Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sight Reading Academy is a new service, going live very soon, that aims to fill the gaping hole in music education around the practice of sight reading.

Sight reading music should be a part of traditional music lessons, as this skill is one of the most fundamental and practical for any musician to learn. Too often, however, it is either entirely or mostly ignored by the teacher, causing much more difficulty if the student decides to pursue music in college or on a professional level.

Also, be sure to check out the page of useful online sight reading resources, as well as the frequently updated sight reading blog.

Sign up for the mailing list to stay up to date! This service will be available very soon, and you don't want to miss it!


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Generic Generosity Part 1: The Film Trailer

The theater lights dim. The screen goes black. You have sat through all the eye candy paraphernalia which can be summed up in the statement "Please turn off your cell phones". Soon, the movie you came to see will start. But, for better or worse, there are still between three and six previews left to sit through. Possibly there will be a film coming out this summer that you will want to watch, so you view this part with a mixture of interest and impatience. The familiar words "THE FOLLOWING PREVIEW HAS BEEN..." set against the usual green background run their course. Once again the screen is black. You are presented with quick flashes of production company logos, and then black one last time. From this point there are a few possibilities of the direction the preview will take. I will use for example the movie The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, which came out last year when I started working on this, as my first example example.

The Epic!

Scenes quickly fade in and out, giving a sense of mysterious excitement, and the music adds that little touch of tension. You recognize actors from the first Chronicles of Narnia movie, and know right away what this preview will be about. Scenes switch to words and back again, giving the sense that something big is about to happen. The music builds as a wind starts to blow harder and harder, sweeping away the London train station and leaving the children once again in Narnia. A few lighthearted moments ensue, but very quickly the viewer is thrown into a world of wars and fighting. One in which the fate of an entire kingdom rests on what these children can do, and one in which the stakes are high. Scenes of fighting, of shouting, and of flying permeate the trailer, and the whole epic situation is shoved irrevocably down your throat by the monstrously loud-mixed music. Haunting, soaring, pounding, rushing, chasing, building, building, building, marching, then all of the sudden dropping, the music leaves the viewer sure that the world has just ended with the consummation of the preview. But wait, there is hope! May 2008 will bring a chance to once again enter that world in which overstatement rules. If you can hold on, you might just get the chance to spend eight dollars and once again find a world in which epic is an understatement, and which will be sure to give you goose-bumps by the sheer number of instruments confined to pounding out hits on a rhythm that has probably only been used uncountable times before. There is hope!

The Problem

The music used in the preview cited can be summed up in one word: "Generic". There are five different pieces used in the trailer, authored by the companies "Brand X Music", "Pfeifer Broz. Music", "Immediate Music", and "Groove Addicts". These companies are composers for hire, and this is the route very frequently taken in the underscore for trailers. Navigating to the Brand X Music website and then to their music library section, we find the music divided into the following categories: Action, Adventure, Beginnings, Odds & Ends, Comedy, Drama, Epic, Family, Horror, Pop, Rock, Suspense, Techno, and Urban. Generic music. A trailer production company will come here looking for music to go with their thriller preview, and get to listen to what the company can do when it comes to creating an ambience that exudes horror and suspense. If they like the atmosphere created, they contact the company, get financial situations arranged, and the company writes music to their specifications. Now I am sure that Brand X Music has some talented composers working for them, who really can create very nice pieces of music. However, I believe that the whole idea behind this company and many others is taking away from the art form that is film music.

Thus we have five separate and in no way confluent pieces of music, except for the fact that each piece is completely generic. The only elements present to make the trailer's underscore defined as music are rhythm, repetition, the use of instruments and vocals, and tonality. No over-arching harmonic idea. No musical meaning. No thematic development. The whole thing fits into the "ambience" category. But there can be no doubt that it creates atmosphere effectively, and to the larger part of the movie-going audience, the orchestral blasts will sound noble and fittingly epic. Thus I raise the question: Should music in trailers be music, or ambience? Should it lower itself to its audience? It this really all we should have when it comes to trailer music?

