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Source code for my MIDI animator

I recently uploaded the source code to the MIDI animator I programmed with jMonkeyEngine to github: midi-animator.

To use it, see the Readme there. You’ll need jMonkeyEngine, and understanding Java would probably help. (I’m not really interested in making a standalone user-friendly app at the moment; Stephen Malinowski’s “Music Animation Machine” is still available if you want that. I’m more interested in having something I can continually customize and play around with.)

In addition to perhaps being sloppy (as I never intended to share it), the source code is a bit bloated as it’s actually part of a larger project to create a MIDI editor that will feature my melody generator. But that’s a long way off; I’m not actively working on that at the moment, and probably won’t anytime soon.

So… there it is if anyone else wants to play around with it, or contribute their own improvements to it… feel free!

Also, it’s my first time uploading something to github, so I’m not very familiar with the platform yet… I hope I did it right.

Chromaticism in ‘Secrets of the Ancient Seas’

I recently posted my latest composition, “Secrets of the Ancient Seas”! Check it out:

I write in the description:

This began as another track inspired by my novel, but the rapid string arpeggios and spirit of the melodies quickly began to remind me of an adventurer braving the seas, so I continued down that path instead. I even threw in some wind machine for some atmosphere, a percussion instrument in Garritan Personal Orchestra I’ve been wanting to try using but never really had the occasion for. I think it works well in this piece.

My favorite part of this piece comes at the 4:22 mark. At first I meant simply to contrast all the melodic material with some more atmospheric material, perhaps only wandering arpeggios, but I couldn’t resist adding some melodic phrases along with them in the form of descending minor thirds. With the minor chords forming the harmony, these descending minor thirds sound, to me, very haunting and creepy. Almost the way a child calls out “Where are you?” to taunt hiding prey. The sound of being lost at sea on a foggy night, perhaps? Vaguely hearing the call of the deadly sirens in the distance? Anyway, I love how it sounds.

I also like what’s happening harmonically, as it’s more chromatic than my usual fare:


We start in the tonic of B minor, then continually progress through the circle of fifths, to F-sharp minor, C-sharp minor, G-sharp minor, and finally to D-sharp minor. From here, we go back and forth between D-sharp minor and D major (the relative major of B minor), a transformation Neo-Riemannian triadic theory calls an S transformation for slide, as the chord slides between major and minor keeping the third of the chord as a common tone (in this case an F sharp). I think the major chord sounds particularly refreshing there, as so many minor chords precede it. Finally we get C-sharp major seventh for the final three measures, which serves as a secondary dominant in B minor (as it implies a resolution to F-sharp major, the dominant of B minor). But first the passage repeats, and the C-sharp major seventh is just as capable of resolving to B minor (although this resolution perhaps does not sound as strong, but that’s OK, the stronger resolution comes after the repeat).

When we do resolve to the dominant, F-sharp major, the opening phrase of the piece’s main melody is echoed, but it sounds rather exotic and dissonant being accompanied with the dominant chord rather than the tonic, and the clash propels the piece forward to the main melody’s final statements.

Although this little sequence is hardly revolutionary at all (and so may not stand out to any listener), it’s certainly not the sort of thing I’d usually compose, so I’m rather pleased with it.

Also, at long last I managed to upload a truly 60 fps animation thanks to Shotcut, a nice free video editor that will now replace my need for the annoying Windows Movie Maker. It’s not a super-advanced editor, but it does what I need (sync audio and add titles), it’s free, and it doesn’t come with annoying limitations to try to entice me to buy some deluxe version.

AI generated movie trailer fails to impress

IBM’s Watson supercomputer AI has created a trailer for an AI horror film! Oh my! How interesting! How ironic! How impressive! IBM is full of geniuses! Let’s watch!

Erm… ok…

Alas, I am not at all impressed with the result. This trailer tells me hardly anything about the story. I fear we’ll have to wait until AIs actually “understand” language and story (or at least analyze these elements a bit more closely) before they can create trailers that resonate with humans. Who are the characters? What’s the main conflict of the story? What’s the spiritual (inner) conflict? What’s the hook? Etc. Trailers are not just a collection of tone shifts. What stupid investors are investing in IBM based on this sort of nonsense? (And how can I get some of their money myself?)

Anyway, what we end up with is not so much a “movie trailer created by AI” as though “AI” were some generic mysterious black box. Rather, it’s a movie trailer created in some algorithmic fashion that a human (or group of humans) designed. Which, of course, is what all “AI-generated” products amount to — human-created algorithms to mimic and automate processes we may not necessarily understand.

And therein lies the true goal of “AI research”. The point is not to create a robot that can do everything a human can do but remains just as mysterious as a human brain. The point is to understand what intelligence actually is in the first place. And when we understand that, we may find we don’t need or care about sophisticated human-like robots anyway. And any sort of creepy fear that comes from wondering about the possibilities of rogue robots or the nature of digital consciousness is the result of human idiocy, spiritually and logically. Spiritually in that consciousness is not merely an emergent property of matter (we are not just meat robots). Logically in that if we could design a robot capable of “going rogue” then we can just as easily design it to not “go rogue” in the first place.

“What if the AIs kill us?!” It’s already not that hard to make a machine that can kill you; why is a robot doing it somehow more scary? I suppose because you don’t understand where the “impulse” to kill is coming from. And anyway, if we’re smart enough to create robots that can actually decide to kill in some humanly way, then we’d naturally understand where that decision comes from in the first place and would prevent it (or override the capacity to decide not to kill if we’re making an evil robot army I guess).

