Sunday, 3 July 2016

Falsehoods programmers believe about music

In the spirit of Patrick McKenzie's great post on falsehoods programmers believe about names, I am trying to write an equivalent one for music. Any false assumption that might be made in codifying music is a candidate for inclusion. Suggestions are very welcome.
  1. Music can be written down.
  2. Okay, maybe not with European notation, but there'll be a specialist notation for that kind of music.
  3. Music is finite in duration.
  4. Music has a composer.
  5. Music is about harmony.
  6. Music uses scales.
  7. Music uses equal temperament.
  8. Music uses tones and semitones.
  9. Music and dance are separate activities.
  10. Playing and listening to music are separate activities.
  11. Musicians can play their part separately from the overall composition.
  12. Music is performed by professional musicians.


  1. Notes shown higher on the stave sound higher than notes shown lower on the stave.

    Notes should always be played reading from left to right - notes to be played simultaneously will always be aligned vertically.

    Notes on a stave always consist of a circle/ellipse for the note head and a line for the stem.

    Ok, but all notes to be played always have at least a note head.

    Ok, but at least every note to be played will be represented with its own mark somewhere on the stave.

    Notes are/should always printed with the same size note head.

    It doesn't matter whether the stems go up or down.

    The clef may safely be omitted.

    The clef will either be a Treble or a Base clef.

    The key signature is always shown somewhere.

    The time signature will always be shown in numeric form.

    All bars have the same number of beats.

    There will never be more than one accidental applied to a single note.

    All instruments use basically the same notation.

  2. A few more ones:
    - bars have power-of-two beats (1, 2, 4, 8)
    Counter-example 1: The first bar usually has a different amount of beats. Inserting silence is possibly, but not nice.
    Counter-example 2: Waltz is usually 3/4, some pieces are 6/8
    - bars after the first have "standard" time signatures
    Counter-example 1: borders of a repeated bars can be sliced arbitrarily
    Counter-example 2: some bars are "padded", e.g. the "happy birthday dear Maria-Anna-Lena" part of Happy Birthday
    - *most* bars after the first have "standard" time signatures
    Counter-example: Songs that are in 5/4 [1], and I'm sure there's even weirder stuff

    Does anyone know a counter-example for "A time signature always has a power-of-two denominator"?

    [1]: e.g. Mission Impossible theme; Halloween theme; "Missing" by Plaid

  3. I think the power-of-two denominator is notational rather than a feature of the music itself. So it's possible it's tautologically always the case.

  4. What's more, one can complete the acing much quicker than you could anticipate from conventional techniques.

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  6. Making music always involves making sounds.
    (4:22 anyone?)

  7. Examples of unusual time signatures:

  8. Some that are more about audio recording and playback than music per se:

    Tracks on an album can be numbered sequentially starting with 1. (A CD can have audio placed in an extended pregap before the normal start of track 1, requiring rewinding on some players and being inaccessible altogether by others.)

    A CD will have an entry on an online database. (Obscure discs get missed and something someone burnt themselves obviously won't be included.)

    100% is the highest the volume can go. (Setting it higher will distort loud sounds but can be useful to make quiet tracks more easily heard. VLC for example lets you take volume above 100%.)

  9. A music piece ("composition") is a "song".

    All songs are sung.

    Time signatures must be rational.

    Pianos have 88 keys.

    Keyboard instruments are tuned in equal temperament.