Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Book roundup

Saturday, 28 December, 2013

I’ve just finished reading The Music Instinct by Philip Ball. This is one of those books that immediately makes me think that it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I learnt more about music by reading this one book than I probably knew just before I began.

I’ve never known much about music theory. I learnt to read music at school, but never became competent at playing any instrument, or gained any of the theoretical underpinnings of how music works. I have basically just been an uneducated listener. I never really understood why scales work the way they do; why there are tones and semitones. I didn’t understand chords or chord progressions or the principles of accompaniment, or of tension and resolution in musical composition. After reading The Music Instinct, for the first time in my life I feel as though a veil has been lifted from my eyes and I can, for the first time ever, see some of the underlying structure and theory behind music.

It’s more than just music theory too. There are chapters on how music elicits emotions, the psychology and cultural biases of how we interpret what we hear, and what, if anything, music might mean in some sense. It cites many psychological studies which reveal astounding and surprising things about how we perceive music. Every chapter and paragraph was full of fascinating information. I am going to keep a copy of this book handy in the future, and will no doubt refer to it again and again. I highly recommend it.

And speaking of book recommendations, I want to share some other books which I have enjoyed reading recently – and ask any of you reading this to recommend some to me. I will pre-empt some of this by saying that for this purpose I am really only interested in non-fiction. I’m interested in most subjects: history, geography, science, sport, music, travel…

My list:

  • Venice: Pure City, Peter Ackroyd. A wonderful picture of Venice and its history, which made my trip there last year immeasurably richer and more enjoyable.
  • The History of England, Volume 1: Foundation, Peter Ackroyd. I bought this after enjoying the above book by the same author, and found it a fascinating telling of the history of England up to the rise of the Tudor dynasty. I recently got the second volume and it’s next on my to-read list.
  • Leviathan, or The Whale, Philip Hoare. Everything you ever wanted to know about whales and more, told in a compelling style. We all love these creatures, and this book explores that fascination.
  • On the Map, Simon Garfield. A series of vignettes about various maps through history, interspersed with information about how maps are made, what they tell us, and what makes them so fascinating.
  • Ingenious Pursuits, Lisa Jardine. The story of the scientific revolution – basically a history of science around the 17th century, covering names like Newton, Halley, Hooke, Boyle, Cassini, Huygens, Leeuwenhoek.
  • Atlantic, Simon Winchester. Tales of the first ocean that western civilisation encountered, how it was explored, crossed, yet remained untamed, including its roles in commerce, migration, and war.

Band Practice

Wednesday, 18 December, 2013

I was at my last drum lesson for the year last night, and I mentioned that I was trying to get the guys together for some more band practice over the Christmas/New Year period. In a year and a half we’ve so far only managed to actually get together as a group and play songs twice, which is pretty miserable – though understandable given most of them are busy parents with young kids and so on.

My teacher suggested that I could try joining the music school’s adult band program. They actually have two different programs: they match you up with other people who play different instruments according to your tastes in music, then they either give you a set list of about ten songs to learn, or they let you pick your own songs. You attend a roughly 2-hour practice session at the school once a week for some number of weeks, which is attended by a teacher who helps everyone with the songs. And then at the end they book you into a pub to play an actual gig!

My teacher said at the stage I am at with my drumming, I am definitely ready for this, and it will improve my drumming enormously. He says I really need to start playing with other people to develop that part of my experience. I’m going to consider it for a while and try to get my friends organised enough to do some more regular practice together. If that turns out to be too difficult, then I may go for the music school program…

Stay tuned.

Drum progress

Tuesday, 12 November, 2013

Tonight at my drumming lesson my teacher said, “Okay, it’s time to work on your weaknesses.”

Normally he’s very encouraging and tells me I’m doing great – to the point where I’ve started to take it with a slight grain of salt as I know there are things I need to improve on. So it was quite a change this time.

My weaknesses are practising in time with a metronome, and transitions between grooves and fills, and grooves and other grooves.

I’ve tried practising with a metronome, but I find I just can’t stay in time to the clicks. I can play along with a song and keep perfect time. But when it’s just a metronome I drift all over the place and can’t home in on keeping beat with the clicks. I don’t understand why I find this so difficult – it must be some cognitive thing where I can’t process the solitary clicking noise into my beating time. My teacher suggested I start with a fairly slow beat – something I can easily keep pace with – and just let myself drift around with it, and keep going, not worrying too much about trying to stay on the pulse of the metronome. He thinks after a while I’ll naturally drift into time with it and start keeping an even beat in time with the clicks.

