Saturday, July 11, 2009

Perfect Pitch, Relative Pitch, and Transposition

Lately a few musician friends discussed transposition in relation to perfect pitch (absolute pitch) and relative pitch. Some say musicians with perfect pitch have more trouble transposing than those with only relative pitch.

Here I share some of my takes, particular on some of common myths. Here's my disclaimer though: my empirical experiences may or may not match with some cognitive models, let alone what's really going on in the brains. However, I am confident enough to say, what I summarize here has been proved practical by myself and many of my fellow musicians.

I recommend reading Wikipedia on the pitch topic for better understanding of the topic and the its various issues. Here I merely provide some of my personal experiences.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Contact 與我聯繫

If you are responding to one of my posts, please leave your comments there. If you have a reason to send me a private message, read on. However, please understand that I may or may not be able to reply to your message, although I will try.

It's such a pity that Google does not support a decent contact form with Captcha. And it's even more of a pity that the many internet users nowadays abuse its openness. Unfortunately, I cannot come up with a convenient way for you to contact me privately. Please do the following if you need to send me a message:

1. Go to
2. Use "visitor" and "contact" to get in.
3. You can then write your message there.




1. 到
2. 用 visitor 及 contact 登入
3. 給我留言


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Gold Flutes Sound Better than Silver Flutes?

My friend Prof. Chen-Gia Tsai, a brilliant musicologist who has solid background in physics and ethnic music, posted some comments on whether the materials of wind instruments affect their tones. He also pointed his readers to an interesting study.

In summary, the presenter of the study asked the audience to tell, without looking, the difference between two performance of a lightweight cherry wood flute and a concrete flute, which are of identical design except for their materials, and no one was able to tell their sonic differences. Chen-Gia pointed out that the sounds of wind instruments are affected by only their reeds and the air cylinder inside the instruments. As long as one can make two identical surfaces, the sound will be the same. He also noted that it's easier to bend metal materials freely in order to achieve specific shapes and woods may contain holes that affect the tone.

These are my responds to Chen-Gia's posting. I left my comments in Chinese on his blog. Here's the English translation. Disclaimer: I am no physicist so my assumption below comes from my limited knowledge of acoustics.

I suspect that performers perceive a more mellow tone from instruments made of wood because the softer wood surface actually damps higher harmonics. The same phenomena can be observed in different echoing effects between a metal room (or pipe) and a wood room.

Chen-Gia also pointed out that sometimes the vibration of the thinned instrument bore matters. I confirmed that from my experience: if one holds the brass bore tightly (from the outside, so the air stream stays unaffected) when playing, its tone is less "bright" (less higher harmonics). I suspect that instruments made of wood cannot rely its tones on the bore vibration.

About the study quoted, I also suspect that the reason nobody in the conference audience was able to tell the difference is due to lack of proper vocabulary, or they thought the differences between the two demonstrations could come from the unavoidable differences made by the performer.

That study also points out people's different perception on gold flutes and silver flutes. My personal observation on that is: gold flutes are much more expensive and its owners are usually committed professional performers. To the general audience, most sounds they hear on gold flutes come from professional players, who are likely to play better anyway. For a silver flute owner, even if the skill is comparable, a quick try on somebody else's gold flute is more challenging because every flute is different (a slight change in turbulence within the mouthpiece will result in very different tone) and it does take a while to get used to a new flute. Therefore, the testing sound produced by a silver flute player may not be optimal. Galway's flute is custom made -- for him.

Besides, in reality, gold flutes may differ from silver flutes not only on the material but also on some detail designs -- as a pricey car not only has a higher end engine but also better material in its shifting stick. People see the stick and conclude the car runs better. They may be right, although for a wrong reason. It's very difficult for musicians to make a fair comparison because of lack of access to identical flutes made of very different materials.

Finally, I personally react to the material of mouthpieces and the overall weight of an instrument when I play. That makes a totally objective comparison even harder.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Converting scanned images into PDF

I have a huge collection of printed sheet music and it has become more and more difficult and time consuming to retrieve them. Therefore, I started scan a lot of my printed sheet music into PDF so I can easily search them. (There are many other benefits such as: being able to transmit them digitally -- for so many times I retrieve my sheet music from home remotely; or just to carry one touchscreen notebook with all necessary sheet music for gigs).

