Sounding Off

This month by David Greeves

Published in SOS February 2013
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People + Opinion : Sounding Off

Music is not the universal language. You're thinking of Esperanto.

David Greeves

Looking through some old guitar magazines the other day, I came across an interview with Chuck Prophet. In it, the ex-Green On Red guitarist proclaims: "What I play is not an extension of the repressive European linear tradition where music is meant to be played as it's written on the page. You can tell by the way someone strums an open G chord whether they had classical piano damage as a child. It ruins people.”

Can that be true? Does the fact that I received tuition in classical piano and — worse, perhaps — jazz guitar as a child mean that I will never be able to play with the louche, unconfined grooviness of one of my favourite guitar players? Had my parents condemned me to life without parole in Squaresville Penitentiary before I'd even hit puberty? All signs (including use of the word 'grooviness') point to 'yes'.

You might not agree that classical training "ruins people”, but I don't think there's any doubt that the way we learn profoundly shapes the way we play. Music is called the universal language, but that's not really the case. Sound might be universal, but music is many different languages, some as structured as Latin and some as ad hoc and incomplete as Pidgin. Because of my education, I think in A-B-C note names and tonics, thirds and fifths. What I call G, C and D, someone else might call Sol, Do and Re, or simply one, four and five. Someone outside the Western tradition altogether might have no names for these concepts at all.

This is not just a question of terminology — it's about the mental map of the instrument that you hold inside your head. Because I learnt the piano using standard notation and the guitar using tablature, when I'm at the keyboard I think in notes on a stave and when I'm playing the guitar I think in numbers on a fretboard. And because I could never play the drums but instead had to program a drum machine, my starting point when I think about rhythm parts is a 16-step sequencer grid.

This doesn't just affect the way I might write down what I've just played. I'd argue that it shapes what I decide to play in the first place. As with any language, my personal dialect is full of idiomatic phrases and familiar expressions that I'm always using. I can't help it. It takes a supreme effort to really escape this baggage and learn someone else's language, or invent a new one, if that's even possible.

Switch from being a composer, arranger or performer to being a producer, and it's time to forget about music and focus on sound. But here, too, there are different languages in use. What if I asked each of you to describe the sound of, say, a vintage Rickenbacker guitar? One person might talk in terms of frequency content, mentioning scooped mids and prominent highs. Another might talk about compression characteristics and transient response, the swift attack and decay and the length of sustain. And a third might use less strictly definable words like 'twang', 'spank' and 'jangle'.

Does any of this matter if all three end up in the same place? I suppose not. What I find really interesting, however, is the fact that technology has begun to blur many of the dividing lines. In the same way that tools like Google Translate have automated the process of translating conventional language (with only the occasional breakdown in intelligibility), the latest DAWs seem to be working towards universalising the language of music.

In this consolidated-window, streamlined-workflow world, it really doesn't matter whether I want to talk in terms of A above middle C, MIDI note number 069 or 440Hz — my DAW will do the translating for me. I can talk to it in one language and it will render my words in all the others. I can view my EQ settings as a list of values, a series of knobs or a curve on a graph. I can instantly turn MIDI instrument tracks into audio, turn audio into MIDI... I can even take one of Mr Prophet's guitar riffs and render it in repressive, linear classical notation. We may never speak the same language, he and I, but soon it may not matter. .

About The Author

David Greeves is a freelance writer, ex‑editor of Guitar Buyer magazine and former Sound On Sound staffer.

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