Make Your Own Luck

In “The surprising thing about musical surprise” philosopher and musician Jenny Judge refers to the experience of listening to the first thirty seconds of Led Zeppelin’s1 ‘Black Dog’: “whatever else you might say about the experience, an adequate discussion of its phenomenal character would have to mention musical surprise."2

The surprise in ‘Black Dog’ is rhythmic, the guitar riff disrupts the regular sense of meter3 set-up by the vocal line. This surprise was designed considering the efforts that went into the making of ‘Black Dog’, its relation4 with Fleetwood Mac’s5 ‘Oh Well’ and also taking into account something not mentioned in these two articles. When you turn the volume up6 you can hear John Bonham - probably with his drum sticks - giving metric indications at 0:11 two clicks, 0:23 one click, 0:30 one click and 0:34 one click. Was the musical surprise so essential that it had to be executed perfectly to happen with the risk of being “spoiled” by revealing the mechanics or trick? J. Bracket7 hints at the answer by quoting the musicians during a rehearsal of the song ‘In My Time of Dying’:

Bonham: “Well you can’t count from where you stop ’cause your vocals might be a different – I mean – your voice just might go off a beat and we’re gonna be f…”

Plant: “Ah, but if you do that, it’ll be like ‘Black Dog’ then it gives me room to move and solo…”

Bonham: “Yes, but the reason we did ‘Black Dog’ is because we counted it and you did it afterwards … That’s the only way we can do this.”

The vocals were overdubbed8 later to give the impression of spontaneity and freedom. On live versions one can hear the way a more metrical regularity is established and allows the band to perform in sync but its freedom becomes more restricted. Musical surprises come in many forms an can be rhythmic, harmonic, melodic, timbre, dynamics, color, ….

There is a debate about about the nature9 of these musical surprises that fall under the category of perceptual surprises and are characterized as frustrating, thwarting prior expectations. (Huron, D. B. (2006). Sweet anticipation music and the psychology of expectation. MIT Press.)

If musical surprises are such an interesting element for composers, performers and the audience it might be interesting to discover if they can be generated and repeated? Is there a formula or a method, a process to make musical surprises arise? And what happens to the surprise if you listen to a piece over and over again? I turned to a field of music I had some prior experience in, music and audio for video games. I’ll build on previous personal projects that are all using the same or related audio technologies but focus one one specific topic. Instead of rehashing the techniques, tools and workflows I already had experience with I wanted to use the potential of this research to further explore the specific chance and random element that is a central to adaptive audio but is also making it’s way into music creation apps, generative music software and devices. These random features intrigued me the most and are also the ones that only were present as a side function or a sketch in my other projects.

How to make randomness work in the creator’s favor and capture the interest of the audience?

Serendip Revisited

The word serendipity only exists in the English language. It was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754 in a letter while referring to one episode from a Persian tale “The Three Princes of Serendip”. The three princes from today’s Sri Lanka traveled the world “making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of…”.

While the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines serendipity as the “faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for”, the Oxford learner as “​the fact of something interesting or pleasant happening by chance” and the Oxford English Dictionary goes with “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident”.

Today serendipity is overused as a buzzword in human and natural sciences. In 2009 journalist Richard Boyle10 lamented that the commonly accepted definitions did not do justice to Walpole’s “more complex and metaphorical original meaning”. This holds especially true if one considers its use in natural sciences.

It is in the Oxford Reference, not mentioned by Boyle, that one can find a definition that is closer to the original meaning envisioned by Walpole:

“Discovery of new information by a happy accident when actually seeking something altogether different. A famous example was the discovery by the British medical scientist Alexander Fleming (1881–1955) of the antibiotic property of penicillin mold.”

For Neuroscientist David R. Colman:

“Serendipity plays an important part in research of all kinds, but it operates only in a special environment; as Pasteur famously stated, ‘Chance favors the prepared mind.’ In research, what serendipity really means in practical terms is that scientists discover things in the course of their investigations that they were not looking for. And these new findings are often not the products of cold logic."11

I’ll make use of the above definition in my research on randomness, chance to create surprise, expectation, resolution and alternatives but the primary focus will be on the more precise serendipity definition with the idea of adding and mixing elements from a composition that will figure on an album and in an app.

