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Giant musical symbol!

Spring Rain - piano score

While a little electronic keyboard is fun for messing around with, it seriously lacks two things:
  • Expressiveness
  • Connectivity
The latter, connectivity, is easy - if it doesn't have MIDI then it is a mere toy. No exceptions.

The expressiveness might be harder to explain to people who don't know much about music. Put simply, there are two primary forms of expression on a piano. The first is how hard you hit the keys - a soft touch plays gentle notes, while banging on the keys gives you giant three-dimensional crotchets floating in the air. Whether the orchestra swells for the love scene, or the orgasmic climax of the ultimate rock ballad, how strongly the notes are played makes a huge difference to the overall sound of the piece.
Listen to the MeatLoaf song "For Crying Out Loud" (eight and a half minutes of rock gold) and you will see the piano starts off very soft, then by the minute marker it cranks up, and then... well then it goes up to eleven.

The second part of expressiveness is called sustain. This is managed by a pedal on pianos and keyboards, and its function is to control whether or not a damper presses against the strings of the piano. When the pedal is pressed, the damper moves away so the sound will continue until it dies out naturally. In addition, all of the strings can vibrate in sympathy with the note(s) being played with greatly enriches the sound qualities of the piano. In general, the sympathetic vibration won't be reproduced by an electronic keyboard because it relies upon some complex features of harmonic resonance (thus, different pianos will have slightly different tonal qualities). The alternative is the pedal is not pressed, so the damper rests against the strings, the effect being a note is played and then it dies away almost instantly.
Cheap keyboards also usually have a sustain button, but it isn't really intended for being switched on and off during a performance.

With this in mind, I was looking to get more into playing a keyboard/piano. Now, the little keyboard I got in a vide grenier last year isn't bad for messing around and coming up with unusual sounds, but with tiny keys and a lack of expressiveness, it is going to remain a toy.

Thus, after a little bit of looking around, I got myself a Yamaha PSR E-333. A 61 key full sized keyboard with plenty of features, but one of the better ones is decent sounding voices. Okay, some are a little odd, but many sound sufficiently realistic if played correctly (you can't use the saxaphone voice with piano music and expect good results, you just don't play a saxaphone like that!). There is also USB-MIDI, which required me to download and install a driver but it was all pretty painless. The only thing I cannot do is manual sustain, I need to buy a pedal for that. I will sometime, but since I am using the keyboard on my lap while sitting on my bed (it is large!), there's no realistic way to sustain anyway, unless I wedge the pedal between my legs or something! [yikes]

 

Frankly, I am crap at playing. I don't have the habit of playing different things with different hands. I hope this won't be a dyspraxia thing and I will improve with time and practice.
I am looking to teach myself "Dear You" (Higurashi no Naku Koro ni; see also this (in Japanese)). which isn't that difficult a piece (although you might catch the performer of the linked video is all over the place with the tempo).
I will consider myself capable if/when I can play "Sparkling Daydream" (a lovely transcription of the Chūnibyō Demo Koi ga Shitai! opening song). If you watch the video, listen to how the piano changes how it sounds from 34s to 45s. Sustain, or rather lack of it.

 

[Aside #1: While getting the YouTube links, YouTube suggested this. She's very cute, but the only thing I can imagine is she is singing about... pollen? ]

 

[Aside #2: From getting more involved with the mechanics of J-Pop, it seems that one of the distingishing factors of what gives it a 'different' sound (other than the obvious of it being sung in Japanese!) is the widespread use of crossbeat. This is particularly evident in Dear You where you can hear the bass line is three notes (a 1-1-2 in a four beat bar) pretty much repeatedly. The notes differ, but the 1-1-2 pattern remains the same. Then the melody, which runs alongside the bass, but with a different timing and rhythm. There is, necessarily, a relationship between the two, but it is nowhere near as direct as contemporary western music.]

 

For now, I use the keyboard for compositions. Namely, bash out a melody, refine it a little, and then transcribe it to notation.
The software I am currently trying out is a free package called MuseScore. It is not bad, but it is fiddly. You see, there are two ways to get notation from performed music.

The first method is a direct transcription of the music as it is played. This tends to create rather horrible notation which is accurate to what was played but not necessarily useful when viewed as notation unless the performer is spot on (to within hundredths of a second) with how the music is performed). More intelligent software will employ a lot of AI to try to match the input music to the formatting of notation without mucking up the notation or changing how the music sounds.

