Tag Archives: music

Building a Language Out of Music (with boodles of links)

CCHR International released a video about the way attribute certain childhood behaviors to mental disorders. This video struck a chord with me because so much of what those labels say has to do with fit and function; rather than objective assessment. To oversimplify: If a kid has a lot of energy, and is set to a task that requires a lot of energy, there’s no reason to say they’re dysfunctional. However, if they’re asked to sit still all day, then… they’re gonna have a bad day. We can say that the kid has a lot of energy — but whether that’s an asset or a dysfunction depends on how she’s socialized.

How you’re socialized somewhat determines your relationship with music, and vice versa. Nowhere is fit and function more subjective than with musical taste. When someone asks what kind of music you like, “oh, everything but rap and country” is the most common answer I hear from my white friends. I’m willing to bet they haven’t listed to a lot of country; the same way I’m pretty sure my midwestern aunties can’t tell symphonic metal from speed metal and are content to leave well enough alone.

I like rap and country, and pop and metal, and industrial and folk (from Georgia the state to Georgia the country), and house and trip-hop, rockabilly and opera. It is perhaps most accurate to say I am psychoacoustically active to sus2 and sus4 transitions, which are chords specifically designed to cause tension.

Would love to see answers like that on a friggin’ buzzfeed quiz. What does your personal resonance say about you? It would be impossible to codify.

While music resonates on an intuitive level, there are mathematical consistencies. Some people look to classical forms to make them feel relaxed, whereas others can’t stand that stuff and find more aggressive material soothing.

It turns out there’s an entire field of (pseudo?)science surrounding music and sound as therapy. This article goes into some of the science of why humans like music. In some cases, it  creates a physical response.

For example, I noticed that the key changes in “Let it Go” always give me chills at the base of my skull. My buddy explained that in the Idina Menzel version there’s a key change from G minor to sus2 (a suspended chord). I get the same feeling during the Demi Lovato version, and he said it was the same thing. Similarly, in the case of our national anthem translated to a minor key, I felt the same chills at 1:08, 1:21, and 1:52.

Let’s go deeper than major = happy, minor = dour.

Suspended chords shift away from the common triad pattern, so instead of a 1+3+5 pattern you’d get 1+4+5 (sus4).

Mmm… Math.

Getting away from that for a moment, let’s talk about music and story.

Peter and the Wolf is an excellent introduction for how music can inform a story. Each instrument plays a particular role, and the narrator helps guide us along; but this is socialization. This is setting and meeting a specific expectation. The description and function of each instrument is clearly laid out so we know what to imagine when we hear the final adventure. However, if we’ve never heard the narration, and didn’t have the title, there’s a possibility we’d envision something different.

When story informs music, resonance could go anywhere. Even though we as humans experience the same emotions, we don’t always express them the same way. Let’s approach from the other angle, translating from feeling to music.

Das Parfum: Die Geschichte Eines Mörders, was a novel written in the 80s by Patrick Süskind. Many songs have been inspired by this story, but for now let’s talk about Meeting Laura (below) and “Du Riechst So Gut” by Rammstein. Both the choral Italian piece and the metal German piece balance warm attractiveness with a chilling threat — much like the protagonist Grenouille, who creates untouchable olfactory beauty while committing unspeakable horror.

When it comes to the music itself, are these different accents, or different languages? To me, the undercurrent feels exactly the same — the kind of passion that presents itself as love; but is in truth the most destructive kind of hunger. To me, these are different languages. They say the same thing, but are mutually unintelligible. When it comes to the language of music, this is further complicated by the fact that Western Europe never held a monopoly on music. There’s maqam. There’s sargam. There are dozens of other systems, codified and uncodified, that tell stories and resonate with musicians and audiences alike. Different chord progressions and different keys have different meanings in different cultures. What is mournful to one group could be joyful to another (literally, not sadistically).

What resonates with you might not resonate with your neighbor; but transcend borders and culture.

Certain characters and certain moments resonate so loudly we can slap a song right on them. However, I can’t put an entire 4-7 minute song in the text of my story — and need a shortcut. That’s where the math comes back. If you distill your favorite song down to it’s best moment, you wind up with a certain phrase linguistically and/or musically that can be represented in coded shorthand. Here’s a quick preview of how I’m doing this in text, aimed at people (like me) who don’t have a music theory background.

When one character is asked to introduce himself, he responds with five short chords, described as a lash of sound.  Here are the tabs for guitar.

G|————–|x 1

This was taken from of Rammstein’s “Ich Tu Dir Weh,” the first five chords on guitar. Here’s a cover that focuses just on the guitars, and here’s the full song. That’s how this guy introduces himself, and how the other characters refer to him. It has been really challenging to translate these concepts into a wordless, intelligible, resonant language. All forms of expression have technical and intuitive approaches, which enhance and support each other.

If poetry is the music of language, music is the poetry of mathematics.


