Song Theory

November 29th, 2007

The possibilities for a song’s context extend infinitely beyond verses and choruses. Here are some things I’m going to try for my next album:

1. Imagine a vast landscape, seen via bird’s eye view. Mountains stretch out into the distance. A lonely stream trickles past rocky outcrops and tufts of cat’s tails. The remainder of the ground swells with rolling grasslands that become more and more treed as they approach the distant peaks.

This is the theoretical structure of the song, which exists at all times. The song is a linear exploration of this landscape. For example, the song could start at the stream’s level, and follow the steam through a valley for a bit, and then raise up slowly to reveal the entire area, and how the stream trickles down from mountain springs and snowmelt. Or, the song can start at bird’s eye and slowly focus in on a single tuft of grass, and show how the grass’s water supply and attendant wind come from larger forces that were introduced in the beginning of the song.

2. A song is a conversation. Each voice in the song tells a difficult story; perhaps they argue, perhaps they augment. There is a conflict or there isn’t. By and by the conversation quiets or doesn’t, and the song ends.

3. A song is a description of adaption or evolution. An organism is challenged by some difficulty – it must adapt to overcome it, or fail. The song details what happens to the organism as it struggles through its environment.

4. A song is static. It doesn’t move or change; it describes nothing, it does not evolve. It is the Big Freeze, fragments of atoms and quarks at thermal equilibrium, for all time. It is lifeless, yet foreseeable, inevitable.

5. A song is an opinion; an idea is presented, and the song agrees or disagrees with it, and either backs up its claims with evidence or argues from the heart. The idea can be objectively right or wrong; the song is a value system, placed in the opinion’s context. It is the logical result of perturbing a given system.

The Verse Chorus Paradigm

September 21st, 2007

(Lots of links, dear readers, but it’s a) worth your while and b) going to take a long time to get through this. So don’t start unless you have an hour or so to kill.)

It’s a sorry state of affairs in today’s music industry. Music-as-business has been around since about the 1920s, when Decca Records, one of the first record labels, was incorporated in Great Britain. By 1939, Decca and EMI were the only two record labels in Britain – a monopoly that still exists today in a similar form. Eighty percent of the U.S. music market, as well as seventy percent of the world music market, is controlled by just four music groups: Warner Music, EMI, Sony BMG, and Universal Music. A music group is kind of a conglomerate holding company that controls many different facets of the recording industry under a corporate umbrella. Music publishing, music recording, distributors, and actual record labels are all typically retained under the brand name of a music group. There are many side effects of the near-complete centralization of the music industry, two of which are worth mentioning here:

1. Artists must sign a contract with a music group to get their music out to the public.

This was particularly bad in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, due to the lack of both the internet and independent labels that had the ability to cater to exotic genres and non-mainstream sound design. To get your music heard, you had to go with one of the Big Four. This meant that the record labels could exercise an appalling amount of creative and financial control over the artist. A standard contract for a first time artist generally included a pennies-on-the-dollar royalty scheme, leaving said artist reliant on ticket sales and merchandise sales to be able to continue profiting and making music. A great deal of the time, lesser artists signed away their rights to their own music as well, ceding them (the rights) to the record label in question. The label generally selected the producer, the studio, and the songs to be recorded, in addition to retaining the ability to edit or censor songs and titles of songs in post-production, without the approval of the artist. Many times the producer that the record label hired would co-write the songs with the band, playing as a sort of modern-day Minimus, making sure that everything that’s produced is in sync with the perceived current popular trends in music, in addition to controlling said current. All of the music of the last two decades that you hear on the radio has gone through this process. It is literally filtered through and designed by the label to both pander to the tastes of the consumer and control what the consumer hears. And who do you think, owns most of the radio stations? You only get one guess.

2. The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality has stifled creative growth by potential new artists.

The question remains: exactly how much influence do producers and record labels have in the actual writing and performing of songs? Generally, the more popular a song/artist is, the more that the producer/label has meddled in the song’s creation. This says something very deep about the average listener’s appreciation of music, which I’ll get to in a little while.

Exempli gratia: Max Martin and Jim Vallance are two world-class producers and songwriters who are responsible for a sizable amount of the popular music of the 80s, 90s, and 00s. Check out the links, but I’ll sum up: Vallance writes metal and hard-rock tunes. He’s most “well-known” for writing a lot of the Scorpions’ material, in addition to penning the Bryan Adams hit, Summer of ’69. (I say “well-known” because the fact that the producers – not the performers – are behind these songs’ creation is generally kept on the down-low. Thanks, Wikipedia!) Max Martin is single-handedly responsible for the Backstreet Boys’ rise to fame, as well as Britney Spears’ first wave of hits, including …Baby One More Time[1], which he wrote himself. Since U Been Gone, performed by American Idol’s Kelly Clarkson (a consumer-as-pseudo-controller paradigm which I’m not even going to get into), was also authored by Martin. To wit:

“I want to be part of every note, every single moment going on in the studio. I want nothing forgotten, I want nothing missed. I’m a perfectionist. The producer should decide what kind of music is being made, what it’s going to sound like – all of it, the why, when and how.” – Max Martin, L.A. Times, 6/05/00


Everything I’ve written so far is the background and introduction. The two following sentences are the raison d’être of this article, which hopefully I’ll convince you of:

1) 99.99% of popular music (ever since there has been music one could call “popular”) presents itself within a common form which I have dubbed the Verse Chorus Paradigm, which is simultaneously informing and subverting creation and appreciation of new music, regardless of its popular or underground origins.

2) The fact that the V.C.P. exists and persists says something truly deep w/r/t the public’s interpretation and perception of music, and of art in general.


The Verse Chorus Paradigm is a system of organization that delineates a song’s possible structures. It has very strict rules of form and function (the reason for the V.C.P.’s name should now become clear):

Intro / Verse / Verse /(Pre-chorus) Chorus / Verse / (Pre-chorus) Chorus / Bridge / Solo / Verse / (Pre-chorus) Chorus / Outro

Intro: usually instrumental (viz. no singing) in nature, introduces the key and tempo of the song.

Verse (V): generally either 4 lines or 8 lines long, tells a story or otherwise moves the “plot” of the song along its thematic path.

Pre-chorus (PC): harmonically more “tense” than the verse, somehow leads inexorably to the chorus – this can technically be considered part of the chorus as it never appears without it, but sometimes there’s only a chorus with no harmonic/thematic lead-in, which is the main reason for this explanation. It’s generally 2-4 lines long, and sometimes only instrumental in nature (usually in rock/metal/punk only).

Chorus (C): generally close to the same length as the verse, states the theme of the song, also usually contains the song’s “hook” – that is to say the part of the song which is designed to be catchy or easy to remember – which can be lyrical or instrumental, and tends to have an affect that is clever (country), or poignant/romantic (R&B and Top 40), or a statement about the artist’s cleverness/romanticism/poignancy (hip-hop, rock, “pop-punk”), but nearly always repeats more than once. There are never more than three distinct choruses within a song; if you hear three choruses without hearing a bridge, there won’t be a bridge. This rule is never broken.

Bridge (B): melodically different than the verse, usually containing a thematic or stylistic change w/r/t the song’s established motifs, and can vary in length dramatically.

