Is there a different way to compose music?

I don’t have the answer, but I’m interested in the question.

Of course, I’m really interested in automated computer composition, but a few things are blocking my progress in that area. 1) The algorithms I’ve come up with are too computationally demanding. Oh the things we humans could do with more computer power. That’s always a problem when you’re trying to do something that’s never been done before with computers, isn’t it? And that’s part of the reason it’s never been done. 2) I lack an understanding of how we humans perceive music. I think most people do. We can’t create a program that writes music like humans if we don’t understand how humans do it. Without that knowledge, we’re basically creating algorithmic and/or recombinatorial music, which can certainly be interesting and sometimes convincing, but it’s not the Holy Grail of the subject (at least, it’s not my Holy Grail).

Anyway, earlier today I was daydreaming of creating a programming language (for fun), and then I thought, hmmm… what if I create a programming language designed to help with the composing process? And I thought, well… that’s just dumb. But I kept thinking, well, how could the composing process be changed? Currently, I just use Overture to click in notes. I think these days there are two main ways to compose music: 1) Write down the notes. Either click them in to a notation program on a piano roll or a blank staff. Or, be old school and use tangible staff paper and a quill pen. 2) Play the music on an instrument. Piano, perhaps. Or even sing it.

Now, some people say “no, I compose in my head!” Oooh, what a genius you must be! I don’t think. All composers compose in their heads. The “composing process” I’m referring to is a matter of getting that music out. You either play it (and perhaps make a sound recording), or you create corresponding graphical symbols (sheet music) to represent how to play it (for either the computer to play, or other humans). What can make composing completely in the head difficult is mainly memory, not lack of intelligence. Writing down or recording the music helps solve this problem. They are processes to aid you in your act of creation while you compose in your head. If you have a good memory and are able to compose a piece completely in your head, don’t look for any praise from me, I really don’t think that’s a very amazing feat.

(On a side note, I think sometimes the composing process is mystified and romanticized to inhumanly heights by people who just aren’t as interested in it. We once had an article in the paper about a local teenager who composed a piece of music for something, and the writer seemed very amazed that a 15 year old could *gasp* write music. Either the writer was just being gracious, or he didn’t realize just how many young composers are out there, and how good they can be. Really, in any art there’s always talk of certain artists being “geniuses” and “prodigies” but, in my opinion, it’s mostly just a romanticizing. Anyone can become “great” with enough practice (it might even be easier to learn when you’re younger, making prodigies even less amazing). “Greatness” is subjective, and fame is an emergent property. People say “we don’t have any Rembrandts today!” or “we don’t have any Mozarts today!” Yes we do, they just haven’t been dead for hundreds of years yet. These artists are put on such romantically high pedestals it seems impossible to compare them to non-famous artists today. But I think the skill level is definitely there. The fame takes time. And you can be “great” (though probably not famous) at any art you’d like… if you’re willing to put in the hours… and it will take some long lonely hours of practice and study. But I do believe that genius is mostly hard work, not a mystical God-given gift given only to a few fortunate fellows (maybe the desire to to do all the required work is… it’s a gift, and a curse… usually when one daydreams of being a genius, one dreams of it coming easily). I might’ve already said all this is some past blog post, but I believe it and it’s a view that not many people seem to share, I think… as far as I can tell. Really I think it’s because people don’t like to think of fame as an emergent property but rather as something that’s destined for objectively “great” people. And that stems from our natural psychological problem of induction, of trying to find cause-and-effect processes where they don’t exist, of noticing patterns and implying improper things from them. So really everyone should just read The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Awesome book.)

Where was I?

Ah yes, the composing process…

So, I’m trying to think another system of music representation. Sheet music is designed for a human to read and play the music back. Piano roll view is kind of an “easier to see” version for manipulating notes on a computer, but almost the same thing as regular notation. Both are really just a graph (or a collection of graphs) of time (x-axis) vs frequency (y-axis).

What if we add another axis?

That would be dumb.

But I’d still like to explore the possibilities of designing some other kind of representational system that’s designed for composing instead of for a human to play back. This system might be jarring for composers to use, at least at first. (“At least at first” hahaha… get it?) It would require composers to think in a different way. But that’s the point. Well, really the point is to allow composers to compose faster, and so the point is to experiment and see if there’s way to compose faster if we think about the process in a different way.

I have no specific ideas for this system right now. I’m at work, and I’m just blathering off the top of my mind to help the time go by. Two not-very-specific ideas I have for this system (I’m not sure if they’re any good):

1) Representing changes instead of just frequencies. What if we said something like “up 2, up 3, down 4, up 2” instead of naming notes?

2) Grouping notes. Right now, if you have 6 notes, you have to write all six notes. But what if we group these 6 notes, and then work with that group, and the changes that happen to that group? And then we can go farther and build groups of groups, and look at how those groups are different from one another, and how they’re the same. What kinds of patterns would we find and how could we work with them to compose new music?

I’m not really sure, and none of this may be very innovative anyway, but I am interested in exploring it and getting into more specifics about it.

The goals of the system would be to:

1) Compose faster (i.e. with greater ease). This would in turn allow us to…

2) Explore more possibilities while composing.

And, if possible:

3) Make composing more fun. And thus, attract more people to the act of composing, and help procrastinators and people with composer’s block.

Well, that’s my blather for today. I’ll continue to post my thoughts on this as I have them…

If you read all that, I have two things to say:

1) What’s the matter with you?!

2) Thank you, you are to be commended for your bravery and endurance.

P.S. It was nice to see Michael Giacchino win the Oscar for best score (even though the presenters had no idea how to pronounce his name).  I do love his Pixar film music work, he’s doing some of the best film music today, using those things called melodies.

Disney Records is evil and stupid

Me whining

The new Pixar movie Up just came out.  I haven’t seen it yet, but look forward to sometime in the next couple weeks.  Can’t wait to see Pixar animation goodness in 3D!

Right now, as far as I can tell, Pixar is the only good part of Disney.  (Well, them and the theme park rides.)  In fact, Disney executives should just fire themselves and let Pixar take over.

Anyway, I’m pretty angry with Disney right now.  I saw that Michael Giacchino composed the score the Pixar’s new film, Up.  Giacchino also did the scores for The Incredibles and Ratatouille.  These are two of my favorite film soundtracks of all time; Giacchino is just brilliant.  I was really looking forward to adding the Up CD soundtrack to my collection . . . but NOOoooOOO . . . according to this post, Walt Disney Records doesn’t plan on releasing a physical CD.  They’re selling the score as download only, through iTunes and Amazon and such.

What the?!  Why?!?  Is creating physical CDs that expensive?  Do they think all the people who would have bought the physical CD will just as happily download the album for only $3 less?  Did they think it was just about the music?  No, no, no . . . if it was just about the music, there’d be no reason to buy anything.  For physical CDs, it’s about having something physical, something collectible, something you can easily play in any CD player.  For digital downloads, it’s about convenience.  One click (or a few) and you got the music you want.  These are non-transferable.  If I can’t have a physical CD, what incentive at all do I have for purchasing a download?  That’s not what I wanted.

So thanks a lot, stupid Walt Disney Records!  I hate you now!  And I’m not buying a digital download for this movie soundtrack!

Or . . . who knows?  Maybe the blog post is wrong, or maybe they’ll release a physical CD in a few years?  Well, by then it will be too late!  You big pathetic losers!