Time to Learn a New Trick

My wonderful wife reminded me this week that I will never be satisfied with my music if I stop learning. And that the only way for me to continue to be happy with it is to keep learning and always improve. This post is dedicated to her.

Sometimes it’s hard to see how far we’ve come. We look at ourselves in literal and figurative mirrors everyday, which makes it hard to see the infinitesimal changes that we make from one viewing to the next. I can look at pictures from 5 years ago to learn, yeah, I’m not in the same shape that I was in. But am I in better or worse shape than yesterday? I can’t begin to answer that. I don’t know how to even measure that. I do know, however, that starting and maintaining a regimented habit of good and healthy decisions will ultimately steer me towards being and feeling more fit. Sure, I can’t see from one day to the next that I’m getting stronger and/or leaner, (or whatever your criteria is), but I will know that positive results are soon to surface.

So, I looked into my own musical mirror. I listened to some of the first tracks that I made. And musically, I couldn’t say whether I am more musically fit today or was more musically fit then. I can only hear changes in style and decision making. My style has changed, not much mind  you, but it has changed enough for me to notice. Unfortunately, style is a poor indicator of musical ability and fitness, and ultimately doesn’t help much in answering the question.

How do I calculate the fitness of my musical ability? As a side note, I’m going to throw some terms around here that some of my more musically educated peers will (hopefully) call me out on. The question is this: how do I measure and/or rate my musicality?

My first thought was that, I can’t. You can’t tell someone what “good” music is to him/her. People have thier own opinion of what “good” music is. Music is very personal to many people, and to tell someone that what they like is crap is arrogant and fallacious. And you’ll most likely get a “I know what I like,” or another similar defensive retort if you do try to qualify what “good” much is or should be. Non-musical people have opinions, and they are just as valid as Mozart’s or John Lennon’s opinion. Laypeople may not be able to talk about music in the same way, but to suggest that they don’t know what they like seems silly.

That being said, most laypeople define good music in genres versus more academic or theoretical aspects of music. For instance, you might like classical while someone else likes hip-hop or techno. I won’t comment on the merits on any one genre. I know what I like and I’m positive that it’s different than what you or anyone else likes. There is nothing wrong with defining music in terms of genre, however, I don’t personally do it when I compose or talk to other composers. Genre is a term that I use to bridge the gap between how my employers and friends talk about music and how I think about music.

Image © 2010 by Black Eyed Peas

Most people, don’t really like a certain genre anyway. They like certain musical elements that are most prevalent in a certain genre. For instance, hip-hop is very popular among young to semi-young audiences. I ask myself “why” more often than you would believe. The answer, as best I can communicate, is repetition. When you hear a hip-hop song for the first time, it’s almost like hearing it for the 20th time because of all the repetition. A good example of this is, “I Gotta Feeling“, by the Black Eye Peas. The song repeat motifs, themes and even lyrics many times in its 4 minutes, so by the time we reach the end, most people could easily sing along; it’s already familiar. Most popular music is fairly repetitive, but Hip-hop is egregiously so.

Back to the point of genre versus musical elements. There are a great many musical elements that I can choose or not choose to put into a song. Repetition, dynamics, expression, dissonance, consonance, syncopation, reverb, dry, wet, synthesizers, instrument choice, type or orchestration, length, tempo, harmony, counterpoint, voice, rhythm and so on. The list isn’t endless, but one might think it is. It is the combination of these elements that shape a genre. I personally like repetition, but every the repetition I most enjoy has to have variation with each go around, for instance adding instruments and layers to make a piece build into an epic climax. I hear that word quite often about my music. Epic. But epic isn’t the same thing as good – at least not to everybody.

I make choices, concious choices, when I compose, usually based on the needs and desires of the game, project or directors with whom I’m working. The choices that I make in my music are different now than when I started, but are they better or worse? I don’t know if I can answer that question. I can see that I have a larger audience and more people listen to my music than just friends and family. That’s a positive sign. I’m working as a composer. Another positive sign. It is a faster and more universally satisfying experience than it used to be. A third indication of positive growth. I can’t quantify that I’m a better melody writer. I can’t do the math on the fact that my harmonies are better, and I can’t measure how much people like and emotionally connect with my music. But I can see the results of my progress, and it all seems to be moving in the right direction.

None of this answers the original question: how do I measure and/or rate my musicality? But I’m not sure that this question really needs to be answered. I’m perfectly comfortable hearing one on one what my music means to you or to anyone else. I listen to my music and think, maybe I would make a different choice today, but I love this song. I would never do something so stupid as to use a Likert scale to rate my music, or worse give my music a numerical score out of 100. I will instead be so brave to say that if I’m rating my musicality, I would say I love it, emphatically. That’s enough for me, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t continue to grow and learn as a melody writer. I think that I’ve harped on the difference between musicality and composing, as I define it, for long enough.