Solo (S): traditionally instrumental, as in “guitar solo”, but can also feature vocal acrobatics – this is temporally interchangeable with the bridge, i.e. the solo may come first and the bridge second.

Outro (O): clean segue out of the song, traditionally containing either a repetition of the song’s chorus, or a fade-out, or an instrumental diversion that relates harmonically/melodically back to the intro’s key and theme.

Listed above are the parts of the song and the order in which they appear. The sections in bold are never skipped – the sections in normal type are optional. My argument is that the vast majority of popular songs – and by “popular” I mean “written by a band or producer for a major record label” – follow this format. I dare you to find a song written in the last twenty years, that you’ve heard on corporate radio, that does not follow the V.C.P. explicitly. While the verses and choruses are compulsory, the most typical format is I-V-(PC)C-V-(PC)C-B-(PC)C-O; that is to say, an intro, two verse-prechorus-choruses, a bridge-prechorus-chorus, and an outro. Here are three examples, with the song structures explicitly laid out. I strongly suggest you listen to each one and follow along, otherwise it’s not going to make any sense (the title of the song links to the file; right-click and select “open in a new window/tab” to follow along).

1.) Justin Timberlake – My Love (I-V(PC)C-V(PC)C-B(PC)C-O) (2006) [2] This a pop song; you’ve probably heard it.

Intro (0:00-0:16) Sets up the theme with a vocal cue, then brings in the backing beat and melody for what turns out to be the

Verse (0:16-0:49) Four lines about love, the last of which is repeated in other verses (This ring here represents my heart…), which provides a harmonic and thematic tie-in to the

Pre-Chorus (0:49-1:06) Four more lines about love, which repeat in other pre-choruses, and lead directly to the

Chorus (1:06-1:36) My Love, etc. It’s the hook. Pretty melody in the second half, too. Note that the Chorus and Verse differ in length by about three seconds.

Verse (1:36-2:09) If I wrote you a love note, and made you smile at every word I wrote, what would you do?

Pre-Chorus (2:09 – 2:26) All I want you to do is to be

Chorus (2:26 – 2:56) My Love. (By the way, I’m guilty of really liking this song.)

Bridge (2:56 – 3:46) different style / theme / type of singing. This part’s pretty cool. It’s roughly twice as long as the verse.

Pre-Chorus (3:46 -4:02) Girl, you amaze me. Ain’t gotta do nothing crazy. See, all I want you to do is to be My Love.

Chorus (4:02 – 4:05) Subtly different this time, an indication that the song is ending.

Outro (4:05 – 4:06) Just a quick fade-out so the ending isn’t too abrupt.

2.) Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine (I-VC-VC-BC-O) (2005) This is generally considered “left-field” pop; i.e. not played very often on the radio, but music videos are still made for the hits, and the albums still go gold/platinum (100,000 / 1 million albums sold, respectively). Music that has a “following” [3] is generally in this category: pre-1990s Metallica, Bjork, and Iron Maiden are good examples.

Intro (0:00 – 0:11)

Verse (0:11 – 0:56) Chorus (o:56 – 1:19) Four lines, half the length of the chorus. Awesome hook, though, and it’s not repeated. Way to be a rebel!
Verse (1:19 – 2:04) Chorus (2:04 – 2:26)

Bridge (2:26 – 2:54) Melodically/thematically different, leads to the final Chorus (2:54 – 3:17)

Outro (3:17 – 3:44) Repeats the chorus and ends with a short melody that references the intro.

3.) Matisyahu – King without a Crown (I-VC-VC-S-BC-O) (2005) Hasidic Jewish reggae from Texas. Popular in its own right, rather than produced/written/overseen by industry insiders. Nevertheless:

Intro (0:00 – 0:46)

Verse (0:46 – 1:26) Chorus (1:26 – 1:46)

Verse (1:46 – 2:37) Chorus (2:37 – 2:57)

Solo (2:57 – 3:37)

Bridge (3:37 – 4:07) Chorus (4:07 – 4:27)

Outro (4:27 – 4:40)

The only unusual parts are that the intro’s a little longer and the first half of the last chorus doesn’t have any singing in it, both of which are probably idiosyncratic and due to the fact that it’s a live – and therefore imperfect – recording.

Pardon the excessive examples (and there will be more), but I feel it’s necessary to make a point of how ingrained this paradigm is in popular music. Part of that is a function of the corporation-artist relationship [4] that is necessary to bring the music to a sizable audience in today’s society, but I feel that the corporation-consumer relationship [5] is just as relevant. After all, we buy the music. We actively listen to it. We follow the trends on MTV, willingly vote for the Top Ten Videos on TRL, download the singles from iTunes. And that’s not to say that popular music is the only “genre” of music that uses the V.C.P., just that we as consumers whole-heartedly buy into what the corporations are selling, and what’s more, we won’t stand for anything else. There’s a reason that hundreds of popular artists have sold millions of albums despite the sameness inherent in said albums, after all, and that reason is two-fold. Us and them. The consumer and the corporation. We want it, and they’re selling it.

The Paradigm has infiltrated into many other types of music, through constant social exposure of the Paradigm to new generations. Musicians that grew up with 60s and 70s pop, and later on MTV, are now producing progressive rock, death metal, synth-pop. [6] It’s still got that good ol’ inevitable sameness, though, and you can listen to it and siphon out the V.C.-ness yourself:

( These songs all rock, by the way. They’re worth listening to a priori)

Freezepop – Stakeout (I-V(PC)C-V-B(C/PC)-C-O)

Variations: Instead of the second chorus, it goes right to the bridge, and then when the chorus comes in it’s overlaid by first the bridge, and then on the second iteration, the original prechorus. They also play the intro melody between some of the segments.

Nile – Lashed to the Slave Stick (I-VC-V2-C-B-V2-V2-C-O)

Variations: Instead of the second verse mirroring the first verse’s structure, they introduce a different one (chords instead of fast picking). It’s about the same length. The bridge is the *really* fast part, and then they go back to the second verse style for twice as long as before. The outro is a repetition of the chorus (Lashed! To! The Slave Stick! *screaming*), then part of the chorus in reverse. It ends abruptly.

Dream Theater – 6:00 (I-V(PC)-V(PC)C-S-B-S2-V(PC)C-O)

Variations: The intro is lengthy and encompasses several themes. Because they are progressive, they don’t get to the chorus on the first iteration – the second verse kind of interrupts where the first chorus would have been. There’s also a second solo section – it’s after the slow-motion bridge, and features wah-wah guitar. The outro is a crazy guitar solo.


Granted, these are significant variations, and certainly you’re not going to hear them (the songs) on the radio any time soon, both for stylistic and commercial reasons. I can analyze their forms w/r/t the V.C.P., however, which indicates that whatever revelations or unique ideas that are brought to the recording studio are still subsumed under the all-powerful and ubiquitous Paradigm. The fact that I can point out verses and choruses, and that you can hear them without too much mental conditioning, is proof enough. The question remains: why does the V.C.P. persist?


There’s a definite tendency among the non-artists in society to just not give a shit about art, one way or the other. A classic layman’s “critical” response to a Jackson Pollock or Rothko that we’ve all heard refers to the so-called critic’s child and said child’s questionable artistic talents, and questioning as to whether or not critic’s child’s artwork’s merits might be better than or equal to the Pollock’s. So it goes. The problem is that the meaning behind the art isn’t in the execution, anyway, but in the concept or intellectual drive behind it. To wit:

“I am not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else… I am interested only in expressing the basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.” – Mark Rothko, Conversations With Artists, 1961

In popular culture there tends to be an equivalence made between a piece’s technical aspects and its inherent value. We place value on artists for their abilities to paint photorealistically, on musicians for being divas or blow-your-mind guitarists, on movies for their special effects or theatre-quality acting. Much ado is made of the technical in today’s society, and the creators suffer. Why else would the identity of the writer of a pop tune be consciously hidden, and the performer lifted to great financial and social status? Whatever concepts lie behind great art and music are lost to the average listener. This isn’t to say that the technical has no place in great art; just that the technical aspect plays second fiddle, is a level of abstraction below. Art is built upon technique, but art is not equivalent to technique.

The point is this: Listeners aren’t interested in being intellectually challenged or forced to interpret something new. The point behind a song’s creation is not relevant – only the sounds that create the song matter. Aesthetics over intellect. And as far as aesthetics go: the average listener is interested in one thing, and one thing only. Entertainment. The uterine stasis of pop music is, above all, aesthetically pleasant. The V.C.P. persists because it is pleasant and familiar. Broken down into symbols, the V.C.P. is nearly as simple as possible: A B A B. Verse Chorus Verse Chorus. It’s pure aesthetic hedonism – someone who is pretty singing about something that is pretty within a context that is predictable and repetitive. Or if you’re a rebel – someone who is angry singing about something that is awesome within a context that is predictable and repetitive. That’s what it is, anyway. Music-as-business is business-as-music. Sell people the thing that sells: conformity.

The necessarily intellectual and conceptual approach to music-as-art is being threatened by the overwhelming presence of music-as-business and its attendant Paradigmatic form [7]. So much of non-mainstream music is based upon the V.C.P. that it’s hard to tell where the long arm of the market ends and the artist’s ideas begin. These days, if you use the V.C.P. you’re buying into the status quo, and if you avoid it, you’re subtly making a self-conscious reference to the fact that you’ve chosen to eschew it. This isn’t to say that music is dead, only that its growth is becoming increasingly limited by society’s penchant for surface-level diversions. See also television. Don’t confuse great entertainment for great art.



[1] Guess how many of the songs on Britney’s debut album were actually authored by her? That’s right, none. Twenty-seven million copies sold, though, as of this writing. See here for specifics.

[2] Did you know that Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and several notable actors all originate from the cast of the 1990s Mickey Mouse Club cast? The M.M.C. is the Skull-and-Bones of the entertainment industry.

[3] (= bands that have been around for 8+ years but haven’t really declined in popularity, the superficial temporary fixation of the public eye notwithstanding)

[4] i.e. corporate knows what sells based on what has sold in the past, and actively leads artist’s hand down said path, and artist’s willingness to co-opt the so-called artistic vision leads to a cornucopiac career, full of televised performances, royalties, and name-recognition, I mean come on.

[5] i.e. corporate knows what sells based on what consumer has bought in the past, and actively kind of stagnates on this one thing that the consumer likes, viz. understandability [5a], prettiness (both music- and musician-related), repetition.

[5a] can you name any pop tunes that aren’t about love, sex, having a good time, friends, or some negative consequence of the above (divorce, violence, breaking up, drug addiction)?

[6] The Beatles wrote in the V.C.P. So did Buddy Holly. So did Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra (both the songs they wrote and the songs that were written for them.) The beginning of the V.C.P. is beyond the scope of this article, but it’s related to the growth of the music industry as well as the schematics of both the blues and pre-Romantic classical music. I’ll get to it at some point: it’s a fascinating subject.

[7] Also, don’t get me wrong: there are other paradigms and other forms, as well as great new music that succeeds in exploring interesting conceptual space. Tune in next week for a spicy discussion.

Productivity is King

September 16th, 2007

Prozac and Adderall are popular drugs. They both have one thing in common; they are behavior-altering medications which are designed to help the user more easily conform to what’s perceived as a Perfect Person, viz. happy and hard-working. Prozac “fixes” anxiety problems and general malaise; Adderall “fixes” short attention spans and disinterest in working.

The obvious question here is why do the drugs exist in the first place?

Joe’s been writing poems for a couple years, as he finds the act of creation rewarding. Chances are that Joe is a little disillusioned, here. He’s unhappy with society as society doesn’t reward poets. His friends like to watch football and Wheel of Fortune – his wife’s always at the office. The work he does at Intel is bland and unfulfilling, there’s no end to the data entry/office gossip/editing of software, and he’s neither recognized nor rewarded for anything above and beyond the eight hour grind. Everyone at work grumbles about Mondays, looks forward to drinking on Friday night, calls Wednesday “Hump Day”. He feels stuck in a pattern that treats him as a pair of eyes and hands, faceless, valuable only as long as he shows up at nine, useful only insofar as he is used. Even worse: there’s a second-level realization inherent in Joe’s drudgery. He knows that everyone is unconsciously buying into the Workaday Paradigm. There’s no questioning, here, no second-guessing. This is the way it is. There’s nothing better, nothing to be wished for, nothing to be sought. No change. Everyone – his wife, his friends, his co-workers – are playing a part in a complex play, their actions and hobbies and likes and dislikes all predictable and socially safe, a play within a play, people walking and talking and acting and working like they think they should, everyone doing what they’re told, everyone coloring within the lines. A functional system, to be sure. There’s no place for introspection in this system, no place for poetry. Joe doesn’t fit. He’s broken. He cries a lot but has a hard time explaining why. Everything seems hopeless. Everything seems wrong.

Joe: “I can’t sleep at night. What’s the point? Every day is like every other day. I suppose I’ll eventually get too sick to work. Then what?”

Naora almost failed out of high school her senior year. She was taking College Prep English and there was a term paper due, a term paper that had to be completed. It was on Hamlet or something, a Shakespearean play. She didn’t hand the paper in on the due date – she didn’t even start the paper or attempt to read the play. When asked about it, she’s hard-pressed to come up with a reasonable excuse. “I don’t know. I had enough time to do it. I finally forced myself to start, finally sat down to start writing it at about midnight the night before it was due, but I just couldn’t do it. I bought the play, fully intent on reading it, and I was sitting at my computer, and I just couldn’t start. It seemed pointless. I sat there and stared at the empty screen, my fingertips lightly resting on the keys. I just stared at the screen, frozen almost, just waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. I felt so stressed and so useless that I couldn’t think straight.” She eventually typed up something over the next four months, because she was faced with the possibility of having to repeat her senior year due to one mistake. She couldn’t face the social consequences. She didn’t want to be left behind.

Naora hands in the term paper on the last day of school. She gets a sixty percent in that English class – a D minus. Her GPA for her senior year is barely a 2.0. Failing, failing, no reason, really no reason at all. She gets into art school but withdraws after a couple years, due to poor grades and several incompletes. She moves back home and gets a job at the local supermarket, never goes back to school. She works and works and gets sadder and sadder. She stops reading and writing, buys digital cable.

Naora: “I knew this was going to happen. Some stupid shit always comes up. Oh well. That’s life, I guess.”

