Friday, September 14, 2018

What I Learnt Creating Guitar Dashboard: SVG, TypeScript and Music Theory.

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Guitar Dashboard is a side project I’ve been working on occasionally over the past two years. It’s an open source web application (you can find it at http://guitardashboard.com/ and the code at https://github.com/mikehadlow/gtr-cof). It’s intended as an interactive music theory explorer for guitarists that graphically links theoretical concepts, such as scales, modes and chords to the guitar fretboard. It evolved out my my own attempts, as an amateur guitarist, to get a better understanding of music theory. It includes an algorithmic music theory engine that allows arbitrarily complex scales and chords to be generated from first principles. This gives it far more flexibility than most comparable tools. Coming at music theory from the point of view of software developer, and implementing a music theory rules engine, has given me a perspective that’s somewhat different from most traditional approaches. This post outlines what I’ve learnt, technically and musically while building Guitar Dashboard.  There are probably things here that are only interesting to software developers, and others only of interest to musicians, but I expect there’s a sizable group of people, like me, who fit in the intersection of that Venn diagram and who will find it interesting.

Why Guitar Dashboard?

Guitar dashboard’s core mission is to graphically and interactively integrate music theory diagrams, the chromatic-circle and circle-of-fifths, with a graphical representation of the fretboard of a stringed instrument. It emerged from my own study of scales, modes and chords over the past three or four years.

I expect like many self taught guitarists, my main aim when I first learnt to play at the age of 15 was to imitate my guitar heroes, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Steve Howe, Alex Lifeson and others. A combination of tips from fellow guitarists, close listening to 60’s and 70’s rock cannon, and a ‘learn rock guitar’ book was enough to get me to a reasonable imitation. I learnt how to play major and minor bar chords and a pentatonic scale for solos and riffs. This took me happily through several bands in my 20s and 30s. Here’s me on stage in the 1980’s with The Decadent Herbs.

mike-decadent-herbs

I was aware that there was a whole school of classical music theory, but it didn’t at first appear to be relevant to my rock ambitions, and any initial attempts I tried at finding out more soon came to grief on the impenetrable standard music notation and vocabulary, and the very difficult mapping of stave to fretboard. I just couldn’t be bothered with it. I knew there were major and minor scales, I could even play C major on my guitar, and I’d vaguely heard of modes and chord inversions, but that was about it. In the intervening years I’ve continued to enjoy playing guitar, except these days it’s purely for my own amusement, but I’d become somewhat bored with my limited range of musical expression. It wasn’t until around four years ago on a train ride, that a question popped into my head, “what is a ‘mode’ anyway?”

In the intervening decades since my teenage guitar beginnings the internet had happened, so while then I was frustrated by fusty music textbooks, now Wikipedia, immediately to hand  on my phone, provided a clear initial answer to my ‘what is a mode question’, followed soon after by a brilliant set of blog posts by Ethan Hein, a music professor at NYU. His clear explanations of how scales are constructed from the 12 chromatic tones by selecting certain intervals, and how chords are then constructed from scales, and especially how he relates modes to different well known songs, opened up a whole new musical world for me. I was also intrigued by his use of the circle-of-fifths which led me to look for interactive online versions. I found Rand Scullard’s excellent visualisation a great inspiration. At the same time in my professional work as a software developer I’d become very excited by the possibilities of SVG for interactive browser based visualisations and realised that Rand’s circle-of-fifths, which he’d created by showing and hiding various pre-created PNG images, would be very easy to reproduce with SVG, and that I could drive it from an algorithmic music engine implemented from the theory that Ethan Hein had taught me. The flexibility offered by factoring out the music generation from the display also meant that I could easily add new visualisations, the obvious one being a guitar fretboard.

My first version was pretty awful. Driven by the hubris of the novice, I’d not really understood the subtleties of note or interval naming and my scales sometimes had duplicate note names amongst other horrors. I had to revisit the music algorithm a few times before I realised that intervals are the core of the matter and the note names come out quite easily once the intervals are correct. The algorithmic approach paid off though; it was very easy to add alternative tunings and instruments to the fretboard since it was simply a case of specifying a different set of starting notes for each string, and any number of strings. Flipping the nut and providing a left-handed fretboard were similarly straightforward. I more recently added non-diatonic scales (access them via the ‘Scale’ menu). This also came out quite easily since the interval specification for the original diatonic scale is simply a twelve element Boolean array. Unfortunately the note naming issue appears again, especially for non-seven-note-scales. Moving forward, it should be relatively easy to add a piano keyboard display, or perhaps, to slay an old demon, a musical stave that would also display the selected notes.

For an introduction to Guitar Dashboard, I’ve created a video tour:

So that’s Guitar Dashboard and my motivation for creating it. Now a brief discussion of some of the things I’ve learnt. First some technical notes about SVG and TypeScript, and then some reflections on music theory.

The awesome power of SVG.

The visual display of Guitar Dashboard is implemented using SVG.

SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) is an “XML-based vector image format for two-dimensional graphics with support for interactivity and animation.” (Wikipedia). All modern browsers support it. You can think of it as the HMTL of vector graphics. The most common use case for SVG is simple graphics and graphs, but it really shines when you introduce animation and interactivity. Have a look at these blog posts to see some excellent examples.

