Friday, 29 April 2016

Creating and experiencing emotional responses with sound and music.

In examining the motivations behind writing and listening to music one will come across several psychological accounts regarding our reactions to the input (music and sound). The question of response to silence appears to be outside the bulk of research, but if a paper exists I should be pleased to be guided towards it).

A psychological model has been formed to account for emotional responses to music, it is given the memorable title “The BRECVEM model” and the authors are Juslin & Västfjäll. A detailed introduction can be read at

The authors originally provided seven systems of response but this was expanded later to eight. In order to simplify the mechanisms I have added in italics possible responses to listening to the opening pages of Beethoven’s first symphony.  Clearly these are not responses that would form part of my internal dialogue, but nevertheless take place.

These eight systems are:

Brain Stem Reflex:

The brain receives a musical signal and considers that a response is required, music is taken at its basic level of sound input. The orchestra’s forte on the opening chord surprises me and as the chords build on the feeling of tension and relaxation and I notice my breathing and heartbeat has intensified.

Rhythmic Entrainment:

Musical rhythm affects the listener’s internal functions (breath, heartbeat etc.) which may in itself produce an emotional reaction. The progressive sense of greater movement from the Adagio is confirmed at the Allegro and I am caught up in the action and my foot starts tapping out the rhythm.

Evaluative Conditioning:

Music is associated with positive or negative feelings. At the Allegro con Brio (after a pulse acceleration) my sense of excitement and happiness is intensified by the strong steady downbeats and the spring in the dotted quaver-semiquaver figure.

Emotional Contagion:

The listener identifies with the emotion presented in the music and then simulates the emotion to “resonate” with it. This “resonance” involves both physiological and psychological reactions. At bar 52 the oboe theme alters my perception of the mood of the symphony and through the change increases my sense of involvement with the music. I feel that the oboe sound perfectly matches my involvement and my mind wanders a little to reflect on this observation.

Visual Imagery:

Association of image (internal or external, real or imagined) with music. The cantabile tone of the oboe melody and the perky staccato accompaniment associates an image from a World War I film of a girl singing while deftly moving between her patients in a hospital ward.

Meyer (1956), “it seems probable that ...image processes play a role of great importance in the musical affective experiences of many listeners”

Episodic memory: Association with personal/social memories, significant life events. The oboe melody at the point of contagion reminds me of my friend who played the oboe who died some months ago.

Musical expectancy:

Prior knowledge of music creates expectations which are denied, (some psychologists identify this as creating negative reactions, and I would contest this, to the experienced listener the denial or surprise factor should be a positive, even humorous stimulus).  After the short three quaver figures at bar 69 I am expecting the music to start moving to the dominant but the sudden switch of dynamics and harmony take me by surprise.

Musical expectancy refers to those expectancies that involve syntactical relationships between different parts of the musical structure (Narmour 1991; Patel 2003).

Aesthetic judgement:

Individual evaluation based on message or meaning, the quality of the composition (craftsmanship), originality of design etc. Even in the opening pages Beethoven has involved me in an emotional journey, rapidly altering my views and reactions to the music.

Having these categories to identify what initiates a reaction (emotional or otherwise) will be of more use to those studying our behaviour than those wanting to direct their composing skills in a particular direction, but they are nevertheless categories with which a composer should give some consideration, they are the bedrock of what bring about an emotional response.

Turning to the inputs of sound, music and silence, the next question that arises in my mind is whether the emotion is contained within the composition or the listener, or shared between both. This in turn provoked me to ask the question of why some pieces of music create a particular emotive response (joy, sadness, laughter or tears), or in some cases a succession of responses or even a succession of different responses. It may be the case that readers will share with me the distinction between experiencing a single sound or even succession of sounds and the planned relationship of sounds experienced in a composition.  That statement also requires some thought as John Cage broke down the conventional relationship between sound and structured music. 1

So, is the emotion in the music or the listener? One school of thought is that music emulates characteristics that resemble or suggest human reactions (alternations of pp and ff,  tremolando strings, string glissando “sighs” come immediately to mind). The process of decoding such events and developing them into a narrative has already been considered in the previous blogs on motivation, but it is vital to recognise that some hold the view that the judgement of the listener is considered not only as vital but more important than the structure (the composition).

