What’s the Deal with Lavender Town?

The music from Lavender Town in the original series of Pokémon games is notorious for its singularly eerie and haunting sound. It has spawned at least one creepypasta to my knowledge, and has definitely become a meme in its own right. There is nothing paranormal going on here, though. The spooky atmosphere is created with a few basic musical elements.

The first aspect is texture. The track consists of three parts—one high and two low. The high part plays an arpeggio (a chord with each tone sounded separately: like plucking instead of strumming a guitar), while the two lower parts play the melody. Already, this is a departure from what most listeners are accustomed to: typically we expect to hear the melody in the uppermost voice, while the lower voices fill in the chords. It is sort of like telling a ghost story while holding a flashlight under your chin, in that it creates an unfamiliar atmosphere by reversing our expectations. Faces are usually illuminated from above, and melodies usually go above the chords. Also, a very hollow synthesizer sound is used. Much of the game uses sounds that approximate brass or electric guitars, but this sounds more like a slightly out-of-tune piano. That’s another example of the composer, Junichi Masuda, playing with our expectations.

lavendertownmusic

So, what is it about that upper arpeggio that makes it sound so creepy? In addition to the weird digital instrument used and the endless repetition, the notes themselves contribute to the atmosphere. Specifically, it contains a Viennese trichord—a group of three notes associated with the Second Vienna School (a group of composers active about 100 years ago in Vienna, notably Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern). The Viennese trichord was designed to sound very dissonant and unstable by incorporating the two most unstable intervals in Western music, the tritone and minor second, along with a perfect fourth. Here, it appears as C, F#, and G, or <0,1,6> in set notation. Masuda added the note B to this, creating what I’m calling the ‘Lavender Town tetrachord’ of C, F#, G, and B, or <0,1,5,6>. This additional note adds two very stable intervals, the major third and another perfect fourth. It also creates another minor second, though. The overall effect is a series of four notes that sound kind of consonant and familiar, but kind of not.

The last two aspects are counterpoint (how the three individual parts interact with each other) and part writing (how the parts function autonomously). The two top parts both use the tritone as a melodic element—this interval is notoriously difficult to sing, and it can be heard in ‘Maria’ from West Side Story and in the theme song from The Simpsons. The middle part leaps down a minor seventh from B to C#, and then back up a tritone to G. This movement incorporates two difficult intervals, and introduces an entirely new note, C#. There is a tug between C and C#, and at some points both pitches sound simultaneously—just one example of the dissonant intervals that form between the parts. However, mixed in with all of these dissonances and unstable intervals are some very consonant chords. The first chord is just a major triad, and there are a number of perfect intervals between the parts, and stepwise movement within the two lower parts. This makes an interesting contrast between unexpected dissonances and almost banal contrapuntal writing.

Ultimately, the Lavender Town track is a great example of the uncanny in music. It is just unfamiliar enough to be startling. The effect is different than if it were something totally unfamiliar, like if Masuda used only dissonant intervals or a truly atonal melody. Then it would just be strange (by the standards established in the game), and maybe a little eerie, but it wouldn’t have the haunting effect that we all know it for.

Bob Ross: Subharmonic Vocalist and Text-Sound Composer

Bob Ross has become a pop culture icon through his show ‘The Joy of Painting’. Although he died over 20 years ago, his videos are still wildly popular—in part for their unusually hypnotic sound. There actually is a whole internet culture that has sprung up around this, and, along with Fred Rogers, Bob Ross could be considered an inadvertent forerunner to ASMR. However, Ross’ voice did not have the characteristics that are normally associated with relaxation or trance: it was not particularly slow or low-pitched, although there were a few elements that could make it sound that way. Instead, I have analyzed Ross as though he were a singer and composer, by looking at the elements of his voice and speech that contributed to his famous persona.

 

The first part of this comes from Ross’ background as a drill sergeant. In a rare interview, Ross described his previous self as “the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work”. So, in his own words, he spent much of his career learning to use his voice for a given effect. After leaving the military, he famously swore to never scream again. However, it turned out that he could have as much effect by speaking softly as he could by screaming.

Ross did not have a particularly low voice, but there was another factor at play. The vestibular folds, or ‘false vocal cords’, vibrate sympathetically one octave below the pitch of the regular vocal cords. This effect is most famously used by Russian oktavists and chanting Tibetan monks; it contributes to the deep meditative quality of their music. This effect is broadly known as subharmonic singing, because it makes use of harmonics below the fundamental frequency.

