by telling us his experience: he mentally pictured children playing on a merry-go-round, running through a small downtown district with bright, colorful lights surrounding them.
I was incredibly surprised. That’s what spontaneously manifested as he listened? He confirmed that yes, it was - for him, vivid visual scenes are what always pop up as he hears a song.
I myself have never had flashes of images or the like when listening to music; I simply have a ‘gut feeling’ that manifests. It has no visual aspect, shape, or form - it’s a purely visceral sensation.
It never occurred to me that others may experience music differently in this sense. I stood up and polled the class as I was curious how they naturally interpreted the song, and there was a mixture of different ways that people intuitively comprehended it & music as a whole. It was very eye-opening.
I later brought this up to my one friend, who’s a songwriter like myself, and he confirmed that he too has his own natural way of ‘processing’: his mind makes up a character (as in a person) or an environment to fit a song as he listens to it. He also writes music according to whatever character or scene comes to mind, that expresses the nature of the song-to-be.
Similarly, I write based off of that visceral sensation mentioned above. While it has no visual aspect, shape, or form; it does have a concrete & definite nature. I can tell if what I’m writing for a song is right or not depending on if it resonates with said ‘force’.
Interestingly, we both found that it’s less natural and even produces a lesser song if we try to write with a different sense of ‘processing’. He can make a palatable song by going off a non-visual ‘force’, but it won’t be his best. Similarly, I can write something fine off of images or a landscape but I write at my best by going off of that ‘force’.
It’s funny to think that this friend & I are complete opposites in terms of how we go about songwriting, but the end result is always the same: a complete, well-written song. Our methods may not be all too different from a larger perspective, however: what we’re both doing is simply going off of our intuition.
This brings to mind a story that I had heard once before: there was a world-class chess player who was naturally aggressive but had some holes in his defensive game that he had to remedy.
He had two teachers: one who was incredibly defensive in nature, like a fortress. He specialized in a campy, turtle-esque approach - if you studied with him, you learned by his rules.
The second teacher was phenomenal too, though he encouraged students to explore concepts from their own frame of intuition. He told this player that if he were to learn defense, he ought to study legendary players with a similar style as himself and how they developed their defense in tune with their aggressive nature.
This chess player initially studied under the first teacher. If he was to learn defense, why not learn from the most defensive?
This proved to be a fairly non-productive disaster.
As hard as the player tried, the hyper-defensive nature of the game that the first teacher tried to instill within him simply felt alien & didn’t click.
It wasn’t working as it wasn’t in line with the player’s intuitive understanding of chess.
The second teacher’s approach - studying other aggressive players & how they incorporated defense - was a completely different story.
This resonated with the player’s natural sense of style, easily made sense, & seamlessly fit into his play. The difference was night & day.
The moral of the story would be to always follow your own mode of intuition!
Though I digress.
It’s simply amazing that people vary in their sense of ‘processing’, yet one could go their entire life without knowing so. How would a person know that ways other than their own exist unless someone else described their own differing sense of experience? It took me until I was an adult to learn this.
How do you experience music?
2020 07 19
A few of my friends pointed out to me recently that I make a lot of relatively far-removed connections between different areas of life, just about all of the time. They found it interesting to the point of sparking a deep discussion. In the end it inspired me to start this series of blog posts - I'll report the sort of connections & observations between music & whatever else is on my mind at the time as food for thought. I hope for it to be educational & insightful.
A new entry will be added every Sunday morning.
Without further ado:
There’s a meat & produce market near my house that I really love. It buys all of its product from local organic farms - the quality is truly something else!
The staff knows me very well at this point. The one girl that they have out doing curbside pick-up (due to COVID-19 concerns) knows my order by heart. She’s very sweet & attentive.
It’s a very simple ordeal for her: greet me, collect my money, turn around & walk straight inside the shop to fetch my groceries.
I found myself wondering recently: what could happen to delay or frustrate this simple set of events?
What if as soon as she reached the door, someone opened it from inside to walk out? They’d share an ‘oops, pardon me’ & she’d have to wait a second to let them pass before stepping inside, but ultimately it’s no big deal.
What if she instead tripped & fell to the ground on her way back toward the store? Would she laugh it off or would she be embarrassed? Maybe a bit of both. She’d be back on her feet in a minute however.
What if a car in the parking lot lost control and hit the front of the building? Quite an extreme development! Our worker wouldn’t be able to get inside with the entrance blocked, but it’s much more than that: the shop would most likely have to suspend business (it’s an incredibly small place!) while the police come & assess the situation. A strong catalyst like that can completely change the course of events.
I find that these sort of mental exercises have a lot of parallels to writing music.
Let’s take this melody:
Very simple. It has a clear progressional pattern - its path - with a clear goal that it attains naturally at the end.
Let’s just do a small variation:
This makes the melody less monotonous & its arrival a bit more impactful.
Let's flesh it out with some accompaniment while we're at it.
What if we frustrate its plans?
Now it begs to continue. Let’s have it try again afterwards.
There we go! A lot more musical interest was created due to this little story we put it through.
What if we want to take it into a new direction instead?
That’s all right. Let’s give it some more intensity so that it really gives us a feeling that we’re soaring off to somewhere new.
It's very important for a songwriter to be aware of these different possible branches of development - as well as their implications. The music above all came from a simple episode of playful sketching, but it calls for the same mindset on a much deeper level when it comes time to write a song.
This branch of options & their development is similar to what we come across in life. It pops up with little things:
"Should I order takeout tonight? It'd make cleanup a lot easier - I don't feel like doing the dishes from a homemade meal. Or maybe I'll go over to my parents' and eat supper with them; I'm due for a visit anyway."
And with major decisions:
A young adult fresh out of high school. What's next: college? Trade school? Entrepreneurship? Cashier for the next twenty years?
Each life path would paint a result very different from the others.
Overall, this is a very fun & informative way to look at the world. It's helpful in just about every aspect you could think of - please give it a try & see what results!
P.S. get some summer vegetables from your local farm or farmer's market! All the fan favorites are ripe & available now; they're absolutely delicious and refreshing.