Research Note 014: Amateurs & Professionals

These days I’ve been telling people about my recent return to playing music seriously. Quite a few people ask whether I was professional or amateur which usually makes me pause to think.
When you’re referred to as an amateur, it’s usually implied that you might be less qualified or even less talented than a professional. It is assumed that an amateur is one who would have liked to be a professional but who was unable to reach that level. But contrary to these negative implications, when you look up the word “amateur” you’ll see that is actually means “lover of” and there are many amateurs in all fields who are working at a very high level.

Consider a hobby other than music, that you do with your free time. Maybe you brew beer, take nature photographs, or fix cars. Whatever it is, have you ever even considered doing it professionally? Probably not. And most likely this isn’t because you’re not good enough (and whether you are or not is probably irrelevant to your decision), but rather because the very fact that it’s a hobby means that it’s something you do that isn’t work. Instead, it’s a chance to spend time on something fun and fulfilling that doesn’t saddle you with any outside pressure to succeed, earn a living, etc.

Musicians, more so than other amateurs, seem to have a more difficult time simply engaging with music as a hobby. Perhaps this is because tools like DAWs are fundamentally designed around a recording and production mentality. Compared to an acoustic guitar player, someone with a laptop can actually produce a polished album of music (remember those?). While the guitar player can just pull out their guitar and playing it for a few minutes while sitting on the couch may be the extent of their musical aspirations. And they don’t see this as failure. They are unlikely lamenting their inability to get gigs or write more music or get record deals. They’re having exactly the relationship with music that they want. In fact, they’re usually not even recording what they play; once it’s in the air, it’s gone.

By definition, being a professional means having to spend at least some amount of time thinking about the marketplace. Is there an audience for the music you’re making? If not, you’re guaranteed to fail. Amateurs, on the other hand, never have to think about this question at all. This frees them to make music entirely for themselves, on their own terms.

An easy way to do this is to put yourself into a musical context in which you actually are an amateur—by experimenting with a genre in which you have no prior experience. Are you a committed hip-hop producer? Try making a jazz track. Your expectations are bound to be lower, simply because you have no prior successes or failures against which to gauge your current work. Even if you hate the results, it’s likely that you’ll learn something from the experience.

Even if you do aspire to make a living out of creating original music, it might be helpful to think like an amateur in order to lower your stress and bring the fun back to your music-making time. Amateurs often have a genuinely more pleasurable experience than professionals working in the same field, and this is almost certainly because they’re free from outside pressure. If you can instill this mindset into your own work, you’ll probably have both better results and a better time.


Research Note 13: Interplay in Jazz

As you may or may not know, I’m currently enjoying a sabbatical that has given me the time to explore my love of music and musical instruments. My research is about how we interact when we create music, both with instruments, other people and environments.

I’m going to begin with what I know best, the interplay that happens with others when creating music. For the purposes of this discussion, I define that interplay or musical interaction as involving one or more members of an ensemble improvising spontaneously in response to what other participants are playing.

Here’s what a few searches bring up:

  1. In the wake of Paul Berliner’s and Ingrid Monson’s landmark interview-based research of the mid-1990s, the notion that “good jazz improvisation is sociable and interactive just like a conversation” (Monson 1996, 84)
  2. Playing jazz is as much about active listening as it is being able to express yourself on an instrument.

Trying to categorize the interactions within a musical context:

Microinteractions takes place at a very fine level of musical detail, too small in scale to be quantified by standard Western notation, and includes such phenomena as the tiny adjustments in tempo, dynamics, pitch, and articulation that musicians make while playing together.

Macrointeractions involve the broad sorts of collective coordination whereby improvising musicians play in unified stylistic idioms (Gratier 2008, 88) and at mutually coherent intensity levels. For instance, if one ensemble member, mid-performance, starts playing louder, or with shorter rhythmic values, or with increasingly dissonant harmonies, others may follow suit by reinforcing, complementing, or otherwise accommodating this strategy.

Edward Tufte shows some more sophisticated song structure visualizations on his forum

Research Note 12: Timeboxing for Music

Creating music can give you so much joy. When you’re in a state of flow and you finish a song and it sounds great. But if you ask most music producers they all agree that there seem to be as many or more moments of agony. Despite our will, there are lots of real reasons why we sometimes procrastinate, including fear of failure, fear of success, and simple laziness.

If you’re a chronic procrastinator, you’re not alone. There are many creative (and non-creative) people who suffer from task aversion and will find any excuse to avoid doing the work that really needs to get done. One strategy for overcoming procrastination that’s commonly used in the software development world is known as timeboxing.