I was already a big fan of SVG before I started work on Guitar Dashboard and the experience of creating it has only made me even more enamoured. The ability to programmatically build graphical interactive UIs or dashboards is SVG’s strongest, but most underappreciated asset. It’s gives the programmer, or designer, far more flexibility than image based manipulation or HTML and CSS. The most fine grained graphical elements can respond to mouse events and be animated. I used the excellent D3js library as an interface to the SVG elements but I do wonder sometimes whether it was an appropriate choice. As a way of mapping data sets to graphical elements, it’s wonderful, but I did find myself fighting it to a certain extent. Guitar Dashboard is effectively a data generator (the music algorithm) and some graphs (the circles and the fretboard), but the graphs are so unlike most D3js applications, that it’s possible I would have been better off just manipulating the raw SVG or developing my own targeted library.

Another strength of SVG is the tooling available to manipulate it. Not only is it browser native, which also means that it’s easy to print and screen-shot, but there are also powerful tools, such as the open source vector drawing tool, Inkscape that make it easy to create and modify SVG documents. One enhancement that I’m keen to include in Guitar Dashboard is a ‘download’ facility that will allow the user to download the currently rendered SVG as a file that can be opened and modified in Inkscape or similar tools. Imagine if you want to illustrate a music theory article, or guitar lesson, it would be easy to select what you want to see in Guitar Dashboard, download the SVG and then edit it at will. You could easily just cut out the fretboard, or the circle-of-fifths, if that’s all you needed. You could colour and annotate the diagrams in any way you wanted. Because SVG is a vector graphics format, you can blow up an SVG diagram to any size without rasterization. You could print a billboard with a Guitar Dashboard graphic and it would be completely sharp. This makes it an excellent choice for printed materials such as textbooks.

TypeScript makes large browser based applications easy.

Creating Guitar Dashboard was my first experience of writing anything serious in TypeScript. I’ve written plenty of Javascript during my career, but I’ve always found it a rather unhappy experience and I’ve always been relieved to return to the powerful static type system of my main professional language C#. I’ve experimented with Haskell and Rust which both have even stronger type systems and the experience with Haskell of '”if it compiles it will run” is enough to make anyone who might have doubted the power of types a convert. I’ve never understood the love for dynamic languages. Maybe for a beginner, the learning curve of an explicit type system seems quite daunting, but for anything but the simplest application, its lack means introducing a whole class of bugs and confusion that simply don’t exist for a statically typed language. Sure you can write a million unit tests to ensure you get what you think you should get, but why have that overhead?

Typescript allows you to confidently create large scale browser based applications. I found it excellent for making Guitar Dashboard. I’m not sure I am writing particularly good Typescript code though. I soon settled into basing everything around interfaces, enjoying the notion of structural rather than nominal typing. I didn’t use much in the way of composition and there’s no dependency injection. Decoupling is achieved with a little home made event bus:

    export class Bus<T> {
        private listeners: Array<(x:T)=>void> = [];
        private name: string;

        constructor(name: string) {
            this.name = name;
        }

        public subscribe(listener: (x:T)=>void): void {
            this.listeners.push(listener);
        }

        public publish(event: T): void {
            //console.log("Published event: '" + this.name + "'")
            for (let listener of this.listeners) {
                listener(event);
            }
        }
    }

A simple event bus, is just a device to decouple code that wants to inform that something has happened from code that wants to know when it does. It’s a simple collection of functions that get invoked every time an event is published. The core motivation is to prevent event producers and consumers from having to know about each other. There’s one instance of Bus for each event type.

Each of the main graphical elements is its own namespace which I treated like stand alone modules. Each of which subscribe to and raise typed events via a Bus instance. I only created classes when there was an obvious need, such as the Bus class above and the NoteCircle class which has two instances, the chromatic-circle and circle of fifths. I didn’t write any unit tests either, although now I think the music module algorithm is complex enough that it’s really crying out for them. Guitar Dashboard is open source, so you can see for yourself what you think of my Typescript by checking it out on GitHub.

Another advantage of TypeScript is the excellent tooling available. I used VS Code which itself is written in TypeScript and which supports it out-of-the-box. The fact that VS Code has been widely adopted outside of the Microsoft ecosystem is a testament to its quality as a code editor. It came top in the most recent Stack Overflow developer survey. I’ve even started experimenting with using it for writing C# and it’s a pretty good experience.

What I learnt about music.

Music is weird. Our ears are like a serial port into our brain. With sound waves we can reach into our cerebral cortex and tweak our emotions or tickle our pleasure senses. A piece of music can take you on a journey, but one which bares no resemblance to concrete reality. Music defines human cultures and can make and break friendships; people feel that strongly about it. But fundamentally it’s just sound waves. It greatly confuses evolutionary psychologists. What possible survival advantage does it confer? Maybe it’s the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail; a form of impressive display; a marker of attendant mental agility and fitness? Who knows. What is true is that we devote huge resources to the production and consumption of music: the hundreds of thousