Sunday, March 12, 2023

The mad scientist of music | Mark Applebaum

Do you find this interesting? Is it music? No need to answer the second question, by the way, unless you feel like doing so.

Check out this TED Talk by composer/creator Mark Applebaum and please share your thoughts in the comments below:

If you didn't click on the link in the second paragraph above to Mark Applebaum's bio page in Wikipedia, the very brief version is that he is a full professor of music composition and theory at Stanford University.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Film Music: "The Minions Do All the Writing?"

Interested in writing film music? Here's a link to a Vanity Fair article that claims that the majority of film composers, including "big-name" composers such as Hans Zimmer, farm out much of the composing to uncredited "ghost composers," most of whom are paid very poorly and gain no recognition for their work, even when their work leads to Oscar and Golden Globe awards for the big-name composers who take all the credit. Here's the link:

“The Minions Do the Actual Writing”: The Ugly Truth of How Movie Scores Are Made

John Williams is apparently a rare exception to this practice; he reputedly writes all his music himself. 

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Daring to Dream Big – Pros and Cons (2)

Are you pursuing a dream?

About six years ago, I wrote a post about the risk assessment exercise we go through when deciding to follow a dream: Daring to Dream Big – Pros and Cons (1)

Then, a few days ago, I saw a related question in Reddit:

Redditors who gave up pursuing their 'dream' to settle for a more secure or comfortable life, how did it turn out and do you regret your decision?

If you have a dream, you may have asked yourself questions such as the following, or you may begin to question these things at some point in the future: 

  1. For how long should I continue to follow my dream?
  2. If I give up my dream, can I be content knowing that I gave up my dream, or will I regret it for the rest of my life?

The Reddit question above triggered hundreds of responses, many very thoughtful, which suggests that it resonates with many people. 

For some, the answer was that giving up on their dreams turned out “great.” Here’s one example:

Turned out great, just not right at the moment as I am still job hunting after having to quit my previous job. Still no regrets though.

I went to college to become a 3D animator. Something I always dreamed about. I was top of the class, constantly won awards for my work. I honestly thought I was going to make it big. Then the final semester started and all the seniors were required to go to a special hiring event where tons of big names would be. I got my portfolio and resume copies ready to go, and spent hours researching the big names and their projects as well as rehearsing lots of practice questions.

It was devastating. No one would look twice at my stuff. Introduced myself, made some awkward small talk as they were so disinterested, then as I walked away they would immediately put it in the stack with hundreds of other portfolios, and not in the special pile.

I switched up my game. I started introducing myself with a quick mention that I had a background in programming (I did). Thinking that maybe that would give me an edge. Oh boy did it work. Suddenly I was getting personal business cards, phone numbers and emails, my resume was put on the special pile.

It was at that moment I realized I went into the wrong field. I was just a tiny insignificant drop in a sea of artists, many of whom were much more talented than I could ever be.

Finished up my degree and went back to college for a BS in Computer Science. Got my first job right out of college from .an internship I did over the summer. The job itself was heaven, and I really enjoyed it. It also helped that I made bank when I was there. Paid off all my school loans within 3 years and had plenty to invest and put into savings.

While it sucks not having anything right now, I'm hoping to find something soon.

Side note: The 3D stuff I still do as a hobby. Not nearly as good as I once was, but it is still fun and relaxing.

I have heard similar stories elsewhere, including at a fancy, large, dinner party thrown by a very very wealthy investment firm executive, and attended largely by other investment firm executives, company presidents, and the like. The occasion we were celebrating was a milestone birthday of the investment firm executive. You might be wondering why I was invited. Did I receive the invitation by accident? 

No. I was invited because the person throwing the party has been one of my best friends for over 40 years. We were both in very different circumstances when we met, however; we had just finished our bachelor’s degrees from U of Toronto (mine in humanities, his in political science), and we were working as telephone information operators at Grey Coach bus lines. I was immediately impressed by his intelligence and broad, encyclopaedic knowledge, which included a strong interest in music. We became friends quickly, and we spent many hours talking about all manner of things.

His dream was to work in the foreign service, and, in pursuit of that dream, he read voluminously about history and politics in other countries, particularly in Africa, and he took the Canadian Foreign Service Exam. It is hard to imagine that he did not do well in this exam, but he was never notified of his results. After waiting for a while with no notification, he decided on a whim to take the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), which is required for applicants to MBA programmes in Canadian universities. He scored very well – no surprise –  AND he was notified of his results (a bonus! 🥳), so he applied to some MBA programmes, and was admitted. He now runs a very successful investment firm.

He gave up his dream and decided on a different path mostly on a whim, and ended up doing so well in it that he has no regrets whatsoever. 

