Draw a lot.
Don’t be precious about materials. Don’t use fancy art board or moleskines. Get a big newsprint pad or a stack of cheap legal pads from Staples. You want to draw as much and as quickly as possible, without being worried about wasting expensive paper.
Use a pen or Sharpie. No erasers, no correcting fluid. Fill the page completely as fast as you can. Use loose scribbles and gestures. Don’t sweat details. Use The Force — let go your feelings, young Skywalker. Get it right the first time or start over. Try to push each drawing to completion, but if you’re really not happy with where it’s going, toss it in the recycling and move on. Also try drawing without looking at the page. Get ready to be pleasantly surprised by the result.
Update: check out my masters thesis, a radial drum machine. Specifically, see the section on visualizing rhythm. See also a more scholarly review of the literature on visualization and music education. And here’s a post on the value of video games in music education.
Computer-based music production and composition involves the eyes as much as the ears. The representations in audio editors like Pro Tools and Ableton Live are purely informational, waveforms and grids and linear graphs. Some visualization systems are purely decorative, like the psychedelic semi-random graphics produced by iTunes. Some systems lie in between. I see rich potential in these graphical systems for better understanding of how music works, and for new compositional methods. Here’s a sampling of the most interesting music visualization systems I’ve come across.
Western music notation is a venerable method of visualizing music. It’s a very neat and compact system, unambiguous and digital, and not too difficult to learn. Programs like Sibelius can effortlessly translate notation to and from MIDI data, too.
But western notation has some limitations, especially for contemporary music. It doesn’t handle microtones well. It has limited ability to convey performative nuance — after a hundred years of jazz, there’s no good way to notate swing other than to just write the word “swing” at the top of the score. The key signature system works fine for major keys, but is less helpful for minor keys and modal music and is pretty much worthless for the blues.
Here’s a suggestion for how notation could improve in the future. It’s a visualization by Jon Snydal of John Coltrane’s solo in Miles Davis’ “All Blues” (I edited it a little to be easier on the eyes.)
Snydal’s visualization is more analog than digital — it shows the exact nuances of Coltrane’s performance, with subtle shadings of pitch, timing and dynamics.