And now for something completely different

Blogging about books and literature is something that I’ve been doing for more than a decade and may perhaps continue to do. However, it has been a long time since doing it has excited me. It is a habit more than anything else, and while I get a kick out of working with an author or discovering a well-written book, it no longer stimulates me mentally. I am so used to writing about literature and using the terminology that sometimes I actually forget what a term meant originally and use it out of habit. (Like “Freytag’s Pyramid”, what I came to call the plot and character development curve. I was reminded the other day that the concept actually has a proper name.) Since Jan. 2020, I have been going in a different creative direction: studying and making music. Digitally of course, at home, on my computer, like thousands of other people all over the world.

The logo of the website where I put my music stuff. It is not public – I use it to test for sound quality and to document how I wrote and produced the songs. After a while I re-listen to the pieces to get a fresh perspective. But the logo expresses the happiness I feel when I play the piano and make music.

Can write, can paint, cannot compose music

I think I have a fair idea of how to write for business, and have the knowledge and skills for it; I probably have an average ability to write poetry; I have a fair (some say) ability to paint, and the knowledge and skills to do that; and I have been developing my skills in graphic design and I’m doing OK at that too, I think. Music, though, has been a language that I neither read, nor write, nor understand. It’s as completely incomprehensible to me as Mathematics is to someone who is innumerate.

Me learning about music is like teaching a child the alphabet: Let’s start with “a” – say it out loud – “aayh” – “a” is for apple. “A” is a letter you write down, a sound, sounds make words, words make sentences, sentences are what you make to express what your intentions, beliefs and actions are, to express your feelings, to communicate with others, to get things to work, etc. In the same way I learn that “C” is a note, and a key on the piano. Middle C is in the middle of the piano keyboard. C is part of a scale. A scale can go up or down and have different combination of notes. A scale of C Major that goes up has the notes: C–D–E–F–G–A–B. And you can have C flat, C♭, or sharp, C. And so on and so on.

But here I am, learning about the “alphabet” of music, sounds – notes, and how to read and write them. This is a really extreme case of teaching Adult Literacy – to myself. (For goodness’ sake, I even wrote a Master’s thesis on the influence of classic music on language learning. I should know SOMETHING. But no, I don’t, actually.)

Yes, that’s the truth. It’s all in your head, music is. (Thanks, xkcd.)

At the same time, I am not entirely a dumbo at using software and can get around DAWs – Digital Audio Workstations – like Logic Pro, GarageBand, Ableton, etc. At least I can create a file and not entirely screw it up. (Not entirely…)

It’s a pain in the ass being a novice

The problem is that I have the tools, I have the ideas, the creative urges, but not the skills or the knowledge. Nor the perspective or understanding of how it all hangs together. This gets very frustrating. I lie awake at night with endless loops of music in my head, unable to shut it down. When I do have a breakthrough and get something right, my joy is immense and lasts for days.

My problem is that I don’t just enjoy what I hear, or simply listen. I have to ask “why” – I have to know the “how”.

I have always known about the confluence of poetry (writing) with lyrics (music) but I have never tried to create something at the point of confluence. Until now. Now I see that this confluence is everywhere. I first thought that the most similarities exist between art and writing, both being visual sensory inputs, but now I see that there are too many similarities to count between the processing of auditory (music) and visual stimuli. How we hear and how we see are so closely related it’s, like, really uncanny to me.

And it’s everywhere – as though the entire world is one huge network of links between sounds and sights. I read something about music and the next thing, I see it in a book or a blog post or the thoughts of an author.

So, this is what has been occupying me. Have I had some success? I do not know. No-one that I am on speaking terms with writes music or even plays a musical instrument. If I show someone what I’m doing and it’s as incomprehensible to them as the data of a Geological block model is to someone who is not a Geologist. There’s no connect, at all.

So I wander about, lonely as a cloud, to misquote Wordsworth, and chance upon this, that and the other thing, all clues about how music works and what happens in your brain when you create it or hear it.

At some point I hope, like any good writer should, to get someone who is a professional to give me a reasoned critique of my compositions and recordings, so I can get better at it. Unfortunately, if you pay someone for that they tend to be complimentary and careful not to insult you, and heaven knows, there is much to be insulting about in what I’ve done so far.