When Ross speaks, this subharmonic range is unusually audible. It almost sounds like a second person speaking an octave below him. I am guessing that this was due to a combination of his having a somewhat abnormal larynx and some quirk of the recording equipment that his crew used. Whatever the cause, this subharmonic range contributes to the almost trance-inducing timbre of Ross’ voice

 

As relaxing as his voice is, the content of Ross’ speech was also important in giving him his unique character. In contrast to what might ordinarily be considered hypnotic and meditative, Ross never actually spoke very slowly. His speech was normally paced—sometimes he even spoke fairly quickly—and he rarely paused for more than a second or two. Significantly, these characteristics are also shared with Tibetan chanting. The cadence of Ross’ speech, however, had more in common with the variety of text-sound music than with the pulse of a Tibetan mantra.

Text-sound composition was briefly in vogue about 40 years ago. Many of the ‘purest’ examples of the form come from obscure Swedish composers and poets, but Steve Reich’s ‘Come Out’ (1966) is a pretty decent, well-known example. In text sound composition, the only element is human speech; so, all musical interest has to come from the various rhythms, timbres, and sounds that a human can produce (or be electronically altered to produce).

In the case of Bob Ross, there are a few text-sound characteristics that contribute to his overall effect. He uses two types of repetition: repetition between episodes and repetition within episodes. Repetition of key phrases between episodes (“beat the devil out of it”, “run all the colors across the screen”, “some of nature’s masterpieces”, etc.) gives him a level of familiarity with longtime viewers. Repetition within episodes (for example, the word “little” comes up a lot) gives cohesion. Ross also has a tendency to make little sound effects with his voice and to click his tongue. These factors give his speech a slightly rhythmic quality, and disrupt the low subharmonic rumble that he is best known for.

 

With the techniques of music theory, it is plain to see what makes Bob Ross so iconic. He was a painter, not a musician, but through his stint as a drill sergeant he learned to control his voice for effect. The rich subharmonic register of his voice and his use of gentle repetition combine to make an almost trance-inducing program. This is the key to his continued popularity.

‘Song of the Sea’ (2014 movie)

This was a very beautiful movie, made by the same studio that created ‘The Book of Kells’ a few years earlier. This one was set in the modern day, more or less, although it dealt with mythological themes. The story concerns a young boy named Ben who learns that his little sister Saoirse is a selkie—sort of a water spirit who can turn into a seal, but who needs to wear a certain coat in order to speak. Ben blames Saoirse for the disappearance of their mother, and for their being taken from their isolated island home to live in the dirty city with their grandmother. Music plays a large role in the movie, as Saoirse is soon discovered by a group of fairies who need her to sing a magical song that will free them from a curse placed on them by the witch Macha. Saoirse, however, is mute without her coat. She plays an ocarina-like instrument made from a shell that used to belong to her mother, but she, Ben, and their dog Cú go on an adventure to retrieve Saoirse’s coat and free the fairies.

The shell instrument is ‘voiced’ by a pennywhistle, and occasionally by two whistles playing in octaves. This gives it a much more direct sound than I would expect such an instrument to have in real life. There is no visible fipple or mouthpiece on the shell, and it is played by blowing across the open end. There are four visible fingerholes, much like an English ocarina. Using a low-pitched ocarina as the sound of the shell would have been more effective, because it would help it stand apart from the music used in the soundtrack. The ocarina also has a quiet warbling quality that definitely brings to mind the sound of deep, rippling water.

Saoirse uses the shell not only as a magical artifact, but also during a musical number featuring three fairies. They perform a version of the Irish song ‘Dúlamán’ while accompanying themselves on the tenor banjo, bodhrán, and fiddle. Saoirse uses the shell to play along on a few of the choruses. The fairies’ version of the song replaces the original’s verses with English lyrics about how they have been awaiting the arrival of a selkie to free them from Macha’s curse, and it retains the original Irish-language chorus. Dúlamán is a type of seaweed; the original song is about how the poor of Ireland would gather seaweed to eat during times of famine. It was likely chosen for its general relation to the sea and catchy tune.

dulaman

(The first four measures of ‘Dúlamán’, as heard in the movie)

The movie’s titular song was written by Bruno Coulais, and sung by Lisa Hannigan. There are versions in both English and Irish, and the movie uses a combination of these. It is written to sound like an Irish folk tune, with an accompaniment of synthesized strings and percussion, guitar, harp, bouzouki, and whistle.

songofthesea

(The first few measures of ‘Song of the Sea’)

The first two measures of each of these songs are essentially inversions of each other—‘Dúlamán’ uses descending fourths, while ‘Song of the Sea’ uses ascending fifths. Both use the Dorian mode, and prominently feature the sixth scale degree. Between their respective modes—B and G Dorian—all pitch classes are represented except for 3. This gives the two songs a sense of ‘going together’. ‘Dúlamán’ is strictly diegetic: it only appears during the fairies’ performance, and is not even included on the movie’s soundtrack. ‘Song of the Sea’ is used both diagetically and non-diagetically throughout the entire thing.

