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Another “escape the room” board game

Some family members and I recently tried playing another “escape the room” board game, this time from different creators. ‘Twas called “Escape The Room: Mystery at The Stargazers Manor”.

I’m not sure if it was better or worse than the pharaoh’s tomb we played earlier.

Pros: The puzzles were a little less arbitrary and fit into the story a bit more naturally. The final puzzle made you search through all the material you had used throughout the game, which was a nice finale. Also, this one allows you repack all the material so that someone else could play through it again. (Whereas players destroy the gaming material in the pharaoh’s tomb game during the process of playing, so no one can replay with the same set.)

Cons: Like the pharaoh’s tomb game, the game mainly depended on finding the right symbols in the right order and using a sliding decoder disc to check your code. If your code is correct, you advance to the next puzzle (or set of puzzles). I wish they’d come up with something a little more creative, though I’m not sure what. Symbols just get boring very quickly, and seem so arbitrary. However, the main “con” of this game was that it was just too easy. It might be great for 10-13 year olds, but it feels way too childish for 30 year olds. The puzzles here are just way too easy, and the game is over too quickly.

Therein lies the challenge of designing a good puzzle. If it’s too easy, it’s not interesting, but making it more challenging by making more confusing or enigmatic doesn’t make it more enjoyable.

What makes a good puzzle?

I suppose a good puzzle has three (or four) attributes:

  1. Problem to solve is easy to understand.
  2. Problem is challenging to solve.
  3. Solution is simple.
  4. For story-based games like these “escape the room” games, I’d also add this: Problem relates well to the game’s overall story.

Of course whether or not those conditions are met by a certain puzzle is subjective. What’s simple to someone may be confusing to someone else. But everyone is different and special in their own way, so that’s OK.

Anyway, I think the pharaoh’s tomb game design had problems with attribute 1. They tried to make puzzles more difficult by simply making the instructions more enigmatic. This stargazer’s manor game, on the other hand, had problems with attribute 2, at least for adult players. The challenges were too easy for adults.

Both games had trouble with attribute 4. The puzzles are just sort of shoe-horned into the story and the setting. Perhaps most players are more interested in the puzzles than the surrounding story or scenario… but then why not just go print out some puzzles from the web for free? If you’re going to buy an “escape the room” board game, isn’t for the “escape” scenario? So I wish these games had spent more effort writing compelling scenarios, rather than just taking it a bit for granted. Both scenarios were just forgettable and dumb.

Some random July blather

It’s been over two months since I blogged anything, so here are a few random things I have to say.

I’ll admit I haven’t been terribly productive these last couple months. One sister is back from college and got a new kitten, another is on summer break from her job on the other side of the world. I spent a week at the end of last month visiting relatives in Tennessee and doing a little genealogy. I mentioned the Tennessee Archive of Moving Images and Sound in an earlier blog post about my 3x great uncle Bert Hodgson, the song writer, and we were finally able to visit the archive and listen to some of his old recordings. They actually had audio recordings he had made featuring himself playing the piano and singing. They were in rough shape sound-wise, but it was very cool to hear his voice! I can’t say he was that great of a singer though. Still, very cool artifacts!


I’ve been trying to get back to some fiction writing, but I’m having a good deal of trouble. (Maybe blogging more will get my mind thinking in words again?) I just can’t seem to get into the flow of it. Over the past couple months, I’ve started perhaps seven or eight different stories, some of them from complete outlines, some of them with no outlines at all. It seems like no matter what, I get bored with the premise too quickly and want to start another. What writing illness is this called? Trouble with commitment? Commitment-phobia? Oh well. I’ll keep trying. I still get very excited by story ideas and plotting out possibilities, so I really want to get my ideas into book form. I just get bored with them too quickly and am too excited to try something new.

Music composing

Music-wise, I know I still owe my Patreon supporters four pieces for the two months I delivered nothing. I’ll probably be on hiatus again this month. I can’t believe how quickly this month has flown by. But I still have a good number of melodies I look forward to forming into pieces, and I’m looking forward to finishing another album before the year is out, so those pieces are definitely on their way.

Speaking of music, I really enjoy this guy’s videos about music theory featuring video game music:

Definitely makes me want to try some of the techniques mentioned. He’s good at explaining things too.

A board game

Finally, tonight one of my brothers brought the family this game:

It’s a game you can only play once, and you all play it together as a team. You basically imagine that you’re stuck in a pharaoh’s tomb, and you use cards and a little book to solve puzzles and riddles to escape. The solution to one riddle leads to the next. It’s a bit like a computer game that you pay more for to play on paper.

Honestly, I like the idea of it, but the execution of this particular one was a bit… underwhelming. I just didn’t think the game / puzzle design was very well crafted. Rather than getting “Aha!” moments, you got “Could it be this? Let’s try it. Yep. Huh.” moments. Does that make sense? I guess the puzzles just seemed a bit too random, and what you had to do to solve them just seemed too arbitrary. It’s probably also not a great game for more than three people. Having to pass around the material gets annoying, and having someone else solve a puzzle before you even understand what’s going on isn’t very fun. (And these puzzles weren’t that great to begin with.)