(Of course some AI research is perfectly happy to stay within the bounds of mimicking and automating thought processes, as these algorithms can have useful applications, such as handwriting recognition software or my own forays into algorithmic music generation, which is ultimately music theory research.)

And let us not soon forget the actual screenplay written by an artificial neural network:

And the Oscar goes to…

What does your favorite genre of music say about you?

I wanted to try my hand at writing a nonsense click-bait article with little to no value whatsoever. I hope I did a good job! If this goes well, I might have a whole new career on my hands, so please email this to all your loved ones, and hated ones too.

So what does your favorite genre of music say about you? Find out below!

Bluegrass music: It means you like bluegrass music.

Broadway music: It means you like Broadway music.

Classical music: It means you like classical music.

Country music: It means you like country music.

Dance music: It means you like dance music.

Electronic music: It means you like electronic music.

New Age music: It means you like new age music.

Opera music: It means you like opera music.

Pop music: It means you like pop music.

R&B / Soul music: It means you like R&B / soul music.

Reggae music: It means you like reggae music.

Rock and roll music: It means you like rock and roll music.

Other music: It means you like that other sort of music.

Rap music: You are stupid.

My approach to music composition

A couple times a year, I’m asked something about my approach to composing music, such as how I learned or what books or websites I might suggest.

So what follows is a somewhat unorganized info-dump about my approach to composing music. I certainly don’t claim to be a musical expert or composing professional, or even very experienced. I know I have much to learn. But since people have asked, I know there’s at least a few people out there interested…

How I started composing

If you think about it, music, like talking, is something the human brain just starts “doing” naturally. When I was five or six years old, I enjoyed hauling around a tape recorder and improvising really awful annoying-sounding songs. A lot of children will improvise songs naturally. Of course, the structure of these improvised songs and melodies are sloppy and unrefined, but the point is that the seed of musical composition is an automatic subconscious process. It may be that some brains have more of a natural tendency to improvise music and rhythms than others, but I think the ability is there for all, as everyone has the natural ability to perceive music in the first place. The ability to improvise, then, is just the formation of a feedback loop. Anyway, I reckon if you remain in tune with that part of your brain (or perhaps try and develop it), you’ll have a sort of “musical engine” from which to work and gather inspiration from. With this, you can hear a melodic phrase and automatically “hear” in your head a possible way it might continue.

Even with this ability, which is really no more profound than being able to creatively construct a coherent sentence without thinking, getting that music out of the head and onto paper (or a computer, in my case), can still be very difficult, as it’s an entirely different process that usually requires much more thinking. But everyone is naturally musical, whether or not they develop the skill of composing, because music is a natural human phenomenon.

In fifth grade, some very basic music-reading lessons were part of the music curriculum. I remember the music teacher explaining whole notes and half notes and quarter notes, etc., using the example of an apple that continually gets cut in half. I was good at math, so this felt intuitive to me. And then of course there were the rhymes, like: “If you want to know the lines, just remember Every Good Boy Does Fine. If you want to know the space, just remember it spells FACE.” I never actually use these rhymes, though, because when I’m composing I really don’t care about the letter of a note. Anyway, a foundation for being able to read music was thus built. (On a side note, it was around this time that I decided I’d like to learn to play the keyboard proficiently. The idea of being able to simply play whatever music I wanted, to be in control of the music, really appealed to me. But after realizing how much practice it took, I didn’t care that much, and I still can’t do much more than pluck out a melody with a few fingers. Maybe someday… but probably not. I’m too interested in other things.)

When I was eleven or twelve years old, we got a digital keyboard that you could connect to a computer and record MIDI. I was interested in writing music for video games I would never finish programming (another long-standing hobby of mine). I had no experience playing the keyboard, save for those very basic music-reading lessons, but I didn’t care about that. So I improvised several horrible pieces, recording each instrument in turn, having no clue what I was doing. Here’s one of those awful pieces: The Toy. (1997) Wow, so beautiful.

I remember listening to music and thinking that the key to great-sounding music was that more than one note at a time were playing. “Harmony” was still a vague musical notion to me, and I had no clue what chords were, but just by fooling around on a keyboard, I began to tease out the basics of triads. So around the time I was in high school, I would write music by first coming up with a chord progression (though I didn’t know that terminology at the time) through trial and error, and then writing a melody for it. I kept everything to white keys only (everything in C major!) and found three notes that sounded good together (which will naturally result in all C major triads… except the diminished one… because that’s ugly… you will not find it in any of my early pieces). What made a melody sound good was simple: At any given time, it has notes that are also in the chord. Beyond that, you need only to listen to that natural improviser in your head and use trial and error. Where does it feel like the melody should go? Can’t decide? Well, how about this? How about that? Ah, I’m sensing it should go here… Rather than recording my keyboard performances, I began clicking notes into a MIDI sequencer, Microsoft’s DirectMusic Producer (which was for creating interactive music for video games and such; it was pretty cool, though I only used it for its MIDI sequencing capabilities). My earliest piece from those days: The Workshop. (2002)

So that was my method: find chord progressions that sounds good, write melodies for them, and vary the orchestration in different ways, all through trial and error.