Sari works in construction these days. She gets paid 15 dollars an hour and is a member of a local union. Her main job is to turn those signs from Slow to Stop and back, controlling the flow of traffic past various construction sites. She majored in Women’s Studies at the local community college, but dropped out her junior year. She’s slept with a couple guys, but she thinks she’s a lesbian now. Or at least bisexual. Her parents basically stopped talking to her after she dropped out. Most of her collegiate friends have graduated and left town. She has a couple friends from high school that she still keeps in touch with; every couple weeks they get together, smoke pot, and watch Family Guy or The Big Lebowski or Office Space and laugh so hard they start crying. She’s a member of the Democratic Party.

Sari: “Women’s Studies just wasn’t going anywhere. It was interesting on like an intellectual level, but I couldn’t see a future in it. What am I supposed to do, just stay in school forever? It just seemed like a waste of money. I feel like a failure sometimes. My parents went to college, you know. Blue-collar work is a total drag. I feel ignored, as if I missed some important meeting and I’m permanently stuck in a waiting room somewhere.”

Aural Kadō

August 4th, 2007

Here’s the new sound project that I’ve been working on, which has been officially “in progress” since mid-May. The basic idea involves manipulation and layering of other people’s work to create a new, original soundscape. None of the music in this project has been created by me per se, like my last project, thirty one daps, which can be found in this blog under the same name. (So-called “original” music is awaiting the purchase of a new dual-core Macintosh with the concomitant Reason, which is unreasonably powerful music generation software. Still, that’s a good two grand for the computer and the program. But what resources shall be at my fingertips!)

I decided to call the project “aural kadō” – aural as in listening or pertaining to sound, and kadō an old Japanese word for the art of flower arranging – because that’s basically what this is. A florist doesn’t actually make the flowers, she just organizes them in a pleasing manner. Also just for the sound of the word kadō. There’s another word for Japanese flower arranging, which is ikebana, which is okay, sure, but it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Kadō, on the other hand, besides being pleasing in its own right, also rhymes with Play-Doh™, which has all kinds of creative – imaginative – transfigurative connotations. So yeah.

Here’s the name of the project, which is linked to a place where you can listen to it, dear Intertubes, and the pseudonym under which I’ve created it:

scion eidolon – aural kadō

Here are the names of the tracks (presumably one can just right-click and Save As by first clicking on the above link and downloading the songs, piece by piece, or a la carte, as the French would say [more on France later]):

1. endless experience

2. things fall apart

3. world of beds

4. natural violence

5. the sad constant life

6. universal secret flame

7. dream station I

Here’s the length of the project:

68:13, give or take a couple seconds

Don’t Read Past This Line Until You Listen To The Actual Project In Its Entirety, Dig It

Here are the songs I used and where they appear in the project (name of track – artist):

endless experience

The Triumph of Man – The 1964 World’s Fair (0:00-0:45; 6:02-6:07), Jardin De Cecile – Juno Reactor (0:45-2:22; 4:37-5:17), Symphony No. 40 in G Minor – Mozart (0:45-1:55; 2:21-2:31; 3:01-3:39), The Infinity of Stone – Nile (1:34-3:30), Kalpol Intro – Autechre (1:53-5:12), The Sound of Fun Surrounds You – Advertisement for Six Flags, Texas (5:12-5:17), Connoisseur Of Hallucinations – Shpongle (5:06-8:11) ‘If You Ever Been Down’ Blues – Thomas (6:38-7:13), The Wind Cries Mary – Jimi Hendrix (7:41-8:17).

things fall apart

Nocturne in F Sharp, Op. 15 – Chopin (0.00-1.47; 3.56-4.05), Iera – Autechre (0.12-1.36), Since I’ve Been Loving You – Led Zeppelin (0.53-0.57; 1.56-2.13; 4.00-6.16), I Will (No Man’s Land) – Radiohead (0.56-2.55), Limelight – Apparat (1.51-4.01), Last Tribute From The 20th Century – Laurent Garnier (3.27-6.06), Flamenco Sketches (Second Take) – Miles Davis (3.14-3.28), Gwely Mernans – Aphex Twin (4.06-7.21), Pagan Poetry – Björk (6.23-7:21).

world of beds

Unison – Björk (0.00-0.15), It’s Crowded – Prefuse 73 (0.01-2.09; 2.44-5.21), At Least It Was – Emiliana Torrini (0.29-2.18; 2.39-2.42), A Dream Upon Waking – Yann Tiersen (2.08-2.44), Generous Palmstroke – Björk (2.44-7.49), Satellite Anthem Icarus – Boards of Canada (4.53-9.42), Orban Eq Trx4 – Aphex Twin (7.48-8.53), Indiscipline – King Crimson (8.44-9.03).

natural violence

Room 23 – Shpongle (0.00-0.54; 5.04-5.07; 7.34-11.47), A Song From the Soundtrack for the Movie “Kill Bill” – Unknown (0.26-3.14), Disposition – Tool (1.09-5.04), Magic Mountain – Lightning Bolt (3.29-5.04), Organ For God – Eight Frozen Modules (5.07-10.05), Soldier’s Poem – Muse (5.53-7.50), May This Be Love – Jimi Hendrix (10.01-11.42).

the sad constant life

Ocean Remix – Aaron Spectre (0.00-3.48), Open The Light – Boards of Canada (0.09-3.48; 5.31-6.19; 8.51-9.04), Edge of Time – The Growing Concern (1.27-2.12; 3.17-4.07; 10.00-10.16), The Other Side – The Dismemberment Plan (4.08-5.31; 7.10-8.04; 9.04-10.07), Sabbra Cadabra – Metallica (5.00-5.31; 5.52-6.39), ’64 Aka Go – Lemon Jelly (5.33-5.53), The Main Monkey Business – Rush (6.39-7.10), Like Porcelain – Apparat (7.57-9.04), Weekend Sex Change – Dillinger Escape Plan (8.03-8.46), Flamenco Sketches (Second Take) – Miles Davis (9.25-10.21).

universal secret flame

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Tan Dun & Yo-Yo Ma (0.01-0.52), Jambi – Tool (0.18-1.59; 2.54-4.10), Senki Dala – Venetian Snares (0.38-2.42), Violent Playground – Broadcast (1.44-2.27), Sullen Girl – Fiona Apple (2.28-4.10; 5.55-6.02; 7.14-8.03), Ants – edIT (3.39-7.32), The Eternal Vow – Tan Dun & Yo-Yo Ma (4.04-8.09).

dream station I

Everything You Do Is A Balloon – Boards of Canada (0.00-4.50; 10.25-12.05), Pneumonia – Björk (0.00-0.46; 4.52-5.35; 11.43-12.30), Atomontage – Gridlock (0.15-3.05), Radian – Air (3.35-4.48; 10.44-12.05), Chukhung – Biosphere (1.03-5.17), Exhalation – Shpongle (2.21-4.17), Shark – Juno Reactor (4.42-9.14), Revolution 9 – The Beatles (5.01-6.21), Invocation – Shpongle (6.10-8.47), Song23 – Gridlock (8.44-11.41), The Triumph of Man – The 1964 World’s Fair (9.09-9.14).