Some of my other family members enjoyed it, though.

But, like I said, I was intrigued by the concept of it. It’s like a linear RPG puzzle game. I’d really like to try creating one myself.


Another interesting video featuring Jordan Peterson on the subject of empathy. Also featured is psychologist Paul Bloom.

Just thought it was interesting because my positions on a lot of issues aren’t about empathy, and can therefore be accused of seeming cruel. It’s not that I’m not empathetic. The example I use a lot is the kid who cries because he wants ice-cream for dinner. The parents who deny him that don’t do it out of lack of empathy. You might as well never discipline a child because it will make him cry. What’s best for a human is not based entirely on what he feels or really wants or suffers with.

So then you look at controversial social issues like immigration or abortion or affirmative action or same-sex marriage. To me, my positions on these issues are based on principles. If you base your conclusions too greatly on feelings, too greatly on empathizing with certain groups, you threaten making things worse, leading to worse suffering. Because it’s not about getting what you think you want right now, it’s about wanting the right thing that will do you the most good in the first place. Does that distinction make sense?

If you want to own the moon, you’ll never be happy. And me refusing to pretend that you own the moon isn’t about my lack of empathy. Ultimately you’re going to have to make peace with the fact that you can’t own the moon.

The suffering endured by someone by the enforcement of my position is not the issue of my position. I’m perfectly capable of being sorry about that suffering. I honestly believe killing the child in your womb is bad for us, regardless of feelings. Engaging in sexual acts while purposefully denying its natural procreative potential is bad for us, regardless of feelings. Giving preferential treatment to certain individuals based on group identity is bad for us, regardless of feelings. Mismanaging our immigration policies are bad for us, regardless of feelings.

Doing the right thing can and many times does lead to suffering, but I hold my positions despite that, not because of it. And, like I said, I believe my positions (at least the ones I have stronger opinions about) ultimately lead to less suffering, if one’s desires are oriented properly. “Oriented properly” might sound like an escape clause, because the proper orientation of desires is part of the argument itself, but it’s necessary to mention; like I said, if you desire something that just can never be, you’ll always be suffering.

Discerning between right and wrong isn’t about eliminating suffering. We can’t use only our emotions or our empathy as a moral compass, because they’ll only serve us inasmuch as they’re oriented correctly in the first place.

Wisdom from Jordan Peterson

Firstly, my mini film reviews for April 2017 are here.

Wisdom from Jordan Peterson

I first saw Canadian professor Jordan Peterson after the video of him conversing with some very disrespectful students went viral. Quite a few people I follow were posting it on Twitter and Facebook. I don’t know how he had the patience.

Anyway, I only recently starting looking at some of his actual videos and lectures, and he talks about a lot of stuff I’m very interested in, such as Jungian psychology, mythology, and anxiety and depression. And he has thoughts and viewpoints I’ve never encountered before, or at least have not heard explained in such a succinct manner. He’s got a lot of fascinating material.

So what follows are just some highlights of some of his talks that I thought were interesting…

On interpreting dreams:

On having goals:

On fixing small problems first:

On Free Will vs determinism:

On a side note, I believe Free Will and determinism are compatible. They’re simply different viewpoints of a decision-making process. Free Will is the experience of determining. You have Free Will because you are the part of the universe that is making that decision. The laws of physics are not determining instead of you, rather you are part of those very laws. Your very being is part of the clockwork universe. A computer can run a program to calculate the answer to a problem in a completely deterministic fashion, let’s say, but it still needs the program to do that. The program is part of that-which-determines.

That said, I don’t know whether or not the universe is deterministic. I just don’t see how the concept is necessarily incompatible with Free Will, or all the spiritual implications of theism for that matter.

Speaking of theism, here’s the problem with atheism:

On depression: “That bad grade is like a portal through which snakes can crawl.” I’ve certainly been guilty of that at times…

Onto more social issues, we have the Gini coefficient, which I had never heard about before:

On inequality of wealth:

On “white privilege”:

On quotas:

Some other good ones include: Are Women Being Denied Access To Positions of Power? and Kids shouldn’t play competitive games?

On arguing about stuff…

From my perspective, if I have a strong opinion or belief about something, there are reasons for it. There are lots of things I don’t have strong beliefs about, such as the stock market and the economy, which usually just baffle me. But for things I have strong opinions about, I have reasons.

So when I disagree with someone about something, I’m usually interested to know why. I want to know why they think the way they do; I want to know what led them to that conclusion. Obviously, that doesn’t mean I’m going to instantly agree with them or those reasons. I may disagree with those reasons just as strongly as the viewpoint they seem to lead to. But that’s the point: I like to try to find out where the crux of the disagreement really lies. If I’m wrong about something, I want to know why, and I’m more than willing to change my mind.