Some believe that there is a shared function between structure and appraiser. Process theory responds to the Juslin & Västfjäll table provided above, and suggest that music creates an immediate response preparing us for action which is felt as emotion. The number of reactions, and possibly different reactions arising from a piece of music, may create within us a sense of conflict and even create uncertainty, what we might commonly describe as a mixed response, so that our emotions “morph” over a period of time. I can’t think of a better example than Nielsen’s 5th symphony as a model for this type of reaction.

If we move out of the field of music for a moment and consider a drawing of a face as a circle, two dots and a curved line, we know that the result can bring about a response. The greater the craftsmanship in producing the image the deeper our involvement and emotional response, so for me the Mona Lisa holds more interest than a computer emoticon. In one input I can say “that is a happy face” in the other I have ambiguous feelings about the smile and a number of other factors in the painting. As a child I might have had different responses to which image I preferred and this is even more pronounced as an infant.

Returning to music our emotions are enhanced through a combination of elements which extend on the sounds we hear. The notion of structure has been mentioned already and the term structure takes us to the point of considering how education and the experience of listening helps us to experience emotional responses that might be denied or lost to us without understanding the craft of composition. The second element is the performance of the music, this includes areas such as accuracy, virtuosity and then fuzzy considerations such as warmth of tone and the way a performer gesticulates. Both performers and listeners will respond to the environment in which the music is played and this may appreciably enhance or destroy the experience.

We are now encroaching on Nurtan’s statements that people perceive music through their own individual characteristics and preferences partly based on personality and partly based on education. Both of us share the view that like a well-crafted watch a piece of music must show integrity in its design. To appreciate why we might like one time-piece over another we might open the case as well as look at the movement of the hands. Of course Nurtan may own a timepiece by Masahiro Kikuno based on a "temporal hour clock", and I a period piece Micky Mouse watch. That we can appreciate and enjoy these different objects is of course is a good thing. 2

1.       Nurtan’s comment:

One consideration that is difficult to include as a part of perception of music and the psychological reaction one might expect is the tuning of the instruments and the pitch we associate with a given frequency. For example, there is a significant difference between the modern Western tuning based on 440 A and Baroque turning which may range from a semitone above to a semitone below 440. There are cultures in which the music is based on Pythagorean tuning which is very significantly different in perceived sound than well-tempered scale. There are cultures that use only instruments in which one of the most important notes in the well-tempered scale, the tonic-fifth relationship does not exist. It is reasonably well established that we perceive music as a combination of its components. If one of the components and its perception is based on cultural considerations then it would be logical to assume that the interpretation of music is also culturally mediated. I think the essential rhythms of a language and the sounds of simple songs such as a lullaby are learned from in utero to the first six months after birth. These are permanent and form the foundation of music and speech even though at the time of learning they are not interpreted and can be expanded through "ear training". These considerations raise many very significant questions in the perception or interpretation of music, for which cross-cultural data do not exist. However, we can say with confidence that even among those who cannot differentiate tones a musical statement elicits a psychological response.


Fortunately or unfortunately Nurtan owns a very non-descript timepiece that was purchased some 15 years ago to replace a similar timepiece that was at least 20 years old. Perhaps in five years he will attain the level intricacy and sophistication required for a Masahiro Kikuno watch; but, he still will have to find his reading glasses to tell the time.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Deciphering musical codes

Recent blogs have looked at the processes which are involved our decision making when composing and listening to music. Some may consider that the blogs have somehow reduced the subtle qualities that we share, this diagram outlines some of these qualities which we bring into play when listening.

I use the term "code" as music is information that requires processing, the fact that this can be done at such a remarkable speed by an experienced listener is testament to our extraordinary brain. There are musicians who can within the time it takes to play two notes recognise a composer, bring to mind a catalogue of his or her music, state the period of life in which the music was written (early period, late period), its historical context, other arrangements of the music and so on. Furthermore, even if the music is not known to the listener, he or she will be able to anticipate certain progressions and composing decisions and experience 'pleasure' or surprise when these progressions are not given (novelty).

If you feel that you cannot see yourself as an experienced listener at this time the table may well be useful as a simple way of putting a focus on a given element of the music you wish to listen to, some works will naturally feature a category above others.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Motivation and musical excellence

Motivation and musical excellence combines several blogs into PDF format. The blogs have been modified as a result of positive criticism from several good friends.
I hope that this will assist those who experience the pain of a composer's block and those (like myself) who wonder why some of us are drawn like moths to a bright light by the wonders of music.