Well, that was exhausting and a little tedious, typing that out. Blech. Anyway, it looks like I used, uh, exactly 60 songs. Hope you like it, dear internet! On to the next project: the forever busy life of an artist continuing to stretch long and luxuriously to the vanishing point. Perspective!

Showing Off

July 29th, 2007

This post was made with my Wii. I can has technology!

Also, did you know that the word ‘assassin’ comes from the Arabic ‘hashashin’, or ‘hash eater’?

Context and Concept

July 23rd, 2007

Summary: It makes no difference how well you can sing if you don’t have anything to say.

Well, I’ve put this essay off for a good while now. I wasn’t looking forward to writing it, as it’s 1) not an easy topic to discuss in clear terms and b) it ties together several high-level concepts about art. Nevertheless, it’s come down to the wire. No more beating about the bush. It’s do or die. It’s high time. Let me give you a piece of my mind. Warning: this writing presupposes some basic familiarity with music notation.


First, a lengthy example. Take any old string, or just imagine a string, which will probably work better. Stretch it and pluck it. It makes a certain tone, which varies as a function of the length of the string (shorter:higher::longer:lower). We’ll give this tone a name: Note I. Now cut the string in half, and pluck one of its halves. This will make a higher tone, which we’ll call Note II. The ratio of the frequencies of II:I will always be 2:1, because the fundamental frequency at which a string resonates is directly related to its length. In turn, the human ear perceives frequencies that have this ratio as octaves, or the “same note”. A higher note with the ratio 4:1 will be perceived as two octaves higher, for example.

Now take the original string and cut it into three parts of equal size. Pluck the new note, Note III. It follows, logically, that the ratio of the frequencies of III:I is 3:1, and the ratio of frequencies of III:II is 3:2. The ratio of 3:2 is the next simplest ratio besides that of 2:1, and is perceived by the human ear as a perfect fifth, another pleasantly consonant sound. (Play a C and a G on a piano for an example of this.) Some other simple ratios are 4:3 (the perfect fourth), 5:4 (the major third), 6:5 (the minor third), 5:3 (the major sixth), 8:5 (the minor sixth), 9:8 (the major second), & c. You get the idea.

Now, back before Bach, Western scales were based on these intervals. Gregorian chant, Palestrina, Machaut [1]; basically anytime before the 16th century, these ratios appeared in stringed instruments and the like. Pleasant sounding? You bet. This intervalic kind of tuning is called, appropriately, just intonation. As music became more and more complex, however, this approach became a problem. To wit:


This is Western notation for a major musical scale. The C on the right is twice the frequency of the C on the left. I’m representing an octave here, after which the pattern repeats, ad nauseum. G is the fifth note, so the ratio of a perfect fifth is G:C, or 3:2. A perfect fourth: F:C, or 4:3. You get the idea. So, for example, what’s the ratio between E and G?

It is G:E, or (3:2, a perfect fifth):(5:4, a major third), or 3/2 divided by 5/4, or 3/2 multiplied by 4/5 (remember high-school math?) or 12/10, which reduces to 6/5. So G:E is 6:5, a simple ratio. G:E is a minor third (see above).

Now, what is the ratio between F and D? You would expect it to be a major third or minor third. Let’s find out. The ratio between F and C (perfect fourth) is 4:3. The ratio between D and C (major second) is 9:8. So take 4:3 divided by 9:8, or 4/3 multiplied by 8/9.

The answer? 32/27. And that’s not reducible. In decimal form 32/27 is representable as 1.185, repeating. A minor third (as in G:E, or C:A) is 6/5, or 1.2. A major third (as in E:C) is 5/4, or 1.25. The ratio of F:D in such a framework would sound strangely dissonant (slightly ‘flat’, as the musical parlance goes), and that’s not the only interval with a non-reducible fraction. The result of such tuning problems meant that when an instrument was tuned for a particular key, it sounded a little off when playing in all other keys. Quite a challenge for the musician with a large repertoire.

The solution: Equal temperament tuning. But first, a short aside!

In Western scales, *all* (yes, all) the notes are representable in this framework:

C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C

The # key means that the note is ‘sharp’, or above the frequency of the lettered note indicated [2]. So, if I’m in the key of C, then the F is a perfect fourth above the C, or five semi-tones above the C (count ’em! C#, D, D#, E, F. Five tones.). If I’m in the key of G#, then the perfect fourth would be C# (five semi-tones: A, A#, B, C, C#). Hopefully that makes sense.

Now, it also makes sense that if such a pattern is transposable across the Western scale, then the ratios between the intervals must also be transposable. And that’s where equal temperament comes into play.

The interval between the octave and the fundamental frequency is kept the same, at 2:1. The rest are divided equally. There are 12 semi-tones separating the two octaves, so the ratio between adjacent semitones must equal the twelfth root of two. This way, the ratio between different notes becomes an abstraction, and unrelated to the actual key chosen, or the type of instrument played. All scales can be played on a single instrument. Progress [3]!

It also follows, logically, that there are many other systems of tuning. A brief overview from Wikipedia follows:

“Many systems that divide the octave equally can be considered relative to other systems of temperament (Writer’s context addendum for the reader: 12 tone equal temperament is often referred to as 12-TET, of which there are many others). 19-TET and especially 31-TET are extended varieties of and approximate most just intonation intervals considerably better than 12-TET. They have been used sporadically since the 16th century, with 31-TET particularly popular in Holland, there advocated by Christiaan Huygens and Adriaan Fokker. 31-TET, like most non-12-tone temperaments, has a less accurate fifth than 12-TET. It has been used in Indonesian music.

There are in fact five numbers by which the octave can be equally divided to give progressively smaller total mistuning of thirds, fifths and sixths (and hence minor sixths, fourths and minor thirds): 12, 19, 31, 34 and 53. The sequence continues with 118, 441, 612…, but these finer divisions produce improvements that are not audible. The explanation for this curious series of numbers lies in the denominators of fractions that approximate the logarithm to base 2 of the frequency ratios of the consonant intervals.

In the 20th century, standardized Western pitch and notation practices having been placed on a 12-TET foundation made the quarter tone scale (or 24-TET) a popular microtonal tuning. Though it only improved non-traditional consonances, such as 11/4, 24-TET can be easily constructed by superimposing two 12-TET systems tuned half a semitone apart.”


Okay. Deep breath. The point of all this exposition is to display the many forms of tuning available in Western music. Is equal temperament less “true” than just intonation because it uses a power series to determine the frequencies of its constituency instead of a set of simple ratios? No, of course not. Each of these systems of tunings came into being because it has a function. The just intonation tuning is convenient for harmonically simple music and easy tuning. The 12-tone equal temperament tuning is convenient for harmonically complex music, as well as music that changes keys constantly. For more subtle melodic possibilities, perhaps a 24-tone equal temperament tuning is called for.

And I haven’t even considered non-Western tunings. A popular Indonesian scale, for example, uses a 7-TET scale. No perfect fifth, no melodies or harmonies that can be directly understood by Western ears that are used to Western scales. What about a scale that uses unwieldy ratios like 10/9, or a 15-TET tuning that only repeats every two octaves? To say that such a scale is wrong is as silly as saying the number 12 is better than the number 13. After all, any scale or system of tunings can ultimately be reduced to mathematical relationships; and anyone having heard African or Indonesian music for the first time can attest to difficulty of “learning to hear” the novel relationships between frequencies.