I’m willing to argue or discuss stuff I have strong opinions about because I don’t feel a personal attachment to them, at least not in the sense that I’ll feel really bad about being shown to be wrong. After all, a wrong viewpoint can be a perfectly valid logical conclusion from faulty premises, so it’s still a valid viewpoint from my own experiences. A belief can be a valid conclusion and wrong. As long as I know I’m being honest with myself, I can’t really lose face or be ashamed by being shown to be wrong, because the premises themselves were honest.

If one of those premises is wrong, I want to know! I’ll be happy because I’ll have learned something, and my opinion will then be that much stronger. Obviously that doesn’t mean I’ll blindly accept any opposing argument, it just means I’m ready and willing and often even excited to explore the underlying premises that lead different people to such widely different conclusions. I hate to just “agree to disagree” or just avoid disagreements; I want to explore the multiple facets of the differing viewpoints, at least for topics I’m interested in. Of course I’m still going to argue my case, and I’ll think I’m right at the end of the day. After all, if I ever think I’m wrong, I change my mind. Who argues about something they think they’re wrong about?

I say all that because sometimes, more in person than on this blog or in social media, I begin defending my viewpoint about something (sometimes perhaps too passionately), and others may think I’m simply trying to pick a fight or shut someone else up, because I’m just a big meanie. But really I want to know why we disagree on something. Often the root cause is some philosophical viewpoint. Sometimes its as basic as whether or not someone believes in God.

This is also why I quite like Dave Rubin’s The Rubin Report on YouTube. It really depends on who his guest is, but he actually has respectful conversations with people who have a wide variety of viewpoints and they don’t descend into ad hominem attacks or trying to “win” arguments. Granted, the show is more about a conversation than a debate, but you just don’t see this sort of thing on TV these days, not that are idea oriented at least.

Here’s his recent chat with Jordan Peterson.

A particularly interesting part comes at 40:42 to about 46:17. Peterson is talking about whether or not someone can change his personality, and it sort of segues into beliefs and perspectives. It’s quite an interesting point to make in relation to what I just wrote above. In fact, here’s a little transcription:

… We tend to think, and this would be part of the Enlightenment rationality, is that you look dispassionately at the set of facts, you abstract out a rational conclusion from that, and you believe it. And the thing is that isn’t how it works. Now it’s kind of how it works, but we’ll get to that. What happens instead is you look at a field of facts that’s so broad you can’t see the edges. And then you filter that a priori with your temperament so some things… It’s like, imagine there’s a bright light, and then there’s a black curtain in front of it, and there’s holes in the curtain and light shines through. Well, depending on who you are, those holes are going to be in a different place. So the thing is that the facts that present themselves to you will look different than the facts that present themselves to someone else.

Now, you can overcome that to some degree. That’s why free speech is so important, as far as I’m concerned. Because you’re going to look at the world your way, honestly, and it can be different from mine, even if I look at it honestly. So… But then we can talk. And I can listen to you, and I can alter my preconceptions to some degree by that exchange of ideas.

It’s hard because you unfold the idea and you blast it to me, and then I have to unfold it into action, and into the restructuring of my perceptions. It’s very very complicated. I have to… If we have a profound conversation, I’m allowing little parts of me to die and new parts to grow on a constant basis. So it’s effortful. But it’s one of the mechanisms we’ve evolved to overcome the limitations of the individual human being. We filter information, we’re lazy in our habits, we’re not good at thinking, which is an internal argument, let’s say. Very few people can do that. They don’t think… What they do is, ideas appear to them and they believe them. That’s what happens.

Thinking is different. Thinking is saying, OK, well here’s a set of ideas, and here’s another set of ideas. All right, so let’s put them in combat and see what emerges. Often you have to do that by writing.

Isn’t that… interesting?!

Not long after, Peterson makes an interesting point about AI vision, which I somehow never heard before, even after taking a course in “computer vision” in college:

What you’re doing really when you’re seeing is mapping the world onto your action. In fact, there are connections from your eyes that go directly to your motor cortex. They bypass your conscious vision. So, for example, when you look at that cup, your eyes make your hands prepare to do this. [Makes cup-holding gesture.] Because, well you say that’s an empirical object, it’s a cup. But that isn’t what your brain thinks. Your brain thinks, no, that’s a thing to drink from.

… Why are a beanbag and a stump both chairs? They share no objective features in common, except size. Well, the answer is because you can sit on them. And so a lot of our categories are of that sort. They’re not empirical categories, they’re functional categories.

I never thought of it quite like that! You see? Interesting!

Lord of the Flies

Lastly, one of my friends from high school recently recorded a PowerPoint presentation we did in high school about Lord of the Flies, in which we parodied a teacher giving a presentation. There are a lot of inside jokes (such as the teacher offering a bookmark as a prize for the completion of a puzzle), but it’s very educational and earned us an A++++.

Patreon update and some random stuff

Haven’t blogged in a while, have I? I need to try blogging more frequently, as it’s at least a bit of writing practice while I’m busy plotting.