Liebster Nomination, and embarassingly personal stuff

Check it out! Margit Sage of Ominous Whimsy nominated me for a Liebster Award!  Liebe really IST für alle da!https://i0.wp.com/margitsage.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/liebster-blog-award-2.png

1. Each nominee must link back the person who nominated them. (Done)
2. Answer the 10 questions which are given to you by the nominator. (See below)
3. Nominate 10 other bloggers for this award who have less than 200 followers. (See below)
4. Create 10 questions for your nominees to answer. (down further below)
5. Let the nominees know that they have been nominated by going to their blog and notifying them. (Message delivered)

ONE:  What is the soundtrack to a great writing day for you?
.  At least right now. Ask me again in a few weeks and it may be showtunes, The Duhks, Qntal, Christen Lien; who knows.

TWO:  Is there a song that embodies your favorite character (or poem) that you’ve written? If so, what is it?
Almost all my characters have theme songs. Music helps us set the tone. For one of my toughest, hardest characters, Sirenia’s “Save Me From Myself” jumped out immediately. The song is so mournful, it reminded me of all the impossible choices she made and decisions she refuses to second-guess. She amasses political and martial power because she’s hurting; and no amount of armor will ever be able to make her feel safe again.

THREE: Do you know exactly what each of your characters looks like? Or do you just have some vague notion (or none at all)? Does your visual conception of characters change over time?
Some characters are as clear as day — right down to their cheekbones and the smell of their sweat. Other characters are more vague, as though they’re two blocks away. I have a file of image references, but connect more strongly to their personality than their appearance.

FOUR: Why do you write?
Because I have to.

FIVE: How does your writing begin? With a visual, a concept, or something else entirely?
It always feels like addiction in the beginning. Sometimes it’s a piece of music. Sometimes it’s visual, like a key on a bracelet. Unbearable emotion is another source. If I can’t talk about it — or talking isn’t enough — I apply those feelings in a completely different context and let them unravel there.

SIX: When you write, where are you? What are you surrounded with/by?
I am in the story. I am in the character. Whoever is talking and thinking — whoever the narration focuses on — I am in their soul and their heart, feeling around. If they laugh, I laugh. If they cry, I cry.

SEVEN: What author do you wish every writer you talk to had previously read?
Joe Abercrombie. Or Paulo Coelho. Or both — I love a hard-ass with a soul.

EIGHT: What are your writing goals this year?
Snag an agent for my fantasy novel, finish the steam book, and finish the antichrist book.

NINE: What advice would you like to share with your blog readers right now?
That thing you want to do, you can do it. Seriously. Even if you’re scared.

TEN: What is the reaction you’re most hoping for from your readers? What reaction would put a giant grin on your face?
I want them to feel. I want them to relate. I want them to step outside themselves for just a moment and realize how much more is possible — and then I want them to pass it on.

On a more superficial level, I want to see them dress up as my characters for a packed reading at the Castro Theater. That would be such a great party.


Now you, RD, Yvone, TomCarry, Susan, Shana, Bob, Michelle, Kira Lyn, and Drew must answer the following ten questions:

  1. What’s the harshest piece of criticism you’ve grown from?
  2. If you had to be without one of your five senses, which would it be and why?
  3. What material is hard for you to write, and how do you tackle it (emotional rawness, erotica, gore, etc)?
  4. What did you have in mind when you started blogging, and how did your blog deviate from your original idea?
  5. What’s the strangest compliment you’ve ever received?
  6. What question do you wish people would ask you, and how would you answer?
  7. How do you deal with an unhealthy obsession (if you don’t have obsessions, I suspect you’re fibbing — but go ahead and give advice for ‘your friend’ who does)?
  8. What’s one thing you’ve always wanted to do, and what would be the first step toward accomplishing that goal?
  9. What makes you a great friend?
  10. What does your personal paradise look, sound, and smell like?

The world is not obligated to care.”
– David Drake, from Shared Worlds Exhibit

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return.”
– Eden Ahbez

On the subject of Evil : Dog Eat Dog

My favorite song from Les Misérables.

I’ve flown up and down highways howling this at the top of my lungs. It’s the mind-set of one who would scavenge the dead long before ever thinking they were human. Grimdark books are peppered with these folks. The simple truth of scarcity-thinking permeates each word, and you can imagine — as Thenardier and everyone like him does — that the Harvest Moon shines on him and him alone.

The death of compassion is the birth of evil.


Here’s a hint of gold
Stuck into a tooth
Pardon me M’sieur
You won’t be needing it no more.
Shouldn’t be too hard to sell.
Add it to the pile
Add it to the stock
Here among the sewer rats
A breath away from Hell
You get accustomed to the smell.

Well someone’s got to clean ’em up, my friends
Bodies on the highway
Law and order upside down
Someone’s got to collect their odds and ends
As a service to the town!

(Valjean arrives, carrying MARIUS.
VALJEAN collapses)

(THENARDIER robs marius)

Here’s a tasty ring
Pretty little thing
Wouldn’t want to waste it
That would really be a crime
Thank you sir, I’m in your debt
Here’s another toy
Take it off the boy
His heart’s no longer going
And he’s lived his little time
But his watch is ticking yet!

