Three Is A Magic Number, or Music Theory From A Pragmatic Perspective, Part I

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In this post I want to hand you a little toolbox of music theory as far as I use it. This box is surprisingly small, but very efficient. I cannot read music, although I tried hard several times in my life to make a connection between the black dots and what goes on in my head, but for my everyday work I don’t need those dots at all. What I need is a basic understanding of how the notes relate. If you want to able to dissect, improvise, compose and arrange any kind of music there is no way around music theory, but I make do with what little follows. This goes out to self-taught guitar/bassplayers who think in frets most of the time. I have the feeling that players of all other other instruments learn this stuff by heart by the age of 8, but we poor string-fellows somehow rarely do… Okay, brace yourselves, here we go:

I. Basics.
There are 12 semitones (or frets) to the octave. In western music (classical, pop and most jazz) you pick 7 of these to make up the basic ingredients of your key. Depending on which 7 you pick you either have a minor/major scale, or one of the other modes. If you play around on your guitar and pick any 7 notes that make sense to you on an emotional level you will always end up with one of these, although there are more sets of 7 in these 12 notes.

II. Intervals.
The distance between any one of these notes, and any other note is an interval. The distance is measured in semitones, and their number determines the interval.

semitones above the root: name of interval
0: root
1: minor second
2: perfect second
3: minor third
4: major third
5: perfect fourth
6: diminished fifth
7: perfect fifth
8: minor sixth
9: major sixth
10: minor seventh
11: major seventh
12: octave = root

Now pick your set, but always just one of every numeral degree: pick a root, one of the seconds, one of the thirds and so on. In your two most basic keys, major and minor, you always have the perfect intervals and the root. For a major key, add the major intervals:
root, perfect second, major third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, major sixth, major seventh, or if you think in tabs and take an open string as the root: 0 2 4 5 7 9 11

For a minor key, add the minor intervals.:
root, perfect second, minor third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, minor sixth, minor seventh, or if you take an open string as the root:
0 2 3 5 7 8 10

III. Analysis
Now in order to understand what this means you have to dissect music you play. It doesn’t matter if it is your own music, or stuff other peoplepersons wrote. If you want to understand a chord, take the lowest note that is played as the root, and define the intervals you have by counting semitones. If you want to find out the key, play the piece until you come to the chord that feels like home, where all tension is gone. Usually that is the final chord of the piece. If that final chord consists of majors and perfects, your piece is most likely in a major key over the root of that chord. If minor, minor. In most music outside of jazz you will find that the whole piece sticks to those seven notes of that key. Any other note that is used will stick out like a sore thumb, and be there for a single reason: to introduce some tension.

Now, play your favourite piece veeery slowly and try to think along which intervals you are using right now. I learned most of what I know about harmony from thinking through pieces I wrote or played, and trying to be aware of the relative position of ANY note I play in that piece. In my head that sounds like this: Okay, the melody goes minor seventh, minor sixth, perfect fifth, root, perfect second, ARG what the fuck was that, lemme count, aha, four semitones, that is a major interval while, as all the others were minor, weare in a minor key, what a cunning bastard, but here comes the perfect fourth again, and back to the root, horay.

IV. Furtherer

Understanding what relation any note you finger has to the root, and getting a feeling for how certain intervals and tension tones feel is maybe the most important thing I learned over the last years. This is the root (haha…) of all arranging, improvisation and composition: training that inner ear. The fun part is that it works both ways; the better you can analyse a piece you play, the easier it gets to write your own stuff. All I do when I write is listen to what comes next. There is always a vague suggestion in my head how whatever I hear right now might continue, and the better I analyse and hear that, the faster I can write what I want to happen at that spot.

I learn music by ear. I always tell all my students to do the same, and although I understand why people ask for tabs for my youtube-videos I rarely ever write them; not because that would be too much work, but because playing from a tab helps you learn to do the mechanics of a piece, but you skip all the musical relations and tensions and the inner structure. If you don’t know which of fingers plays the melody and which does the harmony you don’t really know what you are doing. So: Transcribe!!

