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"meta music" - idea on a skill one should be aware of

posted on #1
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This thread is a branch-off from Niltons excellent post about reading music.
We have discussed several aspects of improving as a musician there, and I would like to add another aspect/suggestion on what to work on here.

I guess most of us will agree that to improve as a musician, it does make sense to
- practise your technical skills (brain-to-hand/foot/air coordination), speed
- get theoretical music knowledge, harmonies, reading ability
- practise your timing untill it is rock solid

There is a lot of teaching material on above tasks out there, but I do feel one quite important skill is missing, and often misunderstood as a question of talent.
I'll will call it "meta music" in lack of a better name.
Meta music is a skill which seems to stand on its own and which is only partially compromised by lack of any skill named so far.
You may become a technical genius with perfect timing but lack any meta-music in your playing, and you may play a piece from sheet music that was full of meta-music when performed by its author, but is totally empty of it when played from sheet.

So, what is it?
Think of meta music as the psychological effect created thru music.
It is easy to measure skills like timing, accuracy or speed, to measure the psychological impact of a musical performance is a bit more difficult.
One might do a survey in a live performance and ask which piece "touched" the most people in the audience, or analyze if there were moments where the crowd suddenly cheered or started to dance to measure the presence of "meta music".

My thesis is that creating such moments is a skill that can be learned and is a quite important asset to being a musician.

I will try to stick to the aspects that may be measured, sticking to a kind of scientific paradigm. Personally, I do believe there is even more than that going on in "meta music", but since some of that would probably perceived as rather esoteric, I will try to seperate those ideas.

Let's collect a few perceptions we may hopefully agree upon:
- music has the power to influence the listeners mood, it can evoke all kinds of emotions
- this ability strongly depends on the listeners will, one can block from being touched emotionally, or other outer influences can block the emotional impact of a musical piece (p.e. the song that always made you smile won't work in the middle of an argument)
- the emotional impact of a piece of music is not bound to the notes, arrangement and instruments, nor to the individual players skills - listen to well trained cover bands playing a piece that used to touch you... it will not always be the same.

Let me add two more aspects from my experience as an audio engineer
- interestingly, it is possible to record meta music, while it may not be possible to reproduce the same meta music on another stage with the very same artist
- again, the listener seems to have an impact on the performers skill to produce meta music - this is why live recordings tend to have a different emotional strength

Now, what are my chances as a musician to work with this?
There seems to be quite a lot of uncontrollable aspects, which ones can be influenced at the players end?
There is no guaranteed cause and effect chain in performing meta music, the skilled musician may initiate or offer meta music, but the effect on the listener is not guaranteed.
A skilled meta musician is able to bring 40k listeners in an arena to tears, or will let the whole crowd freak out by bringing back in some bassline just at the right moment. That is a skill, isn't it?

How do I learn that?
First of all, when playing your instrument, instead of focusing on your fingers, changes, problems, try to focus on the meta-music aspect. What emotion are you playing? The less complicated your piece is, the easier it will be for you to focus on the emotional effect of what you are doing - and keep doing just one part or melodic figure for a long time.
I have experienced many moments of "now it feels just right" when doing this, which is not only very satisfactory and motivating, but also a first step towards playing more meta music. It is addictive in a way :)
We are used to try to harmonize our finger movements to the timing, and our choice of notes to the harmonies of a piece, to achieve meta music we will have to try to harmonize our inner emotion to what we are doing.
That does not become easier once you play in a band, which should ideally "carry" the same emotion towards a piece.

I know this may sound pretty far out to many, let me try to break this down with another example:
Think of a funk band playing a live show. Bass and Drums have a track to start, and we have that hot club situation, endorphines in the air - funk party going on.
So, our two guys from the rythm section get it going, and by intention, this should be another "shake your sexy booty"-tune.
At the end of the song, you will either see some people move towards the bar to get a drink, or a cheering crowd with the first people taking their tops off.
What I do believe is that it does depend on the inner attitude of our friends in the band - if one of them is somewhat disturbed by thoughts of "hope I will keep time... will I manage the next fancy lick...", he will not communicate anything else by meta music.
If the band can keep up an inner state of "here you go, now shake that thing!" and enjoy themselfs, people will definetly react differently, don't you think?

