In Search of Mozart

The annoying thing about creativity is that it changes its obsessions abruptly and uncontrollably.  I’ve got only two scenes left to write for the novel I’ve been working on for a year and a half, and what does my mind want to do now?  It wants to study Mozart’s work and write music.  (At least it’s cultured, I guess.)  So I spent the last few days working on this little “mini-concerto” for piano and orchestra, Piano Concerto No 0, Opus 67:

I number it ‘0’ because it is meant as more of an exercise than a “real” effort. As you might guess, it was written while studying Mozart’s harmony. In fact, the harmony and voice leading of the first section was almost completely blatantly plagiarized from one of Mozart’s piano concertos. (Figure out which one, if you dare.) But the point of the exercise wasn’t so much to be harmonically original as it was to try playing around with these classical sorts of cadences, inversions, secondary dominants, secondary leading-tone chords, and circle-of-fifth sequences. Most of my music is harmonically super simple, just root-position chords progressing through diatonic triads, such as I-iii-IV-V or I-vi-IV-V (my favorites). I hardly ever use sevenths or inversions or the ugly vii°. I’m not necessarily trying to change my “style”, but I would certainly like to expand it. Who wouldn’t? Plus, I love Mozart, so I’d like to try to understand how he and other master composers keep their chromaticism so beautifully tonic.

Structurally, the above piece is rather lazy. It begins in sonata form, then half-way through the development it section, it repeats and ends. I guess the repeat can count as recapitulation? No? Oh well. I was ready to move on. I’ve never been a sonata-form fan.

While I was working on this piece, I also got some ideas on how to expand my melody generator into a full-blown symphony generator. So I’ve got some programming experiments to try, but they will take a lot of work. So… the Mozart Symphony Generator, coming soon… (we can dream at least)

Some thoughts on learning perfect pitch…

According to the Wikipedia article on perfect pitch (aka absolute pitch):

no adult has ever been documented to have acquired absolute listening ability, as all adults who have undergone AP training have failed, when formally tested, to show “an unqualified level of accuracy… comparable to that of AP possessors”.

I’m not exactly sure how these training attempts were made, but I theorize acquiring perfect pitch is greatly aided by the ability to sing or whistle; to produce specific tones with one’s own body. Perhaps this somehow allows the tones to become part of sense memory. For example, when you learn to walk, you not only memorize how to move a bunch of muscles in a complex synchronization, you also learn what to expect the act to feel like. You are constantly expecting to hit the floor on the next step before you actually do, and you are probably expecting the floor to feel a certain way under your feet, and you know what to expect in terms of what the new the pressure under the foot will do to the rest of the body. So sense memory not only takes into consideration how your muscles move relative to other muscles, but also what senses you should expect to feel, what forces you should expect to act upon your body.

Why should sound be any different? It is a sense. So the singer or whistler memorizes what tone should be associated with a certain mouth or throat position. This allows tone memorization, the ability to remember that specific tone or a series of tones, despite not having heard any tones in a while. The specific tone can be remembered at will because of its original association with a particular muscle position when the memory was being etched into the brain.

And once the tone is engraved in the brain, the muscle memory perhaps doesn’t even necessarily need to be maintained. The tone engraving is all you need!

I theorize this because I’ve noticed that if I whistle a tone in a relaxed position, not trying to raise or lower the note, my natural whistle tone is always E. (E4 to be exact.) This has allowed me to remember the E tone without actually having to whistle. Taking perfect pitch tests, I can then use relative pitch to deduce some other tones with greater accuracy than I could a year ago. Certainly not flawless accuracy, and I stink with the accidentals, but I still find the increase in ability interesting, as slight as it may be. (I didn’t keep scientific records of my progress.) I am not going to continue training, because I really don’t care that much right now… maybe later.

So I think if anyone out there is doing research in the field, focusing the perfect pitch training on pitch production (through singing or whistling) should be something to strongly consider. (The subject should also have a good sense of relative pitch identification first; that is, he should be able to recognize major thirds, perfect fifths, etc.)

Such studies may have already been done, but I am too busy with other matters to do much research…

Stephen Fry on musical snobbery and classical music

Someone posted this on Facebook, and I quite liked it…

It’s a bit raunchy though, but it’s Stephen Fry. I would recommend listening to it, but not actually watching it, because the camera man will drive you insane. I don’t agree with his philosophical theories on the origins and purposes of dance, but that’s beside the matter. I’m not sure what the specifics are of the notion he is responding to, but I still agree with the main message… I think…

(And Mozart died before he was put in a grave…)

The digital future of music composition…

Some predictions about the future of music:

In the not-so-far-away future, anyone will be able to compose symphonies, concertos, string quartets, etc., with the quality of a Mozart piece. It will not be thought of as a special talent. Although computer software will not be required for this to happen, computer software will exist with the ability to aid the composer in this task, even doing the bulk of the work for them if they so desire.

