Monday, February 9, 2015

All pop songs sound the same...or do they?

I was going to write about Katy Perry’s half-time show, but all that really mattered were the giant puppet tiger and the left and right sharks. The Super Bowl is not about musical subtlety or innovation.

Instead, in honor of the Grammys and the controversy of Sam Smith's "Stay with Me" vs. Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down," I want to bring up this article by Tom Barnes from, which is titled: “Scientists Just Discovered Why All Pop Music Sounds Exactly the Same.” This article is reporting on another scientific article, and as you can imagine the title totally misconstrues what the scientific article really claims.

Let’s start by reading the abstract of the scientific article, “Instrumental Complexity of Music Genres and Why Simplicity Sells,” by Percino, Klimek, and Thurner, which is a little dry, but is the first place to turn for knowing what the scientific article actually claims (emphasis added):

Listening habits are strongly influenced by two opposing aspects, the desire for variety and the demand for uniformity in music. In this work we quantify these two notions in terms of instrumentation and production technologies that are typically involved in crafting popular music. We assign an ‘instrumentational complexity value’ to each music style. Styles of low instrumentational complexity tend to have generic instrumentations that can also be found in many other styles. Styles of high complexity, on the other hand, are characterized by a large variety of instruments that can only be found in a small number of other styles. To model these results we propose a simple stochastic model that explicitly takes the capabilities of artists into account. We find empirical evidence that individual styles show dramatic changes in their instrumentational complexity over the last fifty years. ‘New wave’ or ‘disco’ quickly climbed towards higher complexity in the 70s and fell back to low complexity levels shortly afterwards, whereas styles like ‘folk rock’ remained at constant high instrumentational complexity levels. We show that changes in the instrumentational complexity of a style are related to its number of sales and to the number of artists contributing to that style. As a style attracts a growing number of artists, its instrumentational variety usually increases. At the same time the instrumentational uniformity of a style decreases, i.e. a unique stylistic and increasingly complex expression pattern emerges. In contrast, album sales of a given style typically increase with decreasing instrumentational complexity. This can be interpreted as music becoming increasingly formulaic in terms of instrumentation once commercial or mainstream success sets in.
I think the main thing to note that the only aspect of music the study observed is instrumentation. The study did not look at form, harmony, melody, or even timbre, which can vary widely even with the same instrumentation. The study does not claim “all pop music sounds the same,” it is saying that as a particular genre of music become more popular, and more artists are attracted to the genre, increasing the variety of the genre, but the albums that sell the most copies tend to have similar instrumentation. Although this is somewhat circular logic (best-selling albums in a certain genre tend to have the same instrumentation, and genre is somewhat determined by instrumentation), it’s pretty interesting. But what the article describes has little to do with the actual study.

Here’s another statement from the article that the source material does not support: “Simplicity sells best across all music genres.” First, this pattern was only observed in the better-selling genres. There were some genres, such as folk rock and electronic music, that do not conform to the pattern. Also, an emerging genre does not conform to the pattern. And of course, there are many, many exceptions. One exception actually turns up in the first paragraph of the scientific study: Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, which has very complex instrumentation and sold almost 1 million copies. True, it did not sell the more than 2 million of Justin Timberlakes 20/20 Experience (which was more formulaic in terms of instrumentation), but this was a weird paring for the scientific article to make in the introduction because 1) these albums are not really the same genre and 2) they are still both very well selling. There are many other things I could say about this study, but for the sake of space, I'll stop.

The moral of the story: First, scientific articles are not infallible. And second, please, if you are reporting on a scientific article, actually try to understand and articulate its real content. Even if “Best-Selling Albums in an Established Genre have Similar Instrumentation” doesn’t work as well for clickbait.

Vocab: genre, instrumentation

Monday, February 2, 2015

Concert Review: Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses

I’ve spent the last few weeks writing about video game music, and this post will continue that series. This week, I want to talk about the phenomenon of the video game music symphonic concert.

Here’s how this type of usually concert works: a producer gets the rights to the
video game music, contracts arrangers to make a symphonic version, and then tours by bringing a conductor and production crew to a stationary orchestra. The traveling conductor and the new orchestra rehearse the music for a week and then put on the show, usually with a big video screen for highlighting game play.