Quick Patreon update

I’m busy with some other projects, so my music composing (and YouTube video making) has fallen behind. I failed to deliver anything for March to my Patreon supporters. Those pieces are still coming. Anyway, I’ve gone ahead and frozen donations for this month to give myself some time to catch up. I’m hoping I’ll be back at it next month, but I’ll have to wait and see. Regardless, those March pieces are still coming.

A decade of blogging!

I started this blog in April 2007, when I was a junior in college. It’s now been a decade! Yay! Woohoo! And what do I have to show for it? What have I accomplished in that time? Let’s not ask that question, and just consider being around for a decade an accomplishment in and of itself, OK? Yay!


An app called “FaceApp” was recently released for Android, and I’ve had some great fun playing with it, I find it hilarious. I think it’s available for iPhone too. I posted some results to my twitter:

Hours of great fun!


A new company called Lyrebird is developing some voice synthesis tools, and it sounds pretty awesome! Check out their demos here on their demo page. The voices of Trump, Obama, and Hillary Clinton are still a bit fuzzy to be used for anything other than playing around, but I’m still excited by the potentials. I think it would be awesome to create an audio drama, for example, without having to hire a bunch of different voice actors. There’s also a lot of potential for this sort of technology to be used for music instrument sampling, yes? Especially synthesized choirs. I look forward to seeing this product develop!

How “Bates Motel” should’ve ended

Spoilers ahead. The A&E drama series “Bates Motel”, a modern-day retelling of Hitchcock’s classic film Psycho, ended its five-season run this Monday. The ending left me rather disappointed; it felt too quick and easy. Just unsatisfying. So here’s how I would’ve ended it:

Norman does not kill Romero in the woods. Instead, he tries to kill him, but only injures him, and he runs off with Norman shooting at him. He takes Norma’s body home imagining they are restarting, invites Dylan to dinner, as they did in the episode. Dylan calls Emma, but rather than just hang up, Emma calls that town’s police, afraid for Dylan’s life. Dylan enters the home, sees Norma’s body, vomits in his mouth but swallows it (because I hate seeing characters vomit), but rather than working up Norman into a crazy angry frenzy, actually manages to calm him and perhaps at least half-convinces him that he needs to be in a mental hospital, that Norma will always be with him there or something, or at least he keeps him calm. Romero enters, finding the gun, and points it at Norman, ready to kill. Arriving and hearing a commotion, the police break in, ordering Romero to drop the weapon. Romero refuses and shoots Norman before getting shot himself by the police. Norman dies in his brother’s arms and they have their sad little brotherly moment (without the stupid suicidal “thank you” – there’s nothing beautiful or bittersweet about suicide; I think that’s what annoyed me the most). Slow zoom out with Dylan, dead Norman and Norma, only this time with the police and dead Romero in the background.

That would’ve felt a lot more satisfying to me. The whole mercy-killing thing just felt wrong to me, too sudden and not very climactic.

One more thing…

There was something else I wanted to mention, but now I’ve forgotten it… I’ll blog about it next time, I guess, if I remember…

My 2016 favorites

My 6th annual “Year’s Best” selections are here! Much more important than all those silly award shows on TV and such, my collection of opinions shall go down in history as a paragon of artistic truth. As usual, for books, the nominees are books I finished reading for the first time in 2016, regardless of their publication date. Movies and film scores must have been first released in the USA in 2016.

Year’s best live action film:

Year’s best animated film:

Year’s best film score:

Year’s best nonfiction book:

Year’s best fiction book:

Year’s best TV show:

Composer’s Corner: Themes of Fireside

Hello, and welcome to Composer’s Corner. Today I present to you the themes of my last YouTube music animation, Fireside, a piece of joy and goodwill that fills every listener with happiness and purity of spirit. Sit thee down and take a listen…

6/8 time, B-flat major, the piece opens with the somewhat playful yet mysterious theme 1 on celesta:

This is repeated immediately with a counter melody in the clarinet:

Theme 2 then begins, with oboe and clarinet exchanging phrases:

In measure 6 of this of the melody, one can see that I have the IV chord descend to the iii chord rather than rising to the V again. I’ve been doing this quite a bit lately, using iii as a substitute for V. I may have only just started doing it last year, especially in Fairytale’s End. Love the sound of it.

After a repeat of theme 2, we come to a melody with a borrowed chord! I had heard film composers use these chords a lot, and if you’re listening for it, you can definitely hear it in quite a lot of scores, to the point that, in my opinion, it’s kind of cheesy and annoying sometimes. Two major chords, a major second apart. Of course, we could stay in key and just use IV-V, but what fun is that? If we start with the tonic I, we can descend to bVII (bah, I can’t figure out how to use a flat symbol with this font, the letter b will have to suffice). B-flat major to A-flat major in our case, like so:

Ah, how nice. The last measure is overlapped with a repeat, and then theme 4 begins:

Rather than changing chords every half measure, we only change them every measure here, providing some contrast to our previous themes. (Well, except in the last two measures. Having the chords progress more rapidly at the end of a theme is a common practice.) Also, notice the use of IV-iii again. Because it’s so good.