With this software, a user will be able to let the computer do as much or as little of the work as he pleases. He will be able to input a melody and have the program orchestrate and flesh it out into a complete piece. He will be able to choose among the styles of various classical composers, combine styles, or create his own style. He will be able to choose the piece’s length and instrumentation.

There will be a “Compose Mozart Symphony” button.

Users will be able to compose musical pieces that go on forever, guiding them in realtime, instructing them to crescendo or switch themes or change keys whenever they wish; automated composing will have the ability to be truly interactive.

This will probably happen in your lifetime, in the next couple of decades… be prepared!

Some classical music for your soul

In my continuing efforts to enlighten the masses with an appreciation for the fine arts…

No, no, I didn’t mean it! Come back!

I just heard the 3rd movement Franz Krommer’s Oboe Concerto, Opus 37 on the radio earlier today, and it’s become quite stuck in my head.  It’s quite catchy and a lot of fun:


Animating and reading and music and stuff…

Animation studies continue

It’s now week 7 (of 72) of Animation Mentor! The first semester (of 12 weeks) is half way over!

Last week’s assignment involved animating a pendulum. Unfortunately, towards the end of the week (mostly Saturday and Sunday) I caught some sort of virus, so I lost a nice chunk of animation time, and my assignment turned out pretty “blagh.” I mean, it wasn’t completely terrible, but it needs lots of polishing, so I’ll post that up on YouTube after I do a revision. Feeling better now, so I hope this week will be better.


I finished reading The Talent Code the other day. Overall, ’twas a pretty good read, though I still think that in some of the chapters the author kind of goes off on these less interesting tangents. There was this whole chapter about how good some “KIPP program” schools were, though to me they seemed kind of brain-washy. One of the main points of the program, besides instilling militaristic discipline, was to not only get the students to go to college, but get them to want to go to college. Apparently the founders of the KIPP program believe that going to college is pretty much the most important thing in the world. It’s kind of … disturbing. Maybe there’s a grain of truth to it, in terms of there being a correlation between income levels and college attendance, but I don’t think brain-washing children to believe that college is the most important goal in life is necessarily helpful, even if the students in this KIPP program preform very well on tests.

Which kind of leads me to another problem… so often it seems that how “good” a school is is determined by comparing it to other schools. People say things like “this school scored in the 90th percentile!” That sounds pretty good, but it actually really doesn’t say that much. What exactly is the “score” of the 90th percentile? Shouldn’t the actual score matter? With this sort of comparison-rating system, a school (or a student) doesn’t even have to improve for their score to improve… everyone else just has to do worse.

Along the same lines (though this is a complete tangent from the subject of the book), I hate when teachers, both high school and college, grade to a curve. As if a bell curve should naturally arise in the grades, and if it’s not there, you just shape the test scores to it. It makes no sense; you can get a better grade simply because everyone else did lousy on the test? But really this is part of the bigger “grading problem” in general that schools have; they simply use grades in a completely wrong way, as a form to easily compare students and to act as an easy gatekeeper for decision making. Unfortunately how well someone knows facts or a skill is not so easily numbered. (And this is really related to the “school problem” in general; how so many people think it’s a good use of time and money to teach and learn things students are not interested in or are not going to use. I’ll spare myself from going off on that tangent today…)

One last thing I’m starting to understand, from this book and others with similar themes, is that our personalities, as defined by our decisions and interests, are, or at least can be, as malleable as our intellect. They are a product of our environment. Maybe not completely, of course, but the true (often subconscious) sources of interests and personalities are quite complex; they do not simply emerge from DNA. In other words, if you observe that someone is bossy when they are a baby, that’s not necessarily just because they have “bossy” genes. Although, maybe they do… my point is that it’s complex. And people can change, at least to a greater degree than they may realize. Not easily, perhaps. It might take a complete overturning of your environment, and the change might be from “stable” to “completely depressed and crazy”, but it’s possible. I do wish it were easy to understand how interests come about and how they could be changed, but they seem to get so set-in-stone that we think of them as being as unchangeable as stone…

The other book I finished reading was Federations, a collection of sci-fi short stories. It was kind of a mixed bag… I thought some stories were very good, especially Prisons by Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason and Symbiont by Robert Silverberg. Some were OK. Some were uhhhh-what-the-heck? (I have more traditional tastes. When authors try to get all experimental and stylized, I don’t always get it. One of my big pet peeves is unisex/nonsex pronouns, like “hirs” and “shim”… blagh! You’re not clever! Stop it!)

Will books die soon?

In other news, I read this article in which some guy says that physical books will be dead in 5 years. *gasp* Firstly, the article states that we must consider what has happened to music and films, which makes no sense to me. Those are digital art mediums in the first place. You watch a movie with a digital TV, and you listen to music on speakers (or headphones). Those have required electricity to perceive the art for a long time. Not so with books. So I don’t think the comparison is entirely valid. Also, movies are still quite non-digital, in that they still are sold on physical discs. This not only helps prevent copying (to a degree), but it also allows customers to trade, rent, borrow, return, and resell their movies. In a purely digital world, we can’t do that. Money would only ever flow one way. Great for movie distributors (if they can prevent illegal copying enough), somewhat lame for everyone else (unless you can get free movies by watching ads at certain intervals… but still no returning or trading).

