“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.
Maybe you had music lessons as a kid. If so, you might remember this C major scale:
The representation packs in a lot: structure, pitch, duration, key, clef, meter, rhythm, labels. Wow! Western music notation and symbols do many things well except clearly show how music works.
You must first become literate in a precise, extensive system of symbols before you reach the how of music.
Learning this way takes a long time. And, as a jazz improvisor, I find it too elaborate for thinking fast. I wanted a more direct way to see — and mentally retrieve — the essence of musical concepts so I can play them.
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.
Using numbers instead of letters to name tones is common. I replaced sharp and flat symbols — # and b — with shape and color. A green triangle represents a tone raised by a half-step; a blue inverted triangle means it’s lowered by one.
Finally, numbers stay in one place to show the intervals between them.
For example, here is the Dominant 7, sharp 5 chord and related scales. Even if you’ve never studied music, you can notice constructions and their relationships.
From here, we can have a conversation about the mechanics of music before you ever take a lesson.
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.
I want to carry Stations in my head and move throughout it. So, I am building an art installation of it with wooden sculptures to do just that. I view Stations as both a physical mental-model and a conceptual cathedral — a meaningful architecture designed to instruct, inspire, and enable transcendence.
A tour of Stations
Let’s take a look at the 2-D designs.
Tone: Music begins with a sound, a tone. Each unique tone contains overtones, a series of pitches at higher frequencies that form scales.
Rhythm: results from a sequence of tones of various lengths over time.
Tonality: harmonic areas created from each of the twelve tones. Tonality is like color in visual art.
Arpeggios: the chord tones that define a harmonic area.
Chord/Scales: how vertical and horizontal tonal groupings relate.
Cells: all possible combinations of three- and four-pitch sets for use as melodic ideas.
Parts of Speech: shapes representing the grammar of melody.
Operations & Joinery: how to modify a melodic idea and how ideas can be connected into longer streams.
Progressions: sets of harmonic areas that flow from one to the next.
Form: containers for a musical work described by harmonic analysis.
Growth: how a work of music is shaped and can be restructured, re-routed, and cadenced into and out of various tonal centers until resolution.
Vocabulary: unique shapes representing my original music vocabulary. Each one popped into my head while practicing. I want to spend more time, here.
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.
Sometimes, I have a breakthrough. Often, progress occurs in dribs and drabs.
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.
Stations is a big, airy idea that I’m ready to share. I did not do this soon enough with Douzee.
I applied for a patent for Douzee in 2012. I defended it twice against the patent office until they rejected it as ‘too abstract’ in 2019. I held the idea too tightly, precious and paranoid. I did not ship. And I missed the lessons.
I do not want to make the same mistake.
So, here is my imperfect work. I hope to find like-minded souls, those who toil away in similar pursuits. Learn things. Get better.
What works or doesn’t? Why? What are you doing? Who and what should I check out?
I’d love to hear from you.
*Paraphrased from ‘Halt and Catch Fire.’