Monthly Archives: April 2013

Random Borrowing #15: Good

Another trek into the L-Space dimensions yielded Collapse of the Common Good: How America’s Lawsuit Culture Undermines Our Freedom by Phillip K. Howard.


The random page (191) describes how a black man found the word “niggardly” offensive despite the word meaning “miserly”. The offended guy thought the word was related to “nigger”, which is understandable, since “niggardly” is such an obscure word. Also, another black dude was offended when being addressed by his first name only, which was the normal way the offender addressed people. The offended guy thought it was a reference to times of slavery when black people were known only by their first name.

Links To Music Composition

The offended people mentioned here are particularly sensitive to racial slurs. American society seems a little over-sensitive to this kind of thing. Knowing this, it could well be that the “niggardly” example was a deliberate stealth insult, knowing the likely misinterpretation. A deliberate manipulation of emotion knowing the biases and likely ignorance of the target (and most people, in this case).

Perhaps it is possible to catalogue a bunch of musical “recipes” that induce specific emotional responses from audiences. This would be an interesting list to try to make. It would be facinating to read, and its existence would offend a lot of people that think there is something magical and intangible about music and it’s effects on us. I’ve struck similar reactions from people who react very strongly to the idea that a computer program could ever create music.

How could such a catalogue be assembled? Existing music could be categorised by the emotional response of audiences, although this may be different for different people. Perhaps there is a natural experiment that could provide some kind of input to this process. In popular music, there are often lists of top 40, hottest 100 and similar rankings. Comparing popular songs to unpopular ones might give a way of identifying some characteristics that make a song rank higher on these lists. This would not be an emotional response measurement, but might possibly be something that can be measured. I’m not sure how to go about this kind of analysis in a way that would yield something that was actually useful to anyone wanting to make music.

Music theory should be like scientific theory, you should be able to use it predict things and do experiments that have an outcome that is predicted by the theory. The experiments should be able to be repeated. Most music theory, in my limited experience, consists of finding patterns that exist in music that people already like. These patterns certainly exist, but it is usually pretty easy to come up with music that contains this pattern, but sounds terrible.

Paul Hindemith wrote an interesting book on composition that I read a while ago, The Craft of Musical Composition. It outlines his system of composition via a large set of rules. I even went to the extreme of writing a program that generated random note sequences that followed all of his rules. There were more than 50 rules. This is far too many for mere mortals to use. The program I wrote generated things that I wasn’t that fond of, so I listened to some of his music, and found that I didn’t really like his music either. So I figured that the best I would get out of these rules was music that sounded like Hindemith’s, so I stopped developing the program. Another problem that cropped up, was that sometimes the random algorithm I was using to generate the notes got into a dead end. It found situations where there was no allowable next note, according to the rules. It was probably a bug that I could have fixed, but it is possible that the rules themselves have a contradiction in them somewhere.

Hindemith’s book did have a great section on his classification of chords, ranking them into dissonance classes. He also had a method of working out the root of any combination of notes. His chord classification system included all combinations of notes. I even implemented this in a web page (with a dodgy interface, it works on Chrome).


Random Borrowing #14: Giant

Today, lady luck has brought me back to the Korean children books and a dual language book in Korean and English was the result. It is My Daddy is a Giant by Carl Norac, and Illustrated by Ingrid Godon.



This is actually a pretty cool kids book. I borrowed it and took it home to read to the kids.

The thing that struck me about the book was that the little boy in the book is drawn much smaller than he would be in real life. This is understandable, since it is pretty much the point of the book. The little boy acts like he’s about 3 or 4, but only comes up to his dad’s knee. My daughter Ada, is almost 2 and is almost up to my hip.

Calvin, from Calvin and Hobbes is also drawn smaller than his six years old would suggest.


There’s even a trope about this.

Link to Music Composition

Perhaps, the lesson here is is to always go a little further than seems necessary to achieve the desired effect. In other words, slightly overdo everything.

