What is polyphony?

The word is from Greek, “poly” meaning many and “phony” meaning voice. This is as opposed to monophony — one voice. Originally, polyphony literally meant multiple people singing together. Over the course of musical history, the term has become more abstracted, referring to multiple “voices” played on any instrument. And usually, polyphony means that the different voices are all playing/singing independent lines.

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Originality in Digital Music

This post is longer and more formal than usual because it was my term paper for a class in the NYU Music Technology Program.

Questions of authorship, ownership and originality surround all forms of music (and, indeed, all creative undertakings.) Nowhere are these questions more acute or more challenging than in digital music, where it is effortless and commonplace to exactly reproduce sonic elements generated by others. Sometimes this copying is relatively uncontroversial, as when a producer uses royalty-free factory sounds from Reason or Ableton Live. Sometimes the copying is legally permissible but artistically dubious, as when one downloads a public-domain Bach or Scott Joplin MIDI file and copies and pastes sections from them into a new composition. Sometimes one may have creative approval but no legal sanction; within the hip-hop community, creative repurposing of copyrighted commercial recordings is a cornerstone of the art form, and the best crate-diggers are revered figures.

Even in purely noncommercial settings untouched by copyright law, issues of authorship and originality continue to vex us. Some electronic musicians feel the need to generate all of their sounds from scratch, out of a sense that using samples is cheating or lazy. Others freely use samples, presets and factory sounds for reasons of expediency, but feel guilt and a weakened sense of authorship. Some electronic musicians view it as a necessity to create their tools from scratch, be they hardware or software. Others feel comfortable using off-the-shelf products but try to avoid common riffs, rhythmic patterns, chord progressions and timbres. Still others gleefully and willfully appropriate and put their “theft” of familiar recordings front and center.

Is a mashup of two pre-existing recordings original? Is a new song based on a sample of an old one original? What about a new song using factory sounds from Reason or Ableton Live? Is a DJ set consisting entirely of other people’s recordings original? Can a bright-line standard for originality or authenticity even exist in the digital realm?

I intend to parse out our varied and conflicting notions of originality, ownership and authorship as they pertain to electronic music. I will examine perspectives from musicians and fans, jurists and journalists, copyright holders and copyright violators. In so doing, I will advance the thesis that complete originality is neither possible nor desirable, in digital music or elsewhere, and that the spread of digital copying and manipulation has done us a service by bringing the issue into stark relief.

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What are the main ideas and highlights of Gödel, Escher, Bach?

Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter describes and defines the concept of recursion, and discusses its applications in computer science, consciousness, art, music, biology and various other fields.

Recursion is crucial to writing computer programs in a compact, elegant way, but it also opens the door to infinite loops and irreconcilable logical contradictions.


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Bach and Paul Simon

Since it was Easter yesterday, Anna wanted to listen to Bach’s St Matthew Passion while we pottered around the house.

A certain passage grabbed my ear, a hymn called “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” — in English, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”

This beautiful tune was immediately familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite place it. Anna says she’s sung it many times in church. Bach didn’t write it; the text is an older Latin poem translated into German by Paul Gerhardt, set by Johann Crüger to a secular love song called “Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret” by Hans Leo Hassler.

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Intro to minor keys

Minor keys are way more complicated than major keys. But the effort is worth it; all that complexity gives a richer array of expressive possibility.

The best place to start with minor keys, paradoxically, is with the major scale modes. The pitches in C major are the same as the ones in A natural minor. If you think of A as home base rather than C, you get a bunch of useful chords and scales.

A natural minor scale clockface

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Bach to the future

I’m not a big classical music guy for the most part, but I never get tired of Bach.

This stodgy eighteenth century Lutheran doesn’t seem a likely inspiration for a hipster electronica producer like me. There aren’t too many other wearers of powdered wigs in my record collection, and Bach is the only one in the regular rotation. Why? When I studied jazz guitar I was encouraged to learn some Bach violin and cello music. I learned a lot about music theory that way but I had a surprising amount of fun too. Those pieces are complex and technical, but they’re easy to memorize – it’s one catchy hook after another after another.

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