And to practice keeping a groove with fills for whole songs, I am to play along with random songs, and just try to keep the beat for the whole song, throwing in whatever fills I feel like when it feels like the song needs one. Don’t worry about copying the song’s drumming exactly, just do whatever I want as long as I stay in time throughout. That should be fun, at least, not like metronome work!

Drumming vs Differential Equations

Saturday, 20 July, 2013

Apple recently announced the release of Logic Pro X, an updated version of their audio processing software. There’s a discussion thread on MacRumors.com about it. It comes with a new feature called Drummer, which is essentially a drumming machine component, described as a “virtual session drummer”. Several of the comments mentioned this and wondered how good it would be compared to a real drummer.

Cue the inevitable drummer jokes. Some people, while having a good laugh, also expressed the opinion that drumming is actually quite demanding and how they genuinely respect drummers. Then there was this comment:

I agree, drumming is a really hard job, up there with solving complex differential equations, simulating weather, image processing, managing data for millions of users…

Clearly sarcastic, but I couldn’t help finding it hilarious. Since I do image processing and solving differential equations for my day job, and have been taking weekly drumming lessons for over a year now. And I can tell you, in no uncertain terms, that drumming is more difficult than solving differential equations and image processing. I can tell you how the vibrational modes of a drum head are governed by an orthogonal basis of Bessel functions, but I’m still having trouble not swinging my sixteenth note syncopated snares in a straight 4/4 rhythm, or doing consistent 32nd note double strikes with my left hand. :-)

Stuff I do

Thursday, 30 May, 2013

I tend to have quite a few projects going all the time. I thought I’d take a couple of minutes to list them all in a note-taking program. I was somewhat surprised with how long the list turned out to be. So I thought I’d share, so you have some idea of what sort of stuff I do in my “spare” time.

  • Webcomics
    • Irregular Webcomic! – I did this as a daily comic strip from 2002-2011. I’m no longer making daily comics, but am rerunning strips with additional writer commentary.
    • Darths & Droids – This strip started in 2007, and is ongoing, three times a week. I write it with a group of friends at work. We usually spend one lunchtime a week writing new strips and reviewing upcoming ones just before they are published.
    • mezzacotta – This is a combination webcomic and irregular blog of odd stuff. The comic actually needs no writing or maintenance, so it’s just the occasional blog post here.
    • Square Root of Minus Garfield – A Garfield parody webcomic, started in 2008, updating daily. Most of the strips are submitted by readers – my role is mostly selecting submissions to publish and adding them to the database.
    • Lightning Made of Owls – An original comic which readers contribute strips for. Started in 2008, updated three times a week for a long time but now subsisting on a trickle of submissions.
    • Comments on a Postcard – A “high concept” webcomic, again generated by reader submissions. Started in 2008, updated daily.
    • There are also two old webcomics which have petered out, so I’m not counting them as active projects.
  • Learning
    • Drumming – I’ve been taking weekly drumming lessons at Big Music since April last year.
    • Forming a band – With the friends from work who write Darths & Droids. We’ve only had a couple of practice sessions, but we plan more.
    • Italian – Learning on Duolingo.
  • Writing
    • Irregular Webcomic! essays – Since the daily new comics ended, I’ve been writing a weekly essay about some topic, often scientific, which appears on Sunday’s update instead of a rerun strip.
    • Travel diaries – Whenever I take a trip, I keep a daily travel diary. I stick them on my website when I get home.
    • Secret project – I have a secret writing project I’ve started and hope to finish some day.
  • Creative
    • Photography – I love taking photos. I take them on trips. I take walks and short drives around where I live to visit places just to take photos. I get up an hour before sunrise to go to the beach and photograph the sunrise. I post some of my photos on Flickr.
    • 365 Days Photography – This is a specific photography project. I’m aiming to take a photo every day during 2013. There’s a special set on Flickr for these.
    • Travel photo books – After an overseas trip, I like to assemble some of the best photos into a print-on-demand book, to give a copy to family members and keep a nice printed copy myself.
    • Puzzle solving – My work friends and I enter the annual MUMS and SUMS puzzle competitions. Our team is the CiSRA Puzzlers, and we have won a few prizes, including first place in MUMS in 2007.
    • Puzzle creating – My work friends and I run the annual CiSRA Puzzle Competition. We create our puzzles in our own time and test solve them during lunchtimes at work.
    • Sketching – I occasionally doodle and sketch things using Paper by 53 on my iPad.
  • Gaming
    • Roleplaying games – I haven’t actually run one for a while, but I always have roleplaying campaigns and adventures bubbling away in the back of my mind. I plan to run my friends through Tomb of Horrors (on the understanding that many characters will die and we shouldn’t treat it too seriously). I also plan to run a campaign based in the giant city of Ravnica, borrowed from Magic: The Gathering.
    • Magic: The Gathering booster drafts – My friends and I play semi-regular Magic booster draft tournaments, using the latest sets published by Wizards of the Coast. We also have a stash of old unopened booster packs going as far back as the original Ravnica block, which we occasionally mix and match to create weird hybrid draft formats. We do this sometimes during lunch breaks, and sometimes on Friday evenings.
    • Magic: The Gathering cube drafts – We create custom cubes for drafting Magic as well. So far, most of my playing group have created a cube which we have used. We’ve done powerful cubes full of high-powered cards, and quirky cubes, such as the off-colour cube (cards whose abilities violate the modern colour pie).
    • Magic: The Gathering invented sets – Not satisfied with what Wizards prints, we create our own entire sets and draft those. We’ve done a total of six different invented sets (from memory, it may be one or two more), and at least one of us is always working on another entire new set.
    • Board games – Sometimes we play board games at lunch. Favourites change over time, but have included Settlers of Catan, Formula De, Modern Art, Ra, Citadels, Poison, Tigris & Euphrates, Power Grid, Dominion, Blokus, Ingenious, Puerto Rico, Goa, Alhambra, Seven Wonders, Notre Dame. (I won’t link them all, look them up on BoardGameGeek.)
    • Invent board games – Not content with existing board games, we invent our own. Some are actually card games. Collectively we’ve invented something like a dozen games.
  • Physical activities
    • Walking project – I share this project with my wife. We have a map of North Sydney Council, in which we we live. We are in the process of walking the full length of every street and every walking track in the council area. We began two years ago, and might complete it this year. (The rule is: for a walk to count, we must do it together, and start and end the walk at our home – no car or public transport allowed.)
    • Stretching – Every weekday I do a short series of stretching exercises to strengthen my lower back muscles and keep my limbs flexible.
    • Swimming – From about October to April I swim. Usually 1200 metres, three times a week.
    • Tennis – I play tennis once a week. Well, up until a few months ago when my opponent had an injury. We should start again soon.

