Tom Bajoras Blog
email: tom.bajoras@gmail.com    
         

Poetry

Here’s something you might not know about me: I write poetry. A lot of it. Like a new poem almost every week. About once a year I write something that’s not terrible.

Here’s something else you might not know about me: Early this year I had surgery. I was on some pretty serious drugs for a period of time after that, and I don’t remember much of it (except for the part where I was being chased by the Korean mafia, but I can’t be sure of the accuracy of that). I was flipping through my poetry notebook, and I found something I’d written during that period of time. I swear I have zero recollection of writing this. But it’s in my notebook, in my own handwriting, so I don’t doubt its authenticity. It’s oddly lucid for something scribbled in a hurry while on the run from the Korean mafia.

A House Made of Poems

Everyone lives in a house made of poems.

It might be
A house of brick,
with lots of grass,
And black iron gates
through which guests pass.

Or it might be
A city penthouse,
A j ig sa wpu zzle of concrete and steel.
Each room with a 360 view.

Or
A shack in a row
where me and my bro
walk down the street
in search of our beats

My house is is barely a poem:
A sleeping bag
with stars above me.
Only punctuation marks
between me and God.

Are We Running Out of Melodies?

First warning: This article contains math.

Second warning: I’m not very good at math.

I don’t know why, but tonight I found myself pondering the question “How many melodies are there?” Maybe I was worried that we’re running out of them. (A quick survey of recent pop music might suggest this.)

Human beings have been writing songs for as long as there have been human beings. The oldest written song is the Hurrian Song to Nikkal, written around 1400 BC, but even in prehistoric times there were no doubt songwriters, whose melodies are now lost to us.

There are now more than 7 billion people in the world, so there must be more songwriters living now than at any other time in history. Heck, there are probably more songwriters now than there were people at some point in the past.

And all those songwriters are using up melodies. Not always of course, since imitation and blatant thievery are well-established parts of the creative process. But unless we’re all just endlessly recycling the same melodies, some of us must be inventing new ones and therefore depleting the supply of melodies not heard before.

How long until there are no new melodies?

OK, here’s where the math comes in. For the sake of this discussion, let’s limit ourselves to the Western chromatic scale, i.e. all the keys on a piano. But two melodies that are different only by shifting some of the notes to a different octave aren’t going to be heard as different melodies. For example, consider these two melodies:

melody 1

 

melody 2

 

 

If you tried to claim that the second melody is original, I’m afraid people would laugh at you, and if you took it too far, Mozart might sue you.

So we’re really only dealing with 12 notes, because every other note is just one of those notes shifted to a different octave.

How many melodies can we make with 12 notes? It depends on how long the melody is. If our melody is only one note long, then obviously there are only 12 possible melodies. If our melody is two notes long, then there are 12×12, or 144, possible melodies. Here are the first 36 of them; you can probably figure out the rest:

two-note melodies

 

 

 

 

Now, what about a melody that’s 3 notes long? There are 12x12x12, or 1728 possibilites. Similarly, there are 12x12x12x12 (­20736) 4-note melodies, 12x12x12x12x12 (248832) 5-note melodies, and so on. The formula to calculate the number of possible melodies using N notes is 12^N, meaning 12 multiplied by itself N times. So if we want to know how many possible 20-note melodies there are, we just multiple 12 by itself 20 times. The result of that calculation is 3,833,759,992,447,500,000,000.

Now we’re getting into some big numbers, and I’m starting to feel a little better about the remaining supply of melodies. In fact, the number of possible 22-note melodies is roughly the same as the number of stars in the universe. Now I’m feeling safe.

But so far we haven’t tried to draw any distinctions between good and bad melodies. Those 144 two-note melodies, for example, are probably not very interesting. And a random collection of 22 notes generated by a computer program might be a melody but is not likely to be a good melody.

So even though on a theoretical level we’ll never run out of melodies, the more important question is “will we ever run out of good melodies?” I don’t know. But here’s a melody, which I think is a pretty good one:

22-note melody

 

 

It has 22 notes, so it’s like one out of all the stars in the universe. And if you hum it, there’s a good chance that you and I and other readers of this article are the only human beings who have ever lived who have ever heard this melody.

That’s pretty cool.

 

On Self-Reflection

Look at yourself in the mirror. What do you see? Now… what do you really see?

When was the last time you held a mirror up to your inner artist and tried to give honest answers to questions like these?

  • What are my strengths?
  • What are my weaknesses?
  • What do I like doing?
  • What do I not like doing?
  • What do other people like about my art?
  • What do other people not like about my art?

