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What does negative harmony sound like? Here’s the answer!

By , June 23, 2019 11:00 am

In the last year or so there’s been quite a buzz in the music theory world about the concept of negative harmony, mainly thanks to a few YouTube interviews with Jacob Collier which have gone viral, especially the ones by June Lee.

But while this has been great for introducing the idea to many people, still most people don’t really know what music based on negative harmony actually sounds like! And as Jacob mentioned in some of these interviews, clever theoretical tricks are rather pointless unless you can actually make some great music from them. Most of the videos just focus on a few chords, which is a great start but far from the full picture.

Introducing the SHIMANator negative harmony app!

So I’ve built an app called “the SHIMANator” which can convert any music into its negative harmony equivalent, and I’m very excited to finally announce it to the world! Check out the video:

OK, but what’s the point?

I mainly wrote this app because a) Jacob asked me to, b) it sounded like a fun challenge, and c) the thought of being able to instantly hear the negative harmony equivalent of any music was very appealing.

But in the process of getting it working, it became apparent that this could actually be a useful tool for generating fresh new musical ideas and sounds. For example, I’ve talked to film / TV composers who got excited about using it to quickly generate music which is coherent with and relating to their existing material. For example if a musical motif in a major key represented a character in a film, flipping it about an axis would give you the negative version, which would sound in a minor key and could be used to represent the “dark side” of that character’s personality.

Can I try it out?

Not yet, but I’m aiming to offer early beta access to a select group of people at some point soon. Please show your interest by taking the following actions!

1. Sign up for updates on the SHIMANator

2. Let me know what you think and win a free copy!

Do you find this app interesting? Could you imagine using it yourself? If so, would you use it for composition, or as an extra effect in live improvisation, or maybe even for something else?

So I’d love to hear what you think – and the person who gives the best feedback will win a free copy of the software when it’s fully productised and ready to publish!

Please leave comments on the Facebook page or the YouTube video.

3. Subscribe to my YouTube channel:

How does it work?

At the simplest level, it takes MIDI events in, does some magic to convert to negative harmony, and then outputs the same events with modified pitches. So it should work with pretty much any piece of MIDI-compatible software or hardware under the sun.

The actual algorithm for the conversion is very complicated, so I’ll save the explanation for another time. But you can see from the video how melodic motion is inverted, as is motion around the circle of fifths.

How did this all come about?

Here’s the history, in case you’re curious.

I was introduced to negative harmony a few years ago by Barak Schmool, who later taught Jacob in his role as professor of jazz and world rhythms at the Royal Academy of Music. (Barak’s awareness of the technique was heavily influenced by his friend Steve Coleman, an incredible jazz saxophonist who has been using negative harmony in his music for many decades.)

At the time I built a really dumb prototype for fun, and fed Mozart’s 40th Symphony through it. The results were promising, but also sounded amusingly terrible due to every high note being converted to a very low note and vice-versa.

It was clear that without some magic octave transposition algorithm, notes would stray too far from their original register and completely screw up the voicing “texture” which the composer had intended. So shortly afterwards, Barak and I basically forgot about it, and instead got distracted experimenting on Giant Steps with some brilliant ideas he had regarding unequally tempered systems of intonation (which later inspired some of Jacob’s great work with microtonal voice-leading).

A year or two later, Barak told Jacob about my prototype. He was interested enough to get in touch, and you already know the rest of the story.

By the way, there is already some great music out there made entirely using negative harmony. For example see Steve Cruickshank’s fantastic YouTube channel, which is full of negative harmony covers of famous music. And I’m not even the first to come up with a negative version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. But I’m not yet aware of any other software which does what mine does. Hopefully you find its potential interesting.

Have you made any other music software?

Funny you should ask! Actually yes: in an earlier collaboration with Barak I built the Scale Matcher – a free app (web page) for finding which scales match a given chord. Check it out 🙂

If you read this far, congratulations – you are a most excellent and dedicated music theory nerd. Let’s have a pint some time. But until then, don’t forget to subscribe and let me know what you think!

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