This melody is repeated with an overlapping counter melody:

After a repeat of theme 1 and its counter melody, we get a variation of theme 2 on piano (which Overture 4 does not make very pretty notation-wise, but what can you do…):

As dedicated and astute listeners may notice, I often employ triplets of some sort or another into my melodic variations, especially on piano. Because 3 is a magic number.

The orchestra then swells into a repeat of the original theme 2, which serves as the piece’s climax, but not before leaping up a major third in key (my favorite sort of sudden modulation), from B-flat major to D major. After this climax, we settle down again with a repeat of theme 4, but this time with a different counter melody (because the original counter melody broke its leg and had to be put down). This new counter melody goes something like this:

This is played by the piano, celesta, and piccolo, which all go nicely together, and the tune sounds especially nice with the timpani and tambourine accenting the half-beat, in my humble yet biased opinion.

By the way, check out my attempt at voice-leading in the cello and viola at this part:

Actually, I’m not really sure if it’s all that great or not, but as voice-leading is my weakness, I actually spent quite a bit of time on this part, simple as it is, and I’m pleased with how it came out. Of course, I’m sure a professional orchestrator could come up with something better. Here’s how just this harmony sounds:

I think it’s pretty OK… for me…

Anyway… After a repeat of this melody and counter melody (remember: ctrl+c and ctrl+v are among the greatest tools in a composer’s toolkit), we wind down with the oboe, the harmony once again shifting between two major chords a major second apart, I and bVII (in this case D major and C major), before shifting to V and ending on the tonic…

And thus the piece ends, leaving the audience to sit in a stunned and profound silence, having beheld much awe and wonder, before dabbing the tears from their eyes and thanking God they lived to experience such rapture… yes? Right? Yes? Maybe?

And such are the themes of Fireside.

In other news, due to some security setting my webhost must’ve recently changed, I can longer edit my “hanniwiki” mediawiki, where I keep track of my works. So at some point I’m going to try recreating the wiki with WordPress, which is much easier to work with and edit anyway. It’s become more and more powerful over the years.

I also recently uploaded a YouTube video about how to use my open-source MIDI animator:

If anyone out there ever actually uses it, let me know; I’d be interested to see what someone else might use it for.

Finally, on a completely unrelated note, I recently created a Letterboxd account, where I can keep a “film diary” of the movies I watch throughout the year; my profile is here.

Interesting movies for 2017

Here are some movies I’m looking forward to this year. I won’t be able to afford to go to the theater as much as I’d like, but I did get some gift certificates for Christmas, so I can at least go to a few for free. (Thanks to my brother from the very same mother!)

A Monster Calls

This comes out this week! Read the book last year and thought it was good. I also loved the director’s last two films. This is about a kid whose mother is dying. But fortunately an imaginary friend comes along to help him out. Although it sounds terribly cheesy if you say it like that. Maybe: To help cope with his mother’s inevitable death, the mind of a young lad breaks and he begins hallucinating a destructive monster that tells him to do bad things. OK, that’s not really it either. Just watch the trailer. I look forward to seeing it sometime this month.

Beauty and the Beast

The animated film was one of the first movies I ever remember seeing in theaters. There’s no way this can beat the animated version, but I’ll still be interested to see it. I’m glad they’re including the songs, even though they were all already sung to perfection by the original animated voice cast.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

This sword and sorcery film from Guy Ritchie looks great, especially if it will be in 3D.


Since being pleasantly surprised after seeing Batman Begins in theaters while I was in college, I’ve made sure to see every Christopher Nolan film in theaters. Interstellar is his only film so far that I thought was less than stellar; it had such a silly ending. I’m sure this upcoming film of his will not have a similar ending. I really don’t care about the story or anything, I just like Christopher Nolan’s work.

The Book of Henry

This is yet another movie I want to see only because of the director. I really enjoyed Colin Trevorrow’s last two films. I have no idea what the plot is for this film, and there doesn’t seem to be a trailer out yet. I just hope they don’t push the release date back yet again.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Director Luc Besson is hit or miss with me, but just look at those special effects… this should at least be a nice eye-candy movie.

Alien: Covenant

A new Alien movie from Ridley Scott? Oh… OK…

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy is so far the only live-action Marvel film I thought was enjoyable. Probably has something to do with its more sci-fi-ish setting. Tight-suits and skyscrapers just seem bland to me. So I would like to see this sequel…

Animated films

The Lego Batman Movie looks partly stupid, partly hilarious. Want to see. Then there’s Cars 3. I’m not so sure about yet another Cars movie from Pixar. I didn’t think the first two were all that great, but I’ve been seeing all Pixar films in theaters since Toy Story when I was 9 or 10 years old, so can I really stop now? Pixar also has Coco coming out this year, which IMDb says is about a 12 year old boy guitarist who does something interesting or something. Well, whatever, it’s Pixar! Then there’s Despicable Me 3, which I hope will be as good as the last two, which were both hilarious.

