Music Guide

this guide is always a work in progress :) thanks for visiting!

Music: Art and Science

Composing/writing/performing music is typically thought of as an Art, more than a scientific or mathematical thing. But, there are definitely "scientific methods" involved in composing and performing. Like composing, mixing/mastering/producing is both Art and Science.

There are no "rules", just guidelines and the best way to learn is to experiment, as a scientist would. However, there are methods and practices that make for More Effective Experimentation. The best rule of thumb is to make sure that you frequently try doing things you have never done before. Like in science, you can learn about experiments that other people have done: "peer review".

However, keep in mind:

Science can often give you (good-enough) answers,

but only to the questions you choose to ask...

Philosophy determines the questions you ask,

and how you use those answers...

Things the SCAM music industry doesn't want you to know:

What is considered "good" has changed enormously in the past century, from decade to decade, and even year to year.

Things being popular doesn't mean they are good. Duh.

Music and Art are some of the most unequal trades to work in. There are MILLIONS of artists on this planet, but only a few hundred that you will ever hear of, and a tiny few that can make any money or have a career. Does that mean the 0.01% of artists are just geniuses, infinitely more talented than everyone else? Of course not.

There is no "objective" criteria for "good" music.
Pretending this isn't the case is just an excuse to be mean.

FACT: Anyone can learn to produce music that sounds "good" for free and in limited spare time.
FACT: Free and open source software can sound just as "good" as expensive software and gear.
FACT: The music industry is not about albums/tickets/merch. It is not about retail sales. It is about production fees, royalties, contracts, legal fees, advertising, & systematic fraud

It doesn't take a profound, well-thought-out Marxist-Leninist critique of political economy to recognize this stuff.


I take a lot of my ideas from Steve Albini, who, in the early days of grunge gave scathing critiques of the music industry's corruption and inequity. Albini's criticism was shared by pretty much everyone involved with Grunge. What set Grunge apart from punk and hardcore, and what earned it so much hatred among those old-school punks was that Grunge was never really afraid to "sell out" - as evidenced by the enormous success of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, RHCP, and so on. I think that Zach de La Rocha of Rage Against The Machine described the idea of "selling out" best, describing that there was, for him an agitprop purpose to music - instead of the extremely insular punk scenes that preceded Grunge, which prided themselves on exclusivity and alienating the public, RATM, while not necessarily Grunge, sharing the attitude of many Grunge bands, were completely open to making their music accessible and "radio-friendly", and questioned the Punk Orthodoxy that doing so was inherently incompatible with making "authentic" music.

While Grunge is often sidelined as a prime example of Generation X's perceived apolitical nihilism/pessimism, I think a re-evaluation is long overdue. While the fact that Republicans can somehow unironically play Rage at their rallies may seem to be a signal that not only has Grunge long jumped the shark, but has been proven to be another instance of impotent subcultural transgressivity, I don't think this means Grunge has nothing to offer us whatsoever. Maybe I am just caught up in a nostalgic love affair, but I have always felt like there is real value in the attitude of Grunge. The way it expressed the dream-like stupor of suburban life, the way it proposed the state of suffocating boredom among Pre-Millenium youth as a possible unexpected path to Satori, juxtaposing the mundane and sublime. Maybe this is just because it speaks to me too personally, but I think it spoke to so many millions of people (as evidenced by record sales) because it got at a concrete universal human experience that just wasn't spoken to by the more niche sub-cultures that came before and after.

DISSONANCE vs RESONANCE: The Core Principle Of All Music and Sound

This is one of the most important things about music. What is dissonance?

Dissonance is not something abstract or deep or complicated. It is simply destructive interference.

It just means that if you add a sound wave to its exact opposite, you get silence. In other words: 1-1=0
1-1=0 is why dissonance (destructive interference) in music production causes things to sound less "powerful" or "loud" or "full".

You can understand, then, why much of music avoids dissonance. it doesn't just "sound bad", but interferes with our ability to actually hear things

Whether you make EDM or punk or House or industrial or even noise music, you probably want people to hear it.
The primary cause of destructive interference in music production is phase cancellation.

The phase of a sound wave describes its angle over a given point in time.

Positive phases cancel out negative ones, so the more sounds/frequencies you layer at once, the more phase cancellation happens.

The opposite of dissonance is consonance. This is a bad name, though, so it is normally called resonance instead.

Resonance means two waves sync up making a louder sound. In other words: 1+1=2

On a side note, this is why folk, solo piano, and chiptune music is so "pleasing to the ear": it almost only uses positive intereference, that is to say, 
because you are only dealing with simple, square and saw and pulse and triangle waveforms, and because those simple waveforms are playing 
simple melodies, there is less opportunity for destructive interference, it is all just layers of positively-reinforcing vibrations.

So, now you know the foundational secret of music: Resonance = nice because more sound. Dissonance = bad because less sound.
except... obviously, there is a little more to it.