The alternative is to use the keyboard as an input device and only read note pitch/velocity from the keyboard but ignore all timing and such. In this way, you can very accurately transcribe, but you have to understand the music sufficiently to be able to reproduce it one note at a time, altering the note type (crotchet, minim, quaver, etc) once the note has been entered. This is not really so different to using a mouse to draggy-droppy notes, only you are using a real keyboard so it is more familiar than a mouse. MuseScore works in this manner. It is also useful to be able to disable notation input to play with phrases on the keyboard and work out what you want to input before doing so. You have an idea of a melody in your head, it might need a little bit of refinement when it comes to actually playing it. Some people don't have this problem, they can listen to a song once and reproduce it on the instrument of their choosing. I'm not one of those people...

My first half-assed attempt at a composition is called "Spring Rain" and it isn't all that wonderful. It sounds different in my head than the end result, but it is useful to have a concrete end result so I can see where and how things differ. I have not yet got the timing sorted in my head. That will be something to work on.

Composing...

I am also quite pleased to discover that my keyboard will respond to MIDI files as a sixteen channel synthesiser. I knocked up a few bars of rubbish using a number of different instruments together and it played back correctly. In the future, I can look to thinking of more complete multi-instrument compositions.
But, for now, I probably ought to start off without too many complications!

I kind of wish I could compose like Jim Steinman, but then somebody who could write such utterly crass lyrics as "the angels had guitars even before they had wings" is probably way out of my league. And the really amusing thing is Steinman has paired up with MeatLoaf who is so much larger than life that he can perform that with a completely straight face (at +3m21s) and - dude, it's rock - you just don't say "huh?". But, then, watch the video - jukebox tombstones bursting out of the ground, smoke, motorbikes, Angelina Jolie... this is so over the top it actually makes the song seem lacklustre in comparison!

 

Aaaaanyway - to my first composition. Here's the sheet music:

Spring Rain score, page 1
 
Spring Rain score, page 2

For those who can perform from the tiny pictures, I salute you. For everybody else:

 

For those who can't sight-read (don't worry, I can't either), there's a MIDI:

 

And for those who would like to see how crap this is before actually bothering to look at it in any more detail:

Download Spring_Rain_-_Rick_Murray.mp3 (1.57MiB)
Or alternatively, just listen to it right now:

For a laugh, I changed the primary voice to tubular bells:

The licence on this is you can listen, use, whatever for private, personal use. Stuff within the "family circle" is okay, so you can inflict this on your little sister as a punishment. Commercial uses and uses where the music is distributed or performed "in public" requires you to contact me first. I will generally say okay if you want to use this in YouTube vids (and provide a link to it here), however commercial use (defined as anything that makes you money) will expect some small amount of currency to be sent my way. That is, once I've picked myself up off the floor after fainting at the idea of somebody actually wanting to use this composition!

 

There will be more in the future. I trust my capabilities improve so the crotchets floating around in my head resemble the ones on the score!

 

