Some Thoughts on Music

Music is a mysterious thing. It has the ability to express emotions and memories without using a single word. I guess that’s why some people call it the universal language (or I guess you could consider math that). This quality is what attracts so many people to the study of music, the performance of music, or just the simple enjoyment of music. But just like there are many genres of literature out there, there are many styles of music which appeals to different groups of people. Indeed, with the creation of the “song” (which is just music and words) even more people flocked to this alluring force. While I have never actually studied music (well, I used to know a little music theory, but it’s all gone now) I have played music and often listen to music. I am no musical expert, this is just the thoughts of a random person. Indeed, I really have no musical knowledge at all, so I really shouldn’t be talking.

While songs are also great due to the poetic lyrics that manage to speak thoughts that we ourselves could never put into words, I think the music itself is even more powerful in that the emotions that arise aren’t confined within the boundary of definitions, it’s purely an emotional feeling. The music I listen to is usually from motion picture or television show soundtracks. While I was classically trained in piano and violin for a few years, the appeal of classical, baroque, and romantic music did not appeal to me (ok, maybe romantic did, maybe because it was tinged with a little hatred of having to practice every day). But I know there are some really great sounding pieces out there composed by the greats of their times (and by those that aren’t so famous), but among all the Sonatas, Opuses, Waltzes, Overtures and millions of numbers and such, I just never  felt motivated to give them all a listen and find the ones I really like. Also, the older stuff tends to be really long in duration, and I have a short attention span unless I’m completely focused on the  music, and I rarely am.

I usually listen to music when I need some sort of background noise to work or think to. That’s not to say that I ignore the music, it’s just that I like having something I can relate to while I’m working without having to focus on it. And sometimes I prefer to work in silence with only the tapping of the keyboard and humming of the computer accompanying me (like right now). I guess it just depends on the kind of mood I am in.The music I usually listen to tends to be what would be considered the “sad” stuff. More romantic in nature with lyrical melodies and such. They put me in more reflective and thought-provoking moods. But other times I listen to music not necessarily for the music aspect, but for the emotional aspect that shows up on the performer’s face. I’ve watched brilliant musician friends play their pieces with absolute joy on their faces. I’ve experienced myself a few times, the feeling of letting yourself get carried away with the orchestra as everyone plays their own part to make a beautiful whole. It’s that look on the player’s face when you know they are doing what they love and enjoying every moment of it and you can’t help but smile too and be a little bit jealous that they have that ability and talent.

Lately however, I have come across some interesting musical pieces influenced by mathematics and nature. Mathematics makes sense, despite the appeal to the emotions, music also is very much based in a form of science and structure that can easily be likened to numbers and mathematical rules. There are many renditions of the mathematical constant pi turned into musical form, you can see one here. I recently watched a TED talk that translated an algorithm that represented complete randomness (there was no governing pattern or repetition, aside from the algorithm itself) into a musical piece. The intention was that since beauty is often determined by symmetry and repetition, the piece would sound utterly revolting to any listener. But honestly, when I listened to the piece, I actually liked it. Maybe it was because I was completely focused on the music, or maybe because I have very bad taste in music, but I found it appealing.

I am also a sucker for the simple melodies. Just one or two notes at a time. They might not be the most technically challenging pieces to play, but they can be even harder to play because one has to pack all that emotion into so few notes. If not done correctly it can completely ruin the piece. I’ve actually come to appreciate the slowness of the pieces, how simplicity can also bring forth both complex and simply raw emotions. A conductor in a youth orchestra I once played in once said something along the lines of “The important parts of the song isn’t where you play, it’s where you don’t play”. Sometimes the pauses and the length of time the performer takes to just play one note makes it all the more meaningful, and I really enjoy those pieces. It can turn a simple melody into a emotional treasure trove.

That melody from the TV show LOST is one of my favorite melodies.  It can be so simple, and even if you haven’t seen the show you can tell how much emotion is behind that piece (and the name isn’t too light either). The combination of just simple chords on the piano with the single cello really does it for me in the beginning and then the transition to the piano melody just makes the song bury itself into my mind and I guess at the risk of sounding overly-emotional, the heart as well. The ending is very LOST like as well.

But moving on from the mathematically influenced music, I also came across the naturally inspired music. Artist  Bartholomäus Traubeck fashioned a turn table that could convert the rings of a tree into music using some crazy computer skills. It may sound pattern-less like in the mathematically inspired piece above, but I find it pretty fascinating to listen to. You may not think a computer would be able to emit any emotion behind the music, but the pauses and falling piano keys creates a haunting piece that makes me instantly picture the tragedy of the tree. Of forest degradation and consumption. I can just imagine the trees falling. And then ending is once again pretty spooky, but for a different reason than the piece above.

I think I also like listening to soundtracks because I watch quiet a few movies and tv shows. I don’t watch them obsessively, but I really enjoy lots of movie soundtracks, especially music that occurs doing really sad events within the story. I can’t exactly work if I’m listening to something very upbeat or positive. I need deep, brooding music to work with. My most favorite movie soundtrack piece so far is from my most favorite film, which I know will attract skeptical stares and questions of my credibility once I announce what it is. It is in fact, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. It is my favorite film for a variety of reasons (I won’t defend myself now), but one of them is the music. There’s a recurring motif within the soundtrack as many soundtracks do (the theme shows up again in The Gravel Road), but I find this one a great balance of the complex and simple. And I also think the music really fit with the whole feel of the film.

Anyway, that’s just want I wanted to write about tonight. Nothing technically related, just a little about me and my humble thoughts/opinions on music. But this is one of my interests, so I guess this counts as a valid blog post. I am perfectly aware that there is a vast universe out there of great music and what I am exposed to is only a brief glimpse of the capabilities of human creativity. I am simply a fan of simple melodies and pieces but appreciate the complex all the same. Music can come from unlikely sources, and it come from within us or within the silence surrounding us. Music is an attempt at putting some form of order into the undefinable, much like beauty is. Yes, that sounded extremely cheesy, but it does make you appreciate it a little more. While I would never want to pursue music professionally, I am extremely jealous of those who have tremendous talent for music-making because I at least know how relaxing it can be to manifest your emotions into something that others can relate to.

See? I appreciate art.

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