I’m not sure if any of this would have been taken into account by the movie’s sound crew, but it is certainly interesting to look at.

National Anthems and State Songs

The United States should change its national anthem to ‘America the Beautiful’. Actually, it should have done that a long time ago. It’s just a better piece of music. The tune is a hymn, not a drinking song (“To Anacreon in Heaven”). The lyrics actually mention the name of the country (should be requisite for any national anthem, except ‘La Marseillaise’), and it actually says something about the country in question (What does ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ actually say about the United States as a country?). It is also quite a bit easier to sing, and uses more familiar language.

However, I know that it will never change, because people really seem to hate that sort of thing. Can you imagine if/when Puerto Rico becomes a state and we have to add another star to the flag? People will act like it’s a national tragedy on par with Pearl Harbor.

So, it seems as if we’re stuck with ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, as flawed as it is. At least it is better than just about every state song. Do you even know what your state’s song sounds like? Did you even know your state had one? At my brother’s college graduation, they played our state song, which I had never heard before. My grandma said she had never heard it either, and she had lived in this state for over 80 years. It’s a remarkably bland piece of music with lyrics that manage to be both dull and melodramatic.

Here are the words, with comments:

Minnesota, Hail to Thee! [yawn]
Hail to Thee, our state so dear, [yawn]
Thy light shall ever be [what does that mean?]
A beacon bright and clear. [???]
Thy sons and daughters true [okay…]
Will proclaim Thee near and far. [again, not sure what that means]
They shall guard Thy fame and adore Thy name; [cheesy]
Thou shalt be their Northern Star! [at least they dropped that bit in]
Like the stream that bends to sea, [better]
Like the pine that seeks the blue; [not bad]
Minnesota, still for Thee
Thy sons are strong and true! [I can accept that]
From Thy woods and waters fair, [now we’re getting somewhere?]
From Thy prairies waving far. [maybe]
At Thy call they throng with a shout and song; [eh?]
Hailing Thee their Northern Star! [hmm…]

A lot of other states have really boring songs too. A couple exceptions are Kansas (‘Home on the Range’, good for them) and Louisiana (natch).

 

INFP

That is my Myers-Briggs personality type: Introverted iNtuitive Feeling Perceiving. I have taken the test probably about six or seven times (school, therapy, on my own) and have gotten the same result every time. So, I think there’s something to this.

I think that a lot of people are introverted–probably most people. We just have to act like we’re extroverted all of the time, because sometimes life seems like a giant pep rally.

Intuitive, in this sense, is the opposite of sensing. My understanding is that this is like focusing on the possible versus the reality.

Feeling, as opposed to thinking, is a way of making decisions.

I have the hardest time with perceiving versus judging. The terminology is confusing, because it seems to have to do with openness versus order, as opposed to ways of thinking about the world.

The career suggestions for INFP tend to be in the arts or healthcare. I have, at different times, been drawn to both. So I guess that makes sense.

Most of the composers I can think of seem like they would have fit most of the INFP categories. Wagner, as always, is a big exception. But then I got to thinking about some of the recent advances that have brought music and science closer and closer together: what about those people? Jumping off from two that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, Xenakis and Babbitt, I started wondering what it was in their personalities that drew them to music. Xenakis, I know, started life as an architect. Babbitt was always a musician, although he had intended to study math in college. Both men used rigorous composition processes that seem to take any intuition and feeling out of music. I do not mean that as a slight. Unintuitive and objective music has its place. It just seems very strange that someone with the personality to carry out that sort of work would have been drawn to music in the first place.

Prisons and Slaughterhouses (or, The Problem of Evil: Part II)

I took a philosophy class a number of years ago where one of the assignments was to write an essay on good and evil: whether or not they exist, what they might look like, which one is stronger, and the like. I drew on ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ and argued that for the most part, good and evil are irrelevant categories in the lives of most people, who instead use other criteria to make decisions. I also pointed out that many ‘good’ and ‘evil’ things are so deeply embedded into our culture that their existence and use is taken for granted. I recall that I used prisons and slaughterhouses as examples of structural evils that people might, nonetheless, have a hard time giving up.

The instructor wrote that my paper was well-reasoned, but that he found the conclusions I drew depressing. I had no real problem accepting my conclusions (after all, I had concluded them), but I guess I can see how some people might find them a little grim. Recall the debate between Obama and McCain at that church during the 2008 election. We are trained to think in terms of good and evil, even when those categories are not real or useful. Nobody wants to think that they wittingly participate in evil every day, or how rarely they do anything that could be considered truly ‘good’ in a larger sense.

Personally, I find this all a bit freeing. We (mostly) are not beyond good and evil, but below it. It feels a bit wistful being lighter than air. I’ll close with an Irish folk song (with translation):

You can find it here.

What is that to anyone?