You can take this as far as you want to. It can be as simple as “what are my best songs / what are my worst?” or, at the opposite extreme, it can be “what do/don’t you like about me?”

Now comes the even harder part: Find a mirror. By that I mean a couple close friends. Really close friends. I don’t just mean the people you like to have a few drinks with, watch some TV, or go to an occasional sporting event with.

I mean someone you’ve known for at least half your life, someone who has stayed your friend despite the two of you having grown as artists and as human beings, someone with whom you’ve had arguments and disagreements, perhaps even temporary periods of not being on speaking terms. Someone who has stood with you in your darkest hour, and someone for whom you’ve done the same.

For the purposes of this exercise, someone other than your spouse.

Now ask those close friends to answer the same questions about you and be brutally honest. The exercise can be reciprocal (but only if the other person agrees). Make a verbal contract ahead of time that you will not be offended and that this will not hurt your friendship; in fact, if done in the right spirit, it can strengthen your friendship. But you’ll need to be prepared to hear things like “I think your songs are great, but you’re not a very good singer.”

Now on to the next part. All the self-reflection in the world isn’t much good without subsequent action. For example, “you’re not a very good singer” can lead to actions like (1) not singing, (2) teaming up with a good singer, or (3) taking voice lessons. Or “your piano instrumentals are your best work” might prompt you to start working on a new collection of piano instrumentals. But if you’ve chosen to go to a deeper level with this self-reflection exercise, then comments like “sometimes you say things that seem like gossip” might lead to a healthy habit of double-checking what you’re about to say before deciding whether to say it. Or “you have always been a faithful friend” might simply mean “keep doing that; that’s worth more than art.”

 

Project Stages

The stages that every project goes through…

  • “I’m a creative genius. This new thing I’m working on is going to take over the world.”
  • “This is crap. No one is going to like this. I’m an idiot.”
  • Persevere anyway. There’s some value in finishing it, even if it’s not very good.
  • A friends tells you that they like it. Attend a three-hour congratulation party; guest list: yourself.
  • Another friend tells you that they don’t like it. Three nights of insomnia and self-loathing.
  • Procrastinate for one week. Watch YouTube videos about cats. Listen to music. Read poetry. Eat ice cream.
  • Complete rewrite.  Previous friend says that they still don’t like it.  Achieve peace and self-confidence independent of all other people’s opinions.
  • “I LOVE THIS! I could work on this 24/7 and never be tired of it. This is what heaven must be like.”
  • “I HATE THIS! This is hell. Why didn’t I pursue that career in tax accounting?”
  • There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Hang in there. One more edit. No, just one more.
  • “Get this thing away from me. Push it out the door; I don’t care if it’s finished. I never want to do another project like this as long as I live.”
  • “Hey, I have an idea for another project…”

Start over from the beginning.

The Art of Listening (Part 1: Instrumentation)

I deliberately used the word “instrumentation” instead of “orchestration” because I thought the latter might be too limiting. One immediately thinks of Beethoven, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, and a whole lot of other European guys (let’s face it; they’re mostly guys). Even “instrumentation” might be a bit limiting, because not all sounds that make up music are necessarily instruments in their own right, but let’s go with “instrumentation” in the sense of “a combination of sounds.”

I had a good friend, an accomplished musician, with whom I used to sit and listen to classical music while reading scores. One day he arrived at my house, a Wu-Tang Clan CD in hand, and excitedly said “you’ve got to hear this!” He popped the CD into the player, and my cat, still somewhat shaken by a recent high volume listening of King Crimson’s “Larks Tongues in Aspic,” sensed danger and quickly left the room. Gun shots! Shouting! Sirens! My friend hit pause and said “what do you hear?” ” I hear gun shots and sirens,” I answered. “And what else?” He paused for dramatic effect and then said joyously “Sleigh bells… Gun shots, sirens, and sleigh bells. The instrumentation is pure genius.”

I could write many pages about instrumentation, and I can’t imagine how many pages it would take to say what I don’t know yet about it. We could look at recording different instruments, balancing between them, placing them in a stereo or surround image, how these change over time, what sorts of EQ and reverb settings are used, and so on. We could look at the bigger question of what the instruments are actually playing, but this of course quickly gets into theories about harmony and counterpoint, which would take up even more pages.