I think that’s it. I guess the ones I would definitely like to see in theaters include A Monster Calls, King Arthur, Dunkirk, and the two Pixar films. Only five. Not too bad, I guess.

Composer’s Corner: Chord progressions

Hello, and welcome to Composer’s Corner, where I say something about music and/or my composing process. Today I’m answering a question from Michael who writes:

I have a question about your use of chord progressions, from the first exercise you recommend.. [in this post] You said “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.”

Can you elaborate on this. I’ve been working on this and what’s not clear is does one just repeat the chord progression over and over? or are there other chords mixed in?

I’ve found the hook theory website to be useful for studying chord progressions:

They say the most popular is I V vi IV. Would you give them 1 measure each which would make a total of 4 measures? And just repeat that over and over? When I analyze the chords in some songs I like, sometimes there is two measures of a chord and sometimes it’s just a half measure, etc. But I want to start simple.

I’m not able to “hear” the chord progressions in your songs. I think that’s something I need to work on. If I knew which chords were where, that would make it easier to understand. For most of my favorites on your first album I don’t think you’ve published the music. But if you can just describe a bit about which chord progression you used and how that would be very helpful.

Many thanks for the questions!

To answer the first part:

what’s not clear is does one just repeat the chord progression over and over? or are there other chords mixed in?

Either way. Some songs do indeed feature just the same chords over and over again. One of my first compositions, “The Workshop” (MP3 here), is just vi-vi-IV-V over and over. Another example is of course Pachelbel’s Canon in D, which is I-V-vi-iii-IV-I-IV-V over and over again. (Though I think he actually sneaks in an inverted I to replace the iii in some measures.)

Using the same chord progression over and over again may get monotonous, but one can add variety to the melodies and orchestrations. Pachelbel’s Canon manages to stay consistently interesting (in my opinion at least) because of the wealth of variety in the melodies. When I was just starting out composing, my pieces were a bit monotonous. But they helped me learn, and they were still fun to write! (Plus, there’s minimalism, a whole style of music dedicated to monotony! So it’s a subjective thing anyway.)

That said, my guess is that most songs feature multiple chord progressions to help spice things up. Maybe a chord progression for the verses, another chord progression for the chorus, and yet another for the bridge. They may be still be quite similar; maybe a few chords are just substituted for other chords, or they’re mixed around. After all, usually the style of music doesn’t change drastically between verses and chorus.

One common way to add variety is to start a new chord progression on a chord other than the tonic, commonly the V or vi, sometimes the IV. For instance, if you’ve been using I-iii-IV-V for a while, suddenly starting a new melody on vi with something like vi-V-IV-V may be quite interesting.

But, like I said, my first pieces featured chord progressions repeated over and over. It made things simple. I was practicing writing melodies to fit chords, so it was good practice. I wasn’t able to let chords and melodies inform the creation of each other until perhaps after a year or so of composing, after I got a feel for what sort of patterns I preferred.

They say the most popular is I V vi IV. Would you give them 1 measure each which would make a total of 4 measures?

Firstly, if you click on the examples on that website, you’ll see that that progression is often used as part of longer progressions rather than just by itself. But we can certainly use it by itself if we want to…

Anyway, to answer the question: Yep, one bar for each chord would work! Really, you can do anything you’d like, but one chord per measure or two chords per measure is very common, at least for the style of music I write. (Mozart, on the other hand, may go on the I chord for eight measures, IV for four measures, back to I for another four measures, then V-I-V-I-V-I-V-I on eighth notes squished into one measure; very different style!) As you observed in the examples, there can be a variety of squashing and stretching of the chords, but sticking to one or two chords per measure works fine for starting out. In fact, just one or two chords per measure is mostly what I still do.

Also, I typically write 8-bar melodies (which is probably the most common in modern songs). If I wanted to use just I-V-vi-IV, I’d probably double it, so it’s I-V-vi-IV-I-V-vi-IV. Of course it also depends on tempo and time signature and what rhythm you’re using; Pachelbel’s Canon melodies sound like 8-bar melodies to me, yet the scores I typically see have them all squished up into two bars.

I also pretty much never end melodies on the IV chord; it sounds very weak and pop-music-ish to me. I typically go for I or V, and sometimes iii or iv. So I was actually curious to try this out and so I just tried writing two melodies for I-V-vi-IV-I-V-vi-IV:

Ooh, that was fun! I might have to work that into a full piece, it seems kinda catchy to me…

So the first melody is a repeated 4-bar phrase:


And then to try it out with an 8-bar melody:


Just by trying that out, I found that in the last bar, it sounds (to me at least) pretty bad to end the melody on the root of the IV chord; sounds much better to end on the fifth of that chord (which is the tonic of the key) as I do in the first melody, or the third, as I do in the second melody (though that sounds a bit weaker to me). Anyway, just my opinion from some brief trial and error. (I could postulate some music theory reasons for why this might be so, but all that really matters in the end is how it sounds to me.)