Timeboxing simply means setting a fixed amount of time for a particular task. The amount of time you choose is up to you, but it should be short enough so that it’s easily manageable by even the most determined procrastinators. I’ve been using the Pomodoro Technique for years as a designer but I’m never used it to creating or producing music. I am curious to see if it is as effective.

Here’s what I’ll try as an experiment for timeboxing for songwriting:

  1. Create a drumbeat with 3 variations (25mins)
  2. Write and record a bass line with 2 separate parts (25mins)
  3. Write a melody/lead line and chords for the bass parts (25mins)
  4. Arrange the song structure (intro, verse, chorus, ending) (25mins)

I’ll post what I create tomorrow. Don’t judge me, that’s not what this is about.


Research Note 011: Creating Contraints to Create

Normally I get shit done, but with music composition I tend to take my time. That normally leads to other distractions and songs just don’t get finished. In fact, they barely get started, I have a melody or a rhythm kicking around in my head and I play it into Ableton and save it. That’s not a song it’s just a seed and needs arranging and structure and sound design.

I’ve decided to set myself some time constraints.

Here’s what the Ableton Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers, a fantastic resource, says:

  • Give yourself a deadline. Nothing motivates like a due date. Since work always expands to fill the available time, it’s necessary to actually put a limit on that time. If you find self-imposed deadlines to be too “soft,” try having someone else assign the deadline for you, with the requirement that you show them the work at the end to ensure accountability. Or engage in a collective challenge, such as February Album Writing Month.
  • Schedule tasks as if they were appointments with yourself. Try using a calendar to restrict specific types of work to specific times. For example:
    • Sound design: 7-8pm
    • Form/song structure: 8-9pm
    • Mixing: 9-10pm Timeboxing specific tasks serves two purposes: It forces you to narrow your focus while simultaneously eliminating the risk of non-musical distractions (Facebook, etc.). You wouldn’t check your email in the middle of a business meeting, so treat these “appointments” with the same kind of care.

Research Note 010

This week I’ve been deliberating over buying a new guitar after selling my old Roland SH-101. The guitar I’m interested in is an archtop hand-made from 400yr old Red Cedar from Stanley Park by Thomas Groppi.
But that inner voice is asking, but you have lots of guitars why would you need another?

For me, guitars have such different characteristics, and these specific nuances change not only change how different the instrument sounds but also how I play it. Thomas has been kind enough to lend me a few of his guitars in the past and I have to say that, although, each one is unique in its tone and playability there is a consistency and attention to craft that puts Thomas at a level of luthiery that few achieve within the decade he’s been building guitars.

Ain’t she a beaut! Thomas Groppi’s Stanley Blues

I’ll play the Stanley Blues and make a decision within a week. I’ll try to post some videos of me play it and you can help me decide.


Research Note 009: Is improvisation just spontaneous composition?

Well, yes and no…

Yes, when you improvise you are certainly generating musical ideas.
yes and these ideas contain what is referred to as “compositional elements”.
yes and as a skilled improviser, you are often constructing a solo in a sophisticated “compositional” manner.

But describing improvisation as “spontaneous composition” is an incomplete (and usually inaccurate) description of the improvisational process.

I’ve had a bit more time to think and read about this and I believe that in the most fundamental sense, the difference between improvisation and composition comes down to a matter of conscious deliberation.

Conscious deliberation gives us the ability to change perspective and reflect on the global and long-term implications of our decisions. Deliberative and conscious thoughts have to pass through the narrow straits of short-term memory, which hold only a few symbols (approximately six), and can attend to only one thing at a time (or perhaps two or three, by alternating attention). Recent research using functional molecular resonance imaging to record neuronal activity has shown that even simple acts (like reading a short sentence) employ a fairly intricate sequence of neural processes. Essentially, the rational or ‘composing’ mind tends to be, by nature, using experience and tradition to help drive decisions and the ‘improvising’ or non-conscious mind is tapping into a huge wealth of long-term memory and experience that is stored subconsciously. This would suggest that using improvisation to compose may lead to more unexpected ideas.

Take human speech, as an example. The vast majority of the time you are speaking (talking with friends, explaining something to someone, etc.), you are actually improvising. Sure, you might have a topic (like “where would you like to eat lunch?), but you aren’t planning, word for word, what you’re going to say. You’re simply following the immediate need to communicate, in a ‘flow’. In essence, you’re reacting in real-time.

Now contrast that with writing something. Writing gives you a chance to choose your words or overall message more carefully. You can take your ideas out of “real-time”, and consciously craft them with the kind of nuance that best suits your intentions.

Musical improvisation and composition have a similar relationship. When you improvise, you are reacting, moment to moment (whether you think you are, or not).