Well, someone’s got to clean them up, my friends
Before the little harvest
Disappears into the mud
Someone’s got to collect their odds and ends
When the gutters run with blood.

It’s a world where the dog eats the dog
Where they kill for bones in the street
And God in His Heaven
He don’t interfere
‘Cause he’s dead as the stiffs at my feet
I raise my eyes to see the heavens
And only the moon looks down
The harvest moon shines down!

Personality Indicators

I flew away to visit my sister for Thanksgiving. We took the kids ice skating. I had a few minutes to myself where I skated alone — weaving through groups of strangers with no one’s hand to hold and no conversation to pay attention to. I had stripped off my jacket. The air was cold but the sun was warm. I thought, I love having a body. There’s so much I can do with it.

Babies are just starting to figure this out. I’m not used to babies. It took me a while to warm up to my new niece as a small person, rather than a fragile irreplaceable treasure that may shriek, shatter or cover me in vomit at any moment. She’s six months old and pretty chill. She smiles a lot. She’s interested in textures, and can tell when you’re nervous. She has a personality, opinions, problem-solving style and other reactions that came prepackaged. The only limitation she has on these responses is that she’s not quite used to driving her body yet.

Upon discussing the matter with my sister, we noticed the same about her son (six years). She was nine when I was born, and a lot of how I interact with the world hasn’t changed since then. We talked about how some people have a narrow range of passion, and some have a huge range (and will smash things, even if they’re overjoyed!) Some of these traits are prepackaged and clear from day one.

Her son sang songs about Minecraft for most of the weekend. He sings when he’s happy, my sister told me. The two times he came near tantrum were to do with too much advice crashing against his pride, and from wanting to participate but being exhausted. I felt for him. I’ve been there. So have a lot of adults I know. It reminded me of something brilliant my riding instructor once said, that’s helped a lot when working with personalities that get frustrated easily.

One of the first conversations I had with my now-verbal nephew went like this.

“I remember the first time I met you, you were only a little bigger than your sister. We were at a restaurant. You grabbed my elbow and tried to eat it. I couldn’t believe how strong you were! I had to pull and yank my arm away from you!” I said.

“Wanna try it again?” he grinned, as though to lunge at me.

My sister explained to him that I rough-house for real, and to be careful. Then she asked me to take it easy, and do my best to not wake up swinging when I get jumped the next morning.

8am rolled around, and I opened one eye when I heard little feet coming down the stairs. Rather than pouncing on me, as he does with all the other relatives, he leaned over the edge of my bed and said in a quiet voice, “would you like to see my basic Minecraft set up, or the full version?” After a short negotiation, we settled on the full version, once I’d fixed coffee and he’d fixed toast ‘n jam.

A personality is a tool like a flexible body is a tool. Having the tool is one thing, but perception and awareness of choices — is it more important to huff, or actually solve the problem — determine how we wield the tool.

This muddies the concepts of fate and destiny a great deal.

There are a number of arbitrary systems that have explained to me me my place in the world and how I should interact with others.

  • There’s Greek astrology, which tells me I should be a home-body.
  • Chinese Astrology, which tells me I am hard-working and persistent.
  • Phrenology, which tells me how strong my brain is and in what areas.
  • Physiognomy, which tells me I have an aggressive, dominating nature.
  • Palmistry, which tells me that my heart will split in two, and that I’ll have four children.
  • Mood rings, which tell me that when I’m cold I’m unhappy and when I’m warm I’m happy.

In addition to baby-meeting, Thanksgiving feasting, ice-skating and late-night catching up, we also pulled out our instruments and noodled our way through everything from carols and reels to Tori Amos and Rammstein (“Sonne for flute and two violins” didn’t go all that well). Personality traits again came to mind while trying to reconcile jamming between those who have lots of music theory and technical knowledge with those who can figure out any song they know after a try or two. Matching pitch was on my mind.

On the plane from St. Louis back to San Francisco, I thought of another arbitrary system. Imagine for a moment that your personality, disposition, and place in the universe could be determined by one precise and intimate occurrence:

The precise pitch,watcher

Of the buzzing in your head,

When you listen to silence.

Children are still people — willful small people with a full range of perception and a lack of experience.
– Anon

I’m basically here to entertain you while you figure it out for yourself.
Garyn Heidemann, my riding instructor.

Current Writing Tune: “Exit Wounds” by The Romanovs

I’m working on two completely different love stories at the moment.

Both of which climax at the same tipping point: when lover transforms into devourer.

There are tons of bodice-rippers where a stronger force sweeps the POV character off her feet. These are both from the attacker’s perspective. I wonder how sympathetic they’ll be…

These Are The People I Want In My Life

I found this beautiful poem through a friendship with a musician with a beautiful soul. I would not have met her if I didn’t know writers with beautiful souls. Beautiful souls are true, and shine bright, whether they glow with compassion or writhe in their own torment. For me, beauty lies solely in entelechy.

The Invitation
by Oriah
It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain.I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own; if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, be realistic, remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can  disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty even when it is not pretty every day. And if you can source your own life from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, ‘Yes.’

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone and do what needs to be done to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.