Stations: Visualizing the Mechanics of Music

Brady Ajay
Oct 8, 2020 · 6 min read
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“Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

How does music work?

In 2005, I began answering this question for myself by making Douzee, a dataviz system of ‘molecule models’ for constructing scales and chords. I thought it would be a nice app. Then, I made designs of other music concepts. Now, it’s too big for small screens.

An image of the C Major scale.
An image of the C Major scale.
An image of Western musical notation and symbols.
An image of Western musical notation and symbols.

It’s just 12 notes

I re-mixed the 12-tone scale into the Douzee ‘molecule models’ to be applied, abstractly, in every key to the many chord and scale types. (The name, Douzee, comes from ‘douze,’ French for ’twelve.’) I emphasized the information that gives each chord and scale its unique sound and cut the rest.

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The 12-tone scale in Douzee.
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The Dominant 7, sharp 9 chord and related scales.

Beyond screens

Over the years, I made designs for other facets of music. Douzee evolved into Stations, a series of 2-D designs representing information relevant to jazz musicians. I codified knowledge and wisdom acquired over 40 years into an abstracted and — to me — memorable system.

A tour of Stations

Let’s take a look at the 2-D designs.

A spine of the saxophone range. Each pitch a vertebra. Concentric ovals connecting the pitches of the overtone series.
A spine of the saxophone range. Each pitch a vertebra. Concentric ovals connecting the pitches of the overtone series.
Tone emerges from nothing.
Dozens of rows of rhythmic patterns represented by black squares, rectangles, and negative space.
Dozens of rows of rhythmic patterns represented by black squares, rectangles, and negative space.
Rhythm animates tone.
A 12-pointed star with the points pointing to the center. Each section, a different color.
A 12-pointed star with the points pointing to the center. Each section, a different color.
Tonality provides color, chromaticism to music.
1, 3, 5 over 3, 5, 1 over 5, 1, 3.
1, 3, 5 over 3, 5, 1 over 5, 1, 3.
Triad and inversions.
1, 3, 5, 7, 9 over 9, 5, 7, 1, 3 over 3, 7, 1, 9, 5 over 5, 1, 9, 3, 7 over 7, 9, 3, 5, 1
1, 3, 5, 7, 9 over 9, 5, 7, 1, 3 over 3, 7, 1, 9, 5 over 5, 1, 9, 3, 7 over 7, 9, 3, 5, 1
9th chord and inversions.
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Chord/Scale relationships as Douzee.
2 groups of dots. The first shows all possible 3-pitch 4-note combinations. The second, all 4-pitch 4-note ones.
2 groups of dots. The first shows all possible 3-pitch 4-note combinations. The second, all 4-pitch 4-note ones.
Squiggly lines representing parts of speech — nouns, verbs, conjugators, etc — but for melody.
Squiggly lines representing parts of speech — nouns, verbs, conjugators, etc — but for melody.
Parts of Speech serve functions in melody similar to spoken language.
2 groups of squiggly lines: one shows how you can change an idea; the other, how ideas can be chained together.
2 groups of squiggly lines: one shows how you can change an idea; the other, how ideas can be chained together.
Operations & Joinery vary and connect melodic ideas.
42 common, short chord progressions.
42 common, short chord progressions.
Isolating simple harmonic transitions helps build a harmonic vocabulary.
3 types of 12-bar blues: simple, intermediate, and Bird (Charlie Parker).
3 types of 12-bar blues: simple, intermediate, and Bird (Charlie Parker).
3 12-bar blues: simple, intermediate, and Bird (Charlie Parker).
The 24 bars of Rhythm Changes, a fundamental jazz song form, with harmonic analysis.
The 24 bars of Rhythm Changes, a fundamental jazz song form, with harmonic analysis.
Rhythm Changes, a fundamental jazz song form.
6 long and 12 short harmonic routes to travel to a desitation.
6 long and 12 short harmonic routes to travel to a desitation.
Harmonic cadences offer many and varied paths to a destination.
20 multi-colored units of musical vocabulary represented by lines and organic shapes.
20 multi-colored units of musical vocabulary represented by lines and organic shapes.
Developing a personal vocabulary sharpens style.

The thing that gets you to the thing*

I made Stations to grow as a musician. It’s a framework of musical concepts to guide my study. It’s a cycle I can return to again and again. Where I can reinforce what I can do and make new discoveries each time.

Next

Practice never ends. And Stations is ever-evolving. Some designs are more refined than others. I hope to visually ‘normalize’ the system as I sculpt it from wood.

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