This week, I attended one of these concerts. While most of these types of concerts feature music from several video games, the one I attended was themed—all the music was from the Zelda video game franchise. The Zelda games are a logical choice for this type of concert; not only is game and its music well-regarded and memorable, music also plays  a vital role in the game itself, with the game characters usually playing some sort of musical instrument to unlock puzzles or gameplay. This particular concert hailed itself as something even above a normal video game music concert: “Featuring a first in video game concert history, The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses has been arranged and programmed with classical sensibilities in mind, organizing the music of this beloved franchise into a complete, 4 movement symphony…” (

Setting aside the question of what “classical sensibilities” actually are, I think this advertisement demonstrates how these concerts are advertised and perceived: gamers are invited to see their beloved, low-art music turned into “high art.” And I think this expectation was played out in how people came to the concert; while many concert-goers came in cosplay as Link or other characters, or in fan t-shirts, many more people were in formal dress—strange for a casual place like Hawaii.

So, how was it?

The “symphony” itself, which was the centerpiece of the concert, was actually pretty well done. While not really a symphony, it was well orchestrated and was more than just an elaborate version of the video game music with as many recognizable themes stuffed in as possible. The transitions were satisfying and interesting, both recalling the original music at times, while also experimenting some. I think if the entire concert were of that quality, I would have been satisfied with it. However, the reality is that many of the arrangements were poorly done; sometimes not even as complex or satisfying as the original music, despite the trappings of symphonic orchestration. The lack of good writing was very evident in the endings, which mostly just fizzled out; I don’t remember any strong endings, despite some very powerful musical themes. Video game music doesn’t usually have endings, actually; instead the music transitions or fades when it doesn’t simply loop or repeat. Despite this problem, I think the arrangers really could have used some creativity to construct satisfying endings.

My opinion was also shaped by the orchestra; there were many times where the orchestra was not together. While I’m tempted to blame the orchestra for not knowing the music better (and that probably played into it), I couldn’t help notice that the orchestra made less mistakes during the better arrangements, leading me to believe that perhaps the orchestra didn’t play them well because they were badly written. Also, of course, the orchestra only had a few days to rehearse and sightread very unfamiliar music (though orchestras do this all the time).

I couldn’t decide whether I liked the video screen or not; I also heard mixed opinions about this as the show was getting out. It was both immersive and distracting. It certainly made me pay less attention to the orchestra.

What did I learn from the experience?

  • One very positive result of video game concerts is getting young people into the orchestral hall—and they are excited to be there. Getting young people to the symphony is extremely important for the future of orchestras as the average age of orchestra concert attendees gets older and older.
  • It takes a lot of careful wrangling to make video game music work in a concert setting. I would bet that instead of just shoving as many themes in an excerpt as possible, as happened in a few of these arrangements, arrangers would do better to pick fewer themes and arrange them very well, exploring themes and orchestration and maybe trying new and varied settings of the themes. I think if done right, the gamers would understand and enjoy.
  • With the cheapest tickets at around $50, and most between $70-120, I think the concert was too expensive, especially if the main audience is young people. On the other hand, this type of show is very expensive to put on; not only do the producers pay for travel, equipment, and game licensing, they also pay for a whole orchestra (with choir!). Orchestras generally lose money at the box office on every performance and stay afloat only with the help of generous donors. If I were to put on a traveling show like this, I would try make the orchestra smaller. On the other hand, part of the draw is to have a full orchestra!
  • The concert was a commercial for Nintendo as much as anything else, and indeed the company did underwrite the concert, though I don't know how much. I know I wanted to pick up the featured games that I hadn’t played.
  • Video games are about interaction, but there was remarkably little interaction in this performance. I think the concert would have been much better with some sort of audience participation. One of the most memorable things was what the audience members shouted in between pieces—lines from the game that everyone immediately understood. Like rock concerts, people are usually there to see things they are familiar with already; how could these shared experiences be harnessed to give concert-goers a more memorable experience?
  • In other end, though, I have to admit that there were a few goosebump moments where I was glad to be there.
Have any of you been to symphonic video game concerts? What did you think? I'm particularly interested in people who have played in one.

Vocab: symphony, orchestra, theme

Monday, January 26, 2015

Secret of Mana: great melodies, varied repetition, and…Indonesian music?

Last week, I critiqued a couple of video blogs about video game music. One of the truest things said from these video blogs was: “A great game with an awesome theme song? That’s going to stick with you.”

One game like that is Secret of Mana (SNES, 1993). It was ported to Andriod last year and I just re-played it on my phone. When I mention that game in conversation, the first comment
usually is “such good music.” The music is by Japanese composer Hiroki Kikuta, who was about 30 when he wrote it. What I thought I’d do this week is look at some of the individual pieces (or music cues) in Secret of Mana and analyze why they are effective (although I could probably talk about the game mechanics for a while, but that’s not what this blog is for). There’s a lot of music in this game, especially for a fairly short game of 20-30 hours, so I’m just going to pick a few pieces to analyze—and I’ll really only scratch the surface on those cues.

