Cesium SoundNick Longo's Background and Early Music Research

A Musical Mystery

How important are the sounds you use for your music? Consider this. About fifteen years ago, a MIDI student of mine who's an audiophile with thousands of records in his collection, brought me the sheet music to How High The Moon by Les Paul. When he was growing up during the thirties, his family had always listened to the radio. This particular song had had a profound impact on him and other members of his generation, and had become an instant hit. He wanted me to explain why.

I analyzed the chord changes, and there appeared a voice leading pattern I had recognized, while I was growing up in the nineteen-sixties, to be a particularly beautiful musical configuration. In fact, this pattern occurs in some permutation, in nearly every hit song from about 1964 on. When I began writing songs and instrumental music in High School, I got some music theory books from the public library. The musical practices that were so electrifying to the pop fans of my generation were not in them. Still, I employed these ideas in my music, and I got wonderful positive response from both young people and adults. I wrote for dance and theatre, and gave performances and concerts. This early success was both inspiring and unnerving. I felt I didn't really understand what I was doing. Maybe my classical piano training got the better of me, but I couldn't quite believe I had thought of methods the great Western classical composers had missed. I only knew they worked.

My first two years in college I concentrated more on composing and playing professionally than my studies. I played in bands and wrote music for film and modern dance. But rather than enter the music department at U.C. Berkeley, where they insisted I had to undergo rigorous training in the methods of Bach, Beethoven et al before attempting to create original works, I elected to study Math and Physics, and eventually Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Later I got a job as an audio technician mixing weekly concerts and events on campus. And I pursued my own studies in Music Theory, and the budding science of Psychoacoustics.

After quitting engineering school to go on the road with a band, I played night clubs and did audio repair work for awhile, working my way up from microphones and speaker boxes to professional recording equipment, keyboards and synthesizers. But still unsatisfied musically, I went back to school and got a music degree after all, and then plunged directly into graduate study.

Early Research

In music school I learned that during the nine centuries since Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, a written tradition of Western music began from simple unison chants. Gradually more elaborate musical forms evolved, incorporating more and more complex harmonic relationships. In the twentieth century, composers in the classical tradition felt their music had run out of ideas based on chords and melodies, and began to explore new ways of producing sounds, including electronic ones, and new ways of combining sounds into musical forms. These include intentionally discordant systems, and compositional styles based on mathematical concepts and formulas of various kinds. Some compositional methods included controlled chance and even purely random events. Such pursuits, though fascinating from an intellectual standpoint, left audiences cold. The result is that these composers were, and still are, almost entirely dependent on government grants and music faculty teaching positions. As educators they continue to preserve the music of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, much as museum curators preserve the great art of previous centuries.

Another branch of modern composition had instead turned to the music of other cultures for inspiration. In 1889, Claude Debussy heard the Gamelan music of Indonesia at the Paris Exposition. He incorporated some of the characteristic gong, bell, and flute timbres into his music, as well as pentatonic and exotic heptatonic scales and cluster chords formed from the intervals of these scales. Interestingly, there are also instances of the first appearances of the musical constructs I had employed in high school in the music of Debussy, although they are not found in Gamelan. They do, however, appear in an altered form in some of the ragas of Northern India.

So in graduate school I studied the practice and theory of the music of India, Indonesia, and of West Africa. I also continued advanced study of the theory and technology of music, including developments in computer music, and synthesis, and also Psychoacoustics and Music Perception. In 1984 I made a graph of the combination tones formed from the intermodulation of the overtones of major and minor chords, and there appeared the same mysterious interlocking structure that forms the harmonic foundation of nearly all rock and popular music. This is now the dominant musical system in use in the world today, having superseded all the results of all the experiments of traditional composers.

What had occurred was this. When sound is amplified electronically, it is inevitably altered in some way. When radios first appeared, they amplified music using vacuum tubes, and these early circuits distorted the sounds in an obvious and usually unpleasant way. But the radio made it possible to have music piped directly into one's home, and so people all over the world tuned in. The result of the distortion was to alter the harmonic content of the sounds used to produce the music. For hundreds of years Western theorists have speculated that the basic chord voicings and progressions in classical music are derived from the harmonics of musical sounds. This is now widely recognized to be true, and Psychoacoustic studies have been mapping the perceptual processes that make musical sound an intelligible language. However, distortion adds combination tones to the traditional harmonic series, resulting in the structure my experiment had revealed.