So, "inner attitude" is the most powerfull part of meta-music, but I also need to mention some easier to tackle aspects -
we all know its not easy to evoke an emotion towards any given song,
but there are some rather technical aspects to look for which will also impact the emotional result.

To state just a few, you can improve by checking:
- does my playing dynamic (getting louder, playing harder or softer) match the intention of the musical piece? Does my choice of sound fit, or does it create confusion like a synth-subbass in an otherwise angelic hymn?
- focus on the piece and its needs, not just on your instrument. Observe what will happen if you don't play for a few bars: often, the not-playing will create a tention and expectation, and setting back in will create an energetic wave. Dare to let them wait. See what happens.

So, there you go, with a completely different approach on what musical skill includes.

If I put myself into the shoes of someone with some standard musical training who never got any hint in this direction, I imagine it may seem quiet demotivating to play ones own hard-trained repertoire and notice that there is little but "am I glad i finally mastered this piece" on the emotional side...
Finding your own emotionally-matching music may happen on a playing skill level way lower than what you can play in brain-practise mode.
I found it much easier to spot my own authentic music when improvising some chords, adding authentic emotion to a written piece is much more complicated I'd say.
Also, you will notice that some pieces of music or even whole genres are not what you are. I simply couldn't back up any aggressive tracks emotionally, so I'll never be a great metal player, no matter how hard I shred and scream.

I truly admire players who are able to play what they are, and who are able to go into different moods in an authentic way. It does take so much practise (and inner confidence, too) to be able to evoke the needed emotion when facing an audience or a microphone,
but I have seen such beautiful examples of this that I can only encourage thinking about this aspect, no matter what your other skills are.

Hope someone will enjoy this lengthy read :)
"Sorry - had to do it!" - Les Claypool

yes, you are looking at the administrators signature.
posted on #2
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I think you are leaving out some very important negative factors here:
Fear and stress.

And that might be one of the reason way practising isolated skills and learning theory might be conceived counterproductive at some times.

The effects of fear and stress are not only psychological but also physical. The hormone adrenaline affects our physiology in a way that it transfers blood from the smaller muscle groups to the larger totally screwing up our motor skills. It also affects the way we hear, try doing some ear training when in an upset or fearful state, very interesting indeed.

But with too low adrenaline levels we wouldn't be able to respond quick enough so it is really a balance game, and one not easy to master.

One of the better writings on this subject can be found [url=http://kennywerner.com/effortless-mastery]here[/url]
Edited by nilton on 27-05-2016 13:48
Pure fingerstyle
posted on #3
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well, I was hoping it would be obvious that fear and stress are to be avoided when looking to improove ones meta-music skills :)
And I do agree, one could conclude that this is a con argument against practising isolated skills, I just didn't want to sound as if I wanted to advise against doing that.
I guess a good dose of both aspects would be ideal.
"Sorry - had to do it!" - Les Claypool

yes, you are looking at the administrators signature.
posted on #4
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Our brain has evolved to interpret the voice. Therefore we are listening for various inflections that occur in tone, pitch, dynamics and timing because they contain a wealth of information beyond the words themselves. Some might say that any music notation is 'just the words'.

Understandably, we are emotionally moved by certain players at certain times. We are picking up information which conveys something beyond the mere value of the note itself. I think I would be on safe ground to suggest that Jeff Beck would be a good example of a guitarist who is capable of communicating that 'something extra' (probably his '70s recordings if I'm honest)...