The type of tuning used in a particular piece of music is part of the context surrounding the piece. The type and number of instruments, the electronic or sound effects used, the length of the piece, and the use or lack of use of certain melodies and harmonies are also all context. Ultimately all sound can be reduced to a waveform, anyway, if you want to get really reductionist, and who’s to say that my waveform is intrinsically better or worse than yours? They are equivalent, valueless. Context has no inherent meaning or value; it is a system of choices that frame the concept, the intellectual drive behind a piece, the reason for its existence.

The concept exists as an abstraction, apart from the piece of music. It also exists separately in the mind of the listener and the composer. For example, take Cage’s notorious 4:33. The context is not important – it can be played in a concert hall full of listeners, or by oneself in a forest grove. The only context, it seems, is that of intent, that the piece is indeed going to be played.

The concept in Cage’s mind (from Cage’s Silence, 1961):

In 1951, Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than reflecting them as echoes. They are also externally sound-proofed. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but he wrote later, “I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.”

There has been some skepticism about the accuracy of the engineer’s explanation, especially as to being able to hear one’s own nervous system. A mild case of tinnitus might cause one to hear a small, high-pitched sound, for example. Whatever the truth of these explanations, Cage had gone to a place where he expected total silence, and yet heard sound. “Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.” The realisation as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of 4′33″.

The concept in my mind:

Fascinating. A treatise on the nature of what music can be. How many notes must one take away before the piece performed ceases to be music? 99% of the notes? Leaving just one note? Leaving no notes? The sounds of the other listeners/performers consist of breathing, rustling of clothes, shifting of feet. The play of my own heartbeat against a bird’s cry and the flag slapping against the flagpole in the high wind create an interesting rhythm, syncopated and dynamic. I close my eyes. A man and woman having a conversation grows and lessens in intensity. Still the bird calls. The flag has grown silent. And now a new player enters the piece. What is it? What is it? Ah, the muted percussion of a far-off helicopter. Perfect. This piece perfectly encompasses the serenity and tranquility of nature, the inestimable value of just listening.


Naturally this is an extreme example, but the idea holds for all art. The context exists only to serve the concept. As a drummer, my physical skill and endurance exists meaningfully only as a function of the concept of the piece I’m playing. Does it matter whether I can play a double bass roll faster than 150 bpm? Only if the concept requires it. Does it matter whether I manage to not drop my stick or whether my cymbals are new, or whether my tom-toms are in tune? Only if the concept requires it.

Does it matter whether I can accurately describe the feeling of nostalgia, or happiness, or destitution by playing my drums and writing my songs?

Only if the concept requires it.





1. Ah, Machaut. The most well-known composer of the 13th century. What? You haven’t heard of him? Who cares! Seriously, though, if you’d like to know more, here’s a piece by him.

Quant es Moy – Machaut

2. Granted, the Western major scale can also be represented with ‘flats’, or notes below the lettered tone (where b = flat): C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B C. Db, for example, is the same frequency as C#. Whether a flat or a sharp is used is dependent on the context of the melody or harmony: it isn’t important.

3. The 12-TET is not a bad estimation by any means. A perfect fifth, represented by the ratio 3:2, can also be represented as a decimal, 1.5. The seventh twelfth-root of 2, or 2 to the seven-twelfths power, is 1.498. Pretty close. Similarly, a perfect fourth in just intonation is 4/3, or 1.333. In 12-TET, it is 1.335. (I still like just intonation more, not that it matters.)

2022: Scientists complete the final round of negotiations with the fish diplomats.

2025: Fishing is outlawed.

2028: New mysterious technology appears on the market, proposing to lower the emissions of the airplane industry by flying airplanes underwater.

2028: Amelia Earhart’s body is found in the Mariana Trench, along with the corpses of tens of thousands of dolphins.

2030: First underwater passage is successful; passengers report loud whale songs throughout flight.

2045: Whales send classified documents to the Senate, citing sound violations in the North Atlantic.

2046: The Indian Ocean is temporarily closed due to high dolphin traffic.

2052: Astarus Earhart is announced as the first dolphin president of the United States. The FNSO seeks a recount, claims election is rigged. Senate Majority Leader Daniel Yellowtail resigns.

2054: Daniel Yellowtail is elected as the prime minister of the FNSO. Martial law is declared.

2056: The FNSO secedes from the World Nation.

On The S/O Dilemma

July 11th, 2007

First and foremost: you’re going to want background, as this entry is partially a rebuttal of and continuation regarding both this post (read first) and this post (read second). Otherwise I doubt that what follows will make 100% sense. Do as ye will.

There are what seems to be two schools of thought regarding the nature of art and how it informs both the artist and the intended audience. One school is neatly summarized below, and is taken verbatim from Paul’s blog (first link), who in turn quotes Michael Chekhov’s To The Actor. The other school I’ll be getting to shortly. Chekhov states (apologies for the length, but it is relevant):

The great German director Max Reinhardt confessed, “I am always surrounded by images.” Charles Dickens wrote in his journal, “I have been sitting here in my study all morning, waiting for Oliver Twist who has not yet arrived!” Goethe declared that inspiring images must appear before us as God’s children and call to us, “We are here!” Raphael saw an image moving within his room that later became the Sistine Madonna on his canvas. Michelangelo complained despairingly that images pursued him and forced him to sculpt in all sorts of materials, even solid rock.

How can we question the beliefs of these master artists and writers that their imaginative life came to them from outside themselves? And would they not scorn the narrow conception of creativity that relies solely upon personal memories and efforts? They would undoubtedly feel that today we deny our communication with the objective world of imagination, in direct contrast to their free excursions into it. The creative impulse of the masters was an expansion toward the world beyond them, while ours is often a contraction within ourselves.

The old masters of European and Asian culture might even shout to us, “Look at your creations. They are not confined to reproductions of our petty, personal lives, desires, and limited surroundings. Unlike the artists of today, we forgot our individual selves in order to be conscious and active servants of otherworldly images. Truly, we did not want to be slaves to these unguided visions. But in our work, we incorporated them like an unexpected blessing. Why are you then creating so many specimens of ugliness, disease, and chaotic contortions? Is it not simply because you are too concerned with yourselves alone and not your art?”

The conviction that there is an objective world in which our images lead their independent life widens our horizon and strengthens our creative will. Developing and assuming new conceptions concerning the creative process in art is the way for the artist to grow and to understand his or her talent. One of those new conceptions is the objective existence of the world of the artist’s creative images. What is the reward of artists brave enough to acknowledge the objectivity of the world of imagination? They free themselves from the constant pressure of their too personal, too intellectual interference with the creative process, the greater part of which is intensely personal and takes place in the sphere that lies beyond the intellect…

Poor indeed is the imagination that leaves the artist’s mind cold, and poor indeed is the influx of wisdom to such an artist, when one hears him say, “I have built my art upon my convictions.” Would it not be better for an artist to say that he has built his convictions upon his art? But this is only true of the artist who is really gifted. Haven’t we noticed that the less talented the person is, the earlier he forms his “convictions” and the longer he tenaciously clings to them?

