Appreciating the bouncy bluegrass banjo beat

From celebrating of the paranormal and the celestial these past couple of days, we’re getting back to more a tangible topic today – 5 May is International Banjo Appreciation Day. And while I may lean towards the sceptic side when it comes to the paranormal, and I’m definitely a believer when it comes to the banjo.

Despite being a string instrument, the banjo is often used in a percussive, rhythmic capacity. With the body consisting of a thin membrane stretched over a circular frame as a resonator, the sound of the banjo is typically quite loud, strong and vibrant. It started off as a part of African-American traditional music, but was soon adopted into traditional western music, particularly American old-time music, including country and bluegrass.

The banjo - if you like the way it sounds, you're bound to like it's looks too. (© All Rights Reserved)
The banjo – if you like the way it sounds, you’re bound to like it’s looks too.
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Someone once said it’s impossible to be depressed when a banjo is playing. Inherently bouncy and upbeat, it is often used to provide a driving, energetic accompaniment to songs. It is, however, more versatile than that – using different playing styles, the banjo has proved a valid instrument for a wide range of musical genres, from blistering bluegrass to sad country ballads to dixieland jazz to serious classical works.

Despite being such a multifunctional and widely used instrument, the word ‘banjo’ still makes many people think only of the duelling banjos scene in the movie Deliverance, and end up associating the instrument with a somewhat backward mentality.

Luckily the banjo is gaining ground, even in popular music, with bands like the Dixie Chicks a decade or so ago, and Mumford and Sons these days, introducing a younger pop-oriented audience to the driving banjo sound. And for those looking to explore further, the options are endless – from the neo-traditional brilliance of the Punch Brothers (who’s music have been quite succinctly described as ‘the sound of synapses firing’) to the prog-jazz stylings of the amazing Bela Fleck.

Go on, seek out some banjo music – and join me in celebrating this wonderful instrument.

Support music, support Record Store Day

Today, 20 April, is Record Store Day, a worldwide celebration of ‘real’, independent record stores – stores staffed by true music lovers, rather than clueless salespeople; stores that pride themselves in selling a wide and esoteric range of music, not just the top 40 bestsellers of the moment. Specialist, independent record stores, where the staff know the difference between Bryan Adams and Ryan Adams; between Judy Collins and Bootsy Collins; between Elvis Presley and Elvis Costello; where you’re not greeted by a blank (or worse, irritated) response when you ask for a record by the Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. Record Store Day brings together music lovers, artists and independent record stores around the world, and the official ambassador for the day in 2013 is Jack White, formerly of the White Stripes.

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With the rise in digital downloads, mp3 players and virtual/online record stores, more and more traditional record stores are under thread, and where, not too long ago, almost every town had a few decent record stores, they are increasingly becoming a rare sight. Independent record stores are serving an increasingly specialist subset of the community, with the result that they are often only commercially viable in large cities.

Record Store Day has been created to remind people of the important role played by these stores, and many musicians support the initiative by releasing limited run, special edition records that are, at least for an initial period, only available in small quantities through record stores.

Browsing an online music store simply cannot replace the experience of flicking through stacks of records in a specialist music store and coming across an unexpected surprise. (© All Rights Reserved)
Browsing an online music store simply cannot replace the experience of flicking through stacks of records in a specialist music store and coming across an unexpected surprise.
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In the words of singer/songwriter/producer Damon Albarn, “My local independent record shop (Honest Jons) is a library, where you can go to listen to music, learn about it, exchange ideas about it and be inspired by it. I think independent record shops will outlive the music industry as we know it because long term their value to people is far greater, because even in our era of file-sharing and blogs, you can’t replace the actual look on someone’s face when they are playing something they really rate and think you should listen to it too. It’s special.”

Nick Hornby, author of cult record store novel ‘High Fidelity’, makes an even more eloquent argument: “Yes, yes, I know. It’s easier to download music, and probably cheaper. But what’s playing on your favourite download store when you walk into it? Nothing, that’s what. Who are you going to meet in there? Nobody. Where are the notice boards offering flatshares and vacant slots in bands destined for superstardom? Who’s going to tell you to stop listening to that and start listening to this? Go ahead and save yourself a couple of quid. The saving will cost you a career, a set of cool friends, musical taste and, eventually, your soul. Record stores can’t save your life. But they can give you a better one.”

