Archive for Music

Prog Rock Bingo

Progressive rock (aka “prog rock” or “art rock”) lyrics have a somewhat different distribution of vocabulary than typical pop songs. Instead of words like “baby, “girl,” and “love,” prog rock lyrics have “epitaph” (“confusion will be my epitaph”), “undinal” (“undinal songs urge the sailors on”), and “love” (“dawn of love sent within us colours of awakening among the many”, not “Yeah, I will love you baby, always”).

So I invented a little game based on this: Prog Rock Bingo.


prog rock bingo


You probably know how to play traditional Bingo, but it’s pretty simple, so I’ll review the rules. Each player has a card with numbers randomly distributed in a 5×5 grid. The “caller” draws numbers randomly and calls them out. If your card has the number that has just been called, you mark that number. The central number is a freebie; everyone gets to mark that one. As soon as you have five in a row (horizontally, vertically, or diagonally), you call out “bingo.” The first person to do so wins.

Prog Rock Bingo puts a little twist on the game. First of all, every player has the same card. Each space on the card contains a word that you might hear in a prog rock song. Each player constructs a playlist ahead of time. The players don’t need to be in the same physical location; they just need to agree on the length of the playlist and to start at the same time. I find that 30-40 minutes is a good length, i.e. 3 or 4 songs. As you listen to your playlist, you mark the words that you hear in the lyrics. The first person to mark five in a row, just like in traditional Bingo, wins. If you’re not all playing in the same location, you may have to agree to notify the other players via email.

The point of the game then becomes to construct the right playlist. Whereas in traditional Bingo all players listen to the same numbers being called out but have different cards, in this version of the game all have the same card but listen to different words being called out. The strategy of the game is to choose the best playlist based on the words on the card.

I’ve chosen words that are fairly generic; it would be too easy to design a winning playlist if the words were too specific like “epitaph” or “undinal.” By tweaking the words on the card, we could create versions of this game for other musical genres; e.g. I can easily imagine a hip hop or country version.

Challenge your prog rock friends across the miles. Have fun!

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.


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?

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.

How to Become a Composer

A young guy asked me this morning for my top three pieces of advice on how to become a composer. I told him:

1. Make sure you’re asking the right question. Do you already write music? Do you like writing music? If you didn’t answer yes to both of these questions, then my answer is that I don’t know. I also don’t know how you can become a squirrel. But if you do already write music and you like writing music, then you are already a composer. The question isn’t how to become a composer, but how to become a better composer. And in fact you’re going to be asking that question the rest of your life.

2. Listen to a lot of music. Listen to all kinds of music, even music that you don’t like. If you like something, figure out why you like it; and if you don’t like something, figure out why you don’t like it. Never let yourself get so busy writing music that you don’t have time to listen to music that someone else wrote.

3. Write music for at least 15 minutes every day, 5 or 6 days out of every week. Don’t just write music when you feel like it, because you won’t always feel like it. Sometimes your job is just to show up. Sometimes when you show up, even if you don’t feel like it, inspiration will meet you there.