The use of repetition is one thing that immediately comes to mind. I’ve often found that emphasis by repetition is essential in music, and although it seems like cheating, there usually needs to be more than you want. The composer is so close to it, that another repetition of the tune is boring, but the repetition needs to be there because it isn’t boring to an unfamiliar listener. Of course, there should be some differences in each repetition. Just listen to any of the classical masters to see how they do repetitions; each repetition is always just a bit different. Mozart’s 40th and Beethoven’s 6th are a couple of my favourites.

Now that I think of it, perhaps the lesson is the exact opposite. I composed some music that I wanted to be beautiful, but just a little bit “off”. This was intended to represent the Elves of Discworld, representing beauty combined with absolute evil. My first attempt took a nice, slightly unusual melody on a minor scale. To this, I added some weird chords, but it turned out that this made the music sound too strange. The desired effect was achieved with more normal harmonies.

I would love to find a way of quantifying these characteristics in an algorithm and analyse music recordings to characterise the level of variation and repetition that seems to work in various genres. Stereotypically,  pop music is often considered boring by people who are accustomed to other styles  music. But when you listen closely to some of the more popular songs, you actually hear quite a lot of variation, even in verse chorus forms.



Random Borrowing #13: Sherlock

Today’s pure randomness resulted in the novel The God of the Hive by Laurie R. King. It is the latest in a series of books featuring a recurring character Mary Russell who meets and becomes the partner of Sherlock Holmes. This looks like a really interesting series. If I ever read it, I’ll start at the beginning.

The stories appear to be set when Sherlock Holmes was in the original stories. This book is set in 1924.


I selected a random page (9). It appears that Sherlock Holmes has a son, who is sick and is being taken to larger town for medical attention.

Link to Music Composition

Maybe the idea of taking an established character and putting your own character in the story with it is key here. This kind of idea is one of the recommendation of Arnold Schoenberg in his book The Fundamentals of Music Composition, as a practice exercise, where the idea is to take an existing theme by one of the masters and do your own variations as practice.

Another item for the To Do list.


Random Borrowing #12: How It Feels

The random book of the day was How It Feels by Brendan Cowell.


Here is a review.

I’m not that interested in reading a book about a guy struggling through his teenage years at about the same era that I did.

The random page (308) jumped into the middle of a conversation with a guy living in a fancy apartment, doing a very convincing impression of a moron.

The author is better known as an actor. He looks vaguely familiar, but I didn’t recognise any shows that he’s been in. This is his debut novel.

Link to Music Composition

Perhaps the link here is not so much about the book, but the author. He’s a similar age to me (a little younger), and trying something (writing a book) different. This is his first novel. The review indicates that it isn’t very good.

I too am trying something a little different, being music composition. My expertise is in software engineering and the various domains that I’ve worked. Music composition, in any serious way, has only been something I’ve attempted in the last couple of years. Although, I did try a bit as a teenager; it was an ambitious work, that failed impressively. This blog is a record of some of my rambling thoughts on composition.

My compositions are at the level of “enthusiastic amateur”. So I’m learning what I can.

I’ve recently joined a Community Band again, for the first time in many years. So it will be interesting to see where my resurgent interest in music will lead.


Random Borrowing #11: The Falls

In the pursuit of randomness, today’s result was The Falls, a novel by Joyce Carol Oats. She is a renowned author and the winner of many literature awards. Being uncouth, I’d never heard of her.


The book seems to start with a newlywed man jumping off Niagra falls. Cue the drama of hidden family secrets everywhere.

The random page I chose had a lady attending a bunch of churches and wondering why she could not take any of it seriously. She wanted to feel what the others seemed to be feeling but could only see it as superstitious nonsense.

Links to music composition

Sometimes music theory takes on a bit of a superstitious hue. Harmony theory in particular has a bit of this. All the theory seems to concentrate on classifying chords, and not explaining how they sound.

I’ve never been able to to find the answer to a few seemingly basic questions.
Why does minor sound so qualitatively different to major? Often people say “sadder”, but that is too simplistic. The usual answer is “because that’s how it sounds.”