Scientifically, improvisation involves a largely different neurological process than composing. As neuroscientist and jazz pianist Charles Limb discovered in his research, the main parts of the brain that “light up” for a skilled improviser are the parts that have to do with immediate communication. Check out his TED talk below.

The skilled improviser is essentially in the realm of attempting to communicate. More specifically, to connect  with the other musicians with whom she is playing as well as the audience.

Communication involves not only taking into account the ideas that you have an impulse to express, but equally important, that which you are hearing and reacting to.

Listening is at the heart of it all.

The best improvisors in Jazz are those that listen deeply, and respond in accordance to what they hear. And of course, listening is a very active thing to do. To listen deeply is to be fully present.

And it’s not just about listening to the others with whom you’re playing. It’s also about listening deeply to yourself. It’s about not being stuck in the “deliberation” of your musical ideas at the expense of losing your improvisational flow.


Research Note 008: Improvisation and Composition

Today I had a great rehearsal with the Jazz Connexion Big Band, my reading is finally getting to the stage where I can enjoying it and I was really in the zone for one of my solos in Groovin’ High, a bebop tune that we’re doing a fast samba arrangement of. I’ve been thinking more about the differences between composition and improvisation. I’m not sure why it’s important yet but I think it might unlock some interesting territory when it comes to how we play our instruments, our mindset and attitude.

While improvisation is an ongoing dialogue with others, and is usually based on communication from the very moment it starts, with other improvisers, the audience or even the physical space you’re in. Composing music on the other hand tends to be an individual experience until just before it is performed. Sure, many co-write with others but the act of composition is usually a solitary one.

An improviser works with spontaneity and intuition in real-time, unable to change what has been played. But composers can plan the length and timing of every nuanced articulation in a musical structure if they want to, then change their mind and move sections around.

In Brian Eno’s article “Generating and Organizing Variety in the Arts” (1981), he describes a “scale of orientation” or continuum from right to left between composition “tending to subdue variety in performance” -predetermined music – for example: prerecorded electronic music on the extreme right, and composition “tending to encourage variety in performance” – free improvisation, on the extreme left. In between we find all the facets from classical music, various folk musics to jazz, free jazz etc.

A chart describing different ranges of improvisation from the Psychology for Musicians book

As I search for differences between composition and improvisation many examples come to mind of masterful improvisors that composed intricate melodies while improvising, like Charlie Parker, as I mentioned in Research Note 004.

Also interesting is Steve Larson’s Article “Composition Versus Improvisation” – Journal of Music Theory Vol. 49, No. 2 (2005), he states:

Composition is traditionally regarded as the process in which a composer, with pen and paper, outside of ‘real time’, uses revision and hard work to eliminate or avoid mistakes, the composition builds on tradition

Improvisation is traditionally regarded as the process in which performers, with their voice or instruments, in ‘real time’, use luck or skill to respond to or incorporate mistakes; the improvisation grows out of innovation, exploits freedom, and relies on talent…

There’s a lot more to say about this but I’ll leave that for another day. What do you think the biggest difference are?


Research Note 007: Write drunk, Edit sober

Write drunk, Edit sober”.

Apparently Ernest Hemingway may have said this.

As I work towards developing my own writing practice I have noticed that I’m a much better editor than writer and find it difficult to turn off the editing mode in my mind. I have considerably less trouble with this as a musician. From the minute I pick up a guitar I can easily slip into a stream of consciousness and flow through composition to improvisation and back. But I suppose it hasn’t always been this easy.

As a writer I’ll stop and try to find the right word or phrase instead of flowing and building a better narratives. I seems get stuck in the weeds, deliberating over the way I’m saying something instead of what I’m saying.

Normally I’d do my writing in the morning but I think I’ll try writing at night with a few drinks and see what happens. I’ll be the first to find out.

Screen Shot 2019-01-18 at 9.46.59 AM

Research Note 006: Anti aesthetic is an aesthetic

I’m curious about what makes a great music instrument. Have you ever wondered why certain instruments are so popular and people find new ways of creating music on them decade after decade? While other, possibly more interesting or technologically advanced instruments seem to get forgotten or dismissed as inaccessible.

As I look at our current landscape of interfaces for musical expression, I’m struck by many poor attempts that seem to be driven by an engineer’s motivation to build something new but not ask the important ‘why’s questions of the possible target user of the new interface. If the process of inventing a new instrument is driven by an engineering mindset it lacks the end user/musician’s perspective and we can probably all think of examples of bad user interfaces that lack a good UX process.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the book “Push Turn Move” by Kim Bjorn about interface design in electronic music and the interview with Jesper Kouthoofd of Teenage Engineering is really refreshing like their products. Teenage Engineering a small Swedish company based in Stockholm that seems to be knocking them out of the park with each product they release, starting from their OP-1 to their Pocket Operators and now their newest offering, the PO Modular.