A little later, I had a friend in the high school chess club who, in addition to always beating me in chess, was a genius prodigy piano player and a composer in his own right. Amazingly, he just happened to know what triads were. I showed him some of my work on the way to a chess tournament. He pointed out that in my piece Flight of the Dragon (2003) I used the chord progression from Pachelbel’s Canon. (At about the 2-minute mark. Gah, listen to that stupid stereo effect. Why did I find that interesting?) So just through trial and error, I had teased out Pachelbel’s popular chords! Although at the time, my response was something like, “Chords? What is this ‘chords’ you speak of? What arcane mystic secret is this?” And for the rest of the ride to the tournament, I got a personal lesson on the basics of triads: the difference between major and minor triads, writing them as roman numerals, the basic flow chart of what chords tend to lead to what chords, what inversions were, etc. While it took a bit of time to digest the new names for things (that diminished chord in particular baffled me), it all made sense, as it gave context to everything I had already been doing through trial and error! Woohoo! And thus my journey into exploring music theory began.

So that’s my long-winded little history of my composing origins. I’m not sure that little lesson on the basics of triads would have meant so much to me if I did not already have actual experience with them. So my biggest piece of advise for anyone who wants to try composing is this:

There is no substitute for practice and experimentation. You will learn the most by doing, by trying.

At least, that’s my opinion from my experience, for what it’s worth. And I think it applies to any creative act. I once asked a musician friend in college whether he was interested in composing his own works. He said something like: “I’m waiting until I learn how.” To which I thought: Then you will never learn. (Of course, I think the answer was really just ‘no’, but he didn’t want to say that.)

I’ve heard a similar anecdote about Mozart. It’s just a story, but it goes like this: A young composer asked Mozart, “Herr Mozart, I’d like to write a symphony. How shall I go about it?” Mozart smiled and said, “A symphony is a pretty big undertaking. Might I suggest starting with something small, like a sonatina?” “But,” the young composer replied, “you were writing symphonies when you were a child!” To which Mozart replied, “Yes, but I didn’t ask anyone how.”

Anyway, my approach to composing hasn’t actually changed much since those early days; I still think in terms of chord progressions and melodies, and my style is very song-like. My musical “vocabulary” has expanded a bit, and my overall structures are less repetitive (I still haven’t tackled anything as large in scope as a symphony), but it’s still just chords and melodies. This can work fine, as all music can ultimately be understood in terms of chords and melodies, presented and orchestrated in different ways. (Digression: Some might argue that atonal music does not employ the use of chords and melodies. But of course atonal music is not music at all. It’s just crap. Yeah, that’s right, I said it. If someone plays atonal music in the forest and nobody hears it, does it sound good?)

Random composing exercises to try

About a year ago, someone on YouTube asked for advice about how to expand his composing skills, and among other things I suggested these exercises which have helped me, based on my basic chord-and-melody approach:

1) Compose a chord progression first, then compose several different melodies on top of it.

2) Take the chord progression from a popular song and compose new melodies for it.

3) (In case you haven’t already) Study music theory, learn the “lingo” and study how classical composers did things (this is of course an ongoing process… I’m only now beginning to understand how classical composers used augmented 6th chords, for example; just a few years ago it seemed like magic) (more on this in a bit)

4) Write multiple possible chord progressions for a single melody and try to figure why one sounds better (or at least different) than another.

5) Take a classical score (or MIDI) and just try changing things around. Change a melody here, shift some chords there, mute some instruments here, and just listen to the affect your changes create.

6) With a classical MIDI piece, listen to various instruments muted, and then on their own, and see how they contribute to the whole. And then try doing something similar in a piece of your own.

I saw the movie Amadeus for the first time as a freshman in high school which introduced me to Mozart. I was already interested in orchestras because of film scores (John Williams, woooo!), but Amadeus introduced me to classical music (and how similar to film scores it is). Anyway, if you haven’t seen it, there’s a scene near the end of Amadeus when Mozart dictates a composition from his death bed, and as he does we can hear each instrument individually, and then altogether. That scene had a profound influence on me because it broke the music down into parts, and while I had no idea what stuff like “tonic and dominant” were at the time, I remember thinking, “oh, I could do that!” (Not right away obviously, but I mean, I realized I could learn to do it by breaking things down into understandable pieces.)

Studying music theory

(This is all just my point of view from my experience.) In terms of the art of composing, I have found music theory books to be of no practical direct help at all. That is, they are not instruction manuals on how to compose, or even how to get started. They provide no framework for the actual craft. That’s not to say that they’re useless; they can certainly help. But they only help indirectly. They can help you to analyse and understand music in ways that you can then apply to your own compositions, but they’re not going to guide you through that process; you kind of have to figure that out yourself, for better or worse.

In this sense, there are no “rules.” You might say there are “guidelines”, but I’m not sure I’d even say that. Rather, there’s an analysis of common elements we tend to find again and again in the wide landscape of music, and music theory books survey the landscape, attempting to organize and give names to these elements and attempting to make sense of how they relate to one another and how they affect a composition. (For example, it’s not that parallel fifths are necessarily bad, it’s that notes that are a perfect fifth apart will tend to blend together, so if they move in parallel you’ll lose sense of their independence. Whether or not that’s bad depends on whether or not you care about keeping the voices independent.) Music theorists will sometimes disagree with each other. (Though probably not about the basics.) Really, I think music theory is an art in and of itself. It’s sort of an open subject, and you’re free to have your own opinions about why something works or doesn’t, or whether or not a particular way of analyzing something makes sense. It’s not like math, in which statements can be proven or unproven. After all, at the end of the day, all that matters is whether or not you’re pleased with the sound of your music. “If it sounds good, it is good.”

(For instance, a lot of music theory books will differentiate between a major key and its relative minor. I prefer to just keep my analysis in major mode with an understanding that the vi chord can act as a tonic.)