Click on the header to open the PDF.

Saturday, 16 April 2016


If the interval set the symmetric scale also repeats itself in an exact manner over the entire sound spectrum then we can describe these scales as both cyclists and symmetric. For practical scales there are two closely related octatonic scales that would satisfy this definition. These are generated by the interval sets O1=[12211221] and O2=[21122112]. In the investigation of the properties of these two scales we are going to define S as the "tonic" of a scale which is simply the starting tone. S will take on the values 0, to 11 which corresponds to the 12 tones of the tempered scale with C=0. The only operation were going to use is transposition represented by T number of semitones. We can define any octatonic scale by the 4-member set X of the tones that are not present in the scale.

If we investigate O1 generated scales, we observed that if S is even then the members of the set X are also even and if S is odd then the members of X are also odd. Suppose the scale is transposed by T; if S is odd and T is even then X is odd. Similarly, if both are odd or even then X is even and if one is odd the other is even then X is odd. Using this information we can generate a table of X sets for each starting tone.

The generation of such a table has surprising results mixed with the obvious:

a) We need only 6 X sets to cover the entire 12 tones.

b)  Any tone transposed by six semitones has the identical set X.

c) No special techniques would be required to use the results.

                        Table 1. The generating sets for O1 scales:

                                        S                       X

                                  0   and   6         2   4   8   10

                                  2   and   8         0   4   6   10

                                  4   and  10        0   2   6     8

                                  1   and    7        3   5   9   11

                                  3   and    9        1   5   7   11

                                  5   and  11        1   3   7     9

 Suppose we would like to generate the CSS for F#. F# =  6  thus we have:

            0 -  1  -  2 – 3       4 – 5 – 6   -  7 – 8 – 9 – 10 – 11

            C    C#        D#            F    F#    G        A           B   è  F# G  A B C C# D# F F#

It is as simple as that.

A close examination of the table suggests that with the use of few accidentals we can manoeuvre over the entire set of harmonic relationships with relative ease and smooth transition from one region (tonality) to another. The reason for the ease in the transitions is the additional shared members of some of the X sets. For example, 1 and 9 share 5 and 11. Therefore transposition from 1 to 9 would require moving C# to D# and G to A, the rest of the notes stay the same. Here we note that if he transformation is within the same class i,e, odd to odd and even to even, the transformation would not be noticeable except for uncommonly attentive listeners, If transformation is between classes, the contrast would be strong and it would be very pronounced to be recognisable except for uncommonly tone deaf.

If we apply the same methods of calculating X sets for O2 we find out that the two formulations are nearly the same except for O2 giving opposite results for the odd even values of S. Therefore the transformations and going from one to the other for the two scales could be reduced to the table given below:

Table 1. The generating sets for O1 and O2 scales:

            O1              O2                           X

       0   and   6        3   and   9        2   4   8   10

       2   and   8        5   and  11       0   4   6   10

       4   and  10       1   and    7       0   2   6     8

       1   and   7        4   and   10      3   5   9   11

       3   and   9         0   and    6       1   5   7  11

       5   and 11        2   and    8       1   3   7    9

One might be tempted to say that O2 is obtained from O1 by minor 3rd transposition. But, we will resist the temptation and discuss a composition application.

An example of the use of both cyclic symmetric scales is available here:

This composition process did not require any special adjustments for my normal routine except that I paid closer attention to the rhythmic structure. The harmonic structure more or less fell into to the rhythmic frame work. Initially, selecting a harmonic flow required by the flow of the music called for considerable amount of piano time but eventually it was possible to compose as I usually do directly to the paper. As a demonstration, the piano piece was necessarily kept simple in many aspects. However having used the scales once, I feel that it has considerable dramatic potential and it is intuitive  in the sense that it covers by and large, a well-travelled  ground by many 20th/21st  century musicians. The outcome, as you will hear in the example piece, can be as traditional as one chooses to make it so. On the other hand there is no limitation in generating very interesting harmonic structures – of course this depends on the composer's choices.