But let’s just focus on one thing: listening to music intentionally, trying to know what sounds are happening at any given moment in a piece of music. Try to be able to answer the question “what were you just hearing?” if someone were to press the pause button. You can do this with pretty much any piece of music, whether it be Beethoven, Beatles, Beastie Boys, Bajoras, or The Band Whose Hit Song You Are Mixing Right Now.

One technique that I’ve found useful is to pretend to be a bandpass filter, ignoring fequencies outside of a range, then gradually adjust that range until there’s something that you’re not ignoring. Try listening to just the bass. Then listen to just the high frequencies. Lastly, try the middle frequencies. For most kinds of music the middle is likekly to be most difficult, because it will have the most instruments wandering in and out or living entirely within that range.

You can also separate sounds by listening to the stereo domain: Hear only the sounds in your left ear; then hear only the sounds in your right ear, etc.

Then do the same thing in the amplitude domain: Hear only the loudest sounds, then hear only the softest sounds.

This sort of “selective hearing” takes practice. Start with simple instrumentation. Listen to a piano and violin piece and hear only the violin. Then listen again and hear only the piano. Once you can do this, try a piece of music that has three instruments, maybe piano, bass, and drums. Move on to various kinds of quartets. It can help to ignore the melodic and harmonic content of the music, e.g. don’t start humming along with the melody; listen to it as sound, not music.

Over time you’ll be able to mentally “de-orchestrate” increasingly complex music.

You can also learn to ignore groups of related instruments. For example, listen to a song and ignore all the vocals. Then listen to it and ignore all the instruments.

If you have a digital audio workstation, try loading a piece of music into it, select a part of the music, then set that part to play in a loop. As it loops, write down all the instruments that you are hearing. Even if you don’t know the name of the instrument, write down a brief description of it: oboe, female lead vocal, guitar, gun shots, sirens, sleigh bells, or just “weird shimmery thing.”

These are exercises, not to be confused with actually enjoying music. The theory though is that if you do these exercises, you’ll increase your ability to distinguish between different instruments, and you’ll be able to hear subtle nuances that you couldn’t hear before. And the better you can listen, the more you can enjoy.

You’ll also be able to understand how to make kinds of sounds, and you can construct a pallette from which you can paint your own collections of sounds. You might even keep a notebook or a folder of audio samples illustrating techniques. This can become a life-long obsession. Some people collect stamps; other people collect comic books. Why not collect sounds?

Techniques for Synchronizing Lead and Background Vocals

Here are some techniques that I use for synchronizing backup and lead vocals.

These techniques only work in sections of a song where background vocals are accompanying a lead vocal in unison or harmony. In other words, one of the vocal tracks has to be clearly the lead vocal, and the others have to be clearly background vocals.  These approaches won’t work for a duet, where both of the vocals are sharing the lead.  They all also won’t work for a choir, where none of the vocals is the lead. And, lastly, the vocals have to be some sort of parallel harmony; these techniques won’t work for contrapuntal parts.

Imagine that the lyric is “happy birthday to you,” and imagine that you have a single background vocal track singing a harmony with the lead vocal track. Solo just the vocal tracks and listen carefully.  Chances are, the “hard” consonants in the two vocal tracks don’t line up perfectly.  In this example, the consonants that potentially cause problems are p, b, d, and t:  “haPPy BirthDay To you.”  Linguists called these “plosives.” If you listen carefully you may here something like this:  “haPPPy BBirthDDay TTo you.”  The background vocal may be a little behind or a little ahead of the lead vocal, but in either case you’ll hear the plosives doubled because the lead and background vocals are out of sync.

Here’s my first technique.  Just remove the plosives from the background vocal!  In whatever digital audio editor you’re using, you probably have a tool for drawing volume curves.  Find the offending plosives in the background vocal and draw a steep notch in the volume curve around each of those plosives.  Now if you were to listen to the background vocal by itself you’d hear something like “ha-y -irth-ay  -o you.” Of course that would be unacceptable for the lead vocal, but the background vocal, since it’s a harmony part, will probably be lower in the mix, and if there are enough other instruments playing at the same time (maybe this is a symphonic metal arrange of “Happy Birthday”) no one will notice the missing plosives.  That’s the funny thing about the ear: It’s really good at hearing that something is in the wrong place, but it’s not very good at hearing that something’s missing.

That’s not the only way to solve this problem.  The second way is to use time stretching (such as Pro Tools’ “elastic audio”) feature to get the plosives to line up by squeezing and stretching the background vocals (without pitch shifting) between the plosives.