In 1934, Les Paul invented the electric guitar in a Kansas road house, so that he could amplify his music above the din and clatter. He used a tube amplifier, which distorted the sound of his guitar, and influenced the music he subsequently wrote. The reason his music found an instant popular audience, beside the fact of his talent, was that a new generation had grown up listening to music distorted by primitive radio electronics, and so the altered tonality that resulted had already become ingrained in their ears. His songs expanded this new tonality the same way traditional music expands the sound of traditional instruments. It was what radio audiences were just waiting to hear.

The electric guitar gradually became a more widely used instrument, until the fifties when rock 'n roll burst into public attention, despite efforts by parents, teachers, and governments around the world to suppress it. Through the sixties, the sound became more and more distorted, and the harmonic relationships of rock more defined. In the seventies rock music idioms began to dominate in the music of film and television soundtracks. At one point I even heard some tapes from the Jimi Hendrix estate of this legendary electric guitarist jamming with Miles Davis and John McLaughlin, who subsequently invented electrified fusion jazz.

Rock guitar players continued to insist on using tube amplifiers and tone generators despite efforts by music equipment manufacturers to declare them obsolete and force them out of production in favor of cheaper transistors, and now digital circuitry. Harmonic analysis of electric guitar tones reveals enhanced seventh and eleventh harmonics. Extreme distortion like that employed by heavy metal guitar virtuosos produces significant harmonic peaks at the thirteenth, fourteenth, seventeenth, twenty-first, and even as high as the twenty-ninth harmonic.

What about Indian music, and what about the music of Debussy where the first occurrence of these ideas appears in Western music? Well, in 1989 some members of the Musicology Department at UCLA published a study of the sound of the tamboura drone instrument. The tamboura creates a spectral wash against which all of Indian music is performed. Its characteristic sound is produced when its strings, which rest on a thread wedged against the bridge, scrape against the bridge resulting in "clipping" of the string wave form. This is a very similar process to the clipping produced when a tube amplifier is driven into distortion.

The UCLA study concludes that various raga tunings are derived from the resulting harmonic structure of the tamboura drone, and depend in part on the tuning of the tamboura strings. A paper I wrote in 1985 postulates much the same thing although via a different psychoacoustical process. These findings suggest that the chord progressions used in various songs may be derived from the timbre of the instrument, and the interlocking harmonics of the chord voicings themselves.

Some of my research suggests that the two types of scales used in Gamelan music are derived from the resonant qualities of the two basic types of instruments used. All of the above examples lend support to the assertion that the essential ingredients of the music of any style or period are derived from the sounds used to produce the music. The form the music takes, however, is also dependent on its social function within the culture in which it evolved. This makes it difficult to transplant styles from one culture to another, without also recreating the social function for which the music exists. Likewise, it is difficult to use sounds from one musical style in another without significantly altering the musical context.

From all of this, it was fairly easy to predict the coming explosion of new MIDI synthesizers onto the commercial market, and the alteration of musical forms and structures that would result. Most of these machines contain electronics capable of producing whole new families of sounds, besides reproducing old ones. When I first wrote this piece in 1991, I said the exact effect of this was not possible to predict, but was already present in the mainstream of commercial music production, and had stimulated, even revitalized the research efforts undertaken in academic circles. Today recordings made entirely with synthesizers top the sales charts.

While in graduate school I started Cesium Sound by placing a free classified ad for 40 ESQ-1 sounds on data sheets. I got three orders, and used some of the money to place another ad for 80 sounds, and got five orders. The business grew very quickly, and with people calling asking for sounds for every new keyboard that appeared, it also took over my life and I never got my MFA. But then in 1991 I set out to write an article about synthesis just to get publicity for the business, and stumbled on Gesture Synthesis. You can read more about this new branch of synthesis technology by following the link below. My research and music has consumed most of my time for the last several years, and probably will for some time to come.

Has all this made me rich? Well no, unless you count personal satisfaction, the sense of wonder that comes from making original discoveries, resolving lifelong questions, or the security of the knowledge that most of my life has not been wasted. Would I do all of it again? No, I'd do something completely different just to see what I missed.

copyright 1991, 1999 Nick Longo

Cesium Sound

Gesture Synthesis

Gesture Synthesis
MIDI Sounds

MIDI Sounds


Early Research