As always we would be more than happy to answer any questions on the above.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Why write ‘difficult’ music?
Any composer or musician who produces contemporary music will be familiar with negative responses.  The severity of the negative response can vary, sometimes it is an ideological debate other times it may be more physical, and both have the potential for long term consequences on the recipient. I recall witnessing a clash of opinions as a postgrad student, my supervisor had written a set of songs, the text based on intimate love letters.  The performance was open to university staff and students and a conference room was booked. The performance was good and polite applause seemed to signal the end of the evening.  Suddenly a member of the audience launched a tirade against the musical language used, I offered views that took the middle ground in the hope of calming the situation, the aggression continued for the best part of 30 minutes.
Was this aggressive reaction a response to a more complex manner of expression, or are other forces at work in such instances? Before attempting an answer the first task is to consider some aspects of simple and complex music. To simple music we may ascribe:

       ·         Clear melodic structures, often only one theme is used.
       ·         Clear contrasts, little in the way of transitions
       ·         Repetitive rhythms often based on dance patterns
       ·         Conventional orchestration and use of instruments
       ·         Familiarity of style, e.g. use of folk music, hymns, spirituals
       ·         Recollects or suggests comfortable environments, suggests group action or cooperation.
One example of simple music is Eric Coates “Calling All Workers”, I haven’t chosen this because it reminds me of my youth, it doesn’t! It is a wonderful example of music produced to motivate factory hands (it was composed in 1940 and played a significant part in the war effort) and contains the majority of the characteristics outlined above.
Calling All Workers may be heard at:
 Not all simple music is either effective or popular but when it is its appeal can be widespread. There are times when the music features some of the above characteristics and still manages to gain a wide audience. Arvo Pärt has music that speaks to specific religious groups, uses familiar elements both historical and technical but there is more to the structure than one might expect as this extract illustrates:
Pärt designed strict rules to control how the harmonic voices move with the melodic lines in his music, diktats which are as strict as serialism; ironically, given his rejection of his previous avant garde obsessions, the success of his new musical language is dependent on precisely the objectivity of thinking that serial composition demands. That austerity of process makes Pärt's tintinnabulation a new use of tonality, even a new kind of tonality, and it explains why his music sounds simultaneously ancient and modern… (Tom Service – The Guardian 18.06.2012).
For the sake of balance difficult music may feature some of the following:
·         Complex harmony and rhythm
      ·         Patterns of repetition are less obvious
      ·         Irregular phrasing
      ·         Unconventional tuning / scales
      ·         Unconventional approaches to text  
      ·         Dealing with serious issues such as mortality, psychological perception etc.
      ·         Reduction or distortion of human characteristics
The issue of patterns of repetition have been given psychological scrutiny, as the following extract shows:
"Much of what the brain does is to anticipate the future. Predicting what happens next has obvious survival value, and brains are remarkably adept at anticipating events.  We measured the predictability of tone sequences in music by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern and found the successive pitches were less predictable than random tone sequences. For listeners, this means that, every time you try to predict what happens next, you fail. The result is an overwhelming feeling of confusion, and the constant failures to anticipate what will happen next means that there is no pleasure from accurate prediction." Professor David Huron
The section “less predictable than random tone sequences” is rather worrying and I suggest that his subjects were unfamiliar with atonal music, and that the randomly produced tone sequences were less than random.  However the general point is made about predictable events, and would make a case for the popularity of minimalism over other contemporary styles.
Mentioning minimalism brings us back to the musical arguments which take place between musicians who hold to different preferences! Group membership is a powerful motivating factor on our ego, and here is the most interesting factor the closer the groups are to each other the stronger the conflict that arises.
This statement by Dean Burnett makes the matter clear:
Our brain makes us hostile to those who threaten the group, even if it is a trivial matter.
(The Idiot Brain).
There is no need to refer to countless skirmishes between football supporters, we can turn to the followers of Wagner and Brahms:
Once Brahms was set up as Wagner's adversary, he drew vilification or adoration according to allegiance. Originally an ardent Wagnerite, the conductor Hans von Bulow did a complete volte-face, hailing Wagner's rival as “the greatest, the most exalted of composers”. To the master lieder-writer Hugo Wolf, however, Brahms was “only a relic from primeval ages”. Non-Germans were equally passionate. Tchaikovsky scorned Brahms as “a giftless bastard”, while Elgar declared that “the unvarying breadth and grandeur of his ideas marks him out as the true successor of Beethoven.”
(Extract from the Economist
It may be that we now have some idea as to why passions arise over different styles of music, and why certain types of music are more difficult to digest. We may write music to belong to a particular group and defend our position because of the choice we made. To return to Dean Burnett:
Humans don’t just want to be a part of a group, they want a high ranking role in it.
Does the choice of belonging to a smaller group increase our opportunity for becoming the leader or holding a high ranking position? Why else do we turn our backs on popularity, wealth and honours by choosing to write complex music when we have all the skills to write a simple song? After all I am no less good-looking than the members of One Direction, whose Midnight Memories has a present count of 112,459,865 views.
Perhaps my supervisor’s critic was only trying to be helpful.