As a composer, I have a lot to learn. Technically alone, I have planets of learning to get through. Academically, I have more. And Theoretically I am an infant among ancient redwoods. Education doesn’t necessarily equate to talent. There are thousands, probably millions, of people who can write a good tune and do it very well with little or no musical training. But how many of those people can orchestrate it? How many can tell you the chord progression? How many know what key its in? Or create variations on the themes? Or transpose it from tenor to alto? Or rewrite it in a different style? It is education that hones and refines our talent. “Playing from the heart” can only take us so far. My friend and mentor J. Michael St. Clair put it this way:

When I hear people say, “I play what I feel, Man. I don’t want all that theory to muck it up,” I respond by saying, “Will learning grammar make you a worse speaker? Will learning how to read and write make you a worse author? Learning more skills can only help.”

This is the type of composer that I strive to be. I want to know academically, practically and musically how to do all of these things.

Gradus Ad Parnassum

The only way that I know how to become this type of composer is to learn more and continue to learn. I recently began the Study of Counterpoint, by Johann Joseph Fux. Counterpoint is hard to define, especially for this uneducated composer, especially in layterms, but it essentially means how to compose for more than one instrument/voice at a time or simultaneously. Fux is the messiah of counterpoint and Mozart and Beethoven studied his bible, as did nearly every legendary composer throughout the history of music. It is a massive undertaking at barely over 100 pages of instruction. Composers spend their entire life mastering this one aspect of music, and it is but one thing among the galaxial nebula of interconnected and difficult to define concepts that make up music. I’m profoundly fortunate to have my mentor and good friend J. Michael St. Clair to help me sift through and learn this dense material. But the process is slow and I abashedly admit to setting it aside in the wake of my recent boon in professional success. My next academic undertaking must be counterpoint. There is truly nothing more boring than a 1-line MPGonzalez melody. I shine when I can use layers upon layers of music. It’s time I learned how to do it correctly.

Aside from counterpoint, I am severely limited by my technical and practical knowledge of available software. I currently use Sibelius, a fantastically powerful and surprisingly complete music notation software. In conjunction with Sibelius I utilize the VST instrument plugin called Kontakt, another powerful and versatile tool. At one point, I erroneously believed that a complete knowledge of these two programs would be enough for me in my journey to be a professional composer. Needless to say, they are not. It took a couple years, but I am now at a point where I want to do things technically that I cannot do with my current software. It would be easy enough to do in Reason or Cubase or FL Studio if only I knew how to use them. But as these programs are DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) and not music notation software, I am woefully unfamiliar with the interface and it’s a bit like trying to dig a hole with a hammer. Sure, I might eventually create something close to what I’m attempting, but get real and use a shovel!

So I decided to get a shovel. I found a tutorial video series on Reason, which as far as I can tell is the most complicated of the DAWs out there, and I’ll soon regret the decision to go with it over Cubase or FL Studio, but I digress. Aside from counterpoint, I am completely self-taught. Because of my success with teaching myself Sibelius and Kontakt, I have only a modicum of trepidation in beginning my self-guided tutelage into Reason. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. The sounds, the skills and the functionality that I will gain as a result of learning how to manipulate this DAW will exponentially improve my music, how I make it and my satisfaction with it.

There it is. Counterpoint and Reason. It may seem like a lot to you or it may seem like I’m slacking by only learning two things. For those who think I’m crazy trying to learn these two disparate disciplines simultaneously I say thank you. Your concern touches me but I feel that they are different enough that I will easily keep my studies apart. There will be no problem with me separating one from the other. For those of you who think that I’m a slacker for only learning these two things I say thank you. Music for me is not work in the typical sense. I enjoy it for one, and I doubt sincerely that I would enjoy anything that was too difficult for me to do well. I limit myself to two disciplines because I can devote an academically serious portion of time to them each while not sacrificing the other joys that I have in my life.

As I learn I know that I will one day, hopefully soon, be just a tiny bit better at both. Like exercise, I may not be able to see tomorrow how much I’ve improved but, if I’m lucky, maybe I’ll eventually see that I’ve made great progress. Maybe I’ll even master one of these disciplines in the far distant future. I hope not. Complacency is the enemy of everything creative. Progress, on the other hand, is a close comrade who assists the other greatly in creating something amazing.


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