So it definitely seems possible to write a short piece with just I-V-vi-IV repeated over and over… you’d probably just have to add in a V-I at the very end if you want to end on a strong cadence.

I’m not able to “hear” the chord progressions in your songs. I think that’s something I need to work on. If I knew which chords were where, that would make it easier to understand.

Yes, I think that can develop with experience and practice as you get familiar with how different chord progressions sound. Honestly, when listening to other people’s music, I often can’t hear the chords either, depending on what they are. I can usually hear when it changes, and if it’s major or minor (I reckon everyone can at least subconsciously, as it’s one of the driving forces of music), but to know exactly what it is in music theory terms, I need go look it up, or try playing it on a keyboard (and I’m not much of a keyboard player, so I’m usually too lazy for that). However, sometimes I can catch popular chord progressions, such as Pachelbel’s chords. And after I’ve been composing for a while, my ears will be a bit more sensitive to chords, but then my sense of them will fade away again. It would definitely be convenient to have perfect pitch for harmonic analysis! But, alas…

But if you can just describe a bit about which chord progression you used and how that would be very helpful.

An easy piece of mine to see the chord changes in is “Across the Kingdom”:

In this piece, all the chords are in root position, doubled in octaves in the cello and double basses. They’re just playing staccato notes throughout the entire piece, so basically anytime those two bottom lines move, it indicates a chord change.

So we start with the I chord, which changes at 0:20 to V (going down a fourth). Then up to vi, down to IV for a half measure, back to V for the second half of that measure. (Hey, lookey there, we got a I-V-vi-IV progression right there, hahaha, a nice coincidence!) The second half of the melody starts again with I, down to V, up to vi for a half measure, down to V for a half measure, and back up to I to end the melody on the tonic.

So (if I group half-measure chords into parentheses) the whole chord progression for that first melody is I-V-vi-(IV-V)-I-V-(vi-V)-I. And then it repeats along with the melody.

At 1:12, we have a new melody with a new chord progression, this time (I-IV)-V-(I-IV)-V-(I-IV)-V-I-I.

At 1:39, yet a new melody with yet a new chord progression. This chord progression is one of my favorites. (I-vi)-(IV-V)-(I-vi)-(IV-V) This repeats with various 4-bar melodies, until…

At 2:34, rather than repeat the chord progression, we get a slight variation of: (vi-iii)-(IV-V)-(vi-iii)-(IV-V).

After that variation, at 2:47, we’re back to what we had before, (I-vi)-(IV-V)-(I-vi)-(IV-V), until…

At 3:01 we go back to our minor variation, (vi-iii)-(IV-V)-(vi-iii)-(IV-V). This repeats until…

At 3:29, we’re back to (I-vi)-(IV-V)-(I-vi)-(IV-V)… at 3:43, the key itself jumps up a major third, but the chord progression itself is the same, just in the new key. And we pretty much stick with this very same chord progression, until ending the piece on the I. (On a side note, I love shifting the key up a major third in between melodies. It always seems exciting to me.)

So that whole piece only has 4 chord progressions, the great bulk of it being that (I-vi)-(IV-V)-(I-vi)-(IV-V) repeated over and over. I could write melodies for that chord progression forever.

As to how exactly I came up with those particular chord progressions, I couldn’t say off the top of my head. There’s always quite a bit of trial and error for me, and after you’ve been composing for a while, you start to get a “feel” for where your subconscious wants the music to go. I probably composed the first melody on the keyboard, then found chords for it that I liked, then sort of let my subconscious guide me from there. Sometimes it seems to flow from the subconsciously rather nicely; other times, I can be experimenting for hours and hours before I get something that I like. Many times, if you can come up with a melody in your head or on a keyboard, you’ll find that it naturally fits multiple common chord patterns, then it’s just a matter of what you prefer, how fancy you want to get, and how much time you want to spend exploring the possibilities. Just I, IV, and V cover all the tones of a particular key, so you could possibly harmonize any diatonic melody with just those chords. (Though that might get boring pretty fast, but you could. Mozart did it sometimes!)

When I was just starting to compose, I’d go searching on the internet for chord progressions to try from guitar tab sites and such. I also bought a couple “fake books” just for the chord progressions; those can be handy. And I like the website you linked to, Hooktheory. I hadn’t visited that site in a while; they’ve expanded quite a bit since I last visited. I still go scrounging around on the internet for chord progression ideas now and then. I’m trying to use more chords borrowed from other keys and more seventh chords, for instance. It’s always fun to find the chords to a song you like, particularly a specific part that you enjoy, and find out what exactly is going on there, and then try to use something similar in your own work.

OK, I hope that wasn’t too long-winded! Hope this helps!

(Composer’s Corner is sponsored by… Storybook Overture, a great album. Buy it today!)