One of the problems I encounter is when I scan a page from a thick book, it's very difficult to align the book to the scanner horizontally/vertically, i.e. the scanned images will turn out slanted. I use GIMP to correct it, but then after rotation, there will be new empty, transparent, area introduced on all edges. If I convert such images into a format that doesn't support transparency, such as jpg, the transparent part will become black region. The other problem is that after rotation, the page width/height ratio will not conform to standard paper size.

Why do I have to use jpg? The reason is when ImageMagick converts pictures into a PDF, the picture is only embedded, thus size preserved. For scanned images, jpg takes much less disk space than png, in the practical resolution range.

Here's what I had to do (convert is part of ImageMagick package):

convert -fill white -opaque "rgba(100.0%, 0.0%, 0.0%, 0)" ../*.png ./page-.jpg
convert page-*.jpg -bordercolor white -border 50x50 -trim combined.pdf

The first command converts all PNG images into JPG ones while converting transparent regions into white ones. The second command adds white border areas to four edges and then trim them back, so the border area can be minimal to reserve as much area for the original image as possible; then we convert the whole thing into a PDF.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Practical Tips for score/part Preparation

Over the years of working with various musicians to perform my works, I have learned some very practical experiences that I wish other experienced composers would have shared with me. These tips help me and the musicians save time in rehearsal and also help produce the best musical results.

The basic goal is to best utilize the time during rehearsal. This can be done by: 1. Aiming for effective communication on sheet music, verbally, and gesturally. 2. Minimizing chances for mistakes by providing helpful information and better readability on the sheet music. 3. Maintaining a positive attitude.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Finale Duplicated Chords Bug Fix

Finale has come a long way since it was first introduced. For me, it used to be only a typographical software -- I used to compose in a sequencer and then import the MIDI file into Finale to do the output. I had to do that because Finale didn't have good editing capability, nor did it sound good. However, its recent versions have improved to a point where I can do most of my work in it. (I still use my sequencer to produce the demo track since MIDI editing and virtual instrument tweaking is not Finale's strength (yet?).) There are a few things that I think would make Finale better.

One of them I encountered recently when I was trying to meet a dead line was the bug in Chord copying. When I was writing block chords for a whole reed section, I kept using Exploding and Imploding back and forth, which makes Finale slower and slower and eventually unusable. It turns out that when Finale copies a chord onto an existing one, it does not erase the original one. Therefore, if there is a chord symbol on an imploded staff, exploding would make, say, 5 copies of that chord onto 5 different staffs. When I implode them back to the top staff, the top staff chord, though looking like one copy, is actually 5 identical copies. If I try to delete it, I have to do it 5 times. Now, if I explode again, each of the 5 staffs will have 5 identical chords. Another implode will yield to 25 copies in the top staff. And then 125 copies, 625 copies, etc.

Obviously what Finale needs to do is overwrite the original copy rather than create another identical copy.

I was meeting a dead line, so I had to solve it myself. What I did was to export everything into a Music XML file, fix that file, and then import it back.

Here's the Perl code to fix that Music XML file. Since Finale's XML output is predictable, I didn't bother parsing the XML. This script removes duplicated chord symbols by simple string manipulation.

# Filename:
# This Perl code removes duplicated Chord items in Finale's Music XML file.
# Usage:
# % perl < original.xml > fixed.xml

my $buffer = "";
my $last_buffer = "";
my $in_harmony = 0;
while (<stdin>)
chop $_;
if ($in_harmony && /^\s*<\/harmony/)
$buffer .= $_ . "\n";
if ($buffer ne $last_buffer)
print $buffer;
$last_buffer = $buffer;
$buffer = "";
$in_harmony = 0;
elsif (/^\s+<harmony .*/ || $in_harmony)
$buffer .= $_ . "\n";
$in_harmony = 1;
elsif (! $in_harmony)
print $_ . "\n";

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Remembering Master Sheng-Yeng 憶聖嚴法師

(English translation of this article can be found after the Chinese text)

自法鼓山的朋友在第 一時間傳來聖嚴法師捨報圓寂的消息後,身邊開始一連串的連鎖反應。幾位不常動筆的朋友,不管是不是佛教徒,都和我分享他們從法師受益的故事。(值得一提的 是文仁和我分享他佛青營的經驗,以及志源分享他在路上看到海報上「需要的不多,想要的太多」大受感動的經驗。)