But I have known quite a few guitarists who simply don't care for Jeff Beck, so whether the musician's inflections are successful or not depends to a large extent on the listener. I myself will only listen to Jeff Beck occasionally which shows that even I don't want to hear his 'meta-music' all the time :)

It's good to jump from one musician's inflections to another - just like listening to different voices and opinions - kind of like Wikiloops :)
posted on #5
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I totally get the concept and agree, when you can hear the intended emotion and relate to it on a personal level the music is more appealing. I can program music into a computer but it sounds lifeless and boring until a person alters the way each note is reproduced to derive a human sound. Its as critical to play with feeling and emotion behind it to get people to connect. The top musicians have mastered it weather they actively or instictually learned to do it. Everyone does it a little differently which is their own sound. Prince was truly a master of this, as was Bowie. Paul Gilbert is known for the faces he makes while playing a guitar and has made it a marketing tool. Watching Claypool play literally makes me want to jump around while he is. The beatles could make girls faint. Some call it playing with feeling, some call it groove, in the pocket, soul, got the funk. A style that goes beyond mechanics and recall is remebered and that is what sells music imho
posted on #6
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I did feel for a log time that i needed a definition of what music actually was. I searched around for a long time and found Edgard Varèse's Music is organized sound suited me the best but not fully so i added a constraint, Music is organized sound in order to communicate emotion. This definition has served me incredibly well. And it complies very with this thread as well.

Why is meta-music so elusive? I think it is mostly a question of measurement. And the devil is in the details. I suspect that timing (and i'm talking micro timing here below 10ms) and dynamics interact in a way that is not fully investigated. And by dynamics i do not mean amplitude dynamic exclusively but timbre dynamics and pitch dynamics as well. And to measure these minute details at same time you measure the listeners response would be a very daunting task.
Edited by nilton on 28-05-2016 09:18
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posted on #7
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"I have experienced many moments of "now it feels just right" when doing this, which is not only very satisfactory and motivating, but also a first step towards playing more meta music. It is addictive in a way"

This is what I strive for, but do not often achieve. It is highly motivating as you said because it is the ultimate goal of music for me - to communicate feelings, thought, etc. To get to the 'meta music' state, it does require letting go a fear, stress, and ego, and just letting your thoughts and feelings be communicated honestly through your instrument. When this happens it is magic, and makes the whole endeavor of musical creation worthwhile.
Edited by bhunt1 on 28-05-2016 13:47
posted on #8
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That is only partly true. The reason i claim this is that really good music has the ability to touch people across cultural boundaries and preferences. Also the ability to control more subtle aspects of ones performance by starting to pay attention to (and training) the interaction of timing and dynamics should be a valuable skill. No matter if it is an analytical scientific model or a skill gathered through lifelong experience.
Pure fingerstyle
posted on #9
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I'm just wondering who decides what is 'really good music'. Music is music full stop. 'Really good' and 'really bad' could be equally valid interpretations of the same piece.
posted on #10
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Being a pictural artist, i paint and draw in different medium, my own "meta music" approach is related to colors ... different colors associations for different feelings rendering. Hues and saturations are definitely talking to me and i'm using them as a part of the vocabulary : a kind of adjective to modulate how bold or strong a feeling should come out.

Red family i usually associate with controversy, ambivalence, the fight for an idea/concept to come out prominent ... blues family for evolution, appearance, transformation ... purples for comfort, easyness, and communication ... etc

each color concept can have a very wide range of variations in color, each implying subtle changes in the musical speech ... of course several colors usually show in a piece and that's when it gets interesting !

The colors impact my playing the very same way if i'm playing chords or single notes ... a subtle change in color could affect the intervals choices, the rythm i'm sticking to or the level of tension ... usually contrast is what i'm after : to achieve an optimal contrast you don't want a bunch of colors fighting against each other but a couple only or some of them at the most ... which doesn't mean i won't use small splashes of different colors here and there but probably nothing too important !

In my experience, the way i'm building music is very similar to what i'm doing in pictural art ... different layers, each with their own purpose and utility ! Playing with colors has not only made my music deeper and varied : it's also more connected to who i am :) ... needless to mention it has given me the opportunity to play blues in green ;)
clusters Clusters CLUSTERS !!!!!!
posted on #11
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I think this illustrates in a very clear fashion what this is about:
[youtube]S-7Gso3kkrg[/youtube]

First of all, there are a large number of people who are obviously touched by this judging from the comments (and from my own reaction)

Secondly, it is a recording so all emotional messages must be somehow encoded in air pressure variations that a acoustic recording actually is. Im disregarding the visual content here

Thirdly, since the performance is on an acoustic grand piano the performance variables are limited to (fixed) pitch, time, amplitude and to a lesser extent timbre controlled by the pedals.

