The Little Vulgar Book of Mechanics (v0.15.0) - Music I

Last updated: April 14th 2022

Just added this section to the book: Music I

Music I #

I recommend you read through Sound I (in particular Sound I - Pitch I), and perhaps even Hearing I. Those sections are relevant, as we're about to talk about the subset of those sounds you hear which can be objectively called musical. But feel free to ignore my recommendation.

  1. Pulse, meters and tempos.

    "The whole duty of a conductor is comprised in his ability always to indicate the right tempo." – RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883), composer and conductor.

    • Explicit pulse: Think of an ACDC song, or some techno song, where there's always some percussion keeping a constant pulse (or subdivision of it) throughout the whole song.
    • Extremely slow to non-existent pulse: Think of drone music. Or the long chords in film music that don't cause you to bob your head or follow any "beat" in any way.
    • Temporal dynamics: Think of an orchestra conductor, varying the tempo up and down according to his feel of it, and/or notes from the original composer (or some other type of cue, in the case of film, theater, TV, video game, etc.)
    • Why study this? Does a pop ballad preserve its feel and meaning if you change it from 80 bpm to 250 bpm? No. The 250 bpm would sound like some ridiculous cartoon. Faster is different. Slower is different. A ternary meter (or "triple time") will enable the Waltz. Binary meters won't. "Progressive" metal and rock play with meters all day long. Drummers may play different meters at once. Etc., etc. I mean, we're talking about Time. The temporal dimension of music. It's kind of a big deal.
  2. Melodic content:
    • Intuition: A melody is the part that you can whistle. As simple as that. Does your whistling carry the information about which musical notes are being played? Then it's a melody. Otherwise, it's something else (noise, speech, percussion, chords, etc.)
    • More technically: Concatenation of notes.
    • Why study this? Melodies and riffs and "licks" (in the guitar world) are basically the phrases, sentences, speech of music.
  3. Harmonic content:
    • Intuition: From notes, you make chords (i.e. one or more notes played at once). From chords you make "chord sequences" or "chord progressions". If melodies are the words and sentences of music, then harmony is the context. The same exact melody ("sentence") that sounds happy when accompanied by one harmony ("context") can communicate something totally different if accompanied by a different harmony.
    • More technically: Addition of notes make chords. Addition of chords make... more chords (we'll skip this at first. Advanced stuff. But notice it's a closed operation, mathematically: Chord + Chord = Chord). And Concatenation of chords make chord progressions.
    • Hands-on intuition: Sit on the piano right now. Press down a bunch of random keys at once. That's a chord. Wait a bit. Now press another bunch of keys. And so on. You've just played a "chord progression" – which probably sounded like shit, cos you pressed random keys (unless you're lucky and happened to choose some cool weird jazz chords or something.
    • Much like a pulse sometimes there's no explicit harmony in a song, i.e. no piano, synths, or guitar literally playing chords. Sometimes the harmony is implicit, in the sense that each instrument is playing a single melody, i.e. nobody is playing chords, i.e. no one pressing multiple keys on that piano at once like you did earlier, but obviously when they all sound at once you can hear the whole thing as forming a chord. And yet other times, there simply is no harmony.
    • Why study this? You can only do so much with single melodies. Even if you're dealing with instruments that can't play chords (e.g. human voice), at some point you're gonna have more than one of those instruments playing at once, and then you have chords, and harmony arises.
  4. Tonalities:
    • Intuition: A "tonality" is what you get when your melodic and harmonic information (see above) follows certain rules as to what notes and chords are "allowed."
    • "Major" and "minor": In Western music there are 24 tonalities (or 30 depending on how you count) tonalities, before you start engaging in worthless redundancy, arising from the fact that we're dealing with structures that cycle (mathematically: groups.) E.g. C## major is exactly the same sonically to D major, but more annoying notationally. Much like in computer programming: Things which can be constructed, but are pointless.
    • Why study this? At the very least you should know when you are in major, minor, or ambiguously in "both," or "in between," (at least perceptually, if not notationally.)
  5. Timbre, orchestration:
    • Intuition: This is the description of a 4-note melody (assume quarter notes): "C D Eb D." Notice anything missing? How about... the instrument?! This determines the sonic texture, so to speak, i.e. timbre. As we will learn in synthesis and Fourier I and II, complex sound waves are made of a "mix of simpler sound waves," the acoustics of musical instruments determine the propertion of the different "ingredients" in this mix.
    • Why study this? Does it make a difference if I play it on a flute or a church organ? Yes it fucking does. The timbre, or "texture" of a sound can make all the difference in the world. It's the reason orchestras have a certain configuration of instruments. It's the reason guitar players buy effect pedals and shit. It's the difference between Celine Dion and Corey Taylor.
  6. Emotional content:
    • Intuition: This is, of course, the least objective, and thus theoretically weaker, part of music theory. For all the talk of how "universal" music is as a language, the fact is that there is no formal notation for "tense," "nostalgic," "eerie," "angry," etc. even within the specific world of theory that is CMN (Western common music notation system.) And yet, your music is shit (there's also no theoretical symbol for shit, btw!) if it doesn't trigger, or evoke, and manage, emotions.
    • And now that I think about it, this part is what I think about 99% of my music composition time: "Sci-fi-ish," "elves running in the forest and shit," "pure fucking anger," "a planet being destroyed," "WWI," etc.
    • Why study this? Can we even study this? If everything is fucking subjective? I could go the pseudoscience way: Grab some fuzzy "Theory of musical emotion" from some Social Science PhD dude, and pretend it's serious stuff. But I'm not gonna do that. I prefer the historian and observer approach: Point you to ways music has been used, e.g. in films and very emotional songs, and simply describe everything involved in it, theorizing a bit about it. Because there are things we can all agree on. E.g. I'm pretty sure the Schindler's List OST was simply not intended to be used to pump your body to, during your cardio workout at the gym.
  7. Story:
    • Intuition: Have you ever fell asleep while watching a movie cos you don't give a shit about what's gonna happen next? That because there's no emotion being triggered. However, you still would recognize that there is a story. Logically, then, I argue that we can talk about story as separate from the study of emotion. Kind of like the "architectural grammar" of composition.
    • General structure: "Verses," "Choruses," "Intro," "Climax," "Bridges," etc.
    • Why study this? Every metalbro knows this feeling: "Dammit. My 'song' is just a collection of riffs. #RiffSalad." Every electronic musicbro knows this feeling: "Dammit. My 'song' is just one loop/beat after another. #BeatSalad #LoopSalad." What's missing is the story-telling. This is, for many people, the most permanent amateur weakness: Inability to tell a story with the music.
  8. Performance:
    • Intuition: Check out this 6-note melody: "E3 F#3 G3 E4 G3 F#3" Assume it's quarter notes (so it's e.g. a two bar Waltz-y 3/4 melody). Assume, further, that it's meant to be played on a piano. Do we have all the information we need? No! We don't know how hard to press the keys, for example. All equally hard? Start soft and increase the force as we go? We don't know. There is notation for this. Some of it CMN. Other we make up. (E.g. You'll be shocked to hear that there's no CMN symbol for "play this part with a spoon" or "play the last two notes nearer to the electric guitar bridge"!)
    • Why study this? Do you play piano, violin, timpani, cello? Can you compose things that make sense if you have no idea how each instrument is played, and which notes are hard or easy to play depending on hand position, tuning, etc.? To give you an idea: I play guitar as my main instrument (I consider myself a "brown belt" at it. Cross fingers I don't stop, and by my 40s I reach black!) Then, my secondary skills are drums, bass, and keyboards as my secondary (distant from my guitar skill, though. At most blue belt at the rest.) And yet, I still constantly fail to remember the peculiarities of each, and compose impossible-to-play shit, when sitting on the computer or working on paper!
  9. Notation and representation:
    • Intuition: I'm adding this category, which is like adding a "theory of programming languages" section to a programming book. The average programmer might tell you: "I don't need that shit. It's too meta. I want to program a video game, not theorize about computer languages used to program video games." But as we saw in Programming II, it is quite important to at least know the different families of programming languages. In music it's even more justified, because as a musician you will encounter different notations (sometimes made-up ones, or even your own), as well as different visual representations.
    • Visual representations: Classic staff vs. "piano roll" vs. vertical "tracker" vs. "arrange" vs. guitar/bass/drum "tabs" vs. audio "waveform"). What are the pros and cons for each? Much like (in fact, exactly like) programming languages, the pros and cons of different notations and representations are to do with: Familiarity, space (and other resources) required, learning curve, level of information (big picture vs. every explicit detail of e.g. timbre), history & support/adoption, etc.
    • Why study this? Should a filmmaker study film theory formally? Should a poet study grammar formally? Should a software developer study algorithms formally? The answer to all of those questions is: Maybe. It depends on what you want to do. Is your goal today to right a simple folk song for acoustic guitar? All you need is chord names on a napkin. Is your goal to hire an expensive orchestra to play a film score? Then you want notation with all the symbols and annotations necessary for the conductor to do his job.
    • Why study this? Continued: Due to the above, I am neither in the "theory = bad = limiting = for academics" camp, nor in the "you must study notation if you want to be a Real Musician (TM)" camp. It's a pointless discussion. I personally have a very specific reason why I value studying a bit of CMN whenever I can: It makes it easier to develop music-related computer programs. Why poorly reinvent the idea of a "bar," a "quarter note," etc.?

So let this be your welcome to Music I.

Before moving on, here's some homework-y items, to assess your current level of understanding:

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See current full book's WIP here.