Notation

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Musical notation must have gotten it’s start as an aid to memory, as a way of using written symbols to make possible the more or less accurate reproduction of a particular piece of music.
Unfortunately as musical  notation developed it quickly forgot its origins as a mere shorthand for experience, and  began to think of itself as a system  which could dictate which sounds were music and which were not,  and by doing so morphed from a notation into a definition.
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Which may explain why some trained musicians have insisted that what we are doing is not music.   Since our “soundings” (as one such gentleman insisted on calling them) can not be written down, well then they can not be music.
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Musical notation developed as an aid to memory, a kind of shorthand, a way of using written symbols to help performers learn a particular piece of music.

But it wasn’t long before musicians forgot this humble origin and instead began to think of their notation as a type of higher knowledge which could explain why some sounds are music and some are not.  ( Music and Magic )
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That’s why a few trained musicians have insisted what we are doing is not music.  Since our “soundings” ( as one such gentleman insisted on calling them ) can not be written down, well then they can’t be music.
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As so often happens with us meaning hungry humans, something which started as an honest workmanlike description morphed into a value judgment and a definition.

Unfortunately in the process musical notation changed into a technical system which specified the magic out of music, abandoned ordinary language, and in its place enshrined frequencies as the definitions of notes and strict mathematical counts as accurate descriptions of rhythms ( Slow, Low, And Varied ).

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Few seem to have noticed this dependence on system merely reflected the newly triumphant technology’s take on how best to get things done.

And certainly for a gear to work its teeth must all be the same size, in a bureaucracy positions should be fungible, and when one measures time in an experiment, the seconds need to be the same in every lab.

But while this approach works well for science, when it intrudes into the world of aesthetics it produces a dulling uniformity…. and that’s exactly what’s happened in music…. that’s part of why most everything you hear now sounds like something you’ve heard before….  ( Music and Magic )
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Of  course believing in this new musical gospel demanded ignoring some inconvenient truths.

One had to forget that when something is played so all its quarter notes are exactly the same length, it sounds unmusical and mechanical  ( Slow, Low, And Varied ).

One had to not notice that inspired artists like Billy Holiday never worried about being precisely in tune, to not hear the way she bent and twisted notes was essential to the magic of her music.

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The Map Is Not the Territory
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But these are obvious truths most music teachers and musicologists prefer to forget.

They’d rather think their technical systems encapsulate the core of music, that the written down cantata is the pure music of which any real world performance is merely a Platonic reflection.

Such experts must fool themselves into believing only certain precisely defined frequencies can sound pretty, and that played together these “notes” blend sweetly only if their frequencies conform to certain precisely defined mathematical relationships.

Which would merely be merely pathetic and laughable if their self intoxicated delusion had been a victimless crime.

Sadly instead it’s gone a long ways towards destroying the power of music to enchant listeners, to take them out of themselves, to stop their thoughts and open them to otherworldly beauty.  ( Music and Magic )

For one thing it inspired development of instruments so limited they can only play the notes the musicologists are prepared to allow into their system.  ( Our Instruments )

Leading to such marvelous monster machines as the Boehm flute and the piano.

Of course if your goal is to have many identical instruments being played very fast by many well trained technicians, then all this uniformity is useful.  Still our admittedly heretical impression is when many instruments play the same line at the same time, even if they’re “correctly tuned”, all you get is a sort of overwhelming mush.

Or to say it differently, having a whole herd of violins is nothing more than musical materialism.  ( Music and Magic )

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Standardized Tuning Leads To Insensitivity
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It’s a bit counterintuitive, one would think having to be in tune would make them more not less sensitive.  But in reality, sometimes of necessity as when a pianist must play a slightly out-of-tune instrument, and sometimes just to cut themselves a little slack, it motivates them to ignore subtle differences in pitch.

What happens is their ear-brain systems learn to assimilate every pitch to the nearest “legitimate” ( i.e. chromatic ) note.  That’s to say when a tone is half way between two chromatic notes, they hear it as one or the other.

Whereas since our music is not tied to any standard scale, we’re free to hear such between tones as different, to think “ah, that’s an interesting sound, now how can we use it? ”.