Friday, 8 April 2016

What motivates you to write music?

In The Idiot Brain by Dean Burnett motivation is divided into two categories, external (extrinsic) and internal (intrinsic). Many composers will be aware of problems arising from extrinsic difficulties as the main external motivator is receiving payment for your product. Some of the problems arising may include

Not having sympathy with the project or task set.

Having to spend time developing new skills to achieve the task, hence additional effort required.

Mismatch of personalities involved in the project, lack of appreciation, unwarranted interference, and inappropriate criticism.

Meeting deadlines.

Many of these problems involve the musician in degrees of compromise, and for some the problems are part of the enjoyment as the clash of personalities satisfies the flight or fight element which Dean Burnett makes great play of in his book.

Intrinsic motivation may arise from apparently more noble desires, a love of philosophy or humanity expressed through music. What are the ingredients for intrinsic motivation? Burnett offers three controlling factors.  The first is autonomy, the control of circumstances around the creative process, the second, competency, which in the case of music can fluctuate depending matters such as style or harmonic language, and finally relatedness, relating to our sense of recognition and identity. The image of the composer in isolation having Titanic struggles to produce a score which reaches out to the world is common enough in the public mind and incorporates the controlling factors in a neat package.

In all art forms there are many people with considerable competence who shun the main extrinsic motivation, they are amateurs, a word which carries more negative than positive associations.  These are the terms offered by the Word Thesaurus:

Unprofessional, sloppy, slapdash, substandard, incompetent, inexpert, shoddy, slipshod, clumsy, crude and inept.

The most positive term is recreational. In case you feel insulted by this description the matter can be balanced by Chambers Dictionary of Etymology which states

Amateur n. 1784, lover of (some activity or thing), borrowed from French or Old French amateur, learned borrowing from Latin amatorem (nominative amator) lover, from amare to love, of uncertain origin.

In terms of the self there is justification for intrinsic work with art, and this is true from an early age. When we experience positive outcomes from our creative endeavours without external pressures to deliver the product we attribute greater value to the outcome. This is in part a response to the sensation of being in control.

On a personal level there is a great deal of enjoyment to be had in the interaction with a DAW or Digital Audio Workstation, so much so that I can think of it as a motivator towards musical fulfilment. It provides a number of musical sounds, synthetic, sampled, recorded, it assists my play of the sounds in terms of rhythm and articulation and may cope with problems that humans may carp at or find impossible.  It isn’t critical of my choices. Unless I extend the work done this way and bring it to the messy world of human interaction it is in danger of being a very sterile environment no matter how flattering to my ego.

Whether one is an egotistical composer (Wagner-like) enjoying (apparently) full control over the product or non-egotistical (Cage-like), there is a common anticipation of some type of reward and that is primarily an appreciation or response from an audience. Negative responses are nothing new to composers and often have long term positive outcomes, Stravinsky’s Rite has to be the best modern example of this. The audience may be large or small and the response may be immediate or felt over a long period of time. This brings us to preservation or the extension of ourselves through art and music. Death is inevitable and the fear of it does wonders for stimulating the ego, so it is natural to find many witty and moving quotations about art and death:

“The day will come
When my body no longer exists
But in the lines of this poem
I will never let you be alone

The day will come
When my voice is no longer heard
But within the words of this poem
I will continue to watch over you

The day will come
When my dreams are no longer known
But in the spaces found in the letters of this poem
I will never tire of looking for you”


“I'm wishing he could see that music lives. Forever. That it's stronger than death. Stronger than time. And that its strength holds you together when nothing else can.”

Of course the way music is appreciated alters over a period a time, values change not always for the better.