Into the Thick of It

Now, video game music, especially from this era of video games, is built on repetition. The trick is to make something that is repetitive 1) reward repeated listening so it doesn't get old, and 2) fit the character of the on-screen action. Let’s start with “Into the Thick of It,” a traveling piece early on in the game. The music needs to be inviting and fun, but also characterize traveling through a new and strange forest. The music is built on a repeating pattern, or vamp, that runs throughout the piece. Although this pattern repeats throughout, the (at least 4) surrounding parts keep changing. There are three main sections, which I’ll call A, B, and C. A has the harpsichord-like vamp with some high flutes; B keeps the same harpsichord pattern, but the harmony rises and changes. In C, the music returns to the first harmony, but with new melodies on different instruments. The countermelodies and orchestration on this section (and the previous two sections) are subtle meticulous. After one round through, the all three parts repeat. Now, the differences between these three sections generates enough interest for the music cue’s purpose, but here’s where the genius comes in: after two full cycles of ABC, a fourth section (D) comes in. This D section still has the same driving tempo and the same bass part (though thrown up into a different register), but also several new interlocking vamps in new orchestration. It’s really interesting, but it also feels rewarding when the music cycles back to A again. As for matching the character of play, the driving vamp moves along like a walking traveler, while the moderately-paced flutes match a woodland feel. The harmonic rise in the B section provides a little bit of tension to mirror the unfamiliarity of the situation, but the harmony soon settles back.

Let’s look at another music cue: “A Bell is Tolling,” the music for the ice forest area. This music also has three parts (again, I’ll label ABC), and once again all three parts have shared musical elements: the harmony and the tempo is the same for all three. However, almost everything else changes. The A section is spare, with a crystal-like high melody over a legato chords, reminiscent of ice or coldness and also the solitude of a forest of dead-looking trees. The B section is a big contrast—three different very busy melodies all stacked on top of each other, the middle one staccato, the top one using a very effective echo between L and R speakers; the echo hints again at solitude and emptiness. The C section begins in a surprising percussion rimshot, and harsh percussion is added along with four new parts that all have very different timbres than the previous parts. This C section with its gritty percussion and increased dissonance seems to hint more at the danger of the situation (which the ice forest is). Finally, an extra few measures are added to the section and harmony to transition back to the placid A section, and the listener feels like they’ve made a journey or are at least reminded they are in an empty, dead forest.

So, there’s a brief analysis. Kikuta does a great job at creating something that is very repetitive also very interesting by sandwiching in lots of melodies and changing up the orchestration, all with keeping some musical unity; the music also matches the game action. I could go on and talk about the Buddhist-inspired music cue with two overlapping melodies that don’t seem to fit together (“Whisper and Mantra”), or the cue where the percussion take the lead and has an almost YES-like guitar solo (“Steel and Snare”), or the modern-tech cue with a the time signature of 11 (“Prophesy”), but in the time I have left I want to write about Indonesian music.

Indonesian music?

In 1993, when I first played the game, I didn’t know about traditional Indonesian music. But now, having played in an Indonesian ensemble for a year (and having recently joined another one), I realized two of music cues were inspired by Indonesian music. The first is Thantos’s theme, or “Ceremony,” which draws on classical gamelan, an Indonesian percussion ensemble. Just like a gamelan, this cue features gongs, a slow moving melody played in multiple octaves, and a second, faster elaboration of the melody. There’s some extra stuff, too, but it all fits in the character of gamelan music. The second musical cue (“Oracle”) uses kecak, which is an Balinese theatrical vocal form developed in the 1930s featuring interlocking vocal chants. This cues also features a very gamelan-like percussion melody.

Now that I recognize the influence, I’m torn between two responses: on the one hand, I’m impressed that Kikuta knew and borrowed from esoteric Indonesian music for a kids’ video game. But I’m also a little distressed that both these music cues are for the main evil villain, Thantos; the first cue for the areas he’s in, the second for when you fight him. Kikuta is using this strange, different, other music to scare us—the first cue in a “this is weird” way and the second in a more conventionally scary way, as people are shouting quickly at you while you are fighting a big skeleton that is on fire. Really, this music is just from a different culture, and I hope that others who heard this don’t associate mind-sucking liches with Indonesians. I lean toward my first response, though.

The awesome theme

But getting back too the beginning quote, what about the awesome theme song? This game had me at the opening credits. To end, here’s the opening theme, a.k.a “Fear of the Heavens,” presented without analysis. Enjoy!