He also says that the sales of Kindle books has outnumbered the sales of hardbacks. OK… that in and of itself is not really evidence of anything, as far as I can tell. We’d also have to see a decline in hardback sales, and look at paperback sales. And publishers would have to at some point conclude that publishing a hardback would not be worth it. And then conclude that paperbacks aren’t worth it either. These business decisions would, I think, be way too drastic for publishers to figure out in just 5 years. Unless, of course, Kindle and other ebooks take off so well and make publishers so rich that they have nothing to worry about by going all digital. So I guess I’d really have to look at the publishers’ records to know…

Eventually, books may very well die, or at least become mostly dead… but in just 5 years? I highly doubt it.

Some beautiful music!

Lastly, as a reward for reading all that blather (or for scrolling down), here’s some beautiful music for you!

Want more? Of course you do!

These pieces were brought to you by the Portsmouth Sinfonia which I came across last week (or yesterday or something)… what beautiful sounds!

Get taught how to listen to music

I was browsing the web in my usual fashion, whatever that is, and came across these lecture videos from Yale.  The course is about “listening to music,” though I really have to listen to the course to figure out what exactly the professor means by that.  Here are some of my reactions to some of the things this professor says.

Does knowing musical theory improve listening?

First the professor recalls asking his son to listen to something and then asked him “Well, what’s the mode of the piece?  What’s the meter of the piece?  What’s the bass line doing?  Can you identify any chords?”  And of the son had no response.

Woah!  Woah!  What the heck?

Do you really have to be conscious of all that?  Or, I guess the real question is: what’s the point of being conscious of all that?  Does being conscious of all that make you enjoy the music more?  If so, would you argue that not being conscious of that makes other people enjoy the music less?  That seems like an incredibly condescending argument.

Now, if you want to analyze music for your own interest (say, perhaps, you’re a composer), then of course it can be a great mental exercise to be conscious of that stuff.

But you certainly don’t need to if you just want enjoy the music.  Which is really what the entire point of music is.

And no matter how much you analyze that stuff, it’s not like you’re going to figure out how the human perception of music works.  At least not just with analysis alone.

So the professors “experiment” with his son here seems incredibly pointless.

Why would we want to listen to classical music?

So the professor asks.

What?  Really?  You don’t know?  Why does anybody want to listen to any music?

Does he mean “why would we want to listen to classical music instead of pop music?”

You’re not implying that some type of music is objectively better than other music, would you now?

He says that the Nation Public Radio asked this question, and one of the big responses was: for relaxation.  Not a whole lot of relaxing rock n’ roll or pop music out there, huh?  (Maybe someone out there can start a new genre… lullaby pop, or something.)

Some of the other responses: it helps people concentrate, and it provides a vision of a better world.1

I want to change your personality…

Says the professor.

That seems pretty snobby to me.  “I’m going to make you better!”  How arrogant of you to assume you have that ability.  Actually, this seems a pretty important point for all teachers, and all people in general:


That’s condescension.  It’s an insult to others, and an overestimation of yourself.

I hope to instill you with a love of classical music…

After hearing that, I would’ve dropped this course right away.2 Why would he hope to do that? If he was a classical music artist selling an album, or a record store owner, I might understand. Instead, it seems like “I like classical music, so everyone else should too.” Now there’s nothing wrong with desiring other people to agree with your opinions (I love when people agree with my opinions, who doesn’t?), but to think it’s worth actively pursuing seems, again, quite condescending. That would be like if I said “I like Danny Elfman, and if you don’t, allow me to enlighten you on the brilliance of the Alice’s Theme track…” No! That’s a terrible way to think and act, as if you have to actively pursue “converting” people to your subjective opinions. It’s not like people have different musical opinions because some people are just dumber and need to be instilled with some knowledge that will change their opinions to the “right” ones.

If I were a professor teaching such a class, I would definitely want to inspire others to listen to more of the same kind of music I loved; who doesn’t like sharing the things they enjoy?  But I wouldn’t have my mind set on changing people’s personalities and lives to be more like mine, as if there was an objective right and wrong about music preferences…

The end

That was only the first 7 minutes of the course, and I already disagree with this professor’s teaching philosophy.  Ha.  Though maybe I’m just misconstruing everything he’s saying.  It looks like a pretty educational course, though, once you get deeper into it, and actually get to the meat.  The first 7 minutes, though… yikes.

Anyway, I gotta go to bed now… I get to go to work all weekend!


1 I wonder if this has more to do with the fact that most non-classical music includes lyrics. There aren’t very many purely instrumental pop or rock artists out there.

2 But maybe not, if it was going to provide an easy A. I’m not the one that made grades matter.