 Let us come back to the present and consider another motivating factor, completeness. It is obviously related to the expectations of others (extrinsic considerations), unfinished operas are not altogether popular despite modern day use of open ended storylines. However it is the temporary open-ended nature of soap operas that make them work well, our desire for completion drives us to the hope of fulfilment. The road to completion for the intrinsic minded composer is full of potholes, the form needs adjustment, there is too much / too little repetition, the melody has a weakness, the rhythm is too relaxed and so on. There are times when the audience responds to the challenge presented by the composer’s intentions, Sibelius 5 comes to mind, it is as if we are invited to hear and share the anxieties of the music as it is being formed, and finally hammered into shape.

For many composers completion is involved with audience response, even on the level of submitting a piece to a virtual audience on a site like Contemporary Music on G+. There is a level of concern for many as they post and ask for a response, negative responses may shape the way a composer develops his music, and no responses at all may be actually painful. That is an issue we remain constantly aware of on this blogsite, and we work at making our bias towards being supportive in our criticism.

Nurtan sent me an e-mail commenting on the post this morning (10.04.2016). With his permission I add it to the blog:

Yesterday I started to think about the motivation blog, why one would compose music or paint a painting or cook gourmet meal? Why create something, good or bad. Is it the essence of the aesthetic karma of being human?

Is there a need for creation even if you only have rudimentary skills? Is the drive to composer or share universal?  Some small voice in our minds says to us that  this might be our footprint on earth and it is permanent.

Yet we know that has an unlikely permanence, I thought of my grandfather’s lost poetry. He meticulously copied his memoires and poetry to10 volumes of notebooks which were lost sometime during the twenty-five years after his death. He could have had published most or a least some of the poems. But he did not – he found the satisfaction in writing.

In 2012 I saw a wonderful production of King Lear at the Royal Shakespearean theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Almost immediately I started a tone poem/Symphony based on that experience. The completed first draft is still in a drawer waiting to be edited. The completion of the first draft ( on and off took about two years) was the work or the desire or the drive to accomplish the task. Nobody is going to even consider playing a 50 minute piece by an unknown composer. In that sense it is complete. I thought for some time about why people would compose on a voluntary basis. This could be as an amateur or professional (since only a rare composer can make a decent living solely by his/her trade without supplemental income). It became apparent to me that there is something very human, something very special in some people who successfully or unsuccessfully engage in what we call an artistic endeavour or trade or a skilled hobby/profession. I tried to find reasons why people might do this or choose not to do it – that was to no avail. This morning I decided that I can only answer that question for myself and that may not be easy or even be possible to generalise.

If I don't do something related to music each and every day I consider the day lost. That is a feeling one can afford only when one is young and healthy, in those years the time passes slowly and one's life is endless. Therefore, if your head is full of sounds, if you are skilled enough to produce a passable piece of music and if you know that the satisfaction of hearing your creation is an indescribably wonderful feeling; for that best or worst reason, you sit down and write music. After the fact, if someone else plays or likes your creation, or if you get paid expressing your feelings through your music or if you become a famous composer, it is well and good. They are icing on the cake.  I write music because if I don't I will wither away and turn to dust. But, I don't think that the satisfaction it produces is any different than making music through playing an instrument or producing a painting or growing tomatoes in your garden or knitting a pair of socks or reading a good book. Now I wonder how common is this feeling…

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Is human ‘messiness’ better than a synthetic performance?

Exploring the topic of synthetic sounds further we will come across the way the absence of messiness affects our perception of sound. Vibrato has already been mentioned along with similarity of attack (and indeed all aspects of the sound envelope). The human performer alters each note according to his / her taste and experience, where computer controlled sounds repeat a regular formation. This is particularly the case with keyboards, and while controllers for pitch and dynamics have their part to play in manipulating sounds they are generally clumsy and in exact in live performance.  Recently the keyboard player of Dream Theater, Jordan Rudess, brought out an iPad app which permits glides and vibrato, this offers room for greater interaction with synthetic sounds.