Artistic Research Focused on Creating an Changing Music Video Clip

Artistic research12 projects will display most of the following features:

  1. The art work is the focal point. The art work tops the list of the priorities, from places 1 to 22, and still continuing”.
  2. Artistic experientiality [sic] is the very core of the research.
  3. Artistic research must be self-reflective, self-critical and an outwardly-directed communication.
  4. The placement of artistic research in the historical and disciplinary context.
  5. A diversity of research methods, presentation methods and communication tools and their commitment to the needs and demands of each particular case.
  6. Emphasizing the fruitfulness and necessity of the dynamic research group situation, which in a collective effort provides the closest critical environment, the protective realm for experimentation and the ability to share thoughts and emotions.

I’ll consider point 1 (1 and especially 1), 2 and 5 as most relevant to my undertaking.

One of the main compositions used for the app will serve as base for my research on creating an interactive video clip that offers musical surprises but keeps intact the composers intentions. Can serendipity happen for the ones that are prepared and put it some effort, plant the seeds?

While in itself adaptive audio, as used in multimedia projects mostly in video games, is an interesting subject I’d like to focus on one particular aspect, randomness as a surprise for the composer, performer and listener. Randomness as feature has become ubiquitous in music software and hardware (cf. methodology). “Which tools do you use to make music? " might not be one of the most interesting questions, albeit one of the most asked one by musicians in popular music circles, but tools do have an impact on music making, on the creative process and can expand or restrict the horizons of the possible and desirable.13 The reasons for using a well established technology vs. more advanced applications, from algorithmic and A.I. music research or even well documented tools suchg as Max, Pure Data or Super Collider (cf. glossary), will also be exposed in the methodology chapter. The main reason is that I was looking into technologies that would make it possible to create and publish an end product (video clip with changing music and restricted moments of interaction) in different media accessible to the largest possible audience: apps (iOS, Android), computer platforms (Mac, Linux PC), web (browsers) and even game consoles (Xbox, Switch, etc.).

Furthermore, examples in the inspiration and process chapters will rely on projects I’m working and on my studies at the Maastricht Conservatorium with my teachers and the Karnatic Rhythm to Western Music Program I’m following at the Conservatorium of Amsterdam on south Indian rhythmic concepts.

The reflection report published under this website format seems the most adapted to combine advanced teaching research and MA research because it focus on surprise and chance, offers wiki style cross-references and links to outside internet references. It also uses the same technologies that allows the reader to experience and grasp the different examples.

The literature review (II.) succinctly summarizes the research on algorhthmic music and provides further links and examples. The methodology section (III.) gives an overview of the tools I used with hands-on examples to interact with the music. Interactive examples are also available in the ATS research: randomness and surprise in teaching. In the process documentation part (IV.) I tried to shed light on the The Aquatic Museum album and app creation process but also extend the research into more experimental territory. This intro section (I.) is completed with an overview of personal projects that gave me the idea and impulse for this research.

  1. Black Dog - Led Zeppelin IV (2 December 1971) - Led Zeppelin - John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant ↩︎

  2. Judge, J. (2018). The surprising thing about musical surprise. Analysis (Oxford), 78, 225–234. ↩︎

  3. Brackett, J. (2008). Examining rhythmic and metric practices in Led Zeppelin’s musical style. Popular Music, 27, 53–76. ↩︎

  4. ibid. p. 62 ↩︎

  5. Oh Well, Part 1 - single (26 September 1969) - Fleetwood Mac - Peter Green ↩︎

  6. High dB levels fit the song well and furthermore, by raising the volume on just those drum stick clicks, a students can play along and not miss the beginning of the riff. ↩︎

  7. Brackett, J. (2008) ibid. p. 65 ↩︎

  8. ibid. p. 66 ↩︎

  9. Huron, D. B. (2006). Sweet anticipation music and the psychology of expectation. MIT Press. Judge, J. (2018, p226) argues against this general accepted assumption: “Many musical surprises can be explained by the falsification of assessments of the present, rendering the appeal to expectation unnecessary.” ↩︎

  10. Boyle, R. (2009, March). Serendipity and Zemblanity., Himal Southasian Magazine ↩︎

  11. Colman, D. R. (2006). The three princes of Serendip: Notes on a mysterious phenomenon. McGill Journal of Medicine: MJM, 9, 161. ↩︎

  12. Hannula, M., Suoranta, J., & Vadén, T. (2005). Artistic Research. Theories, Methods and Practices↩︎

  13. cf. e.g. Stadnicki, D. A. (2017). Play like Jay: Pedagogies of drum kit performance after J Dilla. Journal of Popular Music Education, 1, 253–280. ↩︎