My good friend Ted (second link) holds that imagination is necessarily subjective, and therefore – effectively – Chekhov is full of shit. More on this in a second. Chekhov additionally implies two paragraphs above that beauty is objective and the standards of beauty are universal, by saying: “Why are you then creating so many specimens of ugliness, disease, and chaotic contortions?” He is clearly willing to go out on a limb and not only say that he thinks a given piece of art is ugly, but also that it is universally ugly. He goes on to say that this ugliness stems from self-centered creation, i.e. creation that is based on personal idiom and experience, rather than the preferred “otherworldly images” from the “objective world of imagination”. I’m going to touch on the difference between art as a concept and art as a craft, as well as what this has to do with beauty and ugliness, in the next installment. Let’s turn now to the nature of imagination.

The Subjectivity/Objectivity Dilemma

Chekhov believes imagination stems from an objective, exterior world, full of imagery that comes to the artist unbidden; Ted believes that imagination comes from the inner workings of the mind and is based on subjective personal experience. So which is it?

Let’s take a huge conceptual leap back and look at it from a purely biological/neurological perspective. I have thoughts. Surely you agree. These thoughts are necessarily correlated to the triggering of neural firing pathways (read: symbols) in the brain; if I’m thinking of a dog, the symbol for “dog” is active. If I’m thinking of “dog covered in cottage cheese”, the symbols for “dog”, “covered”, and “cheese” are all active, in addition to a host of related ones. You get the point. (I’m thinking the symbol for “gross” would be appropriate here.) There are basically two cases that cause thoughts to be triggered, as I see it; actual and hypothetical. Let’s cover them in detail.

Case One: Actual. I’m walking down the street and I see a stray cat on the sidewalk, sauntering up to me. The neurons in my eyes send information to my visual cortex, which undergoes a significant amount of processing to present my conscious with the qualia of the visual field; colors, shapes, patterns, textures, movement. A split-second later, the symbol-processing area of my brain (central cortex) receives the qualia and categorizes the raw data based on my previous experiences. Since I’ve taken walks on sidewalks before, and am additionally expecting to be walking on a sidewalk, the data corresponding to the surrounding environment is instantly identified and decided to be unimportant. The data corresponding to the cat is identified as a cat (face it, I’m highly familiar with cats), the cat-symbol is triggered, and I have a name for it and a reaction in place before I’m really even aware that I see it. Everything up to this point is non-conscious processing. Finally, the conscious mind is presented with the information: “Everything’s usual, except there is a cat.” I like cats, so my decision is informed by my previous pleasant experiences with cats: I walk up to it, let it sniff me. I pet it. You get the picture. Literally.

Case Two: Hypothetical. I’m walking down the street and I imagine a cat on the sidewalk, sauntering up to me. No qualia this time; my sensory apparatus does not actually perceive a cat. No abstraction of lower-level signals necessary. The symbol for cat is activated directly, this time by a higher-level process: conscious imagination. There’s no pre-conscious processing. I imagine a cat, imagine my interaction with it (in turn activating my self-symbol) and daydream about walking up to it and taking it home. It has brown fur, blue eyes, one of its paws is white. Its tail is crooked. So cute!

Moving back to imagination and the S/O dichotomy: Imagination is the same as hypothetical thought, which in turn is nothing more than interaction with symbols and systems of symbols that have no external trigger. Let’s assume for a moment that the trigger for these symbols is wholly external and objective: some alternative world, be it spiritual or just non-detectable, is activating various symbols directly and effectively showing us, the artists, an objective and alternate reality of symbols which all art and beauty originates from. Just to be clear: this is the same as assuming that hypothetical thought is caused by external forces instead of conscious control. Moving on.

The obvious caveat: our system of symbols is necessarily a personal one. Suppose I’ve never seen a cat before, not even one of the jungle cats. Would I have a symbol for the visual representation of a cat? Of course not. It’s silly to posit that humans have a full complement of symbols from birth. This is easily verified by observing human children who have never seen a cat before refer to cats as dogs, before they are corrected by their parents. What would a “full complement of symbols” even mean? It makes sense that children are birthed with a rudimentary set of symbols (like a symbol for “me”, for “nipple”, for “food”, & c.) + the ability to create and map novel experiences onto new symbols. Anything above that just doesn’t follow.

It is, quite logically, also possible that the external trigger doesn’t presuppose our knowledge of cats; that’s admittedly kind of a silly idea, anyway. So there could also be a completely and wholly external pattern of symbol triggering that isn’t based on specific symbols or systems. Sounds good. I’m an agnostic, but I’m willing to accept that spirits or other non-physical beings (read: God) could be causing this triggering. I have no problem with that.

The really obvious thing now, of course, is that if you agree

1) that symbols come into being through interpretation of novel experience;

2) that everyone is going to have different symbols;

then it pretty much follows that any symbol-triggering, even from an outside source, is necessarily going to be unique to each person (everyone has different symbols) and based wholly and completely on their experience set (symbols come into being through novel experience), and therefore 100% unavoidably subjective. Q.E.D.

“Art is necessarily informed only by personal values and experience.”

Beauty and Novelty

July 5th, 2007

Apart from letting you, the reader, know that I like the mountain, the phrase “The mountain is beautiful” really contains no additional information. The word beautiful is just a placeholder for a type of personal value, i.e. “The mountain has personal value [to me]”. This implies a couple of things, not least of which that

1. Beauty is not inherent.

This one is easy. Most everyone is familiar with the proverb Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’ll elaborate: to a blind man, a mountain can never be beautiful. Nor a crevasse, cirque, pretty kitty, & c. At least in a visual way. This doesn’t mean that beauty exists independent of the blind man. (It’s not that he can’t see the beauty; the beauty isn’t actually there. More on this in a second.) It additionally does not mean that a blind man can never perceive beauty. The way that the blind man’s 1920s blanket feels, with its warm woolen folds and worn tattered corners, is beautiful to him. Likewise the softness of the cat’s fur, the way it purrs, the way he can hear it padding across the soft shag carpet in the living room. Not that he can explain it to us, the non-blind. The blind brain is necessarily wired in a qualitatively different way than a seeing brain, so the perceptions he assigns personal value to (i.e. beauty) are of course totally unique and novel. Everyone has perception, so I’m going to go ahead and start using the word qualia, of which Wikipedia has this to say: “Qualia” is “an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us”. They can be defined as qualities or feelings, like redness or pain, as considered independently of their effects on behavior and from whatever physical circumstances give rise to them. In more philosophical terms, qualia are properties of sensory experiences.

In what might be an intuitively easier definition to process, qualia is sensory information; information that can only be described accurately if the person reading/listening to the description has experienced it before. There is no way to describe the color red to John if John has never seen the color red. The experience of seeing red is qualia. (Granted Ted’s blog[1]; even though you are not blind and I am not blind, our brains interpret qualia in a different way. My red is a little different than your red, or maybe even completely different; however, we are in definite agreement that society’s name for [the qualia that is red] is in fact red, so we can still talk about it in a meaningful way. It’s the experience of seeing red that can’t be explained in a meaningful way to someone who’s never seen it; that’s my point.)

