Scientists Know The Music You’re Imagining

Isn’t science just flipping marvellous? (Just so long as some hegemonic search engine or social media site doesn’t read my mind and steal my IP, that’d be just great, ta)

Mind-Reading Music

There is not a day that goes by that I wish technology could read the musical thoughts flitting through my mind and transcribe it as quickly as I think of it.  But this isn’t such a pie-in-the-sky wish as I thought! Neuroscientists have predicted what sounds a pianist was thinking of in their head. Chuffing heck.

Science like this is obviously most useful for people who’ve lost the ability to speak. But like all proper good scientific discoveries, it’s what else you do with it that counts…

A New Project Started

I’m a couple of weeks into composing music on a feature film. Exciting times! The director and I are concentrating on pulling together the central character and tonal themes. It’s super-useful to be brought into the process so early – it’s so early in the animation schedule there’s not yet any film to see. We’ve done our initial briefing session and now I’m at that slightly icky, uncertain phase of ‘throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks’ (technical term obvs).

The Process of Creating Themes

The trick is with this is to just keep on going. Every idea may have a kernel of goodness in amongst the banal, generic churnout so I have to see it through from a basic (in this case) piano sketch to a rough approximation of an orchestrated theme, then play around with different instrumental voicing, structure and motivic development. It’s hard to know if the awesomeness I hear in my head can translate into anything of value on the page without going through these motions. This process, necessarily, takes time.

There’s also a certain standard of orchestration we need from these mockups to help the director decide whether each sketch I lob his way has any mileage.

Creating ‘Mockups’

Whilst I can imagine and ‘hear’ the eventual live orchestral, mixed and mastered, ideal sound from a very rough sketch and, also, all the potential offshoots and variations of these themes or motifs, I never, ever expect anyone I’m working for to be able to do that. It’s just not fair – it’s a skill that you learn over time with many years of practise. It’s the essence of my job.

Of course, it’s great if colleagues can imagine the possibilities just from hearing a very rough sketch. The directors I’ve worked with more than once know, from the experience of working together, the potential of where we can take an initial idea to final realisation. But the actual instrumentation and structure… that’s not something I would ever need my colleagues to be able to imagine in order to work with me.

It’s akin to me making the film or piece of theatre in my head in advance of the fully-realised project. I can (and absolutely will) do it, but I never expect my version to be what I’ll see on the stage or the screen. Sometimes it’s close, sometimes it’s nowhere near, but it’s never as good as seeing it real and made in physical form by the people who have trained for it. And it’s never as clear whether it’s truly working or not.

The Future of Composition?

But just think… if I could craft these sketches in my head and have this sci-fi interface interpret my imaginings, how much quicker this initial stage of throwing ideas at the wall, picking out the best bits and evolving subsequent iterations would be.

Whilst the live musician, computer sampler, synth and all the other tools we already have will still be of value, imagine what sounds could be invented just by thinking of them – imagine the immediacy of the emotion. Imagine how this would train your brain and mind further to focus on what sounds and music you really want to create, and what could be invented from allowing your mind to just wander, and have it transcribed in real-time? Wouldn’t that be fun?

‘Til then, back to the keyboard I go. Music’s not going to write itself.

For now, at least.


Image: Flickr

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