Organicism is a word I like.

Alright, so this could very easily dissolve into a dumb, overblown, and frankly played out analog vs. digital argument, or something equally obnoxious, so I’ll do my very best to avoid that. What I really want to talk about is organicism, which, as stated, is a word. I checked. So what is it, and what does it have to do with music, and art in general for that matter?

Well, the word is a noun, and is kind of an abstract idea along the lines of being organic, to one extent or another. But, you may suggest, art is a creation of man, and is therefore synthetic in nature and cannot truly be organic. To you I say touche, and rather than offer a compelling counter-argument, I’ll simply side-step because that idea really has nothing to do with what I want to talk about. I’m more interested in artistic details (where, of course, the devil does reside) and process. I believe the details and how they relate to, or are a result of, a process are infinitely interesting and beautiful. They can also ruin an otherwise great work of art. There are questions we can ask about said details to help determine their perceived value. These questions could include: do they appear intentional, or thought out? Are they visible at all? Perhaps too obvious? Are they predictable or surprising? Do they create a sense of comfort, and was that their purpose? Clearly, these questions are quite abstract and could be formulated and asked endlessly, but on some level we evaluate much of our sensory intake this way. So why are some things so much more aesthetically pleasing than others, even when said aesthetically pleasing object or sound is much “uglier” or more “vulgar” or what-have-you than another object of less aesthetic value? I think the answer is largely related to it’s organicism.

At this point, I’m going to shift to talking about music more directly, since that is my area of assumed expertise, but I’m sure some concepts will translate elsewhere. As far as organicism in music, much of it is traditionally derived from the human performance aspect. Humans are organic and imperfect. Their performances therefore will contain many imperfections, and we, as other humans, tend to find this controlled margin of error pleasant to the ear. We even have words for some of these purposeful inaccuracies, such as “swing,” or playing “ahead of the beat.” Alternatively, when we have a computer play back music with perfect accuracy in regard to time, pitch, velocity, etc. we get terms like “cold,” and “rigid.” There is a similar effect when comparing recording mediums, namely analog tape versus digital. Analog tape works something like this: Tons and tons of little magnetic fibers cover the surface of tape, and as this tape passes over the electro-magnetic tape head of the recorder, these tiny particles are rearranged related to the varying voltages of the magnet to store the audio data. This process has some great advantages, namely a wonderfully pleasant sound to which we’ve attached terms such as “warm” and “punchy.” Much of the greatness we love about tape comes from its inherent limitations, that “warm” sound resulting from harmonic distortion generated in a process called tape compression, when the bandwidth and dynamic level of the audio going into the tape recorder exceeds what the tape can actually physically hold. That was a bit of a long-winded explanation but you get the point. It’s imperfect, and therefore has organic properties which we, being organic ourselves, can relate to. Digital (at its current stage of development) basically recreates perfectly whatever is put into it (the computer). Gone are the physical limitations, and a computer is able to translate every detail accurately into neat little 1’s and 0’s. This relative perfection sounds “cold” to us, to a varying degree depending on one’s ears. There is one other aspect of digital that may have a negative effect that is worth mentioning (which actually does introduce imperfection to the paradigm, but in a non-pleasing way), and that is the discrete nature of 1’s and 0’s. Tape records in a constantly variable way, not relying on points in a numerical system. Everything in the computer must be a 1 or 0, so even at a very high resolution, there is a “stair-step” sort of waveform. While this counts as an imperfection, it is a very mechanical, calculable one, and is therefore difficult for us to relate to. Fortunately, technology has progressed to a point where we can use various tools to add back into a digital recording some of the organic sounding randomness and distortion that we love to hear, and compensate relatively well for the “coldness.”

That last part was important. We, as artists, are consciously adding in a sense of organicism that was lost in our process. This is an adaptive trait in art, and reinforces the idea of what we as people can and cannot relate to on a sensory level. The ways in which this is done and the different extents are plenty. From purposely moving bits of MIDI data slightly off the quantized grid, to leaving small errors recorded in a guitar or drum track, or adding distortion or saturation plugins, the options are nearly endless. However it is achieved, that organicism is essential to creating a product that is identifiable on a human level, and should be a constant consideration, at least in my experience. Even music which exists purely because of the computer and digital process, such as modern EDM can benefit tremendously from a live instrument or two here and there, and some humanization in programmed drums.