The Classic

Another very interesting trailer example is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull which was around about the same time. Before I go on, I must explain that I am unashamedly a John Williams fan. That said, let us take a look at the trailer. It begins playing the music written by Brian Tyler for Children of the Dune backing the scenes of landscape and bits and pieces of the old trilogy, without ever showing the face of Indiana Jones himself. The music is the typical generic output, and would at first lead the viewer to believe that it is just another summer flick in which stakes are unbelievably high, and everything is pushed to the limits. Then, as the scene shows the classic Jones hat lying on the ground, and someone in brown pants coming to pick it up, the music begins to play the theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the most widely recognized piece of music from the trilogy. The beginning motif is looped twice, and then the theme itself comes in full blast once the action begins. All the sudden the audience has switched from a "Just another end of the world epic film" mindset to an "Another Indiana Jones movie!" mind-set. John Williams, composer for Indiana Jones (as well as Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounter of the Third Kind, E. T., Hook, Schindler's List, the first two Jurassic Park movies, the first three Harry Potter movies as well as countless others) made such a recognizable and well loved underscore for the original trilogy that the impact of that old analogue recording on this new trailers is enormous. I do not know if the trailer production team did the contrasting types of music for this purpose or not, but it serves as an excellent example of the over-used and the extraordinary.

So what?

But few to basically no movies have the advantage of a returning John Williams theme, not to mention one of his most loved themes, being used in their film. What then can be done to rise above the mediocrity out of which trailer music is usually made? Once again, I must cite a John Williams example. For the original trailer to Hook, Williams composed a complete piece of music, with no other intended use than the trailer. 1:30 minutes in length, it is all one piece. It has themes from the movie, and even thematic development. Williams was starting a whole new film, and immediately introducing the musical style, themes and orchestrations that would be used in the movie. There is musical meaning, because a production team did not just copy-paste unrelated generic music onto images. Williams, obviously a musical genius, wrote what might be considered almost an overture for the film, and it was used in the trailer. This trailer is now rare, and quite hard to find in any sort of quality, but the piece written for it has survived on the score album for the movie, and makes a really wonderful stand-alone piece of music.

It has frequently been observed that the business of making trailers has really become an art in and of itself. Perhaps, then, it should be treated as such, and not as scenes and music thrown randomly together to create nothing more than adrenaline. If composers and trailer production teams alike could both stop stooping to the general public's idea of music and begin putting real meaning and depth into their trailer scores, it would make them much more worth watching. Overtures serve as a sort of introduction to larger works, and function very nicely as stand-alone pieces. These would be perfect requirements for trailer music, and the whole trailer production "art" could be turned into something worthy of the term.

-Colin Thomson

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Death Of Classical Music

Let me preface this by saying I do not in any way believe that classical music is dead. Just because something is not wildly popular does not mean that it is dead. Also, I use the term 'classical' in this article to mean 'serious concert music'. This article could also be taken out of context as nothing but a dissertation on why the music of the past was 'better', which I do not believe. That being said, why is classical music not as popular as it was in the beginning of the 1900's? Something changed, and we only have a couple of choices.

Did the musicians change? Are we just generally more interested in writing pop and rock music now? Some would say yes, but I would say they need to take a closer look at what is being made now. There is still great 'classical' music being made, from the likes of Philip Glass, Arvo Part, and many others. Why are neither of these brilliant composers as popular as Liszt was in his time? Do musicians just pander to what will sell? Of course. It has happened throughout all of western music history. But in the past, they were ripping off classical composers, and trying to write in that style, because that made money, which brings us to the next option.

Did the audience change? There are plenty of people who would say that this is the case. There are also plenty of people who would say that the Apollo moon landing was staged; doesn't make it true. The more I live (and I've spent precious little time living as of now), the more I came to the same conclusion as the writer of Ecclesiastes: There is nothing new under the sun. The only thing we learn from history is that we don't learn from history. Circumstances change, humans don't. What, then, were the circumstances that brought about such a radical change in what music was popular? What happened in the early 1900's to bring such a drastic stylistic switch?