More on constructing stuff with what I wrote above later on, for now what I scribbled down on this is much too confused for anyone to follow.

Love,

J

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Off To Pastures New

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Hey everyone,

I just wanted to let you know what it actually is I revived this blog for: I have a new project that is a side-branch of the four windows to the wind-thingy.

I originally intended the fifth, and last EP of this project to be the Center, after North, East, West and South. While the cardinal directions were meant as explorations into specific areas (acoustic guitar + voice + electronics for north, voice + drones + beats for east and so on), this center was meant to be an exploration of what is closest to home, and therefore it was meant to be sung in my personal dialect of my native tongue.

This new project will be a collaboration with an old friend. The role of this friend is basically to be a filter of quality, and to produce and mix the stuff to a level that I could not even get close to on my own. While I feel confident in writing the lyrics and the music, it really helps going over that with somebody I don’t have to explain it to, and get those fine details right that I wouldn’t care too much about on my own. I usually have to be pragmatic about the time I invest into the single steps of getting a song done (writing, playing, singing, producing, mixing, mastering, release) in order to keep my own deadlines. This gruesome balance between perfectionism and efficiency becomes a lot easier when you team up.

The production side of things is more of a hobby for me, and I have serious blank spots in the most basic matters concerning recording and mixing, and this is a great chance for me to learn a LOT, even if nothing else ever comes out of this project. Right now I rely on fiddling around with presets a lot, while my friend basically opens a plugin, and starts from scratch. Posts on this will follow.

We’ll finish recording and producing the first song these days, hopefully in March. Then the tiny machinery of no-budget-DIY will start to roll again: I will grab my iphone 4s and record some videos outside, cut that together to a neat little video, and put that on youtube (end of April). I will create another bandcamp-site, and an extra homepage (basically a static wordpress-template that I’ll tweak a little) to promote it, and come May the package should be online. We’ll do some more songs over the summer, a first EP in fall, and total world domination when winter comes.

The next posts, as mentioned above, will concern themselves with basic mixing techniques as far as I understand them. Which settings, what kind of plugins, in which order, to what end. Looking forward to that,

Love,

J

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Back To Square One

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Hey everyone,

after several months of being on the road, in the studio, moving house and generally not sleeping very much at all I decided to revive this blog and get back to work on my music.

My whole life, business and private, is changing fast and drastically, and while the private stuff is great, the business part is not. This leads me back, as it did many times before, to one of the most important trains of thought  for any self-employed humanperson:

1. You have to have several things going on that can fall back on each other should one or two of the others not work out temporarily. If you rely on one thing only, that puts a lot of pressure on that one thing. And chances are, one band alone won’t make you filthy rich.
2. You have to focus like crazy in each of these disciplines to make sure that you are getting work done or at least getting better.
3. Just because you are juggling stuff, working yourself tired, and running to and fro 24/7 doesn’t mean you are actually getting things done.
4. Getting things done is essential, as it eventually leads to the stuff that allows you to buy bread in supermarket.

Now the art in all this is to get the word “eventually” out of sentence 4, and create a working environment in which it is a prerequisite that if you work, you earn money. If you don’t (and I didn’t) you will have a steadily improving number of moments per year that make you painfully aware that potential revenue and great prospects are just thin air.

That being said, I will now return to writing and producing my own music, where there is no way on earth that it will make any considerable amounts of money. Apart from reading in the hammock on my balcony while hailstones perforate the earth there is nothing that calms and elevates my mind like recreating the music that the drunken orchestra plays in my head when I’m not looking. And a calm mind is quite something.

All the best to all of you, more to come in the next weeks.

J

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The joys and woes of moving Reaper to 64bit

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32 bit sucks.