So, while I certainly recommend studying music theory, I’d also recommend not thinking of it as a substitute to actually getting your hands dirty and doing some exercises and experiments on your own. Without some actual experience with composing, music theory will lack any useful context anyway. You can become a brilliant theorist, but a lousy composer, and vice-versa. Music theory and music composition are certainly intertwined, but they’re ultimately two different disciplines.

What music theory should you study? Well, whatever you’re interested in, really.

(By the way, as you’ll see from my history, aside from plucking out notes on a keyboard, my musical foundation includes no instrument playing at all. I use the computer for my musical needs. So I don’t know what sort of music theory comes standard in an instrumentalist’s lessons beyond scales and reading sheet music (and chords for instruments that can play them), as that’s simply not my experience.)

You’d probably want to start with the basics, as reading a chapter about diminished seventh chords is going to confuse you if you don’t know what diminished and seventh chords are. So an intro to music theory will do; you just have to find the resources that explain things in a way you’re comfortable with. An “Idiot’s Guide” or a “For Dummies” book might work. (I don’t mean for that to sound insulting; I think those are actually quite good series.) Nowadays a simple Google search will serve you plenty of results, and there are plenty of YouTube lessons out there. My aforementioned friend in high school taught me a lot of the basics, but I also remember browsing websites and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory from the local library. I would say the basics would include:

  • How to read sheet music
  • Musical scales and keys (what notes are in, say, F major?)
  • Chord basics
    • Constructing chords (major, minor, diminished, augmented, sevenths, etc.)
    • Notating chords
    • Inverting chords
  • Tonic and dominant (and scale degrees in general for that matter, but tonic and dominant are special)
  • Cadences (authentic, plagal, deceptive, etc.)
  • The film Amadeus… just because it’s the best movie ever

Really, Googling the subject or reading a book on the subject will present you with the basics; they’re well established.

Again, this doesn’t mean you have to be proficient in even the basics to begin composing; I certainly wasn’t at all. I’ll say it again: I think it’s a lot easier to learn the basics when you have some experience, however simple it may be, to apply it to. Compose a bit first, get your hands dirty, then explore theory.

Beyond the basics, it’s really up to you what to study, if you even want to continue studying music theory at all. Personally, I think I have most of the basics down. (Though I’ll admit I don’t have everything necessarily memorized… quick, what key has four flats? I’d have to go look it up, or visualize a keyboard for a moment. An instrumentalist might have that memorized, but composing-wise, it really doesn’t matter. The answer is, ah… A-flat major.) I usually study harmony nowadays; I’d like to get better at voice-leading and counterpoint, and using chromatic chords, and using more inverted chords to spice up my bass lines, which are a bit boring at the moment.

Some books I’ve found useful

I have read none of these books cover to cover, or even studied any of them religiously; rather, I review a chapter now and then, pondering what it has to offer, and perhaps trying a few new things out in a composition or sketch. As I said before, I don’t claim to be an expert in any of this. Heck, that’s why I open these books in the first place! So here are some books I’ve found useful and/or am continuing to study.

Tchaikovsky actually wrote a nice succinct book on harmony called Guide to the Practical Study of Harmony. It won’t help you compose like Tchaikovsky, though, so don’t expect that. I was hoping he might have some insights into voice-leading, but he actually writes: “Theory can supply but a very general insight into the nature of the voices. It is for the students–provided he is sufficiently talented–gradually to learn and appreciate by diligent application all the finer points and peculiarities of free-voice leading — matters which cannot be laid down in formula.” Gah! Thanks a lot, Tchaikovsky! Still, I find it a surprisingly well-written guide, and I still have more to learn from its pages.

Tonal Harmony is a standard textbook on the subject. I bought an older edition used for far cheaper than the list price. I still refer to it now and then.

I don’t mind admitting that I think Arnold Schoenberg was a lousy composer with silly composing goals, but I have found his music theory books to be very interesting. He can get wordy though, with lengthy paragraphs that sometimes seem to digress into philosophy and such. Which can be interesting, but not necessarily directly practical. He’s got his Theory of Harmony, a beast of book, with long paragraphs aplenty. His Fundamentals of Musical Composition provides more examples and much less writing, and may be the closest book to a practical guide to composing that I’ve come across, as he actually talks about constructing phrases and themes and putting them together for a structured composition. Finally, his Structural Functions of Harmony provides… actually, I’m still slowly studying this book, but I think it provides some insights into the structural functions of harmony or something like that. The first few chapters alone I find to be interesting. For example, he differentiates between a succession and a progression of chords. I think he was onto something that a lot of books on harmony ignore or take for granted: chords do not exist in a vacuum; they indeed serve structural functions that it helps to be aware of.

Audacious Euphony: Chromatic Harmony and the Triad’s Second Nature is a pretty fascinating book. I’ll admit some of it is a bit advanced for me, but basically it’s about chord relations, and how it may make more sense to analyze some progressions not from a “tonal function” point of view, but rather from a… chromatic voice-leading point of view? I’m not even sure how to describe it. (See Neo-Riemannian theory, eg.) I actually did read this one cover to cover, though like I said, some of it was too advanced for me. But it did help me understand and think about chords and their relationships in new ways I hadn’t considered, and I love its various geometric diagrams that map out chordal relations (which you can see examples of on the cover). Quite a fascinating book.

The Study of Counterpoint is considered a classic, but beyond “avoid parallel fifths” I haven’t found much practical application for species counterpoint in general. I’m just not sure how to apply it to the melody-driven style of music I write. I’d love to know exactly how Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, who supposedly studied the book, used what they learned from it.