This was similar to some of the stories told by other people seated at my table at this dinner party, some of whom had aspired to be musicians when they were young, but these aspirations had not worked out. They were all so successful in business ventures that they lived privileged and comfortable lives, and had, apparently, no regrets at all about giving up on their initial dreams.

It would appear from this that if you give up your dream but end up making a lot of money, it makes it much easier to have no regrets about your decision. I don’t know if money can buy love or not, but it can sure make life a lot more comfortable, which in turn can make it easier to find partners willing to share their lives with you.

Here’s another Redditor’s experience:

This is EXACTLY why I left the VFX industry. It fucking sucks. There is no work life balance. It’s 90+ hour weeks non-stop. Then the project ends and you’re jobless. “Good luck man. Thanks for the hard work.” Now you most likely are going to find the next project in another state and have to move the family.

I was top of my game and getting paid really well. Won an Emmy and some golden globes, one of my projects got nominated for an Oscar, built a AAA game and I can tell you with zero hesitation that none of that shit means anything.

Every time I hear kids that want to get into VFX or games... I stop them dead in their tracks with advice they need to hear, not want to hear.

Oh and a word of advice to anyone in any industry but especially VFX, it’s ALL about who you know. So get used to buttering up people.

Sooooo glad I left.

The message here is that sometimes your dream can turn into a nightmare, or at least into something that you weren’t expecting. Having one’s dream turn into something we weren’t expecting is probably extremely common, because we generally don’t have an accurate sense of what our dream job will entail until we actually start doing the job. 

Not having an accurate sense of what our dream will entail is not necessarily a bad thing, however. I knew that being a professor would involve teaching and creative activities (composition, my case), but I didn’t realize how much committee work there is, or how onerous it can be. However, it is part of a job that I’m lucky to have, and I realize that committee work is very important too, so I’m fine with it. 

Some people discover that they are really good at administration and they enjoy it, which can lead to a change in career path from professor to administrator (dean, associate dean, president, vice-president, etc.). The dream can change along the way, and usually does.

More problematic, however, is that for me the process of becoming a professor involved 15 years of poverty after finishing my BA, which contributed to high stress levels, the demise of my first marriage, depression, and a general sense of “why the hell am I doing this?” much of the time. I still don’t know why I stuck with it for as long as I did, except that I was convinced I could be both a good composer and a good teacher because I had had rewarding experiences in both areas. However, by the time I turned 35 I had pretty much reached the point of deciding that I could not keep doing this much longer and needed to refocus my aspirations on a plan B or C. 

It’s one thing to be poor in your early twenties, but it becomes harder to live with the older you get. 

Plan B, by the way, was to keep doing what I was doing, which was teaching at the Royal Conservatory of Music for below poverty-line wages while being part of a composer's collective that put on about 4 concerts a year of our music, some of which were picked up by the CBC. Plan B kind of sucked when it came to making a living, but at least I got to do things that I enjoyed. Plan C was to find out how to get a realtor's license and sell real estate.

Then, improbably, fortune smiled on me: At the age of 35 I was hired to teach composition, theory, electronic music, and orchestration at MUN, and I won prizes at a couple of composition contests that year. 

This is from a Redditor who abandoned the dream of an academic career:

I left after half a PhD in English. I think the moment I checked out was watching my tiny, 76YO professor totter home from the office at 10pm. She had probably taken a 16-hour work day. "You mean I have to work this hard, only to earn the privilege of working that hard?" I thought to myself.

That, and the fact that the work was colonizing every waking hour, and that I was not coping in healthy ways.

I still miss lots of things about it. I made some of my very best friends in graduate school, and I felt like I was part of a community. Now, I often feel like I'm wasting my life making someone else money.

On the other hand, I've been able to travel all over the world, thanks to the income I get. I'm married, own my own home, and I just had my first child. So things are very, very good. Maybe one day I'll find work that is fulfilling.

EDIT: I work as a technical writer, which is a career path I can definitely recommend for those who went down the same path I did. Many are asking for friends and relatives studying English, and regardless of whether they pursue the career, studying technical writing will improve concision, audience analysis, and clarity. I cannot recommend it enough.

For what it’s worth, the suggestion that academics normally work 16-hour days seems a wild exaggeration, at least in my experience. The normal workload for me during teaching semesters is perhaps 8- to 10-hour days, usually 7 days a week. It’s a job where, no matter how much work you do, you hardly ever go to bed at night feeling like you've finished all your work and you're fully prepared to teach the next day, at least during a semester. 