What makes Teenage Engineering’s approach so unique and effective? Let’s take a more detailed look.

The wildly popular OP-1
The PO-33, one of the many Pocket Operators

If you’re not familiar with Teenage Engineering’s products you’re first impression might be that they’re small and quirky, even toy-like. But although the playful approach to their interfaces is at times funny, with the PO-33’s onscreen boxers, PO-12’s sewing machine and PO-14’s submarine, the overall design strategy is welcoming to the new user and diffuses any intimidation that one may have to approaching a synthesizer with many buttons and sliders.

Although there tends to be quite a lot of buttons and controls Teenage Engineering has a very minimalist approach to their interaction design. All of the controls are tactile and well organized, the end result is most people can end up creating music loops and have fun within the first few minutes of playing around. You can’t say that about a lot of new instruments.

“To be honest, we are not interested in design at all, it just needs to work”.

Strange coming from Jesper Kouthoofd, CEO and Head of Design at Teenage Engineering

Koothoofd says “They (Pocket Operators) are a bit ugly, funky and raw. If we had a design perspective on things, we would never release a product like that. The problem about the design community as a whole is that it’s too much about styling and not solving problems. When people solve problems, it can lead to iconic products because you start with how it should work”

Although one would argue that making their products ‘ugly, funky and raw’ is actually a very intentional design aesthetic, I agree wholeheartedly to the second part of that Jesper says.

TE’s products have a lot going for them, it’s no surprise that the small company has been asked to collaborate with international giants like IKEA. We could look more closely at their industrial design approach but I think there maybe more to learn from their interaction design strategies. Their projects seem to all be smaller than you’d expect. According to the interview portability was always an important objective for the Swedish company. “When you didn’t have money, it was things like a TASCAM 4-track Portastudio, BOSS pedals and cheap Roland synths like the SH-101…” says Jesper remembering his teenage exploration of instruments. I’m sure that his earlier experiences with these 1980’s devices shape his retro/nostalgic designs.

The most important aspect of Teenage Engineering’s approach is by far their obsession with minimalism with regard to their interfaces. Many of the buttons and knobs have a dual purpose and the organization is clear and helps people build a clear mental model. “Suppose you have an endless canvas to work on – the result is that you can’t even start. If your choices include everything, you’re not hungry anymore; you lose your appetite. Limitation is everything” Jesper explains about his minimalist design approach.

2019 Teenage Engineering will be releasing the PO Modular

Teeenage Engineering’s latest offering, the PO Modular looks amazing and exhibits all of the characteristics of a typical Teenage Engineering product – accessible, affordable, playful, portable. I’ll write about this more when I get my hands on one!


Research Note 005

Doing this writing thing daily is not easy, after all I’ve already missed 3 days in my first week. I can always work up to being consistent about it. I feel like I’ve got to have something profound to say or why bother, but that’s not the point, is it? I’m writing daily as a practice and you’re my audience coming along for the ride. Playing guitar daily seems to be much easier for me, partly because I’ve done it for so long but also because if just feels good. But if I think back it wasn’t always easy to do and i had to work up to it. Now it’s like a meditation, when I pick up the instrument hours can go by and I don’t notice.

Yesterday I recorded another conversation with Scott Morgan (Loscil) for what I hope will soon become a podcast. We spoke about Artificial Intelligence in music and rather than have any kind of comprehensive study of the topic we discussed our viewpoints. If anything, we seem to both be interested in where it will go and will work on collecting some good examples of AI in the context of music creation. I spoke about my experience of taking an online course called Machine Learning for Musicians and Artists by Rebecca Fiebrink of Goldsmiths, as well as building and using the Nsynth by Google’s Magenta team. I highly recommend both but the Nsynth is a little more involved and requires some serious soldering.

At one point in the conversation I found myself not clearly communicating how the Nsynth actually uses machine learning. To me that’s a clear indication that I will have to take some time to better understand it. Their website does a good job of explaining it in layman’s terms but I think I’d like to take a deeper look.

Also, I’ve begun to work on a new project that builds off some of the work I did in Mirror.fm, a music project with Tom Anselmi. The website has been seriously neglected for years but it was cool when we first built it in 2003. It used Flash, remember that, to randomly create and layer a video and audio playlist into a new full screen experience. I’m going to try to build a new HTML version of that using my own video and music. stay tuned…