Books on orchestration don’t help me much as I don’t compose for real orchestras; if I was ever hired to work on a film and they planned on recording a real orchestra, we’d have to hire an orchestrator. That said, my favorite book on orchestration is Rimsky-Korsakov’s classic Principles of Orchestration. His practical examples from his own compositions work just fine for digital orchestras as well. I spent time listening to each and every example he offered. (Partly because I was involved in a project in which I animated each and every example with a red line going across the score. What fun!)

A book on a theory of voice-leading would be nice to have, but alas, I have not found one.

Quick digression: I have not studied any books on melody for two reasons: Firstly, melody has always come pretty naturally to me (as it probably does to a lot of composers), so I rarely desired one. Secondly, when I was interested in the subject, I came up with my own theory, which I hope to write a book on myself someday, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog before. For now, I’d like to expand it into a theory of harmony so that I can write a computer program that will generate Mozartean symphonies. It can be done and it will be done, whether I do it myself or someone else beats me to it. Unless I die, slip into a coma, or remain as broke as I am now (which is a possibility (give me money)), we’ll have it in the next five years, ten at the most.

Another resource: I recorded a few episodes of a podcast on composing music called The Compose Pile. I wanted to make it a regular thing, but it was too much work for no real reward, but might be interesting for anyone who wants to hear me blather on and on about my composing process.

When it comes to actually studying musical scores, I would recommend diving in with a preconceived plan to study something in particular (after familiarizing yourself with some theory) rather than just reviewing the notes another composer chose. Maybe you want to study structure, or harmony, or voice-leading and counterpoint, or orchestration, or melody, etc. Just reviewing the notes without any plans or context might otherwise be a bit useless. (Maybe not; maybe something interesting will pop out at you, but it doesn’t happen often for me.) Unfortunately scores are really designed for easy reading by performers on instruments, not really for composers looking for patterns, so it can take practice and experience. It always takes me way too long to analyze harmonies, and I particularly loathe transposing instruments. Still, it can be good practice. There are plenty of orchestral scores of symphonies and such to buy, which you can find by Googling. The International Music Score Library Project has many public domain scores available for free, and the Digital Mozart Edition offers the scores to most of Mozart’s work. (Because Mozart is awesome.)

Another short digression, but some good books related to the meta-subject of teaching oneself something include: The Genius in All Of Us, Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar, The Little Book of Talent, and Mastery. Awesome books, especially if you ever have any self-doubt about learning any art. It’s all a process and it all takes practice. There’s really no such thing as “genius.” (Or, at the very least, it’s a label we use to praise others rather than some life-long self-condemnation of forever lacking a skill when what you really lack is motivation. I’m always bit annoyed when people claim to lack a natural talent for something, as if that’s all it ever takes. No, you’re not un-gifted, you’re lazy. Get to work. It’s like that stupid line from Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon’s cursed with awesome character claims that Beethoven and Mozart looked at a piano and “could just play.” It’s a stupid childish romantic view of intelligence. It’s complete nonsense and does a horrible disservice to anyone who wants to learn something new. (Sorry, I really enjoy ranting about this subject.))

Music theory classes?

Should you study music theory in school? Like I said, it’s really a different discipline than composing. Anyway, it’s up to you. I never did and I’d never want to. I don’t learn well in that sort of environment. I loathe tests and quizzes and assignments. Some people like that sort of structure, but personally it just makes me stressed, and turns the subject to be studied into a chore. I much prefer to guide myself. (That said, if I could afford a personal tutor, I wouldn’t mind that, but I would probably fail miserably in a classroom setting.) At the very least, I would say it’s definitely not something you need. You can certainly learn to compose without ever studying music “formally.” After all, in the end, composing is a skill you develop, not a set of formulas from a textbook, and that development is going to happen outside of the classroom and over many years anyway. Even if you take a “formal” class, there’s really is no such thing as studying any art “formally”, because you will have to develop the skill on your own, through your own efforts.

Collecting melodies

Sometimes melodies flow from my subconscious more easily than other times. Usually after I’ve been composing for a couple of hours, I’ll be able to hear that subconscious improviser more easily than when I first begin. So to help me get started writing new pieces, I usually begin with a melody that I already have written. (Not always; with a bit fooling around, I can always compose a new melody from scratch, thank you very much, but a melody already stashed away can save time at the start.) So when I’m not composing, I stash away melodies that either pop into my head randomly or that I pluck out on my keyboard with a bit of fooling around. I have a keyboard beside my computer desk (yeah, I’m not professional enough to have a keyboard actually on my desk, as I click in my notes), which helps establish the habit of fooling around with melodies now and then. To save melodies, I usually use my smartphone, a super handy device for this sort of thing. I either record a video of my hand playing the melody, or I use an Android app called Musical Pro to record a little MIDI file. (Unfortunately I don’t see the app available anymore… gah, who does that, releases an Android app and then removes it? *cough*)

So if you have a quick and easy way to record melodies or phrases that pop into your head at random times, and/or make it habit to sit down and play around on an instrument for ten minutes a day, I think it’s a great habit to get into and can give you something to work with when you sit down to compose.

(By the way, though I mention melodies “flowing from my subconscious”, I don’t necessarily mean to suggest that they flow out fully-formed and perfect. Sometimes they actually do, but many times I will continually tweak a melody over and over again to get it just right, to find something that not only sounds pleasing and natural, but something that really elicits an emotion from me. Sometimes I’ll have to take a break and walk away from it for an hour or so and come back to it with fresh ears. Sometimes I’ll even scrap the whole melody and try something completely different. It’s very easy to write a dull melody, one that technically works but just doesn’t pull me in. (Though what makes a melody sound ‘dull’ is of course subjective.) I try never to settle for dull. I want something that will really evoke a feeling from my gut, even if no one else will really hear it but me, something that I will want to listen to again and again, even if I don’t have the ability to breathe the life into it using my computer that a live performer would. So this can mean a lot of tweaking and trial and error, over and over. There’s no substitute for it. It’s part of the process.)

