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Music and the Brain

There are good reasons to study music aside from being able to play.

Listening to music

Simply listening to music “involves nearly every region of the brain that we know about, and nearly every neural subsystem” (Daniel Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music, p. 86).
 For instance, following along with music engages certain parts of the brain – the hippocampus (memory center) and the frontal lobe; tapping along with music engages others – the cerebellum’s timing circuits.

Playing music

Performing music uses the frontal lobes for planning behaviour, as well as the motor cortex and sensory cortex. Listening to, or recalling lyrics, involves language centers in the brain.
Simply by listening to music, we strengthen our brain. By learning to play, the benefits multiply. So even if you decided to quit playing, music lessons would still  have a lasting benefit that positively affects your entire life.
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Time signatures: what they are and why they’re cool

The time signature lives right at the beginning of every song.

You know. That thing that looks like a fraction.

As it turns out, there’s a lot to say about this thing. Check out the Wikipedia article.

Or not.


What’s it for?

In the simplest terms, the time signature tells you two things:


  • how many beats are in a bar, and
  • what those beats are worth


By “worth”, I mean quarter-notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, etc.

So a time signature of 4/4 means that there are 4 beats in the bar (the first number) and each beat is worth a quarter note (the second number). 3/8 means that there are three beats in the bar, and each beat is worth an eighth note.


The second number

The first number can be anything (though it doesn’t usually go above 11). The second number points to a note value. The possibilities for this number and what it corresponds to are:


  • 1 – whole-note (rare)
  • 2 – half-note
  • 4 – quarter-note
  • 8 – eighth-note
  • 16 – sixteenth-note
  • 32 – thirty-second-note (rare)


Getting interesting

But all that is just background.

Time signatures get interesting when you realize that there’s more to life than 4/4 and ¾ These get the most use by far, but there’s a lot more to consider.

I’ve defined the possibilities for the second number. You’ll notice they’re all multiples of two. Except for the whole note.

The first number can combine twos and threes. This can produce crazy looking time signatures, but that’s not what makes a song interesting.

What makes a song interesting, what creates its unique feel, is how you put the twos and threes together.


4/4 can get boring

Let me explain.

If you play in 4/4 all the time, it probably means you’re emphasizing the same beats every song.: the first beat and the third beat, or the second beat and the fourth beat.

Now take a simple time signature like 5/4. 5/4 is a combination of two and three. It’s either 2 + 3, or 3 + 2.

So what, you say?



Well, strum a chord in 5/4 and emphasize beat 1 and beat 3.

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 6.30.47 AM


Now strum a chord and 5/4 and emphasize beat 1 and beat 4.

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 6.32.26 AM


Two completely different feels in one time signature.


Possibilities. Lots.

Imagine emphasizing beat 1 and beat 3 in the verse, and beat 1 and beat 4 in the chorus. Or 4/4 in the verse, and 5/4 in the chorus. Or maybe just use 5/4 in the bridge…

The point is, with one simple time signature, a whole bunch of possibilities open up. Why not take advantage of that?



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Making ambient

My approach to creating ambient music involves the following resources:

  • Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig 5
  • preparing the guitar


Check out my post on prepared guitar for an explanation.


Prepared guitar


Guitar Rig 5 and prepared guitar describes my basic rig. I also use…

  • MAX to create either guitar effects, or separate instruments altogether
  • Audiomulch for creating separate instruments


…and two iPad apps:

  • Samplr
  • Curtis


Orchestral soundscapes

This provides me with tremendous resources for creating non-conventional guitar sounds. I combine these sounds with the Boss Loopstation to make soundscapes of orchestral complexity.

I set this up by placing one instrumental section on one of three phrases. “Phrases” are what the Loopstation calls the place where you can record and overdub sounds. You can see them on the lower right of the device.




I’m thinking conceptually here. I don’t use conventional orchestral instruments (although lately I’ve been thinking about it). I create 4 -6 unique sounds for each phrase using the above resources. Then I arrange and overdub them.

Each sound can be either a prepared guitar sound processed through Guitar Rig or MAX, or sounds created in Audiomulch, Samplr, or Curtis. Then I can fade sections in and out as desired while playing a live part against them.

There’s a lot of detail to talk about. In future posts I’ll describe the materials I’ve mentioned here in some detail.





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Tim Hecker

Tim Hecker’s work is more clearly ambient than Christian Fennesz’s. Greater use of conventional instrumentation with the judicious use of noise makes it possible for his work to fade into the background, while still being compelling.


Hecker is concerned with timing, placement, and taste. Often there is one overriding idea. Prism, from Virgins is an example. It starts with a processed organ pad (?) that gets interrupted by a seven-beat phrase at regular intervals.

The seven-beat phrase itself is attention-grabbing in its combination of simplicity and strangeness. It’s essentially an uncomplicated melody that’s sliced somewhere in the middle and time-shifted slightly, giving it an arresting quality. Bits of the phrase continue ghost-like after the fact. The ear tries to capture these, and the listener becomes an active participant.

Try to hold the organ pad in your ear, and you’ll hear it evolve slightly. Or is that just an aural hallucination?



Imagine a painting, something representational, a landscape or a portrait with undried paint. Now imagine smearing the paint across the canvas.