You guessed it. As soon as music turned into a wave form, and the 'listening experience' turned into the best reproduction of that wave form, music had to adapt. The whole history of music leading up to that point had been completely without consideration of what would sound best when recorded. Thus alterations began. Electrical instruments were introduced, which could be more accurately replicated on album, being electrical to begin with. Then, when classical music lovers tried to utilize the exciting new possibilities of recordings, it was always a compromise. The recording was always meant to sound as little like a recording as possible, whereas the new music turned gradually more and more towards the album being the final product, and then trying to replicate that sound onstage. Basically, the exact opposite.

So, in light of this, lets analyze where we are now. Orchestral music today is largely represented in movie music, which, while sometimes being utilized outstandingly (I am a huge fan of movie scores), is also to blame for offering the world some of the lamest, simplest and most childish orchestrations from a classical mindset. But, in order to make an impression on a wave form, composers like to create huge orchestral jabs, and adrenaline pumping rhythms that seem almost childish when analyzed musically. But this is often required to make the recording sound big and exciting.

I think recordings might be the very hardest on the piano. How many times have you heard the complaint about a recorded classical piano piece "When I turn it up loud enough to hear the quiet parts, the loud parts hurt my ears"? It's true. Recordings just can't do justice to either the quietest pianissimo or the most majestic fortissimo. It is impossible, and this is probably just as true with all orchestral instruments invented before the recording age. Piano is just nearest and dearest to me.

Well then, what to do. I know this whole articles has seemed a little snobbish, looking down on modern music, and it is not meant to do that at all. I love film music. I love good, popular music. I love the electric guitar. I also love my recordings of great classical music performances, which would have been lost had it not been for recording technology. Humans, and music, have benefited hugely from recording technology. However, my advice is, well, first of all never compare classical and popular music. But second, if you feel you have to make the comparison, do so for each of them in their optimized environment. Whether that means the stage or the album for popular music is up to you, but I certainly believe that classical music can be far better judged where it was meant to be: the concert hall.

-Colin Thomson

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Welcome To "A Sound Perspective"

Hello one and all. My name is Colin Thomson, and I am a music geek. My love of music spans many genres, including but not limited to: movie scores, baroque, classical, romantic, modern, jazz, hymns, pop, rock, blues, country, hip hop and everything else I might be forgetting. Basically, I like a bunch of types of music. But I am also a snob. I know the two don't seem like they should go together, but I try to make it work. I believe that, while certain genres tend to attract more talent, every medium of music has emotional potential and can be turned into something great, even if that rarely happens.

I am also the editor (and sole contributor) for the online movie score review blog, Soundtracks Reviewed. While I plan to still write some reviews, as I enjoy that, I was looking for another outlet in writing about music. A review blog, titled such, is somewhat limiting in the scope of what one can write about, and I wanted a little more freedom, as more than movie scores interest me, and more than albums need commentary.

This, then, is my outlet for that urge. Whether or not people read it, often writing my thoughts helps me to clarify them, and is a good exercise. So I hope you enjoy this rather random and without-guidelines look at the wonderful world of music.

But first, a little more introduction about myself. I am leaving for Wheaton College in only a couple weeks to study music composition at the conservatory there. I play piano. I love to collect things, especially music albums (of course) and old, dusty, hard cover books. I am a little bit of an audiophile, with finances determining exactly how much of an audiophile I can be. I would love to be a vinyl music collector, but as of yet do not have proper equipment to take advantage of the (I believe) added realism afforded by the scratching out of a sound wave, as opposed to 44100 little pictures of that wave per second played back digitally. But that is somewhere in the future.

So anyways, I think that gets us started. Basically, I will be posting on those interest, whether it be news, news to me, or just something I have been thinking about recently. So I hope you enjoy, but, as Victor Borge would say, if you don't there's simply nothing I can do about it.

-Colin Thomson