On Editing Music While Listening And Looking At It


While working on a musical project recently I realized the value of editing while looking at the MIDI notes. Listening to the music while following along each part one at a time lets me see what’s sounding and then make the appropriate changes in dynamics and arrangement. For instance, I can hear that there’s a three-note ascending phrase and also see the volume levels for each of these notes (represented as vertical velocity lines of different lengths underneath them). Sometimes one note or another will jump out at me or get lost in the mix a little so I’ll look at the volume levels to see if that’s the problem. Alternately, I’ll look at the volume levels first and only then take notice of the corresponding sound—an unusually low or high velocity line for a note might be a reason to listen more closely. So I’ll play back the three-note rising phrase a few times and ask: Can I hear all the notes clearly? Is there is enough shape to them? I’ll make the phrase have a gradual crescendo or decrescendo shape by slightly tweaking the volume of each of the three notes, up or down depending. I’ll do something similar with notes that fall on what feel like downbeats or what should be accented parts of the melody. Of course, some of these dynamic shapes are already within my original recorded performance. But I’m struck by how often these performance details are not necessarily articulated clearly enough in the parts. Maybe this lack of articulation has something to do with my using a MIDI controller whose keys are not so sensitive velocity-wise. A more likely problem is me—maybe I wasn’t thinking all that analytically about the music when I first performed/recorded it. I was just going for it. Now though, as I listen after the fact while looking at the notes, I can identify places that could be clearer and then make them so. It all feels like teaching myself in retrospect.

The other kind of change I make while looking at the MIDI notes has to do with arrangement. Here and there I find note doublings or points of overlap that are simply too busy and cluttered. Looking at the notes of all the parts as they sound allows me to see which part harbors the problem I’m hearing. My process is entirely intuitive and the question I’m always trying to answer is What is that  weird sound? Ninety-nine percent of the time less is always more: deleting a note can have impressive results as I take away sounds until the texture becomes clearer, standing more revealed. In those few cases where I’m not sure what to do, I’ll listen to a spot with and then without a potentially extraneous note and then decide whether or not to delete it. In a few of these few cases I’ll leave things as they are: sometimes a little chaos is a good thing.

The takeaway from this process of editing while listening and looking at the notes is that the most effective music is that which I don’t have to touch much at all. Looking at the MIDI notes on the screen I think about how any performance—whether I’m moved by it or not—has a shape and flow to it. That’s what makes it a performance. We can tweak a recording to bits after the fact, but any power it might have lies in the ways in went about trying to achieve what it achieved, the way it created the energy it created, the clarity of its guiding logic, and most importantly, how it made us feel.

Curating The Week: Noise Music In Yoga Classes, Coldplay’s Banal/Powerful Music, And A Bluegrass Version Of A Metallica Song


1. An article about the use of noise music in yoga classes.

“The focus of yoga creates a really good environment to appreciate sound, in a deep listening kind of way…Intense music creates a kind of mindfulness as well, in that it can be very aggressive in displacing thoughts.”

2. An essay about the banality/power of Coldplay’s music.

“But at the heart of Coldplay’s allure is a talent for capturing something fundamental to contemporary living. The most I can say is this: their best songs make me feel like I am in a mobile phone advert, or sitting in a gleaming airport terminal, luxuriating in a brief moment of respite from sensory overload. They specialise in fuzzy, redemptive qualities that are almost indefinable…”

3. A bluegrass version of a Metallica song:



Brett’s Sound Picks: Rebekka Karijord’s “Morula”

Rebekka Karijord’s two and a half-minute “Morula” seems built entirely out of voice. It begins with a simple sung arpeggio–a three chord, nine note statement. The voice seems processed, maybe auto-tuned, or maybe sampled. By the third time around its call is responded to in a higher register, with a contrasting shape. We also hear the original statement doubled, pitch-shifted, and staggered; the new notes add tension and dissonance to the original ones, making new micro-chords within the arpeggio. As the texture repeats and evolves we wonder: Was this sung or sampled and played? (Does it matter?) As if to answer our question, halfway through the piece we hear long open voice tones, like a virtual choir, telling us the chords that have been underlying those arpeggios the whole time. The open voices only sound for a minute before the piece ends as so many good pieces of music do: by going back to the beginning.

Questions For A Composer About Music


How do you want people to use your music?

