Music terminology for videographers

When working with directors and videographers, one of the most common phrases I hear is “I know what I mean, but I don’t know how to say it.” Communication is key on creative projects and getting the composer and director on the same wavelength is vital. Even if you’re not working with a composer directly, music licensing sites like Killer Tracks uses the same sort of terminology for their key words, so knowing how to articulate what you want will help there too.

So, here’s a list of common music terminology to describe the way music sounds that will help with this communication. I’ll also write what is actually going on with the music so it makes more sense. You’ll notice that a lot of the descriptors are the same ones you’d use for visual art forms, so realize that just about any visual descriptor can translate to an auditory one.

This post is broken into sections:

  • The basics (you probably already know many these, but just in case you don’t, here they are)
  • Desktop music production terms
  • Speed and rhythm
  • Volume
  • Character of the sound
  • Instrumentation
  • Style/Genre

– The Basics –

Unison – When all parts of the music are playing the same melody.

Harmony – An instrument or other part of the music plays notes that compliment others rather than playing in unison, and often implies a lack of dissonance.

Pitch – How high or low a note is.

Interval – The space between the pitches of two notes.

Octave – Physically speaking, this is a note that has a frequency double or half of the note it’s being compared to (octave up means half, octave down means double). It will sound like the same note, just higher or lower.

Dissonance – Arguably the opposite of harmony, this is when two or more notes clash with each other. This can be used to create conflict, agitation, or to add character to a more complex chord. Dissonance isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s a tool in the composer’s toolbox.

Key – This is difficult to describe. A given melody or song generally uses a set of notes, not all of them. However, it can change keys mid-song to add drama, exchanging the original set of notes for another (usually higher). Melodies will sound the same, but start on another note.

Scale – All the notes within a key, usually played in sequence, usually numbered 1-7 with the 8th note an octave above the root (1). These numbers, in conjunction with the type of scale used, can be used to define intervals and chords.

Minor key – This means that the song uses a set of notes that lend themselves to a darker tonality, often used in sad, angry, or moody music. Chords can be minor as well, but don’t necessarily mean the entire key is minor. There are a few different types of minor keys, but that’s not important to a non-musician.

Major key – Similar to the the minor key in that it defines the set of notes used. However, this lends itself to brighter, happier music, and is the most common type of key used in popular music.

Other types of keys – Major and minor keys are not the only ones out there. However, the others are not used nearly as much. One good example is the song “Scarborough Fair.” At first listen, one might believe it’s in a minor key, but it’s actually in what’s called “dorian.” Dorian, along with others like mixolydian, pentatonic, etc, are commonly associated with timeless, folk, or even tribal music, due to the prevalence of these keys in those types of music. Pentatonic is specifically known for making something sound oriental.

Chord – A grouping of notes, usually three or more, that creates varying degrees of harmony or dissonance, depending on the notes selected. Chords are often described using the “root” of the chord, as if it was built off of a key, and then adding qualifiers like major or minor, and added or suspended notes. Numbers refer to position on the scale within the key.

Chord progression – A series of chords, often repeated as a sequence. This drives the music forward and gives it character. Too much repetition in the chord progression can make music sound repetitive.

– Desktop Music Production Terms –

DAW – Digital Audio Workstation, this describes a computer with audio editing software like ProTools, Logic, or Ableton Live.

MIDI – This is a standard method that keyboards, DAWs, and other digital instruments communicate note information. MIDI signals can say when to start playing a note (note on), when to stop (note off), how loud to play it (velocity), to gradually make a note louder or softer (expression), and a variety of other things. Once this MIDI signal is fed into a synthesizer, the synthesizer produces a standard audio signal.

Patch – Usually refers to settings on a synthesizer. This term is kind of interchangeable with “instrument,” since it changes the sound used by the synthesizer, especially sample-based ones.

Sequencer – This is a standard feature on most DAWs and some hardware items. This stores MIDI data so it can be played back into a synthesizer. This makes editing and creating music much easier. Sequencers are also commonly used to create placeholder music until a live recording of a musician playing that instrument can be substituted.

Sample-based synthesizer – Sometimes referred to simply as a “sampler” or “sound library,” this is a synthesizer that takes the MIDI note information and plays back recordings of real instruments or other sampled audio at the desired pitch. Lower-end samplers simply change the playback speed of the sample to get different pitches while higher-end ones have separate recorded samples for each individual note. Depending on the quality of the patch and the skill of the composer, these can sound very lifelike.

