December 23, 2015

From the Studio and Below: Be A Good Mathematician

I don't think I've ever mentioned this in the context of the blog up until now, but I am, in fact, a musician - by which I mean I've recorded just under ten songs that have been listened to by almost as many people. As such, who could be better than me to give you kids tips on music and the recording thereof? This is the theme we will explore in this exciting new segment.

I am currently in the process of recording a new song by the name of Under the Wheels of Time - always an exciting prospect, and always a lot more frustrating than you would imagine it to be. If you've never been involved in recording music in some way, you have no idea how much effort goes into simple things like making a cymbal hit not sound like someone dropping a wet towel on the floor, or how satisfying it is when you actually manage to do it. I'll talk about mixing another time, though - this time I want to talk about just plain ol' playing the guitar.

The main guitar part I recorded today, a classical guitar riff, goes like this:

Music by Alon Lessel. All Rights Reserved.

It's a simple riff, with essentially the same melody repeated for different root notes - it could easily be split into a bass part and lead guitar part. I played it many times before on electric and acoustic guitars with no difficulty, but when I started recording Wheels, I decided it would sound better on a classical guitar. This is when I ran into a problem: the way I used to play the riff, when I had to fret the F note on the 6th string, I would just reach around the neck with my thumb (giggidy). Things is, at 164cm (that's almost 5'5'' for our USA readers), I'm not a very large person, if you ignore the X-Y plane, and with my classical guitar having a very thick neck, it was all but impossible to properly hold the string down with my thumb - especially when you consider that I need to keep my other fingers well-arched in order for the notes on the 2nd string to ring properly. The only alternative I could think of was to use my index finger for the note on the 6th string, but then the only way to play the C note on the 2nd string would be to barre the 1st fret after playing the B note, which doesn't pack nearly the same punch as regular finger-hammering.

This led to hours of frustration, in which I constantly tried two bad solutions to a simple problem and failed repeatedly to make them sound even passably good. That's when I had a revelation: I don't need to play the part differently - I just need to tune differently. I'm only playing the F note on the 6th string, so my problems would be solved if I could just hold that note in place during the entire part - which, in guitar terms, means tuning the string to an F, i.e., half a step higher than standard tuning. Once I did that, the only challenging part of playing the riff was that I had to shake my instinct of reaching for the 1st fret at the start of the 3rd bar.

This might seem like an embarrassingly simple observation, but there's an important lesson to take out of it. There's a common misconception that the more difficult something is to play, the better; that if you look for a way to make a part easier to play, you're either cheating or you're just just not a very good guitar player. That's not true at all. If it were, then everybody's favorite guitarist would be Michael Angelo Batio, that guy who can play two guitars really fast at the same time and has never made a single good piece of music in his entire life. Oh, don't worry - he'll be the subject of a future post.

Seriously, I dare you to watch this video the whole way through.

The truth is, the best sounding guitar parts are often the ones that are easiest to play. Of course, "easy" is a relative term - newcomers might not necessarily have such an easy time playing a Slash or Angus Young solo. When you break it down, though, there's nothing that technically profound about them. It's the composition and the little touches that make their playing so awe-inspiring. Eruption is a cool song to learn when you pick up your first Floyd Rose guitar, but when I wanna listen to some Van Halen, I'm much more likely to go for Hot For Teacher.

Music isn't the only example where that's true - in fact, I learned this lesson in a completely different context. I've got an M.Sc. in mathematics, but for a while there in high school, I was on the verge of failing math time and time again. That all changed when I got to the 11th grade, where I was assigned to a new math teacher called Galina (forgot her last name, but will change this if I ever find out what it was). Galina was a hi-tech refugee who decided to become a teacher rather than face unemployment, and she quickly became many a student's favorite teacher, myself included. While everyone else we knew at school hated their math teacher, we were so close to Galina that at the end of our senior year, she actually invited us to a party at her home, which is one of the few truly happy memories I have of high school.

Galina had a very simple attitude to mathematics: a good mathematician, she said, is a lazy mathematician. This doesn't mean that a mathematician should be some disinterested MATLAB programmer,* mind you - it means that rather than carrying out the same computations again and again, a good mathematician should seek to save up time whenever possible by recording the basics of a computation or some logical reasoning as a theorem. Rather than use the same reasoning each time to calculate the length of the hypotenuse of a triangle using the lengths of its sides, prove the Pythagorean theorem. "Lazy" here really just means "efficient" - repeating the same argument time and time again, while possibly a good way to impress people with how smart you are, does little to save time and facilitate the study of deeper facets of mathematics. As a former programmer, Galina probably saw this as the math version of avoiding code duplication, the cardinal sin of coding.

*And no hate for MATLAB, either - I'm a big fan!

This lesson doesn't translate directly to music, in which repetition is actually quite important. The periodicity of riffs and chord progressions against a changing melody, combined with the subtle differences in which the same parts are played in different iterations, is a major factor in our enjoyment of music. However, the same basic understanding is still relevant: whether in mathematics, programming or music, or anything else, really - simpler is usually better. Doing these simple things well, though - that's the main challenge we all face, and which we will discuss at length some other time.

Under the Wheels of Time will hopefully be released by next weekend, just in time for that Novy God. I already know who I'll be spending the night with - Solid Snake! So all you losers can just keep all your kissing and sexy times to yourselves. 

Thanks for reading, and in the meanwhile, listen to some of my other songs on SoundCloud.

Hello from the gutter,

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