我和聖嚴法師的因緣,也很 有趣。1984年前後,一位小時候很親近的老師帶我及另一位學生到農禪寺午齋,之後我們坐在圃團上聽聖嚴法師開示。(之後這位老師出家,對我有很大的啟 示)。後來一直要到2005年,我才又在美國紐約意外地再次見到聖嚴法師。2006年,有幸參加法師親自帶領的話頭十日禪。之後似乎法師健康狀況使他再沒 有機會親自到美國開示。至今,法師在開示時面對病痛的自在,仍對我有很大的啟發。


雖 然我受到法師本人及法鼓山許多僧俗弟子法益良多,但我自己一直沒有求為法師的在家弟子。回想起來,和在自己的強烈自我意識有很大的關係。我在一個背誦四維 八德,青年十二守則,唱偉人歌曲,呼愛國口號的時代長大,對有口無心、格言化、口號化、造神運動等型式有種不知名的反感。但聖嚴法師帶領法鼓山這麼大的一 個組織,在這個時代傳法,不免要順應這個時代的需求,用這個時代最多人能接受的方式為之。之前提到與佛教完全無瓜葛的好友志源竟能從海報上一句話感應(這 讓我聯想到「應無所住,而生其心」的惠能)。比較起來,我的驕執讓我損失大了。

法師的遺言,顯出大修行人的智慧。下面這一段:「六、在我 身後,請林其賢教授夫婦,將我的「年譜」,補至我捨壽為止,用供作為史料,並助後賢進德參考。故請勿再編印紀念集之類的出版物了。」,讓我想起佛滅時,弟 子問他身後的舍利子應如何處理,佛說「我教導的法才是你們要依行的重點,舍利就留給其他人去煩惱吧。」(註: 我實在記不得這段典出何處。漢傳的經典寫得是佛清楚交待舍利要怎麼安置供奉,我個人對該段有很大的懷疑。不過,也許我記得的版本也是浪漫化的。)

感念法師言教身教,為文表敬抒憶 。


Some chain reactions around me seemed to be triggered by the news of Master Sheng-Yen's passing away, which was sent to me by friends from Dharma Drum Mountain soon after it happened. Many of my other friends, Buddhists or not, shared their stories about how Master inspired them, among which are Wen-Ren's sharing on his participation in Young Buddhist Camp back in his high school days, and Chi-Yuan's sharing of how he got inspired when he first saw the phrase "We don't need much; we just want too much" (a quote on Master Sheng-Yen) on a street poster.

My story with Master Sheng-Yen is interesting, too. Back around the year of 1984, a teacher I was close to brought me and another student to Nung Chan Monastery to visit. After a vegetarian lunch, we sat on meditation cushions listening to Master's dharma talk. The next time I saw Master Sheng-Yen was year 2005 in New York City. And in December 2006, I had the priviledge of participating in a 10-day Huatou meditation retreat, led by Master Sheng-Yen. I heard it was the last time he came to the US, due to his health condition. The image of him teaching, so at ease and pease, albeit in great discomfort, is still vivid and inspiring to me today.

The fact that so many people around me have been inspired by Master's teaching, is a good example of how a great mind influences a time.

I myself have benefited a lot from Master himself and his disciples, dharma-wise; yet I've never seeked to become a disciple under him. In retroflect, I think it had a lot to do with my ego. I grew up in a time full of propagandas -- we recited ethical codes daily, sang songs to praise the political leaders, and saw people idolize and worship the leaders. Having enough of those, I was not able to appreciate how Master Sheng-Yen, leading such a huge organization of Dharma Drum Mountain, had to come up with ways that a particular society is able to accept, to teach dharma. My friend Chi-Yuan had his moment of enlightment simply from a phrase on a street poster (I can't help think of the Hui-Neng's awakening upon hearing a phrase from Diamond Sutra). Compared to that kind of gain, I have lost big because of my pride and prejudice.

Master's will shows great wisdom of a great practioner, too. This paragraph, for example:

6. After I pass away, please request Professor Lin Qixian and his wife to complete the “Chronicle of Master Sheng Yen’s Life” up to the time of my death, as historical materials for the reference of future generations. Therefore, please do not compile or print any commemorative collections and the like.

reminds me of the story of Buddha when he was about to enter Parinirvana. One of his disciples asked him what to do with his relics. He said, "for you, what's important is my teaching. Leave the relics for those who are into them." (Note: I can't remember where I read this story. A sutra of Chinese Buddhist tradition describes how Buddha told his disciples what to do with his relics in details -- I highly doubt its authenticity. However, the version I prefer may have also been romanticized.)

With this article, I pay my great respect to Master and share my memories of him.