THE LISTENING EXPERIENCE: Math

Photobucket

Nerd.

My mom always told me that the first word I ever spelled was “Chevrolet”. C’mon, how many kids spell Chevrolet? This comes from having a dad who worshiped anything and everything Chevy, he was a car freak who fixed engines, went to junk yards for parts, went to auto stores just to be… there. He was not an auto mechanic by trade, but rather an engineer. His love of fixing things did not rub off on me at all, I fix shit and I prefer buying a new one. But what I did enjoy was his knowledge and admiration of the mechanics and dynamics of what made a car run, and why. If he fixed a certain car and didn’t have the right part, he knew all of the “alternate” parts. If something needed to be modified, he would do his best to dig through his boxes of magazines and do it himself, always did it himself. If he could do it cheaply but properly, he would take all morning, dad, and night. Maybe it was to get out of the house, but still, he wanted to be in that machine. I could relate to this, even though cars were and are not my thing. The kind of machine I wanted to be in looked like this:

Photobucket

  • I love math. I did quite well in school, but math was a subject I enjoyed because for me, it seemed like fun, even though it was a process of learning and remembering. For me, if it was reading or social studies, I would moan and groan like the rest of my classmates. Studying felt like a chore, and we wanted to be outside and play on the jungle gym. Math came fairly easy, and I enjoyed the simple 1+1, 2+2, 2×2, and 16÷4. Then one year, we started to learn fractions. As all of us remember, this was a big step up from mere addition and subtraction. We knew our numbers, but now we were going to learn about the numbers within the numbers, or how to divide things in ways we didn’t know about, but for some reason in mattered.

    We remember how it all began. 1 is not just one, it can be two halves: 1/2 and 2/2, with 2/2 representing both halves. Then things could be divided even more. You learn about the numerators and denominators, how 1/2 = 2/4 = 4/8, etc. I would remember these numbers and sequence of things, and as anyone into math will tell you, once you have a sense of how these number systems work, you eventually find shortcuts to get to the equation. That leads to percentages, not only of “one” or a “whole”, but of different numbers. That would lead to how to count your change when you gave the cashier at a dollar, you’d learn how much you would get back and why. All of these things I really enjoyed knowing and studying, because they were mental games. I loved puzzles, quizzes, anything that had to do with challenging the mind, and perhaps that’s why I got into “enrichment” class, for the nerdy/geeky kids. They saw me as someone who wanted to not challenge myself, but find more things to be challenged by.

  • While I remained “a drummer without a drum set”, I loved the power of the drums and rhythms in songs. I worshipped the guitar heroes too like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Frank Marino, but I wanted to be a drummer. I’d listen to my favorite music and play “air drums”, and I was damn good at it. Or at least as good as a kid could be in the privacy of my own bedroom and mind. I’d listen to a song like Ten Years After‘s “I’m Going Home”,and it was easy: all I had to do was play a consistent beat throughout the entire song. If I played something like Led Zeppelin‘s “When The Levee Breaks”, it was more than just “1… 2… 3… 4…”, there were a few intricate parts in that song. If I played Santana records, I’d love the sound and feel of the music but the rhythms were a bit more complex. Yet in my mind, there was always the core of the “1… 2… 3… 4…”. However, in the background there might be other things going on: the congas, the timbales, all playing in their own mindframe but still getting to where they needed to be after a sequence.
  • One thing I remember from school was seeing “fraction lines”. On one hand, it was a way to see how numbers were divided, so you could see how “1” could be divided in 2, 4, 8, or 16 equal parts. In some tasks, we would use a ruler and on this ruler we could see an inch, and in between that inch, a number of lines. We could figure out half an inch, 5/8 of an inch, or create a line that was of any length, as requested. It was possible to go back between inches and centimeters, so all of this was somehow interesting to me.

    Music has always been a part of me, or at least my surroundings. Some things come natural to me, in that if I hear a song, I would have a sense of its rhythmic patterns or time signatures. At least the basic stuff, such as the standard 4/4 time signature, or a 3/4 waltz rhythm. As I would read more about music and how it works, I’d discover that songs could be more than 4/4 or 3/4. Or if a song was 4/4, you could do a number of different things in that 4/4. If a song sounded complex, I’d wonder about its sequence and try to figure it out in my head, or clap it out. Eventually, I figured out that a lot of the music I was listening to was mathematical, which lead to those fraction lines.
    Photobucket

    It was one of those “Bobby Brady fireworks in the head” moments. The music I loved also had games in them? Well, I know I didn’t say that, but I realized that music could be more than just the surface, that it might be filled with many layers. I am always curious about why certain sounds and songs work. Or if I heard a song like, let’s say, Blind Faith‘s “Do What You Like”, I’d want to know if the entire song is 5/4. It is, not unlike Lalo Schifrin‘s theme to Mission: Impossible.

    As I got into progressive rock and heard King Crimson‘s “21st Century Schizoid Man”, I enjoyed the mid-section of the song commonly known as “Mirrors”. When the song comes out of the driving first part and the tempo increases, the time signature turns to 3/4. For the longest time, I could not figure out the segment that switches over to something else at the 4:40 mark:

    I love this song and yet could not figure out that section. In my 30’s, after 20 years of hearing this song countless times, I realized when that fast section switches over, it moves from 3/4 to 4/4, and there are all of these intricate things going on before that sequence is played twice, wraps itself up, and heads back into the 3/4 for awhile before returning back into that slow grinding 4/4 groove. I remember when I discovered this, I thought “why didn’t I sense this when I was a teenager?” Keep in mind that I loved the different time signatures and bars of jazz and prog rock, which I’m a fan of, but sometimes things may not fully click until much later.