To close this post, I’d just like to say one thing. If your reaction to my list is to think, “Man, you have too much spare time,” then you are wrong. Please read this essay I wrote about creativity and spare time. I don’t think I can say it any better than that here. :-)

Picking a masterpiece

Sunday, 7 April, 2013

I’ve formed a band with some of my friends – none of us are particularly good at playing anything, but we’re keen and want to have fun. Discussing what songs we should learn to play, we discovered that there is very little overlap in our musical tastes (as mentioned before).

One guy is into progressive rock, and recommended an album to another guy who was interested. The second guy came back a few days later and said, “Wow, that album is great!” The first guy said, “Yes, I call it a masterpiece.” The second guy said, “Yes… I agree. It is a masterpiece.” Then there was some discussion over how does one recognise a “masterpiece”, and could someone who has no prior knowledge in the field recognise a work as a masterpiece? They came up with a hypothetical experiment: Give someone who knows nothing about progressive rock a copy of this album, and another prog rock album, and see if they can pick which one is the masterpiece.

And so a real experiment was born. I know virtually nothing about progressive rock, so I volunteered to be the lab rat. The guys discussed together and selected a second progressive rock album, which is generally acknowledged to be good, but not a masterpiece. They ripped the tracks off both albums, anonymised the files, and gave them to me. I was to listen to them, make notes, and declare which one I thought was the masterpiece.

Album 1, as it was called, had 12 tracks. Album 2 had 5 tracks. That was all I knew about them. I didn’t know the artists, the album names, or the track names. I played both albums through once, and then on a second listen I took notes. Here’s what I thought.

(more…)

The band really is getting back together

Thursday, 7 March, 2013

So last year my friends and I finally got together and had a group practice session for our nascent band. We’ve scheduled a second session in a couple of weeks’ time and we’re learning our parts for our second song (I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by The Proclaimers).

So at lunch today we were discussing various related things, like what name we should call our band, and what other songs we should stick on our list of easy songs to learn while we’re starting out. And we started to realise that all of our musical tastes have very little overlap. There were three of us there (out of five) with iPhones/iPads chock full of music, and we could not find even one song that all three of us had on our devices.

One of us would call out something like “The Beatles!” and another would go, “Yes, of course!” and the third would go, “I don’t have any Beatles”. And then someone said “R.E.M.” and one would say “Yes!” and the third would say “no”. And so on. Billy Joel. Beethoven. U2. Blur. Muse. Enya. Mozart. Sinatra. Everything we tried, at most two of us had.

