Monthly Archives: March 2013

Experiment: Random Notes to Melody

Is it possible to take a random sequence of notes and produce a coherent melody just by choosing the appropriate rhythm?

My initial thought is: maybe.

Here is the plan:

  1. Limit the notes to those on a major scale. These can be represented as integers from 1 to 7.
  2. Get a random sequence of notes from, say, here.
  3. Write out the notes.RandomNotes
  4. Muck around with the rhythm until it sounds ok.RandomMelody

This actually seemed to work. I made something that is certainly usable, if not great, to start a melody. I couldn’t end on the C at the end of the random notes, maybe I should have just kept getting random notes until it felt like a good place to stop.

As it is, I haven’t disproven the hypothesis. It would be interesting to try to work out an automated way to do this. Perhaps based on cadences and harmonies choosing which notes are to be on emphasised beats.



Random Borrowing #4: Cosmos

Today’s random item from the library turned out to be a back issue of Cosmos magazine.


The random page was number 76. On this page we find out about some scientists researching various berries for their medical benefits. There is some discussion about how the local indigenous tribes already knew which berries were any good.

Now, how am I going to relate this to musical composition?

Well, the scientist are re-examining old “knowledge” and applying modern scientific methods, knowledge, and techniques to make these berries into something new.

This might work surprisingly well for music. If we just use folk music, or very early music as the “berries” in this story and apply some of the modern music techniques with audio effects, instruments, and anything else from current musical practice that we can think of.

I quite like the traditional folk tunes of the UK region, so maybe I can ponder this idea and write something in this style but using these ideas. Now that I think of it, I have already written something similar.

Random Borrowing #3: Murder

Back to the library to seek random inspiration. The idea is to select an item at random and relate it to music composition in some way.

The random item selected today was a book that made me feel dirty. It was a book in the True Crime genre, specifically focusing on murders of one spouse by the other. It is called Till Death Us Do Part by Paul B. Kidd.


It’s kind of freaky that people like this kind of book. I guess it is an extension of the Crime genre, but trying to associate the fictional genre with real people killing spouses leaves a very different feel to the whole thing. It feels like it disrespects the victim and is cashing in on a horrific crime to make money. It’s a sordid version of a gossip magazine, with less pictures.

I randomly picked a page (36) and, with an impending sense of yuck, began to read. I was rewarded with part of a tale of what was apparently a famous case in the 30’s, where the police couldn’t identify a body and so put it on display for quite a long time in Sydney University. Apparently, there were large queues to view the body.

Anyway, I shall endeavor to relate this book to music composition somehow.

Perhaps we could think of marriage as a vow or promise that, if violated, could end in someone killing the other. In a piece of music, there is often the establishment of a “sound” for the music, which usually includes a key, instrumentation etc. This is a kind of promise to the listener about what to expect from the rest of the music.

If an author was to write a similar book about musical works, then perhaps he would choose pieces of music that start off with a defined tonality and beautiful harmonies, but they all end with a cacophony of noise and rage. Perhaps an electric guitar would be smashed on stage. Then the book would focus on how a group of people try to deduce the nature of the original music from the shattered remains of the guitar.

The particular story on the random page used the public display of the body to get leads from the public. A reward was offered and many wild and insane leads were received. Eventually, some of the leads led to the murder being solved (it was the husband, of course). Perhaps exposing the innards of a musical composition before it is finished to others could  have some interesting side effects. From my own experience, I do this occasionally with my own stuff. It almost always leads to a reevaluation of some part of the music and improves the result.

Perhaps the real message is that this book is repulsive to me, but many others might like it. The same can be said of many kinds of music.



Pair Programming with an 8 Year Old

I read an interesting article by James Bach where he did some pair programming with his sister, who is not a programmer. It worked quite well.

This got me thinking that it might be fun to do with my son, Max, who is 8 years old. He’s been bugging me to make a computer game with him for ages. I thought it might be interesting if I did the programming and he “paired” me. The very act of explaining what I was doing should help make it interesting for both of us. Also, the challenge of getting him to understand what was going on would impose an interesting kind of discipline to the task.