  • Somewhere before this, a number of bands were doing this and someone decided that these complex music equations was worthy of a name: “math rock”. This was nothing different from what bands have been doing for decades, but for those who loved to hear music **with** thought, this was perfect. If you’re into jazz, you discover the music of Don Ellis, who would play songs in 5/4, 7/4, 11/4, or whatever he felt like doing. When I got into Indian classical music, I discovered that their musical notation (tala) is completely different from Western notation, and each of their time signatures may have specific names. For example, our 4/4 rhythm is written out as 4 + 4 + 4 + 4, or what is known as teental/tintal. I discovered this while reading liner notes of albums by Ravi Shankar, which would always describe the feeling, emotion, or pathos of a song, before telling the reader/listener how to hear the song. Then you’d read about other songs, and how they are presented in Jhaptal, Ektal, and countless other names. I’d read up about this, and some of it was similar to Western time signatures, while others seemed a bit more… maybe “crazy” and “hectic” aren’t the proper words, but it wasn’t just simply clapping “1… 2… 3… 4…”, but any mathematical equation you wanted to play, you could do so in music. I remember reading Shankar’s autobiography where he spoke of writing a composition based on the 50th anniversary of India’s independence from England. He did it in a tala that was “3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 7 + 6 + 5 + 4 + 3”. In other words, if you were to count that out, you would do it as:

    1… 2… 3…
    1… 2… 3… 4…
    1… 2… 3… 4… 5…
    1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6…
    1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6… 7…
    1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6… 7…
    1… 2… 3… 4… 5… 6…
    1… 2… 3… 4… 5…
    1… 2… 3… 4…
    1… 2… 3…

    Significance? The sum of 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 is 25. That numbered sequence is reversed, so 25+25 = 50, a reference to the 50th anniversary of India’s independence from England. When I read this, I thought “wow, you can do that with music?” That’s when I decided to do a song using that same sequence, but in my case, the 50 would represent where I’m from, Hawai’i, which is the 50th U.S. state. I don’t have the audience or appeal of Shankar, and while I did come up with great results, it could have been a lot better if I added more elements to the track. Nonetheless, it was still fun to do.

  • I don’t listen to all music with math in mind, but math is always in mind, especially with music. In other words, if it’s music where a 4/4 time signature is expected, I’ll listen to it for that. I’ll listen to a song for its music, its means to create emotion, all of the metaphors I use to simply listen. Yet if a song is different from an accepted norm, I can’t help but put my math hat on and start thinking, something that you pretty much have to do. If you are a drummer, you are looking at a diagram of numbers. You have to hit the hi-hat a certain way, you hit the snare at certain points, and if you want to do something different, it may help to create a new pattern. That “new pattern” may be described as a groove. There are some who will tell you that there are huge cultural and ethnic differences in music. James Brown, George Clinton, and Prince would honor the principal that the groove was always “on the one”, or on that initial beat. Even actor Malcolm Jamal-Warner would single this out in a classic episode of The Cosby Show, where when he, as Theo, was in a recording studio with his family and musician Stevie Wonder, he was told to say something into the microphone, and what did he say? “Jammin’ on the one“.

    You may not think “mathematical” when it comes to Paula Abdul, but in her video for “Forever Your Girl”, she was trying to teach a young girl how to dance in a certain sequence, and did so by trying to tell her where to do certain things in a sequence of 8 beats. The look on the girls’ face when Abdul says “you’re on” seems to be an expression that a lot of people have when you describe the time signature or pattern to them.

    A lot of people fell in love with Outkast‘s “Hey Ya”, leading to countless cover version in a number of different styles. Part of its appeal is that the time signature is 22/4, or 4 + 4 + 4 + 2 + 4 + 4:

    There’s also De La Soul‘s “Stakes Is High”, and outside of it being a Dilla production, what people like about it is because it is not the normal hip-hop 4/4 rhythm. In this case, it’s 12/4, or 4 + 4 + 4:

    You also have one of my favorite DJ Shadow songs, “Changeling”, which is 14/4, or 4 + 4 + 4 + 2:

  • For me, math is always in the music. Music and math are one. Of course, math doesn’t apply to just music. As I got into food as something create rather than rip out of a box and warm up, you have to understand and follow the rules of the recipe. If you put more than 1/4 cup of any ingredient, or less than 2 tbsp of something else, it will taste either bad or be deficient/lack flavor. Some of the best cooks/chefs are able to play with food by feeling, and can tweak it visually or by flavor, but that also comes from years of experience. Same with a musician, who may be part of a band or orchestra, and if you’re playing by the book or with a sense of improvisation, you know where to come in to fit in, or to compliment what is being played, along with moving out of range at appropriate times. Math is with you when you are driving somewhere, reading the sign that tells you how long you have to go to get to your destination. It’s with you when you are a construction worker, when you have to coordinate the dimensions of a room, carpet fabric, or anything that will make the room look right. When the room looks and feels right, you might say that everything is in “harmony” with one another, a musical metaphor but as a way to say that this is right, or as right/accurate as it can be.

    Music is the same way. Math is always a part of the equation, but you can have the freedom to bob and weave out of it if you follow the rules that are in play. Even with rules, you can still have fun with it. As a listener, or as a creator of sounds, math is important. It may not make people dance “on the on” at first, but with enough practice and dedication, you’ll get to the sum of that equation. Music should make us feel, and a lot of times it makes us happy, so if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.

    Clap, clap.

    One, two.

  • Music is limitless if you understand or know the rules and guidelines, which will lead you to color outside of the lines.
  • Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

    WordPress.com Logo

    You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

    Google photo

    You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s