If you are lucky enough to still have an independent record store in your town, pay it a visit. Buy some music – even if it may be a bit more expensive than the digital download. You’re supporting something special, something important. And besides, there’s nothing like holding & touching the real, physical, tangible artwork that belongs with your favourite music.

Happy browsing, happy shopping, happy listening!

Ray Dolby, shaping sound as we know it

Today we celebrate the birthday of Ray Dolby (18 Jan 1933), the American engineer and physicist who invented the Dolby Noise Reduction System.

Dolby Digital - keeping the Dolby name relevant in the digital era.(© All Rights Reserved)
Dolby Digital – keeping the Dolby name relevant in the digital era.
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Dolby started his career in sound engineering while still at school, when he worked part-time at the Ampex Corporation. During his college years he became part of a team of engineers who invented the first practical video tape recorder in 1956. He subsequently started his own company, Dolby Laboratories, where he developed his noise reduction technologies, starting with Dolby A (1966), a broadband audio compression and expansion technique aimed at recording studios, with which audible tape hiss in professional tape recording can be significantly reduced without any discernible side-effects.

While Dolby A had real impact in the recording industry, perhaps the better known technology is Dolby B (1968), a sliding band noise reduction system aimed at the consumer market, which helped achieve high fidelity on cassette tapes.

All the Dolby variants work through a technique dubbed ‘companding’, which involves compressing the dynamic range of the sound during recording (‘dynamic pre-emphasis’), and expanding it during playback (‘dynamic de-emphasis’). This basically comes down to increasing the volume of low-level high-frequency sounds during recording and correspondingly reducing them during playback, thus reducing audible levels of tape hiss.

Various further iterations of Dolby’s audio noise reduction have subsequently been introduced, including Dolby C (1980), Dolby SR (1986) and Dolby S (1989).

Beyond noise reduction, Dolby Laboratories have also done ground-breaking work in the field of digital audio encoding and compression. Dolby Digital – first developed for movie theatres and later implemented in DVDs – is a digital audio compression format that was instrumental in the popularisation of surround sound. It has also been adopted as output format in most video game consoles, and several personal computers. Subsequent iterations of this technology include Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby Digital Live.

To say that Ray Dolby and his noise reduction and audio compression technologies have influenced the way we experience recorded sound, is an understatement. He has fundamentally shaped the way sound is recorded and reproduced, and his technologies have become so pervasive in sound reproduction that it is almost impossible to quantify its impact.

Vibrating strings and infinite series

Time to dive into some mathematics again – today we celebrate the birth of British mathematician Brook Taylor (18 Aug 1685 – 29 Dec 1731).

Taylor is best known for ‘Taylor’s Theorem’ and the ‘Taylor series’, a mathematical method for expanding functions into infinite series. In 1715, he published a groundbreaking work Methodus Incrementorum Directa et Inversa, which introduced a new branch of mathematics that became known as the ‘calculus of finite differences’.

Using finite differences, Taylor was able to mathematically express the movement of a vibrating string, reduced to mechanical principles.

The above work also contained what became known as Taylor’s Theorem – this blog is neither the time or place to even try and go into the details of the theorem, but suffice to say it is a pretty significant mathematical construct. Despite being introduced in his 1715 publication, it wasn’t until almost 60 years later that it’s value was fully recognised – in 1772 the great mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange termed it ‘the main foundation of differential calculus’.

Taylor employed the calculus of finite differences to mathematically express the movement of a vibrating string.
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Besides being one of the great mathematicians of all time, Brook Taylor was also a keen artist, with one of his particular interests being the principles of perspective – he wrote an essay called “Linear Perspective” on this subject, which also included the first general introduction of the concept of vanishing points.

So to celebrate this day, how about strumming a guitar while staring off into the vanishing distance… or painting perspectives while listening to some soothing guitar (the Majestic Silver Strings, perhaps)… 🙂

Sounds like a good day to me!