As you may know, your system is limited to a maximum of 3,2 gb ram if you use a 32bit version of Windows. 64bit lets you use as much as you can fit on your motherboard, and that really boosts your system. If you aren’t sure if you profit from this, open your task manager and take a look how much RAM your reaper and those plugins that run in dedicated processes take; as I mentioned in an earlier post, reaper allows you to run any plugin as a seperate process. I was at about 3.1 gb of ram all the time, which led to some nasty instability issues that made work quite a drag…

A lot of production nowadays happens with the aid of sample libraries (I use Native Instrument’s Komplete Ultimate, among others) and these need lots and lots of RAM, so I had to make this move, but I dreaded reinstalling all my plugins. I use LOTS. There are millions of great free software synths, sample libraries, effects and just as many that I paid for, and you never know if they actually work in a 64bit environment. So I took a deep breath, upgraded my RAM to 12 GB and went and took a loooong walk on the lonely road of reinstallation… In fact I spent about 5 days walking up and down that road, taking many turns up activation & registration alley and some minor detours and after what felt like a month I’m back home and everything works perfectly smooth.

Here comes the fun part: I was worried that some of the older, but much-loved plugins might not be available in 64bit. And they weren’t. But thank god (or any other deity of choice) for REAPER! There is a free 32bit-bridge included that seamlessly integrates anything that is not 64bit 🙂 As far as I know most other DAWs don’t have that, and you need an extra program like jBridge to do that job for you… The only problems I had were activation issues for plugins that changed their activation system between my purchase and the reinstallation, but they were easily solved with an email or two.

All in all I can say this: my 64bit system is perfectly stable, and projects that took 4 minutes to open now take 10 seconds, plugins that took 2 minutes to open and 20 seconds to change instrument banks now do both instantly… All it needed was some time and 60 € for RAM. Especially if you work with sample libraries (addictive drums, kontakt, massive, whatever) you should definitely consider this move. As a side-effect Skyrim plays and loads a lot smoother, too 😉

By the way:

Seems like I needed a break, and some distance from the stuff I recorded over the last 3 years… just a week ago I listened through the as-of-yet-unfinished songs (there are about 30 of them in various stages of finishedness) and 6 of them made a lot of sense as a group, and all I need now is one day each, and the next EP will be done 🙂

Horayness!

With much love,

J

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Trying to make it as a musician, Part I: Priorities.

Great news for me, bad news for this project…

There is a new project started by friends that requires my immediate attention, meanwhile my main band goes into the seclusion of a three-week-non-stop-studio-session, and two score/soundtrack-thingies are finally getting serious, so I will have to concentrate on these projects for the moment and put null on hold. The somewhat lengthy reasoning behind this is as follows:

As a musician you can’t just play your one instrument of choice decently and hope that you will make it that way. If you are fool enough to want to make a living off of it, there is no limit to the fields you should excel in: besides being in full control of a never-diverse-enough range of instruments, and fluent in all the styles ever performed on these and other devices, it never hurts to be able to write your own music, record your own music, and sell your own music. Diversify!

If you limit yourself to just playing just one instrument in just one band you will have to be ridiculously successful (talking about several years in a row in the top regions of the charts) to be able to make a decent living. While that is possible, it is not probable, no matter how hard you work. Even playing in several bands won’t solve the problem as your regular band usually plays Thursday-Saturday. There is a pretty low single-digit limit to the professional bands you can play in at the same time, because they all play on weekends, and availability is a hard currency in the music business.  And if you manage to have several successful bands at once, you will have to face a permanent life on the road, and not everyone is made for that. Social life, family and some quiet time alone really rock, you know…

So besides making it big in gardening, or renting several openings of your body to well-meaning gentlemen, I think the best way to have your music work for you without you actually performing it all the time is to write. Be that for other bands, movies, computer games, ads, whatever. The pressure of trying to make it with my main band nearly took the fun out of it for a while, and gaining a little independence by dividing that pressure up into several projects makes everything a little more fun right now.  It took me forever to get a chance to do this, and now that I finally have it I will have to give it my all in order to make it work. I don’t know if any of the new projects will pay in cash, but they will at least be a stepping stone into the direction I want to go.

I might still find the time to finish the second EP this year. Not a single minute I put into this project was wasted. My sentences are getting shorter. Until they cannot. Which is now. Or now. Or.

Love, Looking-Forwardness,

J

Publishing Yourself on the Internet, Part III. More Tanks!


I just found a piece of pure truth over at the oatmeal, where Mr. Oatmeal states that if you want more ‘likes’, or more ‘attention’ you have to produce stuff that is interesting or at least useful.

