Randomness in Music

On June 22, I attended a Phish show in St. Paul, Minnesota, and in the middle of a second-set “Ghost”, I had a musical revelation. (I swear I was not under the influence of anything except good vibes.) As I watched the Phish fans around me in various stages of boogie-ing down (from standing still or swaying gently to fist-pumping intensely or pit moshing violently), I started to wonder exactly what everyone else was hearing. There’s no doubt that the acoustics of a large room can vary person-to-person, based on his/her proximity to the stage, possible sound barriers (like a tall gentleman in a Viking helmet between you and the sound system), and individual hearing differences — did those eight years of following the Dead in the ’70s deafen you completely, or, like me, are you accustomed to spending a lot of time sitting in a quiet room with Cutthroat Kitchen playing at a low volume?

As I pondered what this jam sounded like to everyone else, a famous existential quandary/brain-exploder came to mind: “Do we all see the same colors?” How do I know that what I call “red” doesn’t look to someone else what I would call “yellow”?

This got me thinking… How do I know that the note I hear as “C” doesn’t sound to someone else what I would call “B”? Now, I know there’s probably scientific data regarding sound waves and frequencies and stuff like that that can conclusively prove that a C for you is a C for me… but… We’ll never really know, now will we? You’ll never actually be able to get in my head to hear what I hear, just like you’ll never actually be able to see the colors I see. Your own perception will always get in the way. (Again, I promise I wasn’t stoned when these thoughts first occurred to me.)

Naturally, as a curious composer (both definitions of the word “curious”), the next logical step for me was to create a random musical scale and translate traditional works of music into the random scale model to create one possible theoretical version of what a piece of music could hypothetically sound like to someone else. Thanks to random.org, I was able to create a new scale where

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

and B = D#

Before translating a composition of my own into this random scale, I translated a well known piece of music: “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music. I selected “Do-Re-Mi” because it’s recognizable and it uses every note of the major scale, plus a couple accidentals. Here are the first few measures of the song, in a simple piano arrangement:


And here is what the beginning of the song looks like in my new randomized scale:


Now, the assumption is: to most people, the “Random Scale” version sounds “wrong” or weird, but who’s to say it wouldn’t sound beautiful to somebody? Maybe, upon hearing the “wrong” version, someone would, for the first time in their life, enjoy music — the way ketchup might suddenly be appealing if you just now were able to see that it is red after spending your entire life seeing it as green. (I’m still not high. Honest.)

Next, I tasked myself with writing a simple, straightforward piece which I would then randomize. For good measure, I came up with a new random scale:

C = G, C# = F#, D = D#, D# = B, E = C, F = A#, F# = D, G = C#, G# = G# (!), A = F, A# = E, and B = A

A surprising thing happened with this translation which was that I was actually pretty pleased with the result. To me, the randomized arrangement sounds intentional and purposeful, and it serves as a nice contrast to the original — so much so that I decided to present them side by side for anyone who’s willing to listen (preceded by my randomized “Do-Re-Mi”):

You can see the score for my randomized composition here.

Occasionally, I think about how long it’ll be before every possible sequence of notes in every possible rhythmic permutation has been arranged into a melody, and then there will be no new melodies. At the risk of being too grandiose, I think it’s possible the future of music is headed towards things that sound more like my randomized arrangements. In 100 (500? 1,000?) years, will humanity be so sick of traditional tonality and harmonic function that randomness and atonality will be the regular? Will a randomized re-setting of Beethoven’s 5th be the biggest hit of 3016? Will music lose all emotion and meaning when the biggest band of 4016, sta ehTeBle, rearranges all the words and notes in every Beatles song to create “new” pop hits for our robot and/or ape overlords to jam out to?!…

Ahem. I would, once again, like to assure you of my sobriety. Thank you for reading, and have a nice day.

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