Music: DNA pasted in the Art of the state

Compositions of a particular composer are like family-members, they all have something in common. When you listen to a composition, there are little building-blocks that you start to recognize. It’s the soundbite that make the music that particular composition. It’s the DNA of that composition.

This DNA consists of just a few notes (3 or 4) that make up the basic material for the composition. You can even reuse this DNA to make a new piece, that composition will end up being very different.

Different as in you and your brother…

When you alter the DNA just a little, the composition will change dramatically. Imagine a human-being and a chimpansee. A human and a chimpansee share 95% of their DNA, but they are very different creatures. Compositions from the same composer, that are based upon a different DNA, will end up being very different.

Different as in you and that chimpansee…

Below, you see possible pieces of DNA composed out of 4 and 3 notes. Every bar of 3 notes represents one DNA and will end up as a different composition, it might even end up as multiple compositions. One bar of 4 notes might even end up as a whole oeuvre.

More on DNA and how it influences a whole oeuvre in my blog ‘DNA of music and why there is no right, no wrong, just sound.’

Eric Whitacre calls DNA the ‘Golden Brick’, he shares his thoughts about this in the video below:

Eric Whitacre on discovering the Golden Brick

Back to DNA: We have the DNA, now what?

As you know, DNA ends up as a double helix, as a structure with a particular form. In music your DNA also needs form to express itself. Since we are trying to design a natural musical feeling, lets’ use numbers nature uses to built form: The Fibonacci numbers.

You can calculate these number with this formula: x(t) = x(t-1) + x(t-2). So by adding the last two numbers of a row starting with 0, 1, … you end up with: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55. We can go on and on, but for a composition we already have enough numbers.

The number Pi is derived from the Fibonacci series and used as the ‘Golden Ratio’ in art. Let the video explain you more, when you are not familiar with these numbers:

The Fibonacci numbers and it’s relation to nature explained

As you can see in the video, nature uses the Fibonacci series to built flowers and seeds. It’s in the nature of plants to grow according to the Fibonacci series, because it is the most effective way to store seeds. Imagine a sunflower. Its’ seeds, its’ DNA, its’ information is packed in the most effective way possible. Using the Fibonacci series the sunflower can pack as much genetic information (DNA) as possible on one flower.

So if we think of our musical DNA, we want as many DNA as possible in our composition. Our composition will become the most condense expression of our musical idea, without getting boring or redundant, when we put our musical DNA in a structure based upon the Fibonacci series.

Personally, I think we like the visual and auditive effects of Fibonacci numbers because we grew up, during a whole evolution, seeing and hearing them. We used them in art so many times, that we grew to love them even more. So, in a way, our nurture, learning to like Fibonacci, enhances the appreciation of this form. Using it, will make people happy. It’s nature and nurture.

Photo by Aleksey Marcov on

More traditional music shows us a slide-show of 4 or more, almost identical pictures (themes) to keep us from boredom. And the timing of the slides is so regular, we never get surprised. Traditional form in music is like watching the holiday slides of your uncle and aunt, laying on the beach for a whole week. Getting a new slide every 10 seconds, because your uncle is a bit neurotic. This is what a regular 4-bar structure sounds like:

  • 1-2-3-4
  • Theme A (auntie on the beach)
  • 5-6-7-8
  • Theme A’ (auntie on the beach drinking water)
  • 1-2-3-4
  • Theme B (auntie actually in the see!)
  • 5-6-7-8
  • Theme A (auntie back again on the beach).

Below you see a musical form, based upon the Fibonacci series. Stephen Melillo uses this sheet to explain the way he designs his music. You can count the bar-numbers and calculate the ratios.

Blueprint for the structure of musical form.

I like to visualize this form in music based upon Fibonacci numbers as the ‘Droste effect’ in the way it is shown in the picture below. It’s repetition of the DNA (the image), there is Fibonacci (the curve), there is repetition without boredom. There is a repetition of the same image without us having to see a boring slide-show of 4 identical pictures.

Photo by sum+it on

Below you see what the State of the Art would look like, if you would try to write it out as a score. As you can SEE, there are pieces of music in pieces of music in pieces of music. Long lines over short lines, repetitions at unexpected places, there are countless variations on the theme. It’s different from traditional music.

This is what the Art of the State would look like more or less, if it would have been mapped out as a score.

Now, look again at the ‘State of the Art’ picture. Remember that music is a 3D experience? And the score a 2D map for a 3D soundscape? So ….

This form we see here in the ‘Art of the State’ is the blueprint for the structure of a musical landscape. This blue-print is a 2D projection of the structure of a 3D musical world. So when you visualize it for composing purposes, you have to imagine the 3D structure (form) it represents over time. Then, your DNA can use that form to express itself.

Now you can SEE, why the music of Stephen Melillo is so different from and so more interesting than that of other contemporary composers. He uses the natural beauty of Fibonacci numbers. So his musical lines are intertwining and closely packed with musical DNA. Like the seeds of a sunflower. There are pieces of music in pieces of music in pieces of music.

Imagine the 3D musical world as a powder-firework where the clouds of colors represent clouds of sound-colors:

The artist must see the relation between the blueprint of the structure (the map of where to place the boxes), the actual structure in 3D (the boxes at the location), at what time to light what ( instruction length of ropes, people pressing buttons) and the actual visual effect in 3D it will have in real life. We composers also have to know those relationships for our soundscapes to emerge the way we imagined them.

We would not like to design a firework with just the one purple cloud, repeating itself every 10 seconds, would we? No we would like the colors to contrast, mix, surprise, form a background, form a point, create darkness, a line, vanish and reveal. No, we would like to make this:

Daytime fireworks

I leave you with this picture of a sky-ladder made from firework. This also was just an image in some-ones mind, just an idea. And then, after years of trying, it became reality…..for just a moment.

By Anneloes Wolters


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