Another area of messiness in real life or organic instruments is the percussive sounds made as the player interacts with his / her instrument. In a performance of synthetic instruments the listener is often only aware of the sound produced. I noticed this when recording a Bach partita on a simulated pipe organ, one recording I made live, and the other had the signal fed directly into the amplifier. The degree of percussive noises on the keys was far too strong on one recording and wholly absent in the other, neither were particularly satisfactory. Percussive sounds can contribute to the overall package that makes a performance though these are not normally indicated in the score. There are works in which percussive or scraped sounds are a feature of the writing as in Jonathan Harvey's fourth string quartet. Percussive sounds of instruments used as a rhythmic feature do occur in more traditional formats such as the accordion accompaniment to tango. It may be a matter of taste as to how much the percussive action of dancers on a stage add or subtract to the performance and how much our brains filters or focuses on one sound or action over another.

In an organic performance there is further messiness in the actions of the performer, the movement's made indicate to the eye much of the drama of the music, the closing moments of Paul Tortelier’s TV recording of “Don Quixote” with tears running down his face made an enormous impact on his audience even as a reproduction on a (then) tiny screen and poor sound. Is this relationship and interaction not possible with synthetic instruments? What is essential to recognise is that the voice of a well-built instrument has a quality all of its own.

The primary sense of the brain is vision, blindfold a person as they eat and much of the experience is diminished, in fact the process of taste can be deceived; (there is a good account of this in “The Idiot Brain” by Dean Burnett). When we attend concerts we might not consider the importance of vision but we are reacting to cues all the time and it informs our understanding and enjoyment of the performance. Naturally opera draws on all the cues available which is why this irrational art form is so powerful.

On the chart reference was made to Stockhausen's "Hymnen" in the version accompanied by instruments, the integration of human and synthetic sounds in performance creates a very different ambience. There is more to the addition than just doubling the music to a national anthem. One might ask why it was not taken further with brass bands performing on stage. Naturally there is a limit to theatrical music in terms of cost and staging difficulties. In popular music the marriage of synthetic and organic instruments (and hybrids) is far more common, and where money is less of a problem elaborate staging and video presentations are ever more regular.

Midi offers considerable control over matters of timing and here again messiness is an issue. Any performer who uses midi recording as a learning tool will know that their most precise performances are full of alterations to the score, but the tension created through messiness is the heart and soul of performance. Where does this put music specifically designed to be wholly accurate? Is Milton Babbitt's “Ensembles for Synthesizer” a museum piece or stimulating to the senses? I find that there is more than a period charm to the music, am I responding to the design and form of the structure and accepting the precision as a necessary component?
The question of rhythmic precision becoming robotic is fundamental to drum machines, there are many jokes about these,
Why is a drum machine superior to a drummer?
You only have to beat the rhythm into a drum machine once.
What was truly surprising was the way in which the popular music world developed the drum machine's regularity into a feature of dance based music so giving a new life to old technology.

However, the drum machine, which offered a wider variety of drums than the synthesizer, is not used exclusively in its intended manner. Instead, its preferred use by rap musicians is for producing the low concentrated booming, bass sound characteristic of rap music. Increasing the bass is not simply making the music louder, but rather deals with the issue of the quality of lower-frequency sounds at high volumes, and this was achieved by manipulating the equipment. Kurtis Blow explains that the Roland TR-808 is the ideal drum machine for rap because of the way it processes bass frequencies: 
The 808 is great because you can detune it and get this low-frequency hum. It’s a car speaker destroyer. That’s what we try to do as rap producers—break car speakers and house speakers and boom boxes. And the 808 does it. It’s African music!

Adjoa Poku
For a large number of listeners the robotic is more than acceptable as a companion to messy human performance. This argument becomes more interesting when one considers the use of the turntable as a means of sound production, this style / development is not restricted to popular music, contemporary musicians increasingly turn to the possibilities in its use.

In Dean Burnett's “The Idiot Brain” much is made of fight or flight responses and how they shape our character. This works in the theatre and concert hall even though a stage is out between us and the action. There are numerous examples of ppp giving way to a loud fff chord, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky both make good use of the effect, and this works equally well with synthetic sounds, after all there is no indication at all from a loudspeaker of a change to come.

Can we respond to a cabinet containing a loudspeaker? In one way we do, their presence on stage indicate power, just as the formal dress of an orchestra does. These days the multiple cabinet displays are unnecessary and musicians may put empty boxes on view to stimulate our responses.

So the question of synthetic use is bound up with a number of characteristics that we may at first discount. Within the limitations of the thousand word blog it comes down to this, it is possible to create a powerful presentation using synthetic sounds and instruments, indeed they may help produce a superior result. What goes with that statement is not the need for ever more sophisticated technology (developments will come) but a careful use of what we have available to us, and as so often that means taking the time to shape the music with audience response in mind.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

An invitation.