Digital orchestration

Software that I use:

I still use Overture 4 for composing and rendering my pieces. Looks like Overture 5 is out now, but I haven’t bought it yet. Can’t afford it at the moment, but it looks nice. Anyway, I’ve found Overture 4 to be fantastic at combining the ability to compose using notation, yet retaining the ability to edit lots of MIDI data. I love it.

I don’t use that many sample libraries; they’re just way too expensive for me, and I’m too pure of heart for pirating. (By the way, if you hope to make lots of money, composing digital orchestra music is not a great source of income. At all. (Give me money.)) For sounds, I’ve been using Garritan Personal Orchestra since 2004. Again, it looks like a version 5 is out, while I’m still using version 4… anyway, for it’s price, it’s most certainly the best orchestral sample library out there, in my opinion. I use some of Garritan’s other libraries for other instruments. I also use Anthology: Celtic Wind from time to time for its beautiful whistles.

I tried EastWest’s ComposerCloud for a month and really liked it, but can’t afford it at the moment.

Reaper may also be worth looking into. Looks very nice for its price.

Finally, I think RapidComposer is pretty neat. It’s a bit too expensive, and was a bit too buggy for me when I tried it, but I like the concepts behind it.

I think that’s all… for now…

That’s enough blathering from me for today, isn’t it? I hope this is helpful or interesting to some people out there! I guess for me it mainly comes down to three things: Chords, melodies, experiment. Lots of other little things to consider, but those are the main elements of my approach to the craft. Find some chord progressions, write some melodies, and continually practice and experiment with orchestrating them.

Good luck!

Let us end with a prayer… “Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate Your glory through music, and be celebrated myself. Make me famous through the world, dear God. Make me immortal. After I die, let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote…” Wait… I don’t think things went so well for that last person who prayed like that… let us not be so vain.

Mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you!

More new music and what happened to the melody generator

I uploaded a new piece of music to YouTube earlier today called The Stormbringer’s Apprentice:

I write in the description:

This piece provides the themes for a villain called Stormov, from my book Insane Fantasy. He’s an apprentice for the mysterious “Stormbringer”, and helps to entice new recruits for his master’s evil plans. His themes are mostly dark, but there is a hint of adventure in there as well, as he lures potential helpers with temptations of worldly power.

Also, this is my first video to feature my own attempt at programming my own custom “music animation machine” programmed in Java with jMonkeyEngine. The frame rate is not as smooth as I’d like it to be (I’m still screen-capturing it), but it’s not horrible at least. Anyway, I think I’ll enjoy playing around with it. Obviously it’s inspired by Stephen Malinowski’s work, as I’ve been using his decade-old “Music Animation Machine” program for a long time now.

As mentioned above, this piece is animated with my own custom “music animation machine.” I may release the source code for it at some point for anyone who’s interested in it, but you’d have to download jMonkeyEngine to compile it and run it yourself; I’m not really interested in making into a standalone program right now, as I hope to continue fooling around with the code. The code is also sloppy and contains features I never finished programming, as it’s all part of an ongoing MIDI sequencer project. Also, it doesn’t actually even play MIDI files… it only makes the shapes and animations based on a MIDI file, which is all I need it to do as I sync videos with tracks recorded from Overture in Windows Movie Maker before adding titles and uploading to YouTube.

In case you missed it, last week I posted this track called Storybook Overture:

So that makes five tracks completed so for my upcoming album (which I have no idea what I’ll name yet): Lullaby of the Westwind Woods, The Storm Cometh, A Stargazer’s Lullaby, Storybook Overture, and The Stormbringer’s Apprentice. Together they amount to over 20 minutes, so I’m over 1/3rd finished the album!

In other news, I’ve had several people email me over the last few months asking about whatever happened to the melody generator. Well, I was contacted by a shady underground group that secretly controls the world, and they warned me that the world simply is not ready for something so powerful.

Actually, the project just got to be too frustrating. It was getting enough interest that people were thirsty to learn how it worked, yet not enough interest to fund a Kickstarter, and I just didn’t (and don’t) have the time to give it the attention it needs. I of course haven’t given up on it, but it’s on the back-burner for now until I can get my life sorted a bit more. In the meantime, I’d just rather spend my free time writing music and books and programming games, as those projects tend to actually generate some income. Not much, but something. So I have absolutely no idea when I’ll be able to get back to working on the melody generator. Could be later this year, could be two or three years down the road.

I have an email list here if you’d like to be updated when I actually return to the project: Melody Generator News.

New music and a Patreon account…

Over the weekend I finished a short composition called A Stargazer’s Lullaby:

As I write in the video’s description:

This piece is part of a short soundtrack for a book series I’m working on called Insane Fantasy. “A Stargazer’s Lullaby” provides the theme for the main character, Coptivon, who’s growing up in a crater in the Crater Lands. There’s not much life out there, but the flat landscapes offer a nice view of the stars. With little else to do in the Crater Lands, Coptivon has memorized all the constellations he could learn. His theme is meant to capture his boredom giving way to fantastical dreams as he gazes at the night stars.

This was my first try at screen recording on my new computer with Nvidia’s ShadowPlay that came with their GeForce GTX970. I’d say it’s definitely the smoothest animation I’ve ever been able to record, so this is definitely the way I’ll do it from now on.