So though it may at first seem odd, choosing to explore a world of non-standardized irregular tunings has in fact forced us to learn to listen more carefully…..

…… Which turns out to be a true devil’s bargain.  Now with our sharper ears we can’t ignore the incredible liberties most musicians take with their tuning.  Now when we listen to conventional music, it almost always strikes us as being “out of tune”.  ( The Emperor Has No Clothes )
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Our Tuning……
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We haven’t had to take such liberties since from when we made our very first instruments, their tuning has been irregular and loose.  ( Our Instruments )

For our shokis, because we had no interest in practicing traditional shakuhachi tunes, we went with very large finger holes that make it easier to play the subtle magical tones between the official notes.

While for our Kalimba Family instruments, because unlike most kalimbas their keys are not cut from uniform steel sheet but rather are hammered out by hand from high carbon steel rods ( and so vary in thickness, width, shape, and taper ), each and every one produces a different stew of miscellaneous frequencies.  Sometimes between two adjacent keys the fundamental note actually goes up at the same time some of the other harmonics go down!  In this situation what’s a poor tuner to do?  Even if we want to tune them “correctly” ( which we don’t ), it’s impossible.  Obviously there’s no choice but to take a deep breath and do the best one can.
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Modern standardized instruments are carefully engineered to reduce this type of problem, that’s to say they’ve been designed so their fundamental frequencies are loud enough to overwhelm their other harmonics.

Unfortunately this inevitably makes their tone flatter and less interesting.  ( Music And Magic )
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Then when we started building our Bowus Family instruments we found we preferred to keep our strings very loose, and to bow slowly and without much pressure.

This plus the fact these instruments are all fretless means it’s beyond difficult to force them to make a predetermined note.  Instead we have no choice but to craft our music from the sounds they want to sing, even though many of these sounds would be considered by musicologists to be wildly out of tune, or even like our kalimba tones to be so weird and fuzzy as to be untunable.  ( Our Instruments )

It was very puzzling.

We knew if our instruments were tested with scientific devices, they would turn out to be “out of tune”, and yet on days when we’re on, what we play on them sounds both sweet and magical.  ( Music And Magic )

And as we thought about stuff like this, we realized musicologists have been mistaking their map for the territory when they’ve claimed to explain musical “sweetness” in terms of frequency ratios, that at the very least the real situation is much more complicated than the theorists would like to believe.
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Nowadays when well meaning friends suggest we check the “tuning” of our instruments with some electronic tuning device, we smile and tell them we’d rather use our ears….

So to tune our quartertone kalimbas we first tune every other key to a chromatic ( half-tone ) scale and then try to put the other keys half-way between them.  Of course both because our ears are imperfect and because our keys have such complicated frequency distributions, many of the splits must be more like 55-45 than 50-50.  But having the “tuning” slightly irregular doesn’t bother us.  Indeed we prefer it, even as we prefer walking a rough mountain trail to striding over perfectly flat and uniform city pavement.

Not to mention accepting the “quartertone” intervals of our keyboard kalimbas are only approximately quartertones freed us from the daunting intellectual task of inventing quartertone theory, of composing quartertone music.  Instead we can just let our fingers dance, listen carefully, and discover it.

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Conventional Music Is Just a Special Case
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By creating powerful elegant music based on irregular scales and variable rhythms ( Slow, Low, And Varied ), we’ve shown conventional music is just a special case.  ( The Conventional Theory Of Chords Is Just A Special Case )

To say this a bit more concretely, according to notation based theory the music we play on our instruments is “out of tune” and arrhythmic, and so can’t be beautiful, or for that matter can’t even be music…. but it’s both.

So at the very least the standard theory needs to be modified and expanded.

To fail to do this would be as silly as it would have been for mathematics to have rested content with just the positive integers, or physics to have rejected relativity…. or as it would be to insist the only legitimate type of writing is rhymed and regular poetry.
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Music and Magic****Doing Music Differently****Slow, Low, And Varied
Our Instruments***Kalimba Family***Bowus Family***Shoki Family
The Conventional Theory of Chords is Just a Special Case
Home****
Work In Progress Frozen mp3 Blog****Buy Our Music

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