Celebrating rock ‘n’ roll royalty – Leo Fender and his iconic guitars

Come on, everybody, let your hair down and rock it like you mean it!

If you ever needed an excuse to rock out, you have one today – we celebrate the birthday of Leo Fender (10 Aug 1909 – 21 Mar 1991), the man who gave rock ‘n’ roll a huge adrenalin injection with the invention of the Fender Telecaster, the first (and many would argue still the greatest) solid-body electric guitar.

Through his company, the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, he also made numerous other contributions to the music world, including the legendary Fender Stratocaster guitar and the Fender Precision Bass.

Rock ‘n’ roll royalty – the Fender Stratocaster.
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With the changing trends in music towards the end of the 1940s, Leo Fender realised there was potential in the market for a louder, cheaper and more durable guitar than the pickup-equipped archtop guitars used by the earlier dance bands. He prototyped his first thin, solid-body electric guitar in 1949. First released in 1950 as a single pickup design called the Fender Esquire, it was quickly renamed the Broadcaster. After the addition of a second pickup, it became the Fender Telecaster (or ‘Tele’) – one of the most iconic electric guitars, still virtually unchanged, and as popular as ever, today, more than 60 years later.

Based on feedback received from players who wanted something different to what the Telecaster offered, Fender first considered changing and updating the design of the guitar. With so many players committed to the Telecaster, however, he decided to rather introduce a separate new design. The new guitar, called the Stratocaster (or ‘Strat’) – basically a Telecaster on steroids – had a more ergonomic, smooth double-cutaway body, a rounder neck, three pickups and a revolutionary tremolo (string-bending) unit. Another true rock icon, the Fender Stratocaster became the weapon of choice for countless rock guitarists over the past 50 years.

The list of guitarists who play Fender Strats and Teles reads like a who’s who of guitar gods over the ages – Jimi Hendrix, Yngwie Malmsteen, Ritchie Blackmore, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Kurt Cobain, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, David Gilmour, John Mayer and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to list a few of the better known names. You just can’t argue with that!

In addition to their legendary electric guitars, the Fender company also produces acoustic guitars, electric basses, mandolins, banjos, and electric violins, as well as a range of amplifiers and PA systems.

In one of those crazy cosmic coincidences, today also happens to be the day (back in 1897) that aspirin was first created.  So it turns out that the same day that gave us the man who helped put the volume into rock n roll, also gave us the substance that could help relieve the headaches suffered by those who couldn’t handle the volume!

Celebrating musical eccentricities on Uncommon Instrument Awareness Day

Today is the day to celebrate musical instruments (and sounds) that you don’t come across every day – it’s Uncommon Instrument Awareness Day.

As long as there has been music, there have been people not content with the range of instruments and sounds already available; people who felt the need to create something new and unique, and sometimes just plain odd.

And lo and behold, there are some seriously strange instruments out there!

I don’t have anything quite as odd as a gravikord, pikasso, or ringflute, but I was lucky enough, some time back, to discover a wonderfully eccentric and jovial-looking little string instrument in a local secondhand shop, and I’m now the proud owner of my own mandolin-banjo.

The mandolin-banjo – it may look like a toy, but it can kick up a serious racket!
(© All Rights Reserved)

Looking like a mini banjo, yet stringed, tuned and played like a mandolin, with four sets of twin-strings, the mandolin-banjo (sometimes also known as a banjoline in France, or a manjo in Ireland) is not the same as the four-string banjolin (which is more of a mini-banjo).

The mandolin-banjo was originally developed by mandolin players who wanted a banjo-style sound without having to learn the fingerings of the banjo. Thanks to it’s banjo-like stretched skin head, it is a lot louder than a normal mandolin, which made it a popular choice for outdoor performances. It became popular in the early twentieth century, and despite its obvious Irish and American heritage, there is strong support for the fact that it was actually invented in Australia, by the Manj Corporation. How’s that for innovation from Down Under?

So that’s my contribution for the day – do you have any weird and wonderful musical instruments in your closet?

You can have your pi and eat it, on Pi Approximation Day (22/7)!

Today is 22/7. No prizes for guessing what that means – yes, its Pi Approximation Day! March 14th (3.14) is also celebrated as Pi Day, but I kind of prefer the 22/7 version.