Also, I went ahead a set up a Patreon account here: Sean on Patreon. Of course, funding is always a great help to any artist. This will also allow me to sort-of sell tracks as I finish them rather than having to put out singles on bandcamp or something while I’m saving tracks for an album. Although I’m not really selling them; rather, I’m offering them as a reward for tip-jar donations. Which may amount to the same thing in some people’s eyes, but I’m not sure I’d really consider Patreon that sort of an eCommerce site.

This will also ensure that I release at least two new pieces a month, as I’ll be obligated. (I suppose if something drastic comes up, I can always suspend donations for a month or two, but completing at least two tracks a month won’t be difficult.)

A big thank you to anyone who pledges!

Common story arcs as identified by AI

According to this article:

researchers from the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide determined the core emotional trajectories of stories by taking advantage of advances in computing power and natural language processing to analyze the emotional arcs of 1,737 fictional works in English available in the online library Project Gutenberg.

The paper can be found on They discovered six emotional arcs (which also just happen to exhaust all possible alternating binary arcs… in other words, they didn’t really “discover” anything, haha)

1. Rags to Riches (rise)
2. Riches to Rags (fall)
3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
4. Icarus (rise then fall)
5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

I’m not sure their results are all that helpful; any experienced storyteller understands this stuff naturally. It is somewhat interesting to see it correspond so strongly to a story’s word usage, though.

I was also interested in their little plot of the emotional arcs in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, which can also be found in this article from The Atlantic. If you check it out, you’ll notice that the second act conforms pretty perfectly to Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat story beats. The first act mirrors this, in terms of there being three main peaks, or three pairs of falls and rises. I’ve started calling these “the three trials”, and most stories tend to conform to this. After the story’s catalyst (or including the story’s catalyst), the story goes through three falls and rises before reaching the “false high” of the midpoint. Many times, a rise will cause a fall in the B story. That is, the plot lines tend to alternate naturally with direction of the emotional arc (though not only at these points, mind you). For example, the hero might, say, punch a bully (rise in plot line A), only to discover his girlfriend wants to break up with him (fall in plot line B).

The “three trials” may be subtle, such as the thematic arguing in the first half of Jurassic Park. (Though if you’re going to make them as subtle as they are in Jurassic Park, the theme better be as interesting as resurrecting dinosaurs. And the characters should actually argue their sides as adamantly as John Hammond and Ian Malcolm; they can’t just stand there and wonder.) I’d identify the three trials of Jurassic Park as:

1. “Life finds a way” – After the thrill (rise) of seeing their first dinosaurs, Ian Malcolm argues the whole thing is bound to end in disaster (fall)
2. “Dinosaurs on your dinosaur tour?” – The guests are excited to start their tour (rise) but fail to actually see any dinos (fall)
3. “Nedry’s betrayal” – The guests are happy to gather around a sickly dino (rise) but as a looming storm forces the tour to be cancelled, Nedry begins his plan of betrayal (fall)

The escape of the t-rex then serves as the midpoint of the film.

OK, that was a tangent, but it’s a good plotting exercise to identify the “three trials” of a story’s first act; I have found it helps a lot in plotting. The arcs of stories that are more “episodic” may not be connected so much, whereas in tighter stories, each rise causes the following fall, and each fall leads to or makes possible the following rise.

(On a side note, it would be interesting to see how film music conforms to these emotional arcs.)

The Atlantic article goes on to mention:

Eventually, he says, this research could help scientists train machines to reverse-engineer what they learn about story trajectory to generate their own compelling original works.

OK, good luck with that. I think emotional-arc mapping should be the least of your concerns if you’re striving for computer-generated stories.

The article writer from the No Film School article, on the other hand, goes on to write:

But I sincerely doubt a computer or AI that we train to write stories will ever be able to find joy, no matter how much emotional value we assign to its database of words.

But, uh…. who cares if the computer can “find joy”? Your role as an audience member, as a consumer of a product, does not necessarily need to include making some emotional connection with the author, as that can only ever be imagined in your own head to begin with. This is similar to the morons who experience an uneasiness listening to computer generated music, as though all this time they were imagining the beauty of music came not from something eternal in nature, but was rather infused into the music by the author’s brain, as though the author created the beauty rather than merely discovered it in the realms of infinite possibility. Does that distinction make sense?

I doubt anyone needs to be concerned about AI storytelling anytime soon though, anyway, as we still don’t quite understand our human ability to use language. We’re much closer to programming a Mozart Symphony Generator (we’re only a fraction of an inch away from that, if not already there). Problem with language programming is that a lot AI researchers try to “cheat”; rather than searching for a deeper understanding of how humans use language, they try to turn it into a simple numbers game, like gathering statistics on word associations. That may be useful for autocomplete functions, but won’t help much with the creation of a serious story, or even a serious paragraph. Words have meanings, and you can’t simply take those meanings for granted, as if they’ll just take care of themselves if you map out word associations enough. We may need to figure out a way to represent those meanings without having to create a bunch of “experiences” for a computer to associate them with, if that’s possible. I have no idea. (And if I did, I would keep it a secret so that I could use it in a grand conspiracy to take over the world, which would fail, but would be turned into a great Hollywood film.)

Another interesting website to fool around with is whatismymovie?, an attempt at creating an AI to help you find an interesting movie. It sometimes comes up with some strange results, but it’s fun to play around with.

Deliberate practice, and random movie stuff

From another retweet I saw on Twitter (via writer Brian Niemeier), this blog post asks the question: If you just keep writing, will you get better?