Hecker uses this effect aurally by creating upward gissandos with entire organ chords beginning around the two-minute mark. The effect is a wiping away of some of the existing sound. The ghost of the seven-beat phrase remains.

Tim Hecker is an ambient composer who creates music that encourages you to listen to it. While it’s possible to ignore, it never becomes aural wallpaper.


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Christian Fennesz

Take a listen to Ferment_action_OZmotic on Christian Fennesz’s album Aireffect. This is along the lines of what I’m thinking of as fractured ambient. Maybe a better name for this is noise ambient.

This is part the process I engage in when I’m forming ideas: close listening to stuff that I like. It gets inside clarifies my own way of doing things. Pretty common approach, really. But a lot of people don’t write it down.


Brian Eno described ambient music as being “as ignorable as it is interesting.” This piece is interesting, but ignorable? I’m not sure.

The piece begins inside what sounds like a faltering airplane engine. A tearing sound after 20 seconds forms a boundary between that and (in order of appearance) granular raindrops; a chirping metal sound; a rusty, clockwork machine; and a bassy synth replaced immediately by a metallic scraping.

Bass synth balloons out from there, followed by a pedal-tone (guitar?), and obsessive morse code bleeping. These elements recede and emerge.

All this in the first two minutes of a six minute piece.

Can we call this ambient? It’s certainly textural (as ambient music tends to be). It’s also interesting. Ignorable? Probably not in a quiet space where it would stand out.


Moving on

Around the 2:23 mark we get a sloshing sound and synth pads, followed by what sounds like cutlery on plates, dog barks, bell-of-the-cymbal strikes, a bit of farting static, and at 3:37, a gong repeated three times, accompanied each time by a change of harmony in the synth pads.

Sounds like he’s moving toward something more conventional…

Large bass synth at 4:10 with random drum synth-produced woodblocks and metal, and another bass note at 4:23. More drum synth, and more bass at 4:36, 4:45, 4:54, 5:00, followed by huge synth pad swells that consume the bass. Continue drum pad, add static, dial down synth pad, end with static. The granular raindrops from the beginning never go away.




Is this ambient? There are clearly marked sections (the gongs starting at 3:37, the bass synth at 4:10), and a variety of different sounds that don’t evolve. This runs against type. But the slowly evolving sound structure – the gradual addition of similiar types of sound (metal) in the first 2 minutes – reminds me of ambient music.

So I’m thinking of it fractured or noise ambient. The evolving sound (granular raindrops, metal sounds) is interrupted (fractured) by sounds alien to the existing, noisy structure. These sounds – gongs, bass – are more conventional, and send the piece in a different direction. Previous elements remain as what can be thought of as an ambient structure.

I know I’m pushing it. It’s as easy to reject this as ambient altogether, as it is to call it fractured or noise ambient. But taking a close look at stuff that might be described as ambient – textural, or timbre-based music – and trying to squash it into an ambient box – is one way to clarify for myself what it is I’m trying to make.



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Fractured ambience

I’ve taken to calling my electronic work “fractured ambient.” I like the phrase, but right now that’s all it is. A phrase.

And I’m deciding whether or not it really works. Looking at history usually helps sort things out.


A (very small) bit of history, plus a definition

Erik Satie is often invoked as the originator of ambient music. Listen to Music D’ameublement, though, and you’ll wonder why. But then listen to the Gymnopedies and it’s pretty obvious. This is serious chill.

Brian Eno coined the term “ambient”. Eno’s concept of ambience is music that can be either actively listened to or used as background, depending on whether the listener chooses to pay attention or not. It’s been a highly influential if not entirely original idea, at best informing the resurgence of electronic ambient via the dance world, at worst being taken to its passive extreme by many creators of “relaxation” music.

If you want a straight up definition, here’s Wikipedia: “…a genre of music that puts an emphasis on tone and atmosphere over traditional musical structure or rhythm. Ambient music is said to evoke an “atmospheric”, “visual”[2] or “unobtrusive” quality.”


A nice description

Here’s how Joshua Rothman in his New Yorker article “The Discreet Charm of Ambient Music” describes the experience of listening to Eno’s “Lux.”

… you’re equally aware of the way that it frames the other sounds you’re hearing and making: the traffic in the street, your own breathing, the keys on the keyboard, the creaks in the floorboards, the rustle of your clothes when you move. You’re also more in touch with the small inflections in your own moods. Each key change, and each new instrument, with its new timbre, is an opportunity to measure the difference between the feeling of the music and your state of mind. “Lux” is fascinating as music. But it also makes the world more fascinating. It’s a catalyst for consciousness and self-awareness.


Fractured ambience

Fractured ambience subverts this to some extent by introducing noise, environmental sound, and spoken word. So is it still ambient in any conventional sense? Is it – as Wikipedia says – atmospheric, visual, unobtrusive?

It’s definitely atmospheric and visual. Unobtrusive? I’m not so sure.

More than a lot of ambient music, it pulls you towards it (resulting in a less meditative, take-it-or-leave-it type of experience). But it still immerses you in a sonic texture that, as Rothman says, makes you aware of the way that it frames the other sounds you’re hearing.

In my next posts, I’ll look at artists who I think are taking a fractured approach.

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