Pi, that curious little number that seems to pop up every time we start going in circles. A number so important that it even got its own name – not many numbers can claim that distinction!

Instead of going in circles trying to figure out what to give the kids for lunch, take your cue from the date and bake them a pi!
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Pi, or π, is a mathematical constant that represents the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter, or π = C/d. It is what’s known as an irrational number – a number that cannot be expressed as a ratio between two integers. Being irrational, it has an infinite number of digits in its decimal representation, and it does not end with a repeating sequence of digits. It is also a trancendental number – a number that cannot be expressed with a finite sequence of algebraic operations.

In addition to its application in geometry and trigonometry, the constant π is found in many formulae, in a variety of sciences, including physics, number theory, thermodynamics, statistics, electromagnetism and mechanics.

The value of π (to 5 decimal places) is 3.14159, which is also approximately the value of 22 divided by 7. Calculating the value of π to higher and higher degrees of accuracy have been a challenge to mathematicians and computer scientists through the ages. Utilising the latest computing technology, the digital representation of π has now been calculated to more than 10 trillion digits. Memorising π to a large number of digits (a practice called piphology) is another challenge taken up by many pi-fanatics, and the current record stands at an astounding 67 890 digits, recited in 2005 in China by Lu Chao over a period of more than 24 hours. (Wow, he probably doesn’t get out much!)

A nice trick to remember the first few digits of pi is to use a poem or sentence where the lengths of the words correspond to the digits in pi. A well-known example, courtesy of English scientist James Jeans, is “How I want a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics”, cleverly representing pi’s first 15 digits.

Such is the pervasiveness of the number π that it can even boast numerous appearances in modern popular culture, from TV series (Simpsons, Twin Peaks) to novels (Carl Sagan’s “Contact”) to pop music (Kate Bush’s “Pi“).

Get moonstruck on Moon Day

July 20th is Moon Day, commemorating the day in 1969 when man first walked on the moon.

The magic of the full moon remains an inspirational sight.
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As part of the Apollo Space Program, initiated by President John F Kennedy, Apollo 11 was the mission that fulfilled the dream of putting man on the moon. Apollo 11, launched on 16 July 1969 with a Saturn V rocket, carried three astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin Aldrin, to their historic date with destiny.

On 20 July, lunar module “Eagle” landed on the moon, prompting the first of Neil Armstrong’s famous quotes, “The Eagle has landed”. After touch down, Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the surface of the moon, and millions of people the world over, listening breathlessly, were treated to his second immortal sound bite, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”.  After Armstrong’s pioneering step, Aldrin also got an opportunity to walk on the moon (with much less fanfare), while poor Michael Collins never got the chance, remaining alone in lunar orbit while the Eagle touched down.

The Apollo Space Program, and especially the week of the moon landing, remains one of the most momentous events in modern human history – a time when man felt truly immortal, and capable of anything. Since the historic first landing, five more landings took place between 1969 and 1972, with a total of 12 men experiencing the privilege of landing on the moon. Of course after the thrill of the initial landing, public interest dwindled, and I bet very few people will be able to name the 10 men who landed on the moon after Armstrong and Aldrin.

Since the golden age of moon exploration, from the late Sixties to early Seventies, numerous unmanned moon landings have occurred, including missions from the USA, the Soviet Union, Japan, the European Space Agency, China and India. Of these, most have been planned crash landings, with only the USA and Soviet Union achieving unmanned “soft landings”.

The Google Lunar X Prize competition, aimed at promoting the state of the art in private space exploration, offers a $20 million award for the first privately funded team to land a robotic probe on the Moon.

Of course the moon landing has also become a very popular subject for some elaborate conspiracy theories, with many groups and individuals presenting compelling ‘evidence’ that the landing never happened, and that it was all an elaborately staged hoax by NASA.

But that’s another story…

To celebrate Moon Day, why don’t you kick back and watch your favourite space movie?  Or make a playlist of songs about the moon to be the soundtrack to your day.

I’ve got the Cowboy Junkies’ “Blue Moon Revisited” playing in the background, and I think The Waterboys’ “The Whole of the Moon” and Neko Case’s “I Wish I was the Moon” are next – what ‘moon songs’ would you recommend?