Now, you might be asking “what if the vowels also don’t line up?”  You can fade out a background vocal vowel at the end of a word to make it the same length as the corresponding vowel in the lead vocal track.  You can time stretch (without pitch shifting) a vowel to make it longer.  But these two techniques only work if the vowel is at the end of a word.

What if a vowel in the middle of a word is out of sync, or what if non-plosive consonants aren’t lined up?  Well, then there’s the third technique to solve the problem: Re-record the background vocals.

That’s the funny thing about all these cool software tools we have.  Sometimes we reach for exotic plugins or complicated sequences of editing commands, when really we should just be pressing the record button.

Two Approaches to Creative Projects

It seems to me that there are two approaches to creative projects, both equally valid, but each having its own risks.

In the first approach, a creative genius has the whole project already finished in their mind, and they just need to communicate it to the other people on the team. The first risk in this case is whether the so-called genius really is a genius; i.e., is their vision worth pursuing? But also, can they communicate it to the team? Too often, envisioning and communicating don’t go hand-in-hand. Lastly, can the team members embrace the idea? Even if it’s a great idea, and it’s been communicated clearly, the team still needs to be able to work together effectively to bring it to fruition.

In the second approach, a creative person has an idea in rough form, and the team collaborates to finish it. In this case, the “genius” of the original idea is less important; there are certainly some ideas which weren’t great initially but led to great things by collaboration with a great tream. But the main risk with this approach is whether the team is the right group of people, each with the right talents.  If so, the genius of the person who initiates the idea is not so much in coming up with an idea as in their ability to recognize which team contributions do and don’t belong in the finished product.

Over the years, I’ve realized I’m more the second kind of person. I enjoy working with other creative people and welcoming their input. I’m not afraid to change directions, even if the new direction isn’t where I was initially headed.

But I’ve also met people who have the amazing gift of envisioning a finished project in all its details.  Sometimes I wish I could be like that, but usually I’m just content to be the guy who needs the help of other people to find out whether my ideas are good.

Hair Color

I find it odd that “race” is mostly defined by the darkness of a person’s skin. This seems like an arbitrary distinction, because there are so many other parameters of the human body, any one of which could be used to create categories.

For example, imagine what the world would be like if we had decided to define “race” by hair color instead of skin color…

– Cities divided into neighborhoods, each one having a particular color hair.

– People with a particular hair color would be more likely to be wealthy, educated, employed, and owning their own home.

– Certain professions would be mostly the same hair color.

– People would have insulting slang terms for people with different hair colors.

– People with different hair colors would listen to different kinds of music, have their own TV channels, and would be eligible for hair color specific scholarship programs.

– Some marriages that are currently interracial would no longer be, and vice versa.

– You’d hear someone say “You wouldn’t understand; it’s a brunette thing.”

– You could be in danger for having the wrong hair color in a particular place or situation. You might even lose your life for it.

Is music an essential skill?

Should music be considered an essential skill? If someone (at least in the United States) graduates from high school without knowing how to read, write, or do arithmetic, most people would say that there’s something lacking in that person’s education. What if the high school graduate can’t find the United States on a map of the world? What if they can’t explain, at least in simple form, how the United States came to exist as a country? But it strikes me as odd that few people would question similar deficiencies in music. If someone can’t read music, can’t play an instrument, can’t sing, and can’t identify the name of an instrument from its sound, then I suspect most people would put that in the same category as “can’t dribble a basketball” or “can’t speak French.” Is that weird, or am I biased because I’m a musician?

I’m just thinking out loud. Sorry, I don’t have any answers.

Ten Simple Ways to Write Better

If I could go back in time and give advice to my graduating college class, I would tell them, regardless of their career aspirations, learn to write well. I could give a million examples why good writing is important, but here are just a few:

  • when you write a letter accompanying your demo CD to the music supervisor at a music licensing company
  • when you send an email proposing a collaboration with another artist
  • when you write a comment on the music blog that just reviewed your latest project

Knowing the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, not to mention spelling, will make your communication stand out from the crowd. There’s nothing like ” i would suggest listenning to some jazz or for more understanding of something out of place but being intentfullly done that way, maybe some noise so soften you into the concept haha” to send the message that you are 14 years old and playing an out-of-tune guitar in your parents’ basement.

Here are ten very basic guidelines to improve the quality of written communication. This is just a list of very simple, mechanical, principles that address the most common mistakes in writing, so if you just follow these there’s a good chance that your writing will be above average. Obviously, writing goes far beyond these mechanical things. In today’s world of hyper-abbreviated channels like text messages, Facebook comments, and tweets, you’re not going to be constructing elegant story arcs, but hopefully you’ll still be able to impress your readers and make them want to hear a little more from you… or at least not make them want to hear less.