Quick dico / crash course for the non-musical or music debutante

  • bar - in music, a bar is a segment of time that lasts for a defined number of beats. If you look at the music above, you will notice that the very beginning says 4/4 (this means there are four beats in each bar) and then there are a bunch of notes followed by a vertical line, some more notes, and a vertical line, etc. Between the vertical lines is a bar.
  • bass - on the score, this is the curly thing that looks like a stylised '9' with a colon after it. In reality, it refers to the lower pitch notes on the piano (roughly everything below middle C). There are various types of bass clef but since this is a piano piece, we won't go into this.
  • beat - see at the top it says Allegretto and then musical-note equals 120? Okay, clap your hands together, a little faster. You need to clap twice per second, or 120 times in a minute. Now count: one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four... That's it, that's the beat of this piece, and each one-four count is the length of a bar.
  • cross-beat - a form of "polyrhythm" where the rhythm of the melody and the bass are not necessarily the same. Find a parent that likes jazz, it is used quite a lot in jazz. Or just listen to Dear You and note the difference in rhythm between the bass and the melody.
  • crotchet, minim, quaver, etc
    • breve - a note that is a hollow circle with two lines either side, a bit like ||O|| - in 4/4 time this would play for eight beats (and be two bars, thus is usually written as two linked semibreves).
    • semibreve - a note that is a hollow circle. In 4/4 time this lasts for four beats, an entire bar.
    • minim - a note that is a hollow circle with a tail. In 4/4 time, this lasts for two beats. In the above score, the last note of every bass bar is a minim.
    • crotchet - a circle with a tail. In 4/4 time, this lasts for a beat. In the above score, the first two notes of every bass bar are crotchets.
    • quaver - a crotchet with a 'hook' on its tail; may be shown joined by a line instead (this line is known as a "beam"). This leasts for half a beat. In the above score, the first four notes of the treble are quavers.
    • semiquaver - like a quaver, but with two hooks. Lasts for a quarter beat in 4/4 time.
    • demisemiquaver - like a quaver but with three hooks. Lasts for an eighth beat in 4/4 time.
    • hemidemisemiquaver (yes, really!) - like a quaver but with four hooks. Lasts for a sixteenth beat in 4/4 time, meaning you can get 64 in a bar. Expect your music to look terrible if you use a lot of these, and if you do it at a fast beat then not only will it be unplayable by humans, your synthesiser might suffer a nervous breakdown...
    • quasihemidemisemiquaver - a five-hook quaver, a 128th beat. Now we're getting ridiculous, but Beethoven used them (Piano Sonata #8, all on the first page!)
  • keyboard - electronic piano. This is usually called a keyboard as it not only lacks the mechanics of a piano, but also can produce a variety of different sounds.
  • melody - what I tend to call the treble line, as the higher notes usually play a melody (the tune), while the lower notes support it with chords. I think everybody else calls this the "harmony", but to me harmony is a combination of tones (both melody and the bass/chords) that should result in a pleasing sound.
  • MIDI - Musical Instrument Digital Interface, an old serial protocol running at an unusual speed (31.25kbaud, making it incompatible with most generic serial ports), that was adopted by the industry to allow musical devices to be interconnected. Keyboards, synthesisers, sequencers... MIDI was the surely backbone of music in the eighties.
    These days, for domestic equipment, MIDI data is carried on a USB link. It's a heck of a lot simpler for interfacing to home computers. More expensive equipment needs hellish interconnections so if old-school MIDI is not in use, expect it to turn up in weird styles like ethernet or SCSI.
  • notation - the way most music is written, namely five lines with splats upon in various places. There are other forms of notation (guitar tabs, and notation for non-tuned instruments like drums), however the most common is like that shown above. The difference between notation and score is that score is a representation of the music as a finished entity, while notation is how the music is actually represented. I could have removed the traditional notes and used coloured letters where the letter was which note to play and the colour was how long the note lasted; it would still be a score, but the notation would be different.
  • phrase - a phrase is a group of notes that is used in a specific way. Those who know of Jeff Wayne's War of The Worlds will know of the "duh du-du-daaah!" leitmotif. The definition of "phrase" is elusive, for many people interpret it in different ways. So I think the best description is to say that a melody consists of a number of phrases; and if the melody is like a speech, then the phrases are like sentences.
  • rhythm - while the beat is the unchanging tempo of a piece of music, the rhythm is the procession of how it sounds, and this can either match the beat, run at a different speed to the beat, and change. A good example of this is to listen to "And Then He Kissed Me" by The Crystals. Here is a funny movie opening featuring the song and if you listen you probably hear it sounds like quite a fast piece with dah da-da-da dah da-da-da through it. Well, that is the rhythm. Listen carefully for the bass, it is somewhat more sedate. This follows the beat. Sheet music for this song (note: the 'c' time is an old-fashioned way to write 4/4).
  • score - a general name for "sheet music", that is music written in notation.
  • stave - that five-line thing upon which the music sits, a row of that is called a stave.
  • strings (piano) - yup, a piano has strings inside it. Actually, the simplest way to describe a piano is to say that somebody took a harp, stuck it in a box, and rigged up an arrangement where pressing a key will hit a specific string with a little hammer.
  • treble - the curly thing that looks like an ampersand on drugs is the treble clef and this means that the music here is in the upper frequencies - middle C and above. As for the bass clef, there are other types, but we won't get into such complications.

 

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