We have so many tools available to us in the name of “perfection,” but never forget about the quintessential human element, that organicism. You’ll know when you have it if you pay attention, it will give you that great warm, fuzzy feeling that keeps you listening to music in the first place.

Why I think music theory rules (but also kind of sucks)

Okay, so the title of this one may be a tad confusing, if not just a bit silly. But I do think it is apt, because that’s the best I can describe my feelings toward “Music Theory,” in it’s common sense.

The term itself is strange I think, first of all. I mean music theory seems as though it could possibly refer to so many different ideas and concepts. However, its usual meaning is an organization of musical concepts such as pitch, rhythm, and harmonic relationships, into a system; more or less it is a language. Or, more accurately, it is a new set of terms and rules to add into our own language the ability to accurately describe music and have other people understand what the hell you’re talking about. That’s the most important concept to understand when thinking about music in its theoretical terms… it is NOT a set of rules, but merely a common understood language. It is a tool for understanding and description of general, and specific musical ideas. In this capacity, knowledge of theory is wonderfully useful. As a musician, to be able to describe to other musicians what you are playing, or what you want them to play so easily and clearly is invaluable.

I think this is a fairly easy way to think of music theory, and without a doubt the most important in my point of view. However, there are other uses of these concepts, but to be appreciated properly, I think a bit more background is needed before they are introduced. Where theory came from (in a conceptual sense, rather than a geographical one) is immensely important. The ideas and terms related to music theory have been developed over hundreds of years, and have come about as a result of studying the past. From the tasks of studying, cataloging, and explaining the thousands of significant musical pieces written throughout history, certain patterns have emerged, then developed and expanded, and so on. The process of development between music theory and of actual music have been ongoing, and fluid. But the important point here is that theory is a result of music, and not the other way around. So the idea that theory is a bunch of rules is debunked right there. If you want proof, do a formal and harmonic analysis of any Beethoven symphony and tell me how well he follows the rules. If you are well taught and learned, you will likely be able to come up with theoretical explanations for the things he does, but its only because terms were invented to solve that very dilemma. If you were wondering, this is the area in which theory starts to suck pretty bad, when dealing with some beautiful piece of music like a Mozart sonata or one of Beethoven’s symphonies. In many cases, it becomes an exercise of near-futility to really make sense of it, and that’s because the truth is that when these pieces were being written, the composer wasn’t thinking much about theory, or so it would seem. It seems much more likely that they were doing whatever the hell they wanted, and, of course, what they thought might sound cool.

So there’s my big statement: composers composed what they composed because they thought it sounded cool. Of course they were informed, they had learned the theory relevant up to their time period in one way or another (although historically it was learned much more through practice than lecture,) and that does have to be taken into account. But if they were following guidelines, it was because they knew it would work for whatever part they were working on, and showed little hesitation in shaking things up. So, in that way, theory is very useful information. Being well studied, it can be quite handy to look at a passage and have a great idea as to how Handel or Mozart might have treated it. The problems set in when you use your knowledge of theory like a rigid framework and let the music serve it, instead of the other way around. Many “old-school” composers dislike the idea of composing within a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) environment, or a piece of notation software, because you are inherently limited by that software’s capabilities, or the methods which it may promote by its interface design. Holding too tight a grip on principles of music theory is no different.

As I’ve said of past topics, none of this is new. I think everyone figures all this out eventually, or I hope they do. Even the high-art types in the music scene embrace the breaking of the rules (but only if you know those rules ahead of time.) However, there isn’t enough emphasis put on the practical reasons for learning theory when you are actually being taught it, in many cases. I know that was the case for me, and it led to a lot of frustration. Learn it as a tool, a multifaceted one. Remember the doors it can open in communication, and the great inspiration it can provide. Just never use it to dictate how you treat a new musical piece. Unless you want to… I guess the most exciting point in all of this is do whatever you want (musically that is).