So instead of jabbering on about how I wasted three hours on the sound of the kick of a song I made a little video, the first one in quite a long time.  This is nerd-stuff for bassplayers and guitarists, but it is part of me and henceforth part of this whole project. As I mentioned in earlier posts I have no clue how to make this whole endeavour work, but I try to stick to some rules:

1. keep it interesting.
I try not to post when I have nothing to say. If you are in love with anything it is easy to produce content that might interest someone out there. Bassplayers in this case.

2. connect it.
I try to use my youtube-channel and my facebookpage to attract some attention over here and vice versa. That way the my music can benefit from my job (which is teaching, among other things). Horay!

3. don’t push it.
As can be seen quite beautifully in that oatmeal-post up there, trolling around with your music/blog/website/shop/religion doesn’t get you anywhere. i try to make it interesting enough so people might want to read it, because this lack of aggression feels natural to me. I rarely ever click somewhere because a post tells me to, again and again.

That’s it for today, bed is calling, long road-trip tomorrow. 40 hours on the road for a show  that lasts 90 minutes. rock AND roll.

As always,

Love,

J

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To Thine Own Self Be True: Watching Other Bands And Songwriting.

I had an amazing week: every other day I saw a concert. All of them small clubs, underground but very, very good shows, and these shows inspired the hell out of me.

I stopped going to shows about 5 years ago, when I decided to turn music from a time-consuming hobby into a life-eating vocation, because I just didn’t enjoy it any more. Once you play 4 shows a week and work the other nights you just want a little bit of silence in between. I also was quite frustrated because my failed attempts at writing down the music I heard in my head got me to a point where I couldn’t listen to music anymore, not on CD and certainly not live. Any song was just another slap in the self-same face that had a million ideas on the tip of its tongue and no way of making them heard in a way I liked.

A year ago I started going to concerts again, and had lovely experiences since then, although all of the good ones were in smaller clubs. As were the three this week. Two acts left quite an impression: The silver medal goes to Busdriver with his progressive hip-hop, amazingly complicated and yet musical hypernergetic beats and a great singing voice. But The Hirsch Effekt really blew my mind. Ever since that show I haven’t managed to listen to anything else but their new record. Never saw a band from Germany nail a show like that, three virtuosos who just don’t give a singly flying fuck beating the shit out of their instruments and making BEAUTIFUL music all the while with a big smile on their faces. I could have watched those guys for another five hours.

Which brings me to the point: In my last post I was whining around about how you sometimes don’t know if that which is different in your own songs (or that which you perceive as different to other music) is good because it is you, or if it is just lack of craftmanship. The Hirsch Effekt gave me such a slap in the face with their bizarre gnarly music that I just decided to give a lot less of a fuck when it comes to pleasing any imaginary boundaries, rules, or expectations I read into my imaginary audience and just do my songs the strange way they are right now.

It might be crooked, but its mine.

Lots of love,

J

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Songwriting: Idiosyncrasies, and what to do with them

I am back in my studio listening to the songs I have written for the second EP and am, not for the first time, confronted with a most interesting question:

Are these songs any good? And if they are, are they finished?

Finding a reliable mental toolbox to answer these questions is actually the hardest and most time-consuming part of life as a writer of stuff: to distinguish between that which is my ‘style’, and that which is just bad habits, or lack of training or inspiration. Rest assured I am not talking about the general, every-day self-deprecating fishing for compliments that may befall the youthful artist not too sure of himself or his craft, but rather of the pragmatics of finishing a song and balancing it on the very, very narrow line between artsy-partsy and boring.

Right now I know the songs are done as regards structure, melodies, harmonies, general soundscapes, so you could say the songwriting part is done. But as this EP will consist entirely of electronic music with vocals at least as much work has to go into the selection of the sounds I use for this, and so I am stuck in the arrangement for now. I have never done purely electronic music before, so sometimes I watch myself programming beats that would work on a drumset, but seriously don’t when triggering dubstep libraries, where they sound awkward.

Now I could say: hey, that is it, this is my style, nobody does it like that. To which you could say, yep, nobody does, because it sucks.

