How Physics Made Me a Better Music Producer

"I see my life in terms of music." - Albert Einstein

Music and... PHYSICS??

Yeah, it sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Even sacrilegious?

"But what about the left and right brain?"

"But you can't mix math and art!"

Utter nonsense.

Ask most people on the street who they think the smartest person who ever lived was, and they'll probably say Albert Einstein. This thought is so pervasive that we even call child prodigies "Einsteins." But Einstein was consumed not only by his passion for physics, but also for music.

In fact, many of the great physicists were into music.

Richard Feynman played the frigideira and the bongos.

Isaac Newton's description of light and rainbows was inspired by music.

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph to record the human voice and music.

You see, the farther down the rabbit hole you go in advanced physics and mathematics, the more you realize that the universe as we perceive it is largely an illusion. That apple you see sitting on your table isn't really red - it's just absorbing every color except red. Time isn't really a straight line - it can bend and slow down.

Matter and energy are interchangeable.

Space and time are really the same thing.

And everything depends on your frame of reference.

I have a degree in physics, so I know what I'm talking about. And I'm not just saying that to brag. I'm trying to tell a story.

I was once in a linear algebra lecture. Linear algebra can be extremely annoying to do by hand, but it is very effective. The professor was explaining a particularly tedious method for calculating something, and a student asked: "Why are you writing it that way?"

The professor responded with "Well, that's just the notation we use. That's just the way it is. That's how we get computers to work, and it's how all the technology you use today operates... Although, I mean, it's really all just a matter of notation. You could become a mathematician and invent your own linear algebra one day."

The class laughed, but what he said was true - everything is a matter of notation. It's a matter of perspective, of how you see things. The lens through which you see the world very much determines your opinions of it.

Consider all the times you've been in a car going around a windy road.

The car turns, and from your perspective within the car, you're being tossed around wildly. It's almost as if someone is pushing you in the opposite direction of where the car is turning. My sisters and I used to call this "dominoes" when we were kids in the back seats driving around a mountain on the way to our grandma's house.

But if you were, say, a bird in a tree above that bend in the road, would you see some mystical force pushing those kids in the back seat? No, it's just that the car is turning, and inertia makes the people inside want to keep going in a straight line.

Have you ever heard of the phrase "seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses"?

Or have you ever experienced the "beer goggles" phenomenon?

And how many times have you heard someone talk about how much their trip overseas changed their perspective of their own life in the U.S.?

My point is this: everything depends on your point of view, and the notation you use to describe it isn't set in stone. You can change your perspective to whatever you want, and the underlying concepts are the same.

The same is true with music.

Flats, sharps, enharmonics...

5-line staves, piano rolls, guitar tabs...

They're all just different forms of notation. The music is the same. The theory is the same. What we hear is the same.

What's different is how we write it.

I played the trumpet as a kid, all through elementary and middle school. I was even in symphonic and jazz band, which were audition-only and the most advanced music classes at the school.

But I quit after middle school because I hated the teacher. I hated how much rote memorization there was. I didn't rediscover my passion for music until I was an adult in college. I felt like it was beaten out of me by an education system that rewards rote repetition rather than critical thinking.

When I was a kid, I was always frustrated with how music was written. It's illogical and archaic. Why isn't there an E-sharp? Where is the C-flat? Are C-sharp and D-flat really the same thing?

And why can't anyone tell me the reason for this other than "That's just the way it is"??

For those of you with a background in music theory, I know that there are explanations for these things. You can write E♯ as F. You can write C♭ as B. And C♯ and D♭ are only the same now due to the tuning conventions agreed upon at the turn of the 20th century. But these explanations only act to serve my point - that everything is a matter of notation.

Furthermore, I'm not saying that you shouldn't learn classical notation. It can actually be quite beautiful and elegant depending on the situation.

But when I started to produce electronic music in college and discovered the piano roll, it was absolutely revolutionary. I was no longer confined to the 5-line staff. As an audiovisual learner, being able to see the notes on the piano helped me immensely and freed my mind to be able to produce more creatively.

The more I studied music and applied it to my own productions, the more I picked up on patterns. My analytical background led me to start writing them down and figuring them out in a way that would be unconventional to most musicians.

I started to ask myself questions like:

"What if I didn't have to use enharmonics?"

"What if I used normal Arabic numerals instead of Roman numerals to describe chords?"

"Why not write a book about all of these exciting things I've done?"

As Tim Ferriss has said, "Different is better only when it is more effective or more fun."

I wrote Hacking Theory with Simple Music Notation™ as a way to codify all of the things I had picked up on and to free myself from the frustrations I experienced with music notation as a kid. I wrote it to help myself, knowing that if I did that, it would help others. And, I wrote it because it was fun. I specifically designed Simple Music Notation™ (my system of notation) to be the simplest, easiest, and most effective method for learning music theory, period.

The music is the same.

The theory is the same.

It's just a different, easier, simpler perspective.

If you'd like to learn more about Hacking Theory with Simple Music Notation™, click here.

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