Similarly, why do cadences sound final? Again, the books simply state that they do, never why.

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”

– Richard Feynman

The closest I’ve come to the reason why chords sound the way they do is an  article called “Harmony Perception: Harmoniousness is more than the sum of interval consonance” by Norman D. Cook in the journal Harmony Perception from February 2009. The coolest thing about this article is that it explained much of the experimental evidence related to 2 and 3 note chords without requiring “the entire edifice of Western music theory”. I even made a little web page that does related calculations based on the numeric analysis of sounds in that paper.

Random Borrowing #10: Wolf Baby

Today’s random meandering led to the paperback shelves and the discovery of an author from Bondi, whom I had never heard of. The book is Goodoo Goodoo by Robert G. Barrett.


Sadly, he died last year of cancer. But not before unwittingly contributing to the Random Borrowing Project.

I chose a page at random (page 266) and landed in the middle of Queensland where a proud mother is showing off her half wolf, half human hybrid daughter. She was the product of a failed genetic experiment to cure baldness.

Link to Music Composition

The best link to music composition that I can find here is the mixing of two things that seem unmixable.

Maybe I’ll try it as a practical experiment. I’ll make one of the things something I’m familiar with and combine it with something that I’m unfamiliar. For example:

  • Make a version of a familiar song in an unfamiliar style
  • Make a version of an unfamiliar song in a familiar style

I’ve had an idea for a while to arrange some relatively simple tune in many different styles, a bit like the CDZA video where they demonstrate the history of music styles using the song “What a Wonderful World”.

It would need to be a fairly simple tune. Maybe a kids song. Like:

  • Hey Diddle Diddle Diddle
  • Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
  • Humpty Dumpty.

Now I need to find some styles of music that I am unfamiliar with that I could attempt. Anything modern is a candidate, because I’m so old. Maybe I should grab a copy of the latest JJJ hottest 100 album and use that as a guide. The last one of those I own is from the 1990s.

So next on the To Do List is to check out the JJJ Hottest 100.


Random Borrowing #9: Wood

The random library item for the day was Wood in Australia by Keith R. Bootle.


This is an incredible book that describes every conceivable thing related to wood (as a material) that you could possibly think of. It’s nice to know that such a book exists, even though I don’t usually make stuff from wood. If I did make things using wood, I’d buy this book.

Just after the section on the best varieties of wood for use in the construction of Lottery Marbles,


is a section on the types of wood used to make a selection of musical instruments. This is the most obvious link from this book to music composition. But I’m sure I can find more interesting and obscure links.

As a Reference

The book is an encyclopaedic reference on all things related to wood. Apart from the definitive music enclopedia – Groves – the most encyclopaedic book I own is Berlioz’s Treatise on Orchestration and Schoenberg‘s Fundamentals of Music Composition. Although there are harmony ones too. It is interesting that there is much written about Harmony, a fair bit about Orchestration, a little about melody, and very little about rhythm (that I’ve found, anyway).

Wood As a Material

Wood is a material used to make stuff. It is a very basic construction material.

Music is made of forms, harmonies, melodies, rhythms, timbres, instrument, and perhaps most basically, sounds. Although, not all sounds could be called music, all music can be called sound. Let’s use wood as a metaphor for a kind of sound.

I reckon almost any sound could be used to make music. Maybe I should attempt to find a sound that cannot be used to make music. Something horrible like fingernails on a blackboard would be difficult to use but would be an interesting challenge.

The outline of the book would be interesting if you replaced the word wood or timbre with sound.


 A book like this about sound would be very useful. A DAW would be a “Reconstituted sound product”. Sections on Sound Processing, Colour Changes in Sound, Destroyers of Sound would all be quite interesting. I’m not sure what the destroyers of sound are, but I’d love to find out.

At least now I know this book exists. If I ever need any hard-to-get knowledge about wood, I know where to find it.