Is there anything else? A considerable amount of emotional influence can probably be accounted to the reminiscence of the piece but then again i have experienced this effect in totally novel pieces as well.
Edited by nilton on 30-05-2016 12:16
Pure fingerstyle
posted on #12
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What if we study this subject from its opposite. In my opinion that would be talent shows and karaoke. Here the same pieces are performed but the emotional content is slim or even non-existent.

Why is that?
And why are there people that are content with these concepts?
Pure fingerstyle
posted on #13
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I am happy to try to master the other elements of playing first! but once in awhile for a few bars I hit a spot where something different is happening with my playing. I cannot explain what it is, but I can feel it and when I listen to those recordings I can hear it for a few notes or bars. I am reminded of when I regularly ran, when I hit the zone as top athletes would describe it. If you see footage of medal winners you can often see it in their eyes (and its not always anabolic steroids). On those days I had a mix of focus with an inner calm and was prepared, it was like running down a tunnel, I did not need to think it was instinctive. I like the technical descriptions above, but Dick I like the esoteric view and OliveBee's colours. Nice to think there are some still some things in life with mystery and art behind and our minds can occasionally take control. Perhaps the best practice is to strive for and cherish those moments.
Nilton, I object: my vocals have moved my friends and colleagues to tears after ten beers in a Karoake bar! (not sure if it was laughter or pain)
posted on #14
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BossHen wrote:
Nilton, I object: my vocals have moved my friends and colleagues to tears after ten beers in a Karoake bar! (not sure if it was laughter or pain)


Ok, that would qualify as an emotion, i stand corrected. But i wonder if that is possible with air guitar as well
Edited by nilton on 30-05-2016 22:05
Pure fingerstyle
posted on #15
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THe piano peice reminded me of songs that I would have rather heard instead of the piano piece. It was good, the man has talent but the only thing that connected me to the piece was remebering a different song. The meta part of meta music to me really boils down to the ability to make someone feel a certain way. I think their is a physical aspect that can be thought of as a trigger. for example the bass in a song may trigger a chemical reaction in someones brain because it literally vibrated there chest and it felt good. There are other ways to trigger reactions in the brain of course. If someone relates to lyrics they make like the same song and not because that club had the bass just loud enough for the first person. Maybe the song feels purple and its been a hard week. its our job to create a song that is purple for the times a purple song is called for, to continue the way I think OliVbee was explaining it. I think there are lots of ways to make people feel something and making them feel the right something that works with a bands image and consistantly is the key to success in music
posted on #16
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A lot of interesting reading [url=http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/blog/] here[/url]
Pure fingerstyle
posted on #17
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nilton wrote:
A lot of interesting reading [url=http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/blog/] here[/url]

I will check out the link later tonight, looks interesting. THanks
posted on #18
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I was triggered by the 'now it feels right' and the mathematical approach of measuring timing. So I decided to drop in my 2 cents... The 'now it feels right' vibe when playing together that tight, groovy, funky etc. or however you would call it imho will be achieved when interaction on eachothers 'personal vibe' gets in a sync. But to come back to the mathematical-aspect of that feeling it's interesting that even in a well seasoned band that 'now it feels right' moment differs in bpm. For instance the 'now it feels right' tempo on a Friday at the end of a busy week is higher than on a Sunday afternoon near the end of a relaxed weekend. I also recall an old research where the feeling if music was good was proven to be connected to the heartrate of the listener. So I suppose that even when the parameters can differ that feeling still can be there depending on the state of mind in that moment or if you would like to hear it that way, the day of the week... :)
posted on #19
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I call it MellyOmatic.
-Zamzam & the MellyOmatic-
posted on #20
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It is interesting that in concert music there are expression markings. It is as if con passione (for example) can be activated by a simple cue in the score. In the case of piano it definitely seems that expression is merely subtle tempo changes and exaggerated dynamics. Is this what "play it with feeling" means? If so, how difficult is it really to manipulate your listening audience's emotions?

- edit -
If you're performing for a live audience, don't forget to close your eyes and sway.
Edited by DannyK on 03-06-2016 19:44
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