2. Beauty doesn’t exist apart from our perception of it.

There is an unnamed mountain on the planet Pluto which no one has ever seen. It is composed of iron and granite and layered with frozen methane and carbon dioxide, which gives it a traditional snow-capped appearance. It is, in all respects, a perfect visual copy of Mount Rainier, which resides in Washington State. Go look at a professionally-taken picture of Rainier real quick here. Isn’t it beautiful? Maybe you don’t find it beautiful, but you can at least agree that someone living on the planet Earth, probably quite a lot of people actually, find Mount Rainier’s icy and foreboding visage nothing less than breathtakingly, awe-inspiringly beautiful. Face it. People like mountains.

Anyway, let’s call Pluto’s faux Rainier by the name of Rainier-P. Is Rainier-P beautiful? I would argue NO. It isn’t beautiful because no one has ever perceived it. The qualia for Rainier-P simply doesn’t exist in anyone’s mind. It is the qualia, the conscious perception of qualia, that makes a thing have beauty. Beauty is by definition a type of judgment placed on qualia. And the qualia doesn’t exist apart from perception, which reveals what I feel to be the thrust of this whole article. Beauty doesn’t exist apart from perception. So we aren’t actually judging a mountain to be beautiful at all. We’re the ones that are beautiful. It is our perception – something completely non-differentiable from our ego – that creates that wonderful awe-struck feeling that people call beauty.

3. Unless [the qualia of a perception that is beautiful] has been experienced by person B, person A can never explain [what it is like] directly to them.

The two phrases in brackets are effectively identical, which I’ll call X. Unless X has been experienced by person B, person A can never explain X directly to them. This is where novelty comes into play. Suppose that there was a genetic mutation in one of your chromosomes which allowed you to see infrared light in addition to visible light. How would you go about explaining this novel visual perception to the world? “It’s redder than red?” There is literally no way to do it. No matter what is said, no one will ever be able to understand what infrared light looks like unless they see it themselves. Likewise a host of effectively identical questions can be posed, unanswerable all: What is it like to be blind? What is it like to be a cat? What is it like to see Mount Rainier-P? What is it like to be channeling this idea about beauty and novelty into a blog post? [2]

4. You can only explain personal beauty with metaphor.

Obviously things can be beautiful in different ways, all unexplainable because it’s a value judgment on qualia. My girlfriend is beautiful in a different way than Glacier National Park is beautiful. Many of you have seen my girlfriend so in some small way you can understand the first four words in the preceding sentence. Plus, even if you haven’t seen her before, you can analyze that statement with metaphor: surely sometime during your life you’ve seen someone that is beautiful. So you can just map that feeling of personal value that you had onto the feeling of personal value that I have. It’s probably a bit more accurate if the beautiful person you have in mind is someone that you know personally; better still if it’s a girlfriend of your own. You can see what I’m getting at. There’s no way to directly know what I really mean by the statement “my girlfriend is beautiful” unless you’re me; you have to parse it by comparing my experience with an experience of your own. And of course I wasn’t specific in my statement; is she just visually beautiful or is the beauty part of the whole personality package? You could ask and create better and better metaphors; maybe through some stroke of luck your comparison is so close that you can actually understand what I mean on some deeper, pre-linguistic, intuitive level. But that’s besides the point.

The second half of that statement is a little harder: Glacier National Park is beautiful. Most of you have never been to Glacier, which is why I picked this statement. If you’ve seen GNP before that’s a pretty big help. The next best thing is having been to a mountain range in the West before; you can just roughly map the awe that you felt when you saw that mountain onto my statement, and siphon some meaning out of it. If you’ve never seen Western mountains before, and thus lack the qualia for that experience, it’s a lot harder. You could look at a picture on the internet and try to imagine yourself actually seeing what’s in the picture instead of just looking at the picture, but that’s like looking at a picture of a banana to try to approximate what someone means when they say “Bananas sure are tasty.”

What I do know, however, is that the feeling of seeing Glacier can be explained without specifically talking about Glacier. [The experience of being to Glacier] feels complete, like part of me was always living there and I never knew it until now, and I’ve finally been rejoined. Now you can get at it, make something of it. Perhaps a first kiss made you feel complete. Perhaps finally finishing Nanowrimo and knowing that you did a damn good job made you feel complete. Perhaps buying your first car and going somewhere on your own did it for you. The point is, by generalizing to an emotional state [3], I can phrase my value judgments in a way that you can parse, by then comparing my emotional state to a similar state that you’ve experienced.

You can’t ever know what it’s like to be me in the places I’ve been, but you do know what it’s like to be you in the places you’ve been. And with metaphor, we can talk about it. No author ever says “The mountain was beautiful.” No one would understand.

The mountain is a girl with red hair whose short skirts tantalize and promise an unending era of sleepless nights. Now we’re talking.


[1] Ted states: “But I digressed from the main point that there is black. It exists as a concept or a descriptor of a certain state of events rather than a physical thing—in fact, describing the lack of a physical thing (photons). It’s really a matter of perception. Some people are going to see less photons, and so their version of “black” might be different from someone else’s version of “black”. Besides all that, there’s no way to know what colors anyone else sees. Everyone calls the sky “blue”, but how do you know that someone else’s blue isn’t what you call red? You know the sky is blue because that’s what everyone else calls that particular color, but you can’t ever be sure that you’re not the odd man out.”

[2] I have a bunch of these. What is it like to eat an orange? What is it like to eat an orange with your eyes closed? What is it like to eat an orange if you’re also blind? What is it like to eat an orange if you have a cold? If you’re high? If you’re tired? If you’re retired?

[3] This whole thought process was brought on by the endless questioning of family and friends: “What’s Montana like?” Sure, it’s beautiful and there are tall mountains, but what does that mean? Montana is sleeping in after the alarm’s gone off. Montana is a burger that is so tasty that you’re willing to take another bite even though you’re quite full. Montana is a brand new computer before you’ve even personalized the fonts and the desktop pattern. Enough!

Simply that:

1. Being awake between 1 am and 3 am, and going on a walk through a city. Everything is quiet, everything is shut down. I often get the feeling that I’m not supposed to be there. A secret existence.

2. A sip of ice-cold Coke immediately after consuming peanut butter on saltines. One can feel the acid of the soda etching away at the peanut butter, leaving a feeling of bubbly clean.

3. When it is past 10 pm, and I can still see the light of the sun in the sky.

4. Cleaning out and organizing my own car; the feeling of owning something; the feeling of attending to your things and admiring them.

5. Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, and their connection to the conservationalist movement in the early nineteenth century. The formation of the National Park System. Jack Kerouac and his remarkable influence on backpacking in the early 1960s.

6. Systematic alphabetical or chronological ordering of media.

7. Virtually everything that Terry Gilliam and Alejandro Inarritu direct or screenwrite.

8. Sentences that have two of the same word in a row, but are still grammatically correct. Example: “When I got a little ways past it it would turn back on.”

9. Scrabble.

10. Egon Schiele and his marvelous gifts to the expressionism movement.

11. The conflation of death metal with theatrics and epic stories: see Nile and their latest two albums.

12. The human ability to rationalize the random.

13. Laramie, which is a blue-green stuffed bunny I own that I’ve probably spilled coffee on about twenty times. He’s six years old this year.

14. My good friend’s ability to churn out (on average) 3 original articles a week, unpaid.

15. On sandwiches: broccoli sprouts, smoked gouda, yellow and orange bell peppers, shallots (not onions!), tuna salad, olive oil, balsamic vinaigrette, artisan bread, rosemary-flavored anything, et al.

16. Candy!