Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Where is My Mind

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Recently we watched the movie It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and I was struck by a piano tune that was instantly recognizable – an arrangement of “Where is My Mind” by the Pixies. Despite being a famous and influential song in its own right, to many younger people it’s familiar as the end credits music for the movie Fight Club (in fact, a question to that effect is ridiculously popular on forums across the internet – try googling it).

The piano arrangement is done by French artist Maxence Cyrin, and he’s kind enough to provide a download for the sheet music on his Facebook page. I tried it out and it’s nice and straightforward to play. I definitely recommend it to fans of piano arrangements of rock music.

Here’s a youtube video of the arrangement (no idea what film the clip is from):

Rigor and “Music vs. Silence”

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Lately I’ve been reading Peopleware, a book about software development management that seems pretty solid and has some worthwhile points to make. I’m not quite ready to praise it yet, though, and part of the reason is the question of rigor: it’s not entirely clear that the claims made in the book are based on sound fact and real scientific research.

Since it’s easy enough to just go along with the author when the wisdom offered is intuitively compelling, I often don’t worry too much about the underpinnings of an author’s arguments. But in chapter 12 of this book the authors cite a very interesting study that I couldn’t help but try to investigate further:

During the 1960s, researchers at Cornell University conducted a series of tests on the effects of working with music. They polled a group of computer science students and divided the students into two groups, those who liked to have music in the background while they worked (studied) and those who did not.
Then they put half of each group together in a silent room, and the other half of each group in a different room equipped with earphones and a musical selection. Participants in both rooms were given a Fortran programming problem to work out from specification. To no one’s surprise, participants in the two rooms performed about the same in speed and accuracy of programming. As any kid who does his arithmetic homework with the music on knows, the part of the brain required for arithmetic and related logic is unbothered by music—there’s another brain center that listens to the music.
The Cornell experiment, however, contained a hidden wildcard. The specification required that an output data stream be formed through a series of manipulations on numbers in the input data stream. For example, participants had to shift each number two digits to the left and then divide by one hundred and so on, perhaps completing a dozen operations in total. Although the specification never said it, the net effect of all the operations was that each output number was necessarily equal to its input number. Some people realized this and others did not. Of those who figured it out, the overwhelming majority came from the quiet room.

As a programmer and music listener, it’s hard not to be interested in this finding. If it’s true that listening to music dampens my ability to make creative leaps, then I’ve been doing it wrong all along. I have a vested interested in digging deeper to see if I can determine whether this is accurate, and adjusting my behavior if so. Unfortunately, that’s where the illusion starts to unravel. Here’s Peopleware’s bibliography entry on the subject:

The Cornell experiment was never documented and has thus taken on the status of hearsay evidence except for those of us who were there. For a concurring view of the effect of music on concentration, see Jaynes, 1976, pp. 367-68.

This is more than a little surprising as a citation – it gives no opportunity for further research, presumably because such research just isn’t possible. I’m left with just combing through anecdotal evidence on the internet to draw my own conclusion (there’s some pretty good discussion here if you’re interested, this is also where I got the electronic version of the quotes used).

Anecdotally, I think I agree with the middle view that music can interfere with the creative process, in inverse proportion to how easily your brain is able to compartmentalize the music. A lack of lyrics or a monotonous beat seem like factors that would mitigate any distraction, while it’s hard to imagine getting real work done when listening to a new, fascinating song for the first time. But I’m just speculating – I have no data to back up this claim. Maybe I should write a book about it :).

2nd Fugue finished

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

Well, I think my 2nd fugue (in a minor key this time) is just about done, and good enough to put up here. This one is minor – a bit darker, naturally, and it has a more interesting melody than the first but less counterpoint. The second half in particular took me a long time to write, but now that it’s done I think it really outshines the opening.


Some content – music!

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

To get things started, here’s a piece of music I wrote a few years ago.

Fugue number 1 in F

It’s a fugue – a four-part harmony in the Baroque style. I wrote this when I was obsessed with J.S. Bach in late high school. Back then I was spending a lot of time on music, between clarinet and piano. It was good for me, I think – I’m constantly surprised at how much I’m still able to play, despite the amount of time that’s passed since I studied them seriously.

Back to the song: the basic idea behind a fugue is to take a simple melody, play it in one voice, and then keep on adding voices until you get to four, a minute or so into the song. It’s similar to a round (think “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”), except that the four voices aren’t identical to each other. Once it gets going, it really becomes more harmonic than melodic, since at any given time you have multiple themes being played at once.

Fugues tend to have a busy, complex kind of sound, which makes them sound sophisticated (probably more so than they actually are). I think this is a big part of what draws me to the style actually. I like the experience of intricate moving parts, even though when listening it’s not really feasible to actually understand the music when it’s going full steam – at least for me.

Ultimately I think what’s cool about this piece is that the real meat of it is not the notes at all, but the chords underneath. The intent is to create an ‘aha!’ moment in the listener at a critical moment, when you stop listening to the invidiual notes and melodies, and start hearing the piece as a whole. It’s a pretty common trick of music and a novice way to ‘hook’ people, but I don’t think the simplicity of the technique makes it not worthwhile. There’s a lot to be said for not overreaching in art.