Hitting the high notes on the Birthday of the Saxophone

On this day 166 years ago, the saxophone, darling instrument in much of jazz and blues music, was patented by its Belgian inventor, Adolphe Sax. The saxophone combines the single reed and mouthpiece used in a clarinet, with the wider bore of the oboe. Despite usually being made from brass, it is classified as a woodwind instrument, because the sound of a saxophone is created by an oscillating reed rather than the vibration of the player’s lips against a brass mouthpiece.

The combination of features from the woodwind and brass families make it quite unique – while it has the volume capacity of a brass instrument, it possesses the timbre and dexterity of a woodwind. The shape of the saxophone also results in a complex wave packet compared to other woodwind instruments.

Science shows its about the musician, not the instrument.
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It seems the saxophone not only fascinates music lovers, but scientists as well. A group of acoustics researchers from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, set about trying to determine exactly how jazz masters like John Coltrane achieve the piercing high notes they are famous for. More specifically, they studied how the shape of the saxophonist’s vocal tract influences the notes he can achieve.

There has long been debate about the role that the acoustics of the vocal tract has on the notes saxophonists and other reed instrumentalists can play. The assumption under investigation in the research was that professional saxophonists achieve “impossible” notes by shaping their vocal tracts in different ways to amplify the high-pitched notes. Of course the challenge lay in the methodology – how do you directly measure the acoustics of a vocal tract in mid-note without interfering with the player’s sound?

What acoustician Jer Ming Chen and his colleagues did, was to modify the mouthpiece of a saxophone by adding a device that emits different tones into the vocal tract of the player, and then records the intensities of the tones bouncing back into the mouthpiece. From this information, they could calculate acoustic resonances in the vocal tract.

The reseach showed that, when playing “normal” notes, the acoustics of the vocal tract seemed to have only modest effects on how notes sounded, but the moment professional players broke into the altissimo, a clear result emerged – the resonance in the vocal track aligned with the note being played, thus serving to amplify and strengthen the note.

What is interesting is that many expert players were unaware of the ways in which they “tuned” their vocal tracts while playing. They knew they “did something” to their throats, but weren’t able to explain exactly how it happened. It does, however, seem to be a skill that can be learnt, and not something certain players are simply born with.

However they do it, it seems blowing that sax not only gives your lungs a workout, it exercises your mind as well.

(Source: Scientific American)

World Music Day with a jolt of Maths

World Music Day is the brainchild of American musician Joel Cohen, who first proposed the idea in France in 1976, while working at a French radio station.  His idea – an all night festival of free music on summer solstice – won favour with the French Minister of Culture, and the first Fête de la Musique took place in 1982.

Now in its 30th year, the celebration has grown into a huge international celebration of free music.  On 21 June, musicians the world over take to the streets and share their art in public spaces, shop-fronts and side-streets to create a beautiful global noise – the only ‘rule’ being that the performances should be free of charge.

Keep on rockin’ in the free world!
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If you’re scientifically inclined, of course, a global celebration of music also happens to be a celebration of mathematics. Yes indeed, when you celebrate the beauty and emotion inherent in music, you are also acknowledging the beauty of mathematical theory and logic.

Simply speaking, rhythm, musical notes and chords can all be explained mathematically, defined in terms of numerical patterns, scales and equations. At a deeper level, composers are often drawn (consciously or not) to mathematical structures – Bach made use of mathematical symmetry, Debussy employed fibonacci number sequences, Erik Satie used the golden ratio in several of his compositions, and many more. Complex, atypical rhythmic structures, as employed in the work of modern minimalist composers like John Cage and Steve Reich, has found favour in a modern rock music sub-genre known as math-rock, where musicians employ complex rhythms, odd, asymmetrical time signatures, angular melodies and dissonant chords.

Where there is music, mathematics is never far away.  In the words of Igor Stravinsky, “Mathematics swims seductively just below the surface.”

So when you’re out enjoying your free musical fix on World Music Day, you may just get a little jolt of maths in the process – enjoy it!

Music = Mathematics + Magic
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