Articulations – A feature of high-end samplers, this loads multiple sets of sounds for the same instrument, usually for more expressive ones like woodwinds, brass, and strings. These patches will often have programmed “key switches” where a note outside of the instrument’s range can tell the sampler to change to another articulation on-the-fly. For instance, the first note of a melody could have a sharp attack, and then a key switch could be used to change to a more flowing articulation for the rest of the melody. This effectively allows digital instruments to have a more authentic sound.

ADSR – Attack, decay, sustain, release. Also called an envelope, this is how a synthesizer regulates volume and other parameters over time. Specifically referencing volume, attack is the rate at which the synthesizer increases in volume after the note-on signal is received. Once it’s reached full volume, decay defines the rate at which it will go down in volume until it hits the sustain level. Sustain is the volume where it will stay until the note-off signal is received, and release is how fast the volume will drop once the note-off signal is received. There are many creative applications for ADSR, and some synthesizers allow for even more complex envelopes.

Dry/Wet/Mix – This refers to an audio signal pre- and post-processing. A dry signal is the audio before it’s been run through a filter or plug-in. The wet signal is the audio after it’s gone through the filter or plug-in. Many filters have a “mix” setting, where you can adjust the ratio of dry-to-wet signal that leaves the filter.

The final mix – Often times referred to as just “the mix,” this refers to the audio output from a DAW once all the instruments, filters, patches, plug-ins, etc. are all mixed together.

Common audio filters:

EQ – Equalizer, this allows adjustments in volume to individual frequency ranges for an instrument or the whole song.

Delay – Basically, echo. This filter takes the audio, delays it, and then mixes it back in. Setting can change the amount of delay, number of echoes, and the strength of the echoes.

Reverb – This creates a sense of space in music. This simulates how sound scatters and reflects in a room or other enclosed space. This is NOT echo, although it can have elements of it. More sophisticated reverb plug-ins can simulate specific real-life spaces.

Compression – This is a filter that reduces loud volume areas of an audio signal by a given amount. It can help make the overall volume of a recording louder, or make creative effects in the music. A more severe version of this is a “Limiter” which simply does not allow volumes louder than a given value to playback above that value.

– Speed and Rhythm –

Measure – Sometimes referred to as a “bar,” this is a main building block of music. It is a group of notes that defines a short musical idea. A melody or groove is usually a combination of 4-8 measures repeated, but there’s usually a feeling of segmentation where the measures start and end.

Time signature – This defines the number of beats in a measure. Think of this as the “main beat” or pulse of the music. Techno music usually puts bass hits on each of these main beats, and “Fear the Reaper” used cowbell for those beats. In other music, it’s less obvious, but musicians will feel the beat regardless (especially classically trained ones who practiced with metronomes). A time signature is usually written as a fraction with the top number meaning the number of beats, and the bottom meaning the length of note being counted (the bottom number is really only important to the musician though). Time signatures with top numbers divisible by four tend to feel strong and driving. Time signatures divisible by three tend to feel flowing. Odd time signatures like 7/8, 5/4, etc, tend to feel off-kilter or sinister. This is because our brains naturally want to group beats into groups of three or four, so the added (or subtracted) beat throws us off. Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” Gustav Holst’s “Mars,” and Saruman’s theme from Lord of the Rings are all examples of 5/4 time signatures.

Tempo – This tells you how fast the beats in the time signature are. It’s important to realize that this only refers to those main beats, NOT the ones that may come in-between.

Rhythm – This refers to the temporal placement of notes in a defined group.

“Straight” rhythm – A rhythm that stays with the main beat or time signature, either playing all or most of the beats. Also refers to a beat that is not swung (see below).

Swing rhythm – Every other note of the main beat is delayed slightly for feel. Swing is used in jazz, hip hop (sometimes), and other genres.

Syncopation – When a rhythm deviates from the time signature or other established rhythm in a complimentary way. This is particularly popular in latin music.

Subdivision – This is when there are notes being played at a faster rate than the tempo at various fractions of it so it stays in sync. Subdivision is most common in faster, higher frequency instruments, like high-hats on a drum set, or violins in an orchestra. Adding subdivision can make music seem faster or more intense without changing tempo.

Arpeggio – While not exactly referring to speed or rhythm, it belongs with subdivision due to its usage. Arpeggios are when a chord is played in sequence rather than all at once. The arpeggio can rise, fall, or mix the notes up completely, but it always plays a repeating pattern of notes derived from a chord.

– Volume –

Crescendo – Gradually rise in volume.