Because I am still new in these fields I cannot trust my guts yet, although that is as always all I have. Fine-tuning them to hear the difference between a good idea that serves the emotional narrative and a sound that is impressive but doesn’t support said narrative will keep me busy for the next weeks. I will release this next part on the first of November 2012.

And another thing: I think Stephen Fry is the smartest man alive.

Love,

J

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This is water: David Foster Wallace and other literary suicides.

I am, to put it mildly, baffled.

David Foster Wallace was one of the most intelligent writers that ever roamed the earth. His kind of intelligence transcends mere erudition and excels at looking into the heart of man and describing the most intricate self-deceptions and the most hopeful truths about mankind in words only he ever found. Try this for a start, and go on read Infinite Jest if you need something to keep your mind busy for the rest of your life.

Infinite Jest is a pain in the ass to read, because sometimes he bores us with 50 pages of hyperrealistic technical description of a building before he goes on, but the insight into what makes us tick that he shares in this monster of a novel still rings in me 2 years after I read it. And having read that book it gets even harder for me to read anything else he wrote, for a simple reason: he understood it. He really got it. This man has thought long and hard about some of the eternal questions of man, found an answer that is tough but somehow uplifting, and then he killed himself.

He is neither the only nor the first writer who did away with himself, he is in good company: Sylvia Plath killed herself shortly after writing the Bell Jar, but if you read that (and I think you should) you understand why. There is an almost unbearable coldness and a tangible pain in her description of her way down the spiral that makes it less of a sensation that she “eliminated her own map” as Wallace would have put it. We also have Ernest Hemingway, whose brother was also a writer who kicked his own bucket. Kurt Cobain wasn’t exactly cracking jokes wearing funny costumes before he offed. Virginia Woolfe, Tucholsky, Trakl, Vonnegut are all writers of eminence and erudition, and all shoved off their mortal coils themselves, but these suicides don’t disturb me like Wallace’s does, for a simple reason: David Foster Wallace is side-splitting fun to read.

The actual problem beneath all this blabbering of mine is that all I ever strive for in this life is silence, and clarity of vision, in order to be free from myself. Reading Wallace I felt a calmness of spirit I have not found elsewhere, and an awareness and insight that continues to baffle me to this day, together with a knowing twinkle of the eye that is unique to this man. Now, if that man kills himself, despite all he has found out about life, the universe and everything, I begin to seriously doubt the philosophical path I have been walking on, as it got him nowhere, although he was down that path a lot further than I can hope to get.

Love,

J

Books, music, and a general decline in health

I have been back home for a week now, and finally my health allows me to go back to work. That was a lost week there, spent in a horizontal position watching Big Bang Theory while tasks, quests and work piled up around me…  I am not given to bouts of hypochondria, but the internet had me frightened there for a second.

The trip around (among other things) California took me from the Yosemite National Park straight to San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to. Except for Vienna I have never felt more at home  the instant my feet touched the pavement than in Frisco. One of the many gems of this city is the City Lights Book Store, the logistic center of the Beat movement, where I reignited my love for that sort of rambling spiritual travel poetry the likes of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti produced. I left the city reading an anthology of their poems, all the way down the foggy west coast on highway 1, and experienced some of the most peaceful moments of calm and clarity of my whole life, sitting on the wet rocks staring into the vast grey everchanging and yet constant sea. I carry quite some inspiration back home from that, but it is not easy to stay inspired now that work and the everyday has me back in its claws, but I try my best. I read a lot of Stephen Fry these last weeks and I am pretty sure that he is the single most intelligent being wandering this planet, but more on that later.

In the middle of last night I had to get up to listen to the songs I intend to release on the next ep, in order to see how much work it would be to finish them, and now I have chosen 6 to work on, 5 of which I intend to release on the first of November. Tonight I will go back to the first EP and see if there are any obvious mistakes in the mix that I have to redo, and after that I will go on trying to figure out a way how to make this blog and my music a little bit more public.

I’ll be around a lot more the next weeks keeping you posted on the developments.

If you have been, stay around,
J