On the other hand, once a semester is over and all marks have been submitted, academics have a lot of time in which to  pursue our projects, such as composing, performing, learning repertoire, writing books and research papers, or starting the process of preparing for the courses we will teach in the following semester. On balance, it’s an exceptionally good deal, especially since I love teaching and preparing for classes.

But that’s only if you are lucky enough to find a full-time, tenure track job. And if, once you find it, you succeed in getting tenure. If you don't get tenure, you are fired. That's something I didn't know when I was a student.

The great majority of people with completed doctorate degrees never find full-time academic employment. The first academic job to which I applied had 290 applicants. In many cases in music, applicants have won awards and/or competitions (for composers or performers), and they may have multiple recordings, but they may never even get interviewed for a starting professor position.

On the other hand, it isn’t very hard for PhDs to be hired by universities on a per-course basis, but per-course teaching is wickedly exploitative: According to a recent study, many adjunct professors (a fancy term for “per-course teaching slave”) make less than $3,500 per course and live in poverty.

I know people in their forties with PhDs, who teach twice as many courses as full-time professors for significantly less than half a starting professor’s salary. 

Therein lies the dilemma for anyone aspiring to an academic career; it's mostly a great job if you can get it, but it is extremely hard to get a tenure-track job, and sometimes, even if you get such a job, you don't get tenure and find yourself either unemployed, or employed as a per-course instructor making not enough money to live on.

For all of these reasons it was probably wise for the Redditor above to change paths halfway through his PhD.

Here’s a Redditor’s response to the original poster’s question that struck a note with me (this is a terrible pun; sorry!):

It was fine, but no one gives a shit if you're a professional bassoonist and there really isn't enough paying work.

I did it professionally for eight years before quitting to raise kids. Now I work in IT. If I had to do it over again I'd have just gotten a real job and not put so much time into an instrument that I don't like playing.


Pro Tip: If you don’t like playing the bassoon, then do not pursue a performance career as a bassoonist.

If, on the other hand, you love playing your instrument but can’t find a full-time paying job as a performer, you have many options, such as:

  1. Playing in an amateur or semi-professional (mix of pros and amateurs) orchestra/ensemble;
  2. Making fun YouTube videos of you playing your instrument, possibly with backing tracks, or double tracking (playing two or more different parts on separate tracks);
  3. Teaching – Private lessons;
  4. Teaching – K-12 (for this you will need an education degree);
  5. Consider becoming a music librarian (I know at least three people who did this, and they love their jobs);
  6. Starting a chamber music ensemble made up of fellow music-lovers who can’t find full-time employment as performers;
  7. Organizing a chamber music concert that involves amateur musicians, mostly;
  8. Arrange music for your instrument and play it on-line;
  9. Compose music for your instrument and perform it on-line, etc.

Most of these are not remunerative, but some are, and they all provide opportunities to continue being musically active for those that love music.

Lest today’s post sound like a suggestion that you not follow your dream, remember that the quoted Reddit posts are all responses to this question: Redditors who gave up pursuing their 'dream' to settle for a more secure or comfortable life, how did it turn out and do you regret your decision?

The question is addressed to those who gave up their dreams, and most of the responses reflect that

Had it been addressed to those that acheived their dreams, the responses would presumably been very different!

For me, this thread shows that at least some of the people who have given up their dreams have done so without regret, and, they have gone on to lead rewarding and productive lives. 

However, many people either achieve their dreams, or, in the course of attempting to reach their initial objective discover that there are other dreams they would rather pursue, and they do so successfully and happily.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Blog Index Organized by Topic – Feb 2020

This list includes most of my blog posts so far, organized loosely by topic.

Entries relating to class business – reminders of deadlines, concert congratulations, order of class presentation, etc. – are not included because they are likely boring to anyone who wasn't in the classes to which they were targeted.

The listed blogs below, however, are intended to be relevant to students of music composition or others interested in composition.

→ Exploring the Creative Process; Struggles and Solutions ←
Strike While the Iron is Hot! (includes section on "writer's block")

→ Planning ←

→ Playing With Expectations; Musical Dichotomies ←

→ Composition Techniques (General) 

→ Composition Techniques Associated with Specific Composers 

→ Form in Post-Tonal Music ←

→ Atonality; What's in a Name? ←

→ Winning and Losing; Judging and Being Judged; Reference Letter Do's and Don'ts ←