Decrescendo – Gradually fade in volume.

Sforzando – The note is briefly loud, then immediately soft, often building into a crescendo after.

Velocity versus Volume – This applies when using digital instruments. Volume is pretty self-explanitory, but refers specifically to how loud the sound is in the final mix. Velocity refers to the volume the MIDI signal is telling the digital instrument to play. High quality digital instruments will change in character as they get louder or softer, the same way a physical instrument does. This can be important when talking to your composer if you want something quieter or louder, and you do or do not want the character of the sound to change.

– Character of Sound –

Transients – A sine wave is capable of playing sound at a specific frequency. However, if you pluck a string, it won’t just vibrate the full length of the string, but will also vibrate in fractions of its length, creating additional frequencies above its “fundamental.” All instruments generally play more than one specific frequency based on the shape and method of producing sound, and this is what gives music its character. These additional frequencies are called transients. Modifying these transients using EQ can drastically change the character of an instrument, as well as how it’s perceived in the final mix.

Timbre – This describes the overall character of a sound. It’s an esoteric term like “bokeh” that people know what it means but is hard to describe. Physically speaking, this usually refers to the amount and placement of transients in a sound.

Warm – This describes sound rich in lower frequencies and strong harmony. Cellos, french horns, and the lower end of a piano played softly usually can be described as “warm.” A sound can become warmer by reducing higher frequency transients.

Cold – This generally describes sound with strong higher frequencies or very little mid-range frequencies. There can also be less harmony and more dissonance. The upper range of a piano, violins, trumpets, and metal mallet instruments can be described as “cold.” A sound can become colder by increasing higher frequency transients. A sound with transients that are too loud in the 4kHz range can be described as “shrill” and is unsettling to the listener.

Tonal – This refers to an instrument that has a well-defined pitch and harmonizes well.

Atonal – This refers to instruments that don’t have defined pitches, even if they can produce higher and lower frequencies. Most percussion falls into this category, but things like heavily distorted guitar can also breech this category. This can also refer to music that doesn’t follow a set key.

Crisp/Sharp – Usually refers to a sound that has a fast attack (refer back to ADSR in the Desktop Music Production Terms section) and often has strong upper-frequency transients. Humans are most sensitive to frequencies around 4kHz, which happens to be where sibilance happens (the part of the voice that makes speech intelligible). So, sharp/crisp sounds are often strong around that specific range.

Soft – When not referring to volume, this refers to a sound with a slow attack and release.

Staccato – Notes are short and separated, and often crisp for emphasis.

Legato – Notes are long and connected.

Flowing – Derivative of legato, this generally also means the melody takes advantage of the connectedness, rising and falling in both volume and pitch.

Bright – Lots of higher frequencies, similar to cold, but with more harmony. Usually means a major key or chord too. The notes of chords are often spread-out throughout the ranges of instruments rather than tightly clustered.

Dark – More lower frequencies with minor or dissonant chords. Notes are more clustered together.

Energetic – High tempo with or without subdivision (usually only subdivided once or twice).

Relaxed – Slower tempo, often swung. Subdivision can be heavy (making for rapid notes) as long as the main beat is slow.

Drones for Christmas

Over the past few years, remote-controlled multicopters, often referred to as “drones,” have become more sophisticated, less expensive and easier to use. More and more people are taking to the skies in these multicopters ranging from micro quadcopters which fit in the palm of your hand all the way to massive octocopters capable of lifting pro-grade cinema cameras.

With an unprecedented number of these multicopters finding their way into stockings and under trees this holiday season, the important question comes up, “how do I fly mine safely?” Continue reading

Multicopters deconstructed

Getting into the configuration phase of building Cerberus, my Y6 multicopter.

Getting into the configuration phase of building Cerberus, my Y6 multicopter.

In a previous blog (linked here), I discussed some of the safety issues and considerations involved in getting into drone photography. In this blog, I’ll go over some of the parts that make up the drone and what they do.  Continue reading

“So kids, you want to be a drone pilot?”

DSC07855That’s the favorite phrase of my good friend Parker Gyokeres, usually when something goes horribly wrong, which is pretty frequent when you’re dealing with the “electronic divas with bipolar disorder” commonly referred to as drones.

I’m not going to lie, flying remote-controlled aircraft, especially multicopters, is a LOT of fun and I’ve managed to capture some spectacular shots. It immediately adds production value to your project, and turns heads both on location and online. The thing is, there’s a lot more to it than most people realize, and a lot of things that can, and do, go wrong.  Continue reading

Behind the Scenes: A Family to Call Her Own

editor’s note: some of this is very much directed at Air Force photojournalists, but most of this should apply to most people.