So our initial attempt went ahead using Processing. We have made some solid progress so far. There were a few interesting things that I did a little differently because I was doing it with Max:

  1. We made very small iterative changes that produced a visible result. This meant that we often made small changes and then ran the code to see the result. Max loved this and it certainly discouraged the kind of development where you change the world then run it and try to fix 300 bugs at once.
  2. The first version was a hacked together mess with global variables and terrible architecture. Then as I needed to reuse code, I introduced the idea of a function and we did tiny bits of refactoring as we went.
  3. I did a lot more explaining that I would have done with another programmer. Understandable. He’s eight.

It’s early days, but it will interesting to see how much progress we’ll make.

Update: here is a link to an early version.

Random Borrowing #2: Korean Songs

So, as part of the Random Borrowing project, I once again went to the library with the intent of getting a random item and somehow linking it with musical composition.

Today’s item was an item from the community languages section. It appears to be a book of children’s songs, in Korean. With music.

Korean Kids Songs


So I thought I would pick a random page (17) and use the song that I find in some way. (The rest of the music is filed here for future reference)

k3The picture seems to indicate something to do with a beach.

The music is has a slightly unusual format. I tried using google translate to work out what it said, but I couldn’t work out how to enter the 3rd character. I shall leave it mysterious. Something about a beach, probably singing about how everyone will be eaten by a shark.


So I entered it into Noteflight.

Then, I played around a bit and added an accompaniment for melody (which is pretty boring actually) and then did a slight variation with an accompaniment that actually has some movement. Not great but, I did it quick. I shall leave it where it is.

Here is the result.



Random Borrowing #1: Jolly Old Composer

I had a whim to go to the local library and borrow a random item. My initial intention was to get the item and somehow relate it to musical composition. Just because.

So I split the library into 8 parts mentally and used a random number generating application on my iPhone to further subdivide zones, and shelves etc. until I finally borrowed a CD. It is a recording of three works of Brian Havergal. His Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 18, and The Jolly Miller Overture.

Brian Havergal Album Cover Art


A little too directly related to composition, but anyway…

It is recorded well by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. I have never heard of this composer, so I read the liner notes (which are pretty good) and the Wikipedia article about the composer. Here is one persistent dude. He wrote heaps of Symphonies even though there was pretty much no hope of anyone performing them. He kept writing until he was in his 90s.

Apparently, the violin concerto on this album is insanely difficult to play. Violin was his instrument.



Kurt Vonnegut’s Rules for Music Composition

Brain Pickings had an interesting article on some of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for great writing. It made me wonder if the rules would map to music composition.

So a summary of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules are:

  1. Find a Subject You Care About
  2. Do Not Ramble, Though
  3. Keep It Simple – Simple words and construction rather than elaborate ones.
  4. Have the Guts to Cut – “If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”
  5. Sound like Yourself – “echo the speech you heard when a child.”
  6. Say What You Mean to Say – “selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine.” In other words: be understood.
  7. Pity the Readers – “Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify”
  8. For Really Detailed Advice – See Strunk and White.

Now for the application to music composition. Most of the rules apply fairly directly.

  1. Find a Subject You Care About
  2. Do Not Ramble, Though
  3. Keep It Simple – technically difficult to play is not the same as better.
  4. Have the Guts to Cut – “If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” This rule actually makes perfect sense with the musical meanings of all these words.
  5. Sound like Yourself – if anything, this is more applicable to music than words, but harder to put into words.
  6. Say What You Mean to Say – selecting the most effective notes, and relating the notes to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine.” In other words: be understood. It also implies that a fairly rigid musical structure should be used.
  7. Pity the Listeners – Don’t make it too hard for the listeners to work out what is going on. Unless your audience is a professor of music and is bored with all that mundane music that mere mortals can comprehend.
  8. For Really Detailed Advice – Perhaps see The Fundamentals of Musical Composition by Arnold Schoenberg.

A lot of writing about the writing and creative process is quite applicable to musical composition. This one seems to map across pretty well.