Make a recording of this graphic score on any instrument or sing / recite the text. Translate it if you wish.
Post your link on YouTube etc. in the reply section of the blog.
I shall record your interpretation and make a montage of the results and post it in a months time. If nobody replies I shall post a (near) silent recording.

I will acknowledge contributions,

Many thanks for cooperating in this venture.


Friday, 1 April 2016

What is wrong with synthetic instrument performances?

Before getting to the core of this blog I would like to relate a short story.  Some three years ago my wife bought me a present, a manuscript copy of "Lambert's Clavichord" a series of short keyboard pieces by Herbert Howells. In turn I made her a gift of a recording of the music on harpsichord as she prefers the sound of this instrument to the piano, also it is closer to the sound desired by the composer. The harpsichord was a sound sampled instrument from Kontakt and one which I find more than satisfactory for the purpose.

I put the recording on YouTube and it has amassed over a thousand visitors which is a pleasant surprise. A few days ago I had an e-mail which said

"Is this some sort of MIDI thing"?                           

I wasn't certain if this was a criticism but it certainly had the edge of an unfavourable response. I felt uneasy with this as I had spent many months planning the performance, spent considerable time working through the pieces, played the music in real time and then corrected the errors by a mixture of rerecording and some note editing via MIDI. There was probably no more editing on this than happens with most studio recordings. These days synthetic harpsichords are used in concert halls as their tuning remains true, and various turnings are possible with a touch of a switch, so what was the problem for this listener?

The use of synthetic instruments raises many questions and responses and I have experienced a number of these first hand. This is hardly surprising as I am particularly interested in the use of this medium.

Most musicians will be familiar with Sibelius score writer, if you use the basic MIDI set and select violin you can have a short period of entertainment or experience sheer hell as you experience a strange sound unrelated to any instrument known by man.  Its limitations are huge. I am not going to compare this string sound with others, strings are notoriously difficult to emulate well. What I will say is that if you have access to samples of glissando, pizzicato, sfz attack etc, and use these with care the result is more truthful and easier on the ear. It comes down to this, the more time and thought you put into the final product the better the result. Of course a satisfactory result means considerably more work on the project, and why would one do this if there is a competent violinist waiting to perform your work around the corner? I don't think I need to expand on that comment if, like me, you write works which explore some of the more contemporary aspects of music.

The problem of synthetic sounds was discussed between Giorgio Sollazzi and myself some weeks ago as I tried to make an arrangement of his Kantata, his reply was pertinent, I hope my translation does justice to his answer:

When I use sampled sounds I always try to give them an electronic soul, I never want to simulate an orchestra and instead I want to feel how dramatic or ironic or sarcastic synthetic music can be. You know the difference if you pay attention to the attack, in MIDI it is always the same....the envelope is always different.

This gets to the heart of why some synthetic sounds simulate better than others. So if Kontakt release a version of the clavichord I hope they will put finger pressure samples in their collection before I rework “Lambert's Clavichord”.

Another response I had to a Kontakt score (this time a string quartet) was more positive but with this proviso, “you don't get the vibrato you need with sampled instruments” (Anthony Littlewood). In this case the problem was different in that I wanted a sound that was static or still as possible, sans vibrato. The sampled sounds of course will have some vibrato, and if desired it is quite an easy task to add vibrato to a sample with sine waves. So the problem of getting what you want cuts both ways.

The response by Sig. Sollazzi raises a big issue, that is that the mind seems to prefer the “messiness” of certain types of information. Perfect environments are sterile and unwelcoming. This leads to the question of perfect performances on disc which is too large a concern to deal with here, but on a personal level I prefer a radio broadcast of a live concert, and e.g. a performance of “The Goldberg Variations” with occasional slips is no great hindrance to the enjoyment of the work as a whole.

I always think that artists have a more liberal approach to technology than musicians, while the photography v paint argument still rumbles on, it started in the late1830’s, the generally held belief is that technology and art are two sides of the same coin.

There is a Zen approach to examining is dividing the issue of synthetic sounds into the technical and aesthetic considerations, here is an incomplete table of my thoughts. It will constantly modify as enthusiasts and professionals work side by side to make more demands on the possibilities in synthetic sounds.