(The theme is less than 2 minutes long, but this version just repeats a few times, because the listener always want to listen to it again)

Vocab: vamp, melody, harmony, legato, rimshot, gamelan, kecak

Monday, January 19, 2015

Why is classic video game music better?

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about video game music. Today, I’m going to tackle one of the questions that came up in that post: why is classic video game music considered better than more recent video game music?

This is a popular question when talking about video game music, as evidenced by two video clips. First, from the game design video blog Extra Credits (10 minutes)

And second, this interview from Sami Jarroush on from the website Consequence of Sound (start at minute 12 if you don't want to watch it all).

More melody!

The main arguments both these video clips make is that the older music is simpler, more hummable, and therefore more memorable. And I think this point rings true, in most cases. Video game composers back then had almost only one tool—melody. So the composers HAD to create melodies. Some of the composers created good melodies, and those melodies are easier to remember than much of the video game music presently composed. Today, with the orchestras and technological bells and whistles, composers have the choice of creating more atmospheric music, or slower-moving music where the interest is more in texture than melody, than they did with just 8-bit technology. While the atmospheric approach is often used effectively, the lack of melody does not lead to memorable music.

But not just melody

But besides the melody issue, both videos miss another major reason these classic video game themes endure. It wasn’t just the melodies that made the music great—it was the orchestration. Even when a console can only produce three notes a time, orchestration and accompaniment matters. Try to imagine how the Super Mario or Zelda themes would sound with only the melody. The truth is the arrangements of the earlier 80s tunes, as 8-bit as they were, actually did enhance the melodies and made them more memorable. I would postulate that if the composers had written the melody without the cleverly-composed and orchestrated accompaniment, these melodies would not be as well-remembered as they are now. Case in point: Extra Credits claims that John Williams is famous for his movie music melodies, which is true. But he is just as famous for the orchestration of his melodies.

What do I mean by orchestration with only three notes at a time? First, like any good composers, they wrote melodies that fit the instrument. These melodies had mostly short, quick notes, because those sounded better coming from their synthesizers. The composers also had effective accompaniment that added to melody. While timbral options were limited, the composers made important timbral choices when they could. Timbre is affected by how high or low a pitch is, and so the range of the melodies was also very much an issue these composers considered. And those accompaniments are often pretty complicated.

I do like Sami’s point about video game music as a trigger for memory (minute 13). I think if Super Mario Brothers had been a supremely bad game, we would not remember the music. However, because it was a good game, and because the music matched what actions were happening in the game (another huge issue that I’m skipping here), the music and the game elevated each other.

Some minor notes

There were a few other minor problems I had the with videos:
  • Extra credits makes the mistake of comparing video game music to movie music. There are major differences: Movie music is meticulously crafted and timed, while video game music for the most part is built on repetitive loops and is calculated evoke feelings and moods over times, and these moods change as the player interacts with the game. Sami’s guest Danny (minute 16) explains well the distinction between movie and video music (though Sami doesn’t seem to get it).
  • Extra Credits’ analysis of the Halo theme music doesn’t actually help prove their point. Actually, the analysis does more to support the [strong melody + strong orchestration] argument than the solely strong melody argument. And I don’t think the male chorus line or string parts are actually that hummable.
  • While I think that this is probably the case, neither video proves that there aren't as many memorable melodies in video games today as the 80s. As Extra Credits mentions, the people that composed good 8-bit music continued to compose effective music when they got more resources and some still write today. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the video game audience is more fragmented, with a huge choice in what they play, and so not everyone experiences the same melodies as they did in the 80s.
Anyway, good ideas in both videos, but also some big holes. I do think Extra Credits' final point is well made, though: we do have good video game music today. But if video game composers want their music to be remembered years from now, they might put a little more effort into their melodies and accompaniments.

Next week, I’ll continue my video game music discussion and talk about Secret of Mana (1993, Super NES), and why I think that music is so effective.

Vocab: melody, atmospheric, texture, orchestration, timbre

Monday, January 12, 2015

Guest post on MusRef: the Clarinet Quintet

This week, I'm guest contributing to MusRef, a website hosted by the Brigham Young University Library. MusRef is a reference source about musical reference sources (so meta!), meant to be the web update of the venerable Music Reference and Research Materials: an Annotated Bibliography by Vincent Duckles and Ida Reed (last published as the 5th edition in 1997, commonly referred to as simply "Duckles"). 

MusRef highlights music reference sources on their blog, sources both print and electronic. I was asked to write a post for the blog about a website I spent several months out of last year constructing, called the Clarinet Quintet. Read about it on MusRef.

You can find out more about this clarinet quintet on the website