It started as a personal project, a favor to an old friend and a chance to put my newfound photojournalism skills to good use. The end goal and end product changed several times from first inception, but I’m very happy with how the final product came out.

Continue reading

Working with GoPro Hero3+ Footage

GoPro Hero3+ on a DJI Phantom II

GoPro Hero3+ on a DJI Phantom II © 2014 Samuel Morse

GoPros have certainly come into their own these past few years, becoming capable of high quality video from the most remote locations. This is particularly advantageous for aerial videography because the smaller and lighter a camera is, the smaller the airframe can be, and the longer it can stay in the air.

Here’s the problem though, sometimes you don’t want that fisheye “GoPro” look. It looks great for in-your-face footage of the X-Games, but not a sweeping vista as your aerial platform floats gracefully past.

This tutorial will show you how to get the most out of your GoPro so you can get near dSLR quality in most situations.

For more examples of what footage looks like using this technique, check out this video.

Dawn at the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery from Samuel Morse on Vimeo.

Review of the Sony α7R

Sony α7R

Sony α7R. Photo taken with a Nikon D800 and 45mm PC-E lens. © 2014 Samuel Morse

I received my Sony α7R in the mail a little over a week ago. While I haven’t used it as extensively as I would have liked, I do think I’ve delved deep enough to offer some honest opinions on its functionality. Now, there are plenty of places like DPreview where you can get the full low-down on the specs and features, so I’m going to focus specifically on my own revelations about its functionality.

There was a reviewer who compared the α7R to the original iPhone. I think this thought is spot-on. This camera is ground-breaking and a beautiful glimpse into what the camera industry has in store for us in the future. However, it still has some serious flaws that are just enough that I don’t see this camera getting the mainstream usage future iterations might see. Still, the fact that Sony managed to cram a 36 megapixel full frame (35mm format) sensor into a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera is impressive. This means the camera is capable of image quality to rival my Nikon D800.

Let’s get started. Continue reading

Why I’ll likely be buying Sony for a while

Sony NEX-7

Sony NEX-7

Okay, so let’s get the elephant out of the room first. I’m not selling off all my Nikon gear anytime soon, and I still plan to use it extensively for high-profile shooting. In fact, the above photo was shot with my Nikon D800. That said, Sony has really piqued my interest in the past couple of years, to the point that I’m thinking that more of my personal camera gear should be Sony, not Nikon. Why? Well, there are a lot of reasons. Some of it has to do with my shooting style in my off-duty time. Some of it has to do with unique features Sony is putting in their newest cameras.  Continue reading

Is same-sex marriage a “human right?”

When I sat down and really thought about whether or not same-sex marriage is a “human right,” the answer turned out to be simpler than I thought.

Marriage in its quintessential form is a religious contract, and therefore protected under freedom of religion. Since more faiths exist than just Christianity, and not even all Christian beliefs prohibit same-sex marriage, freedom of religion is actually more of an argument in favor of same-sex marriage than against it. Oddly enough, this fact is lost on a lot of people who confuse freedom of religion with freedom of their religion.

From a legal standpoint, you can make an argument just as strong: the federal government cannot discriminate based on gender, so it can’t prevent you from marrying someone based on their gender. Simple

If you’re arguing whether or not marriage between members of the same gender is a “human right,” I’d actually say no, but not because it’s same gender. This is where things get a little tricky. I argue that marriage in general is not a “human right” in the strictest sense of the word. It’s a contract between two people, whether religious or secular. A contract is not a human right, nor more than a driver’s license. However, it *is* something we should treat with equality because it’s an offshoot of freedom of choice as well as freedom of religion.

Simple enough?

All-in, shooting a triathlete

photographing a triathleteLet me first start off by saying this isn’t a comprehensive “how-to” post, but more of a behind-the-scenes look at what it took to get some compelling imagery of a triathlete. I’ll look at some things that worked, and a few things that didn’t work as well as I would have liked.

I must make a quick caveat that the photos picked for this blog are not necessarily the ones that went into the story (in fact, quite the opposite in many cases). The photos were picked because they show the techniques mentioned the best. Arguably, this blog applies to commercial photography more than journalistic photography.

Also, for full disclosure and credit where credit is due, the triathlete I was covering is Megan Stanton, an active duty U.S. Air Force medic. The full story is here: Perseverance: An Airman’s commitment to health, triathlon and career

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