I went to the fair and sold my cow
For five pounds of change and a golden yellow guinea.
If I drink the money and give away the gold
Oh what is that to anyone to whom it doesn’t pertain?
If I go to the branchy forest to collect berries or nuts
To take apples from the branches or to herd cattle
If I lie for an hour beneath trees to make myself comfortable
Oh what is that to anyone to whom it doesn’t pertain?
If I take myself to a night-time visit and dancing and fun
To a fair or races, and each gathering of the sort
If there are convivial people, and I am convivial with them
Oh what is that to anyone to whom it doesn’t pertain?
People say that I am worthless and hopeless
Without goods, without profit, without stock (of cattle) or wealth
But if I am content with my little place to live in
Oh what is that to anyone to whom it doesn’t pertain?

Lightness and Weight (or, The Problem of Evil: Part I)

When I think of what happens in my everyday life, reflect on the past, or think about the future, very rarely do the concepts of good and evil factor in. I do not believe my life’s purpose is to defeat evil or promote good (or defeat good and promote evil, for that matter).

I just had strawberry ice cream. I do not particularly like strawberry ice cream, but I was just reading about ice cream, wanted some, and strawberry was the only kind we had available (strawberry = worst berry). There was nothing apparently good or evil about that decision, nor was it motivated on my part by any such considerations. I wanted some, and I had it.

It might have been an evil decision on the part of the migrant workers who pick strawberries in slave-like conditions, for the cows repeatedly forced to reproduce and give up their offspring, for my pancreas when I develop diabetes, or for the trash collector who is forced into an early retirement when the ice cream container that I finished off proves to be the straw that (quite literally) broke the camel’s back (literally back-breaking, not literally camel).

It might have been a good decision from the viewpoint of the ice cream vendor who can now afford a down payment on a house, or for the mouse that hides in the ice cream container (after it falls off the garbage truck) to get away from the hungry snake.

Most likely, it was just ice cream.

Adam Butcher’s ‘Internet Story’

This is a fascinating video from about seven years ago that shows what I think is the internet at its greatest storytelling potential:

Click here for the video

What I love about this video is the seamless and creative integration of YouTube clips, Flash animation, and other software. It is very much an ‘internet story’ in that sense–it is hard to conceive of this as existing anywhere not online.

The use of sound is also interesting: the accent difference between Fortress and the narrator, the music and dialogue accompanying the Chaucer story, and the sound design towards the end are all particularly well done.

 

A thing about Britney Spears (or Max Martin)

My big gripe with pop music (or at least one of my big gripes) is that it tends to be in 4/4 (basically always) and major keys (a lot of the time). So a while ago, when I noticed that a ton of Britney Spears’ most popular songs are in minor keys. Here’s a list of her singles that made the charts, with major key songs crossed out:

“…Baby One More Time”

“Sometimes”

“(You Drive Me) Crazy”

“Born To Make You Happy”

“From the Bottom of My Broken Heart”

“Oops!…I Did It Again”

“Lucky” (mostly)

“Stronger”

“Don’t Let Me Be The Last To Know”

“I’m A Slave 4 U”

“Overprotected”

“I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman”

“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”

“Anticipating”

“Boys”

“Me Against The Music”

“Toxic”

“Everytime”

“Outrageous”

“My Prerogative”

“Do Somethin”

“Someday (I Will Understand)”

“Gimme More”

“Piece Of Me”

“Break The Ice”

“Womanizer”

“Circus”

“If You Seek Amy”

“Radar”

“3”

“Hold It Against Me”

“Till The World Ends” (kind of?)

“I Wanna Go”

“Criminal”

“Ooh La La” (sort of modal)

“Work Bitch”

“Perfume”

“Pretty Girls”

“Make Me…”

“Slumber Party”

 

There’s no way that this is a coincidence.

 

DayQuil got me high

This was about a year ago. I had a cold and it was the only thing sold on campus that wouldn’t put me to sleep. Instead, it made me hyper-alert, very talkative, and capable of seeing color more vividly than usual.

Alcohol makes me very touchy (like literally, I touch people), talkative, and happy. Then I wake up on the floor of my bathroom wearing nothing but a single sock–plus a series of missed calls from people I haven’t spoken to in years, a bruise on my forehead, a group of Japanese tourists taking pictures of my sorry carcass, a half-eaten can of tomato paste by my side, and a gallon of coyote urine ($32.95 on Amazon at the moment) on its way.

Marijuana (I prefer to call it by its full name) makes me sleepy, patient, and slightly paranoid. Then I go to rehearsal where I have a really hard time keeping up because I spent too long wondering about whether my viola is a small cello or a big violin, and what a quarter rest, like, really means.

DayQuil was actually the most potent of these three for me (and it’s the only one I’ve completely sworn off). It’s also by far the most legal.