All the movies I watched in 2016

Happy New Year! Best wishes for 2017!

Like I did last year, here are all the movies and TV seasons I watched in 2016! A list of all 234 titles can be found here. 234 is now my new record. Wow, what an accomplishment. I will put it on my resume!

Movies 2016

Favorite films…

Of the movies that came out this year, my favorites included some that were a bit thematically shallow, but had serviceable stories and work as fun popcorn flicks. These included Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (Edit: Ha ha… I just now realize these are all films in series, titled with colons, the new fashion. Coincidence?)

Movies with stronger stories included the live-action remake of The Jungle Book, which, unlike the cartoon, actually had a cohesive narrative and an interesting theme about man’s relation to nature. I was pleasantly surprised. I thought Risen managed to be less cheesy than most overtly Christian movies, and served as an interesting reminder of just how human the followers of Jesus were; being raised Christian, there’s much about Christianity that’s easy to take for granted. It’s difficult to imagine how radical (and maybe even insane) Christ’s teachings must have seemed to those who met him face to face without the comfort of a two-thousand year old institution to support them. I also thought Hacksaw Ridge was a great film; an army medic refuses to hold a gun, yet manages to save many lives on the battlefield.

Animated movies I enjoyed included: Kung Fu Panda 3, which was hilarious and featured another great musical score. The Boy and the Beast came out last year, but only came out in the US this year. A boy enters a parallel world of beasts (monstrous anthropomorphic animals, mainly), and trains to become a fighter. His rebellious personality provides the appropriate challenge, both physically and emotionally, for a skilled but jaded fighter who needs to get his act together himself. But growing up in the world of beasts has its price, and when the boy grows into a teen and tries to form and/or mend relationships in the human world, he runs into new difficulties. Very fun fantastical feature that you’d never find in the US. Also featured a great orchestral soundtrack. Finally, I really enjoyed Kubo and the Two Strings. A wonderfully bizarre fantasy with beautiful visuals. Since stop-motion puppets tend to have something naturally creepy about them, it’s easy to make dark (The Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline) or “stylistically cartoonishly ugly” looking characters and worlds (James and the Giant Peach or ParaNorman). Kubo manages to actually make the characters and the world look good without being overtly creepy. I loved the ancient Japanese setting, and the bizarre fantasy elements were a lot of fun. My only complaint was the ending; it didn’t make much sense to me, and seemed too simple. Still, great animated film, definitely Laika’s best.

Of movies that came out last year, but I only saw this year, I loved The Revenant; beautiful cinematography. Simple but enjoyable plot. Although I know some found the slower pace to be a bit too much, I really enjoyed that aspect; the film wasn’t in a rush, but didn’t slow things down with pointless filler either, and you really got to get the sense of DiCaprio’s character slowly healing after the devastating bear attack. I also really enjoyed In the Heart of the Sea for similar reasons.

Of older movies that I just saw for the first time this year: I loved The Fall from 2006. A suicidal man in a hospital forms a friendship with a young girl by telling her a long fantasy story. He’s just making it up as he goes along, but the story ends up becoming very meaningful to the girl. But remember, the man is suicidal! So drama ensues! The film featured a great blend of fantasy and real-life, and how the two can inform each other, a bit like in Finding Neverland. I love stories like this, and The Fall became one of my all-time favorites. (I’m eagerly awaiting to see A Monster Calls, which also blends fantasy stories with real-life death-drama.) Noir-wise, I enjoyed the classic Laura from 1944, a fun mystery film with a great twist about two-thirds of the way through it that left me slapping my head thinking, “ah, of course!” which was great. I couldn’t guess who the killer was until it was revealed. They don’t make ’em like this anymore! Also great was Wait Until Dark from 1967, starring Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman and Alan Arkin as an evil killer. The killer wants a doll stuffed with drugs, which is somewhere in the blind woman’s apartment. Great Hitchcock-like thrills ensue!

I greatly enjoyed The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a slice-of-life documentary about Studio Ghibli. Although I disagree with a good deal of Miyazaki’s personal (or cultural?) philosophies, his perspectives can still be interesting and thought-provoking. And it’s fascinating to see how this Japanese studio approaches film making as opposed to how, for instance, Pixar does things.

Finally, there was only one TV series that I really enjoyed, and that was Netflix’s Stranger Things. Had a great 80’s feel to it and a fun plot, at least for sci-fi / fantasy lovers (parallel worlds and mind powers and all that). Honestly some of the young actors’ acting was a bit forced at times, but overall it was easy to binge-watch. And the story actually came to a conclusion! Although it left a couple loose threads, it didn’t end on some stupid gimmicky cliff-hanger! This was very refreshing. I’m sick of the J.J. Abrams-style cliffhanger nonsense, where stories never end but just warp into different questions. It’s just crappy writing. So it was awesome to see a TV season that was actually (mostly) self-contained. I look forward to the next season.

So that’s 2016 in movies and TV…