One of the features of resonance/dissonance, is that you can create "imaginary" extra frequencies... If you play two notes that are close together, you will notice a "pulsing" effect. As the notes get further apart, the pulsing speeds up, until you start getting a lot farther and then it slows down again. Some people a long time ago realized this, that playing certain notes at the same time could make an interesting and complicated sound, that playing many notes at once could make a sound that seems "greater than the sum of the parts". This is how chords were invented. When it comes to composing music, all this is called harmony, or whatever...

When it comes to production, mixing/mastering of music, it is more complicated because you typically aren't dealing with simply note frequencies, but notes played on instruments that have complicated waveforms and each note has different frequencies, harmonics, etc.

You can think of mixing/mastering of music as similar to composing music but instead of dealing with notes at whole intervals, you are dealing a whole spectrum of phases, frequencies, and amplitudes. This complexity is why "producers" tend to be giant fucking assholes, because they think that because production is so complicated, they are geniuses for learning how to do it.


If you believe in weird sacred geometry stuff, maybe "Music is Math"? idk.

I like Boards of Canada, and that is a fun catchphrase, but doesn't really mean anything deep.

Math can describe anything, that is the point of Math. That is why it was invented... to allow us to describe the world.

A lot of sacred math stuff is just pointing out that Math is doing what we want Math to do and then acting surprised that it does it...

Examples of ongoing scientific experimentation and research and application to music:

Sub, Low, Mid, High

you can get more specific if you want, such as low-mid, mid-mid, high-mid. low-high, mid-high, high-high.... etc... Lets keep it simple for now:

There are "MORE" high frequencies than "mid" frequencies, and "more" mid frequencies than "low". (unless you want to be pedantic)

There are only 10 frequencies between 40Hz and 50Hz - "sub-bass" range ---- you can't make much with that few of frequencies!

There is only 100 frequencies between 0 Hz and 100Hz - the "low" range ----- you can't fit much different sounds in there..

There are 1,000 frequencies between 100Hz and 1 kHz - the "mid" range ----- you can fit a lot of sounds in there!

There are a zillion frequencies between 1 kHz and 14 kHz - "high" range ----- thats almost too many frequencies to keep track of!

How to interpret this?

0: "overcrowding" frequency ranges makes things sound muddy/less loud/confusing to the ears. Give individual sounds their own "home" range.

1: Careful not to add too many different sounds layered in sub and low frequencies, it gets crowded easily

2: Mid range has a nice happy medium where you can layer a lot of stuff manageably.

3: Very high frequencies require special attention, because there are so many of them.

4: High frequencies also carry more energy, so they sound "louder" than mid or low.


Most "natural" sounds have high frequency harmonics that give them "character".

Because there are so many high harmonics in most sounds, and the specific patterns of harmonics various a lot,

It is very hard to avoid high-range dissonance when mixing a lot of sounds.

A quick and cheap way to avoid this is to use a somewhat wide notch or bandpass filter on a sound to limit the harmonics it has.

You could even just use a low pass filter to get rid of all the harmonics over say, 8 kHz or something.

This might make the sound more "flat" sounding, but it also might make it easier to layer with other sounds, so it is a trade off.


Aliasing is a weird thing that involves a lot of math. You might be familiar with the common Sample Rate of 44.1kHz

If your sound file/audio is sampling at 44.1kHz, if you try to play a sound that is higher than 44.1kHz, you will get aliasing

Go ahead and try to play frequencies higher than this in a 44.1kHz environment and you will understand.

The end result is "imaginary" artifact frequencies. These can interefere with trying to produce a track or recording.

Some people believe that while we can not consciously hear above 16kHz, we nonetheless can tell what is happening above those frequencies.

Whether we can or not, aliasing still causes unexpected dissonance that can be hard to find and fix.

Is this easily solved with a low pass cutting out all >44.1kHz sounds? maybe this is not the best solution? Who knows.

This just highlights that high frequencies are very important, but also very weird unless you are a nerd and know math stuff.

human hearing is non-linear.

That goes for frequency as well as amplitude.

Example: typical human hearing finds it easier to distinguish between two different high frequencies than two different low frequencies.

Example: typical human hearing can notice a difference in the volume of quiet sounds better than the difference in volume of loud sounds.

High frequencies naturally carry more energy than low frequencies. This is why small speakers can't make as much bass.

Changes in the volume of high frequencies are more noticeable than changes in the volume of low frequencies.

Applications of the above?

When mixing, it is best to start with everything very quiet - you want more "headroom", more "space" for mixing sounds at different volumes.

If everything is loud, it is harder to hear differences between sounds, which leads to a less "full" sounding track and more "garbled" layers.

This is "objectively true" about producing music, but what you choose to do with these experimental results/hypothesis/theory is up to you.

Mixing/producing on HiFi gear?

Starting off a mix on low-quality speakers is actually good practice in my experience.

If it sounds good on bad speakers, thats a good starting point.

Mixing with headphones and high-quality monitors gives you a... warped perspective on how your audience will hear things.


Question: why "side-chain" kicks and snares?

answer: it minimizes destructive interference that makes things sound less clear.
Dissonance is Destructive Interference.