Epiphany this week

Here is an insight that I got this week:

I was re-reading William Gibson’s Sci-Fi novel, Idoru, published in 1996 (yes, 1996, my god I’m old). I went back to Idoru because I had run out of books to read. I thought, he has always been the fiction writer who most accurately foretells the future of technology in his novels, and did he get it right, way back then? He sure did. In a rather unnerving way.

The cover of the 1996 Penguin paperback edition of Idoru, by William Gibson – 25 years old! My copy is read to shreds.

The novel is about a real musician “marrying” a virtual one – meaning an avatar or a singer from a virtual band, like “Gorillaz”, or “Hatsune Miku” these days. Except in “her” case there is no human composer, singer-songwriter, lyricist or performer working in the background. She is an Artificial Intelligence construct. That is not what grabbed me about the book. This is:

“‘DESH,’ he said, triggered by her glance, ‘the Diatonic Elaboration of Static Harmony. Also known as the Major Chord with Descending Bassline. Bach’s ‘Air on a G String,’ 1730. Procul Harum’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale,’ 1967. If she made eye contact now, she’d hear his samples, directionless and at just the right volume. The more about DESH, and more samples.”

Idoru, by William Gibson, p. 44

The second I read it, both pieces of music ran through my head – laaaa—la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laaaa-aah… And I thought, OK, let’s check this out, as the YouTuber Bald-and-Bankrupt always says. Sure enough, there it was, DESH. All over the place. Once you hear those notes in sequence you cannot un-hear them. Here’s an example, courtesy of John Robson, whom I finally (finally!) discovered after wading through really hard to understand theories, who gives an understandable, practical explanation of DESH on his guitar and music blog:

An example of DESH, as played by John Robson – Can you hear it? This is a perfect progression of notes. It should be sending chills down your spine. No? Say, are you listening?

This is what I learned this week about music. Every day, I learn something new. I am easily bored, and having something of an attention deficit problem, it is difficult for me to stick with anything that is routine and keep concentrating on fine details. But music fascinates me. Why?

Because it is completely insubstantial – it’s not like a printed book or a painting on canvas that takes up physical space. It’s not like an Engineering CAD drawing that becomes a building structure, or a Geological model that becomes part of the mine plan, and the actual mine. It is just writing, notation, and sounds, that can be recorded on a vinyl disc or a CD, but these days compositions exist as nothing more than sound waves, recorded electronically. A MIDI, .mp3 or a .wav file: digital audio code. Just code.

How digital music becomes something you hear. (Graphic by

I can write a piece in code, using a DAW, then fix it, fix everything, the notes, the instruments, the vocals, the arrangement – the works. (Cannot fix bad taste, lack of talent, poor performance on an instrument, basic incompetence, or poor listening ability, though.) It’s all writing in code. Until you press/click “play”, you would not know it exists. In fact it does not exist outside of your computer. What is sound, after all, other than a vibration in the air?

“Simply put, we define sound as a vibration traveling through a medium (typically air) that we can perceive through our sense of hearing. Sound propagates as a longitudinal wave that alternately compresses and decompresses the molecules in the matter (e.g., air) through which it travels.”

How digital music becomes something you hear. (Source:


But then, you do press “play”, and whole worlds open up, your mind fills with ideas and feelings and memories, and your feet want to move and you want to sing, and it is beautiful or terrible or meh. (Technically, hearing the sound produces a very specific physical sensation in your body, and very specific mental images, a so-called auditory “scene,” similar to the visual scenes we get from our eyes.)

And when you hear this, you are amazed because you made this yourself!

It is different from vicariously experiencing the words of a writer while reading a novel, because in my case, I created the sound, but I can feel it the same as if someone else had created it and I am listening to what they had made. That is very strange to me. It’s like I’m outside and inside my head at the same time.

Good, bad or indifferent, music cannot fail to move you. Unless you are deaf or dead, of course. That’s why I do more composing these days than blogging about books. The world is a strange place where it seems the only things that have meaning, and that matter, is the stuff that we create and then make real. Like music. Everything else is just particles in a Brownian Motion, clusters of atoms in space.

Next blog post: Continuing with the critique of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light.

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