→ Audience Response to Contemporary Classical Music and Marketing ←

→ Composition Issues (10-part series that started this blog) ←
1.1. The quality of ideas may not matter very much in assessing compositions that emerge from them; and
1.2. The degree to which these ideas are original may not matter very much.
2.1. Study the music of others.
2.2. Compose as much as you can.
2.3. Invite criticism from others.
3.1. Live with it for a while.
3.2. What is it about?
3.3. Does it change character?
3.4. What is its function within the context of the piece?
3.5. Structural Analysis.
3.6. Harmonic (or Pitch, Scale, etc.) Analysis.
7.1. Less is more / More is more
7.2. Always leave them wanting more / Give them what they want
7.3. Don't treat the listener like an idiot / There's a sucker born every minute
7.4. There can be too much of a good thing / If you have a good idea, then stick with it!
7.5. The George Costanza approach.
8.1. Three models for the role of a composer
8.2. Mastery or Mystery?
8.3. The value of a plan
8.4. Getting stuck, and possible workarounds
8.5. Don't obsess
8.6. Challenges = Opportunities

→ Composition Projects ←

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Beyond Words – 2

My previous post began with several quotes by authors and poets suggesting that music has the capacity to express meaning beyond what is possible with words. Today I will delve a little further into this idea. But first, here are the quoted statements again:

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.”
― Victor Hugo

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
 ― Aldous Huxley

“Where words leave off, music begins.”
– Heinrich Heine

“Where words fail, music speaks.”
― Hans Christian Andersen (the actual quote is: “Where words fail, sounds can often speak”)

These quotes are poetic, which makes sense since the writers all wrote poetry, but are they valid?

Exploring music's has on us, and examining the question of whether music expresses anything, but particularly emotions, has been debated for centuries. Plato wrote, “more than anything else, rhythm and harmony find their way into the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it” (Republic, III, 40Id-e).


On the one hand, there seems little doubt that many people respond emotionally to music. I sometimes find myself moved either to tears when listening to music, not because the music is "sad," but because it is beautiful. Music can trigger in me a myriad of other emotions as well, such as joy, a sense of calm, a sense of excitement that can lead to a desire to move, or even dance (don't worry; I do not do this in public), feelings of wonder, curiosity, religiosity, etc.

I have never really understood why I react in these ways, but I can say with certainty that I often feel profoundly moved by music; this was one of the main motivators that led me to become a composer./musician

On the other hand, some people argue that while music can trigger emotional responses, it doesn't actually communicate anything.

One such person was Igor Stravinsky, who, in An Autobiography (1935), wrote:

“For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.”
I took an aesthetics course during my undergraduate studies (which were not in music; I began studying music after I had finished my first degree), and I remember learning about the nineteenth century music critic Eduard Hanslick, who argued that musical beauty “is self-contained and in no need of content from outside itself.” It “consists simply and solely of tones and their artistic combination” (Hanslick, On the Musically Beautiful, (8th ed., 1891)).

In How Music Grabs the Emotions (2014 article by Dr. Jenefer Robinson, Department of Philosophy, University of Cincinnati), the author writes:
“Hanslick was very concerned to establish that music has no “extra-musical” content, and that, in particular, it does not express or represent emotions. One of Hanslick’s contemporary devotees goes so far as to say that “it is not essential to music to possess emotion, arouse emotion, express emotion, or represent emotion. Music, in itself, has nothing to do with emotion” (Zangwill 2004: 29). In other words, music in itself is nothing but complex structures of tones, a bit like the moves in a game of chess.”
But despair not, those of you who may be wondering what childhood traumas motivated Hanslick, Stravinsky, and others, to churlishly suggest that music is incapable of expressing emotions! There are many scholarly articles in support of the opposite point of view as well, including Robinson (quoted above), PN Juslin, and Malcolm Budd (1989).

Zangwill's notion that music “has nothing to do with emotion” seems absurd to me. I don't know that I would go as far as suggesting that music has everything to do with emotion – music exists on multiple plains, one of which is intellectual (wherein we analyze music, and marvel at clever and  often unexpected things that great music-makers do/did), but for me at least, the main reason I want to explore the intellectual aspects of music is because it moves me, and I'd love learn learn why and how this happens.

Do you have any thoughts on the question of whether music actually communicates emotion, or does it trigger emotion?

I lean slightly more to the idea that music triggers emotions, rather than communicates them, but my view on this could change next week.

On a related point, we sometimes hear people proclaim that music is a universal language, but I disagree.

Language can be defined as "a form of communication," so, if music is a language, it is extraordinarily imprecise. Even if it does communicate emotions, which is debatable, it does so in an extremely nebulous way, and it is useless at communicating the multitude of specific things we expect language to do.

The "universal" part is also problematic, because we have moved to a point in history in which we acknowledge and embrace the validity and variety of all musical cultures in the world, with none having any superiority to any of the others. Only a cultural imperialist would suggest that the music of any single culture will "speak" to or be understood by all other cultures.

Nick Zangwill, “Against Emotion: Hanslick was Right about Music” British Journal of Aesthetics 44 (2004). 29-43.