Is it for sitting-still listening?

Is it for dancing while listening?

Is it to soundtrack a film?

Is it to help you study?

Is it to set a mood on a date?

Is it to accompany a text?

Is it a working through of a theory?

Is it to bring a large group together?

Is it for musicians who play the same family of instruments to play together?

Is it to sell a product?

Is it to facilitate prayer, worship, or meditation?

Is it for headphones?

Is it for the club?

Is it to give voice to a cause?

Is it for a choir to sing?

Is it a verse-chorus affair?

Is it notated?

Is it improvised?

Is it in call and response with another, earlier piece of music?

Is it disturbing? Relaxing?

Is it for children or adults?

Is it intended to be therapeutic?

Is it for sale?

Is it open for translation, for cover versions and remixes?

Is it for one socio-cultural-economic group more than another?

Is it machine-driven?

Is it 100 percent acoustic?

Do you like it?

What Is Adele Doing That So Many People Respond To?

The English pop megastar Adele has an epic voice and it’s this quality of epic-ness that sets her apart and draws us towards her music. What makes her voice epic? Her flawless sense of pitch, her phrasing, her all out power. Most of us who aren’t singers or have no particular interest in the voice–this would be me–nevertheless are fairly fine-tuned when it comes to evaluating the voices of others, including singers. We notice things in non-musical contexts even when we don’t mean to (“Did you hear how that guy was talking to me?”) and so we certainly notice things in Adele’s voice too. What we notice is that we trust Adele’s voice. It sounds fully sure if itself, of the words it sings, of the melodies it weaves. It conveys what feels like authentically real emotion–like someone who in the process of expressing themselves utterly embodies the sentiment they’re expressing. In a song like “Hello”, her latest epic ballad, Adele builds herself up alongside the unfolding song.

One of the go-to techniques I’ve noticed Adele using are melodies that spend a good amount of time simply holding key notes. These held notes are like anchors or lifelines that connect one lyrical idea to another. (For some reason I picture them as the musical equivalents of a taut high wire, the kind that Philippe Petit walks across.) On “Hello” we hear that holding on the word “side” in the chorus catchphrase, “hello from the other side.” It’s this note-holding that represents the singer’s strength–not just vocally, but maybe too as a virtual character in her own songs and maybe too as a symbol for us to be equally resilient.

The other thing to note about Adele is that her power and go-to techniques are matched by a convincing performance practice. Watching her perform on TV a few weeks ago I went wide-eyed as I noticed that she was tearing up as “Hello” ran its course. Think about that fact for a moment: she made herself cry while singing. Professional musicians often have to recreate the same pieces over and over again, and the magic trick is to make the music feel like it’s new each time. Repetition can make it difficult to tap into deep emotions because when we repeat things they take on a different quality than they had when they were new to us. (Not necessarily worse, just different. Quality has that inherently shifting property about it.) Adele seems to be one of those performers who can summon the appropriate emotion at each performance to make it seem like the first. My own theory is that she can’t help herself. However she may be in real life (down to earth, so we hear) onstage a sense of simply being epic comes naturally to her. We’re drawn to her, we respond to her, because she naturally does what she’s doing. With Adele, making music never seems like a performance.

Curating The Week: The Appeal Of Analog, The Casio MT-40, And Lydia Goehr on The Functions Of Music


1. An article on the hold of the analog in the digital world.

“It turns out that while the digital often comes close to crushing its analog precedents, that process can do something curious to its putative victims: underscore their virtues, elevate their status and transform the formerly workaday into something rarefied, special, even luxurious…What has really changed is not the intrinsic nature of analog objects or processes, but rather our attitude toward them.”

2. An article about the use of the Casio Casiotone MT-40 to make the “sleng teng” riddim, the first computerized and most rerecorded rhythm in Jamaican music.

“Budding reggae artists no longer needed session musicians or expensive equipment. Now, anyone with a microphone, tape machine and a modest keyboard or sampler could make ‘pro’ riddims.”

3. A must see six-minute video interview with philosopher Lydia Goehr about understanding the functions of music.

“Music becomes interesting for philosophy because music is taken to be something mysterious and unexplainable so philosophy has to solve its problem…All the time when you ask what music is, I will turn the question and say, What are we doing when we engage music in a particular way?”