1. Use a spell-checker.

This one is such a no-brainer that it’s hard to understand why people skip it. When I was working in the HR department of a software company, it was amazing how often we saw cover letters from applicants with simple typing mistakes such as “I’m an expert in web desine.” This suggests sloppiness, which is not the most desirable trait in a web designer.

2. Punctuation goes inside a closing quote.

  • correct: “This is a sentence inside quotes.”
  • incorrect: “This is a sentence inside quotes”.
  • correct: Here is a list of things inside quotes: “melody,” “harmony,” and “rhythm.”
  • incorrect: Here is a list of things inside quotes: “melody”, “harmony”, and “rhythm”.

3. Know when to use single quotes.

Single quotes are used to indicate a quote within a quote.

  • correct: “I heard that John said ‘yes,'” said Bob.
  • incorrect: “I heard that John said “yes,”” said Bob.

I don’t know why, but some people seem to want to use single quotes instead of double quotes, or to use single quotes instead of italics, or for any number of random things.

Technically, with each level of nesting you toggle between single/double quotes, but such sentences are hard for the reader to parse and can probably be expressed in simpler ways:

John said “Bob said ‘John said “Bob said.”‘”

4. Use italics to indicate emphasis.

If you have access to styled text, then italics is used to indicate emphasis. In text-only email you can enclose the *emphasized* text in asterisks. Don’t make up random ways of emphasizing text, like “putting it in quotes” or ‘putting it in single quotes’ or Using Capital Letters. And PUTTING IT IN ALL CAPS IS RIGHT OUT.

5. Don’t capitalize words that don’t need to be capitalized.

There are of course situations that call for capital letters. For example, if you are referring to the President, or if you are referring to an organization by its name, such as The American Society of Capitalization. But don’t just randomly capitalize things that Seem Important.

The title of a book or movie is in italics; the title of a story, song, or article is in quotes.

  • correct: Where God Went Wrong by Oolon Coluphid
  • incorrect: “Where God Went Wrong” by Oolon Coluphid
  • correct: “Fish Heads” by Barnes & Barnes
  • incorrect: Fish Heads by Barnes & Barnes

6. A comma separates the parts of a compound sentence.

  • correct: I went to the store, and I bought some guitar strings.
  • incorrect: I went to the store and I bought some guitar strings.

This is a compound sentence because each part can stand on its own as a sentence:

  • I went to the store.
  • I bought some guitar strings.

When the subject (“I”) of the second part of the sentence is removed, what we’re left with is no longer a compound sentence, and therefore there should be no comma.

  • correct: I went to the store and bought some guitar strings.
  • incorrect: I went to the store, and bought some guitar strings.

You can tell that this is not a compound sentence because the two parts can’t both stand on their own:

  • I went to the store.
  • Bought some guitar strings.

To help you remember this rule, remember that “compound” and “comma” both start with “com.” Then all you need to do is remember how to tell if it’s a compound sentence.

7. “Its” is the possessive form of “it.” “It’s” is the contraction of “it is.”

  • correct: It’s the best song I’ve ever heard.
  • incorrect: Its the best song I’ve ever heard.
  • correct: We love music for its ability to communicate pure emotion.
  • incorrect: We love music for it’s ability to communicate pure emotion.

8. “Their” is the possessive form of “they.” “They’re” is the contraction of “they are.”

  • correct: They’re almost finished mixing the album.
  • incorrect: Their almost finished mixing the album.
  • correct: Their first album was good, except for the song about fish heads.
  • incorrect: They’re first album was good, except for the song about fish heads.

9. Write out the numbers 1-10; use numerals for numbers above 10.

One, two, three, … eight, nine, ten, 11, 12, 13…

10. The Penultimate Comma

Ah, the penultimate comma…Hardly anything in the rules of usage inspires so much passionate debate. On the progressive side of the argument, the rule is “use it or lose it, but be consistent after you choose it.” On the conservative side, the rule is “give me the penultimate comma, or give me death.”

Here’s an example of a penultimate comma: I went to the store to buy mic cables, a mic stand, and a pop screen.

Here’s the example again but without the penultimate comma: I went to the store to buy mic cables, a mic stand and a pop screen.

So which one is correct? The answer is… it depends. Most business communication tends to be conservative and preserves the comma. But artists, well, they like to think different.