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Music is not creative chaos, but a carefully organized hierarchy of tones and sounds. | Photo: Etienne Girardet (Unsplash)
Music is not creative chaos, but a carefully organized hierarchy of tones and sounds. | Photo: Etienne Girardet (Unsplash)
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Music is Not Rocket Science #5: Organized Sound

I dare say that most people still view music rather romantically – as something mystical, emotionally charged and elusive. In their minds, melodies and compositions arise from a sudden inspiration stemming from the mystical genius of the musician who knows exactly what chords to play, what to sing, and what words to use at any given moment. Reducing music to the laws of acoustics, physics, biology or even the much-feared mathematics is not exactly a popular topic of conversation, even among musicians themselves. We all subconsciously wish to believe the legends and myths surrounding the creation of famous songs. We want to be in a foggy haze of musical magic that oozes from sources unknown to us.

A very illustrative metaphor is the notion of music as a journey through a territory where you discover your direction through the process of creation. Of course, it all depends on how clearly you can see where you are and where you are coming from. You don't know what's over the horizon, but you have certain expectations of what there might be. And just like in the real world, where you don't count or analyse the rocks, trees and flowers you meet on your way, in music, everything cannot be reduced to mere sequences of notes, acoustics or numerical patterns in rhythm and melodic combinations.

Avant-garde composer Edgar Varèse defined music with the term "organized sound", proudly stating, "I decided to call my music 'organized sound' and myself, not a musician, but 'a worker in rhythms, frequencies, and intensities.'" But this organization of music (or sound) is not exclusively determined by the composer, instrumentalist or vocalist, its structure is also defined by the collaboration with the listener.

It's fascinating to realize how cultural determinations work in music, where a set of generally accepted rules form the basis of musical creativity. However, it is all work of man. There are no laws of planets, the universe or nature encoded in music. We can choose any combination of notes and have complete freedom in our creative decisions. In our Western musical tradition, we have designated twelve notes (with the smallest interval being a semitone) that are repeated in octave cycles. But not everyone is happy with this limited option.

American composer Harry Partch (1901-1974) was looking for a system that would better capture the subtle details of the human voice and came up with a microtonal scale of 43 intervals within an octave. He also experimented with the layering of 29, 37 or 41 notes within an octave. His music thus had to be played on special instruments that he designed and built himself. They had exotic-sounding names like chromelodeon, bloboy or zymo-xyl.

However, the question is not what notes we choose, but how we choose them in the first place. Painters understand this process very well. They have, in theory, an unlimited choice of colours, especially nowadays with the vast chromatic range of synthetic colours. And yet, painters often choose very limited options. Mondrian mostly used only three colours – red, yellow and blue – which he applied to a black grid. Yves Klein felt that one colour was sufficient, and Franz Kline revelled in the black-and-white combination.

The Impressionists rejected tertiary colours (the combination of primary and secondary colours is known as tertiary or intermediate colours due to its composite nature. Blue-green, blue-violet, red-orange, red-violet, yellow-orange and yellow-green are colour combinations that you can create by mixing colours – AN), the Greeks and Romans favoured mainly red, yellow, black and white.

Why would you limit your options like that? One reason may be the need for a clear and understandable message. You focus more on the essential aspects of the image, such as shape and form. This is very similar in music, as certain combinations of notes ( i.e. familiar scales and chords) convey certain concepts. Music has a very hierarchical structure and you need to understand which notes are important (and in what context).

Take, for example, the structure of a basic major chord – a C major consists of the notes C, E and G. But guitarists have a surprising number of ways to interpret this information. They can play only C and G, which they layer in octaves. They get the thick sound of a so-called power chord. If they decide to change the bottom note and play, say, E instead of C, they get an E/C chord. They can place G in the bass as the lowest note, or omit it altogether. They can also add the note B for an extended Cmaj7 chord sound (with an added top seventh above the base note).

We could go on like this for a while. There are a lot of variants. And if you consider that these three notes can be further divided among the rich sonic possibilities of instruments in an orchestra or in a complex arrangement with synthesizers, you enter a whole other dimension of decision-making.

Knowledge of music theory and context are powerful gifts, but you need to have a strong vision, not get lost in the options and choose the one "right" solution in the end. The need to choose one final option is often the cause of creative torment. It is not easy to make a decision and stand by it. It is precisely during this decision-making process that the artist's emotion or instinct comes into play. They often choose the option that simply suits them best at that moment. But they must not go back and open their DAW project the following morning, because the whole decision-making ordeal may happen all over again.

I think all musicians and artists know the process very well. Choosing the right note (and you always have one out of twelve to choose from) or combination of notes for a future hit is a crucial decision that should not be taken lightly. Or should it be the other way around? Should we not make a big deal out of it and just put it out there as it comes? That decision is up to you. 


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Marek Bero
Bass Gym 101 books, touring & session bass player, football tactics aficionado.