Member preview

MUSIC SYSTEMS THEORY: surfacing the multidisciplinary nature of songwriting and learning


melody is a sketch of an emotion; an impression left by the background. like a set of footprints in the snow, you “discover” it only after you arrive and find it waiting on you. an entire industry is built around melody, with little mention about how a melody happens. and, that’s because melody is intuition — and intuition happens TO you. a spark of intuition moves you to its idea. the idea guides your mind’s search for the soundwave. you know it when you hear it, because intuition has already supplied you with the feeling.

SENSORY DATA PROCESSING: the principles of transforming environment into musical terms

once we have plucked a melody from our environment, we want to insert it into a composition. we do this by modeling the emotional atmosphere from which the melody came. like introducing a catch of the day to its new water world. we want a focal point (the melody) to emerge from a background (musical accompaniment). but, this requires understanding how change affects atmosphere.

“…human beings don’t hear music as a succession of chords or sound effects, but rather as a process of transformations…” — Jonathan Tennenbaum

change is this process of transformation. one could say that change is all there is. it is the uncontrollable fade of life into death, and death into life again. twisting placid emotion into a pretzel — creating curves and distance where before there was none. anxiety is stirred by change. art wants to field and express this anxiety and ask questions about the source of change; an uncertainty with which we all live. and so, it is in the cadence, bounce, rhythm, or moan of this anxiety that gifts us our melody. the process of hanging such vulnerabilities along a string of rhythms can be called composing. composing helps a composer to solve the riddles within himself.

music is a coping mechanism.

and as with any other, there are less and more qualitative types. if someone deigns to teach us how to use music — how to compose music — they deign to teach us how to cope with our environment, and needle our emotions through the noise and into a composition.

“if anything acts on the signal, so as to vary it in an unpredictable and undesirable way, in a communication system, it is noise(…)How do you beat noise? Through redundancy; by duplicating (reinforcing) the message — via — other signals.”

- Charles and Ray Eames

so, the clearest communication between teacher and student occurs when signals are volleyed between the two, repeatedly, and through various means (speech, writing, body language, etc.); an involved process that builds a higher level of trust in the robustness of its lessons. it is akin to parenting: I know the information I share with my child is a resource he relies upon for survival. and with each successive application of the information, his belief in it grows; as does the information’s potency — once processed through his own experience and modification, and reinserted into the environment. the socio-economic platforms upon which our societies operate often nest over these connections. but, surfacing the subtle interpretations we make of sensory data is a pathway to “the opportunity to combine mind and emotion, cognition and sensory experience, analysis and intuition toward understanding something as a whole.” — Doane University

learning is a wildly natural activity that cannot be told what to do. its process is multidisciplinary and single-minded, systemic and local, aesthetic and praxis. to attempt to bridle its multidimensional nature only breeds dysfunction in our communications. it is more beneficial to overall aims if we occasionally step back from the closer interactions and view the coagulating milieu. emotional weather becomes musical texture — cloud shapes, rain, sunshine, and snow. rhythm is construction, pattern, urgency, and a quickened breathing. harmony and counter-melody highlight, ease, or crowd access to the melody; and determine the quality of the interactions — much like human traffic flowing through a busy market or impatiently pulsating at a red light. but, the emotion, the breath, the flow, and pulse were all here before the music. our art and our structures answer the need to react to the data.

IMAGINATION & phase transitions

imagination is the faculty or action of forming new ideas. it is the conceptualized image of external objects not present to the senses. it frees man from his structure — while his structure makes use of his imaginings. imagination influences the physical world — the physical world gives form to imagination. they are one in the same, but are an eternity, stretched so far as to appear separated by phase transitions; inventing the need for time.

the phase transition is a barrier that dresses creation in a tangible material. all of physical existence is contingent upon the interaction between thought and action. imagination and material have a codependent relationship.

CREATIVITY: the home of heterarchy

creativity is the use of the imagination and phase transition to process a result. it requires a free-form thinking, outside of our standards, to bring a solution from chaos into focus. free-form thinking comes naturally to a child ignorant of established standards; but for those of us all too aware of the boundaries, creative freedom lies in recognizing that the boundaries, themselves, are just a result of imagination. they beget rules that are superficial, but necessary for managing bits of the unmanageable; in order to bring about a desired consistency in material behavior. and while much of human artifice is built upon established rules, those underlying rules are no more real than the imaginative thought, or creativity, that makes them and breaks them. in fact, it is this nonlinear thought — the mental agility to uncover the connections between standards — that establishes the new standards.

said another way, linear thought uses imaginary rules as foundation and boundary, upon which to build hierarchical structures. but, neither the structures, foundation, or boundary are inescapable; and therefore can be utilised as stepping stones, between which, nonlinear thought draws creative associations — emergent phenomena — that become the new rules, the new design, the new boundaries, the new shapes, the new operating system. all of this can be said to exist within what Ian Sturgis McCulloch termed, a heterarchy — the organization of cognitive structures when they are unranked or have the potential for being ranked in multiple ways.

creativity is assembling a new order, from disorder, in a highly functional or comprehensively satisfying way — through the use of symmetry, proportion, and harmony.

DESIGN & spatial intelligence

good design is robust.

“…complexity and function go hand in hand.” — Addy Pross

design is the strength of coalition. a coalition is an alliance of parts; in this case: intuition, sensory data, imagination, and creativity. using algorithms to surface concepts for these parts on a micro level, intuition guides the design and sets the stage for the interaction of the parts. spatial intelligence provides an aerial view of the design, on a macro level. the composition’s functionality cannot be deduced from its individual parts, but lies in the guiding voice of intuition; which is a prescient, emergent sense of the whole.


sensory data is all around us. nature placed it in our “past” and into our “future”. you cannot act without engaging both, simultaneously. therefore, we have the opportunity to receive data from a single moment and study it for an eternity; or study an eternity of moments in brief; or study a moment, its interactions with other moments, and monitor that string of moments in both the short and long-term.

the way of the artist is a place he sits at the intersection of ideas. composing temporal, non-permanent structures to suit a task. he can be the pianist, he can be the cameraman filming the movements of the pianist, the engineer recording the sounds of the piano, the audience watching and listening. or, he can step back from that level — to a different level — and draw a larger boundary around the scene of a pianist being filmed and recorded in front of a live audience. as, yet, another audience watches on their devices. these multiple perspectives are available for closer investigation or distant reflection upon the truth of an occurrence. we have only to receive the data and interpret it. these interpretations create a “beginning” and keep the promise of an “end”. but, eventually, time forces the two to meet and lose themselves.

the way of the artist is to show his society in perpetual flight, landing, and flight again; until the act of becoming is so restless as to appear still.