And then there were the other two guys in the room, one who is mainly into prog rock, which none of the rest of us are, and the other… well, he listed some of his favourite artists, which included Metallica, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Chopin, Scriabin, and some Polish composer I’ve never heard of. This guy took eclectic, cut the ends off, threw away the middle, and glued the two ends together. Seriously.

So in trying to come up with a list of more songs we could start learning, everything that someone suggested, most of the others had never heard of. We were amazed by the fact that we’ve all been friends for years, yet there seems to be virtually no overlap at all between any of our musical tastes. And we’re trying to form a band.

The good thing is that we bring a huge variety of enormously different music into this project, and we will all be expanding our musical knowledge.

Drum dynamics

Thursday, 28 February, 2013

Cold SweatTonight my drum teacher started teaching me about dynamics. Accented notes, ghost notes, and so on. We spent some time on technique for the various different volume levels, practising to make sure there was an obvious differentiation in loudness when I played the different types of notes. He’s been running me through a program which he’s developing for his second book, and testing out the new material on me to make sure it’s not too advanced for someone at my level. He said this was the stuff he was most worried about, as it’s tricky to learn for the first time.

I did find it a bit tricky, but I think with a week to practise before my next lesson I might manage this material. The shown bars are a groove from James Brown’s Cold Sweat. This is the sort of level I’m at now. I can look at this music and have a good attempt at playing it. Not very well, but it’s not impossible and I can probably master it given a week of practice.

Practice sticks

Tuesday, 13 November, 2012

For reasons of busy-ness and the fact that I’ve been learning lots of new drumming stuff at my weekly lessons that I’ve been practising, I haven’t done a play-along of the first song on our band’s initial set list (Brass in Pocket, by the Pretenders) since our first group practice session several weeks ago. I was starting to worry that I might have forgotten how to play it, so I just decided to give it a play through now.

And played it through, two times out of two, at least as well as I’ve ever played it before. Possibly even better – more fluid, better timing. It looks like all this practice I’m doing is actually making me better!

D Major

Wednesday, 31 October, 2012

So, I learnt a thing about music last night. I learnt what a major chord is.

This may seem paltry to those of you with any musical training, but it’s something that I genuinely never understood before. I had that moment of insight where it suddenly became clear, and it’s now a piece of knowledge in my head that I never had before.

I’ve known for a long time how to play a C major chord on a piano. Someone showed me that way back when I was a kid. You find C – that’s a white key immediately to the left of a pair of black keys. Then you find E, which is two white keys to the right. Then you find G, which is another two white keys to the right. Play C-E-G simultaneously, and that’s a C major chord.

I’d got it into my head that these “major chord” things therefore involved the same finger pattern on the keyboard. So, for example, if you just shift one white key to the right, you end up on D-F-A. And that should be “D major”. Right?

It turns out that’s wrong!!!

What you really need to do is count all the keys between the notes, the white and the black ones. Going back to C major, the keys are: C, C#, D, D#, E. You need to count 4 keys from C to get to E. (C# is 1, D is 2, D# is 3, E is 4.) And then to go from E to G, you need to go: F is 1 (because there is no E# black key), F# is 2, G is 3. 3 keys.

So a major chord is a note, plus the note 4 keys above it, plus the note 3 keys above that.

So if you start at D, you go: D# is 1, E is 2, F is 3, F# is 4. Then G is 1, G# is 2, A is 3.

Which means that D major is in fact D-F#-A, and not D-F-A as I’d always assumed!

I was genuinely delighted when I realised this. And now, I can actually figure out the correct major chords starting at any note I want! I honestly feel like going to a piano and figuring them all out and playing them. It’s one tiny piece of knowledge and understanding that has opened up a way for me to expand my horizons beyond a rote-learnt single chord, into a larger field of chords that I can just calculate correctly, on-the-spot, any time I need them.

And you know, in hindsight, it actually makes sense. I know that a piano is conventionally tuned so that the tone interval between each successive key – regardless of whether they’re black or white – is equal. So the interval from E to F is the same as the interval from F to F#, called a semitone. So in a major chord the intervals are always 4 semitones, and 3 semitones. I had never made that realisation before.

As I said, this may seem trivial to anyone who knows any music theory, but to me this is a revelation, like a blindfold being lifted from my eyes. I was, and still am, genuinely excited. Music theory has always seemed completely opaque to me. No longer! (I know there’s a lot more to be learnt, but I gotta start somewhere.)