Music And Attention


Focus on me
music says,
to bridge memory and anticipation,
to order the scatterbrain–
improve your functioning,
learn to be better through style.

Pay attention to my tones
in succession or vertical stacking,
follow them along their travels,
soaring over landscapes,
skimming across water.

Register my rhythms
in unison- or clashing-ness,
vibrate with their architectures,
turning time 3D,
feet tapping, dancing, digging deep.

Move along with me
music says,
I’ll give you something to focus on:
a hypothesis that works for a while.*

(*Inspired by a phrase by David Burrows in his article “Music and the Biology of Time” in Perspectives of New Music 11/1 (1972), pp. 241-49.)

Notes On The Africa Express Version Of Terry Riley’s “In C”

“Rules are not as important as results.” – Terry Riley (from an interview here)

If you happened to be knowledgeable about the rhythmic riches of African musics and also happened to attend one of the early performances of Terry Riley’s pioneering minimalist piece “In C” in 1964, you might have noticed that something was up. You might have noticed that Riley’s piece is in some ways designed like the music of an African dance drumming ensemble. “In C” is open-ended in its length; it has a bell-like timeline pattern that acts as a timing/metrical grid within which the other parts fit (its inclusion allegedly suggested by the composer Steve Reich who performed it in the piece’s premiere on a Wurlitzer organ); its fifty-three melo-rhythmic patterns (lasting from half a beat to 32 beats) that each musician plays through interlock and interweave in syncopated polyrhythmic ways to create a wall of sound; it doesn’t require a conductor or leader; and finally, the piece has a steady groove and forward propulsion that is more danceable than sit still and listenable.

If you noticed something African in Riley’s original version of “In C” you might be delighted to hear a recent version by Africa Express, a collaborative project launched by the English musician Damon Albarn to bring African and Western musicians together. Albarn’s previous work based on his music making in West Africa has had its beautiful moments (which I have written about here). Orchestrated and led by conductor Andre de Ridder, Terry Riley’s In C Mali is a recording that features musicians from Mali singing and playing instruments including balafon, djembe and talking drums, shakers, flute, ngoni, and kora. Added to this are violins, electric guitar, kalimbas, and melodica to round out the mix.

Sonically what is interesting about this Africa Express version of “In C” is how it seems equal parts found musical object, remix, homage, dissection, cultural biodegradation, and even a kind of reclaiming. The musicians take liberties with Riley’s original score (which never specified instruments), adding drums and shakers and fitting in all kinds of little variations and solos and feature spots (including a spoken word section). It’s as if minimalism finally got a chance to give thanks to some of its African roots as musicians from the continent have their way with a musical approach that was appropriated and then, finally, got a chance to go home.

(One of my favorite moments in the recording is around 12:04-14:00.)


Here is a video of the ensemble performing live:

Uncritical Listening


Only the simplest music
I get analytically,
unpacking without trying,
dividing without counting,
hearing without thought transcription.

When complexity sings
I take a step back
to view its note shapes from afar,
observing without judging,
counting without unpacking,
suspicious of their busy work.

It was a piece by Takemitsu–
I noticed one tone, the first,
singular and transparent,
well placed liked a raindrop,
then two more tone droplets,
as if perfectly landing on leaves.

A significant landscape was conjured
but when the liquid sounds increased,
their flow building gestural density,
I zoned out:
the falling water-leaf image
was gone.

Curating The Week: The Cove App, The Effects Of Extreme Music, And The Origins Of Rock and Roll


1. An article about Cove, an app that helps users make sense of their emotions using music.

“The app helps you make music that shows how you feel, whether it’s happy, sad or anywhere in between. After making these mood pieces, you can share them with important friends or family, which can help them understand your confusing feelings.”


2. An article about a study that shows how listening to extreme music makes listeners happy and calm.

“‘In contrast to previous studies linking loud and chaotic music to aggression and delinquency,’ this study ‘showed listeners mostly became inspired and calmed by their metal. The music helped them explore the full gamut of emotion they felt.'”

3. An article about Sam Phillips and the genesis of rock and roll (based on a recent book by Peter Guralnick).

“He recorded a style of music that the major record companies—there were six of them when he started out, and they dominated the national market—had deemed unprofitable. But he helped identify an audience, and that audience transformed the industry and the nature of popular music.”