The answer really depends on where you’re at, but it boils down to this: getting better at anything depends on what some call deliberate practice. That is, practice with focused attention on what you’re trying to improve. It’s difficult, it takes brain work, because you’re forcing your brain to build new connections. As the task becomes easier, you’ll settle into using your new connections, but you’ll cease to become better. That is, just going through the motions isn’t going to automatically increase your skill. You’ve got to hone in on and focus on specific weaknesses. The whole 10,000-hours-to-become-an-expert thing is misleading, because it doesn’t account for how focused one is.

In regards to writing, this leads to the question: how does one engage in this “deliberate practice” with writing? Is it even possible, after a certain level of skill is reached?

Critiquing other people’s work and collecting critiques for your own will help, assuming you work with the right sort of critique partners, but there remains that nebulous boundary between what one might consider the product of a writer’s skill level and his subjective stylistic preferences. That is, how can one measure one’s improvements? Is there any way to increase one’s skill beyond requiring outside help?

I’m not really sure, I’m just thinking out loud…

For me, personally, one thing I’d like to practice isn’t so much writing in and of itself, but writing faster. Or, lest that make me sound like I wish to be more of a hack, perhaps I should say I’d like to be able to stay focused on writing for longer periods of time so that I can accomplish more in less time. That should be something I could practice, though practicing staying focused always risks that paradox of focusing on whether or not your focusing rather just focusing.

In other news, an new trailer for the upcoming fantasy drama A Monster Calls was recently released:

I read the book it’s based on, which was OK, but I think the story will work better as a film, and the director J.A. Bayona is one my favorites (he’s set to direct the next Jurassic World film), so I’m looking forward to seeing how he brings the book to life.

I thought this little sci-fi short called “Adam” was interesting for purely technical reasons. (I can’t really figure out what exactly happens in it… a wizard turns off a bunch of robots’ iPhones so they follow him like sheep?) It was rendered completely in real time in Unity. Some things aren’t so impressive; the waving grass and the water ripples look awful. But overall this looks pretty darn fantastic for something rendered in real time on a GeForce GTX980. I’m just looking forward to some VR animated movies. Hurry up, rich people of the world, and make them. (Reminder: the film rights to all my books are still available.)

Writing fiction and the final cause

Aristotle was turned into stone by a wizard

If one asks why the heart pumps blood, one could answer in two ways:

A. The heart pumps blood because because the brain sends electrical signals to it that make its muscles contract. Or,

B. The heart pumps blood to deliver nutrients and oxygen to cells and to whisk away their waste.

In philosophy, Aristotle would say that an answer like A is the efficient explanation, a sort of cause-and-effect answer. These are the events that happened before that which we are seeking an explanation for, which we identify as its causes. (It tends to come naturally to us humans, and it seems easy enough to understand, but there’s something I find rather mysterious about it. After all, how could we program an AI robot to form such explanations? Can they only be formulated by observation and experience?)

An answer like B Aristotle would call the final explanation, the end toward which the action is directed.

Now suppose I want a cold soda. I must use my understanding of efficient explanations to create (or at least recall) a set of ordered actions I would take to get that soda. I get up, go to where we keep cups, put ice in it, etc., everything done for the desired end of drinking a cold soda. If something does not as planned, I must edit my set of ordered actions. Perhaps we are out of cups in the cupboard, and I must get one from the dishwasher. Or perhaps we are out of ice and I have to leave a can of soda in the fridge for a while, or drink it warm, or drink something else instead.

Of course, there are all sorts of fun theological discussions to be had concerning the relationship between efficient and final explanations. Final explanations do not exist physically, after all; they are, by their nature, abstract, like thought itself. Perhaps one could say that they can only exist in a conscious being. Still, I could program an artificial neural network to teach itself to do some task, like read numbers. Upon studying the results, I may discover that some section of the network achieves some end needed for the final result. For instance, perhaps a part of the network recognizes the presence of a horizontal line. Now I could say that this portion of the network has the recognition of a horizontal line as its final cause, yet this portion of the network was not created by a coder, but is instead the byproduct of the efficient causes (the training of the network) put in place for the sake of some other final cause. In other words, though we as intelligent beings may recognize that something, like a portion of a neural network or a beating heart, appears to have a final cause, it does not imply that that system was necessarily created by an intelligent consciousness. It may be an emergent property. (Which isn’t to say that it isn’t part of another grander final cause (evolution can be part of a God plan), only that the recognition of a final cause is a conscious abstract act. Does that make sense?)

Anyway, I’ve recently been thinking about this stuff in terms of writing fiction, because an author naturally thinks about these things when plotting a story. Maybe not in a philosophical sense, but we give our characters goals, and we ourselves may have a certain climax or ending or theme in mind (final causes), and then we must order things together naturally so that one event leads to another (efficient causes) and the plot moves toward the ends we desire.

But when I plot out a story and work from an outline, there’s always a bit of joy lost in the writing process, and it can sometimes feel a chore; I know to what end everything is leading, and keeping it in mind so often can lead to boredom, and I find myself wanting to plot a new story rather than finish writing one.

On the other hand, whenever I try writing without an outline, I quickly write myself into corners, or I keep adding new plot lines and characters and the work becomes an unfocused mess.

So I’m searching for a happy medium. Is it possible to write without an outline and without knowing the final cause, yet being sure that the story will indeed come to a satisfying conclusion, as though I had been planning the climax all along? If so, how?

I think it is possible, but I’m not quite sure how to do it yet… (I suppose one could write backwards, but I think that comes with more problems than its worth.)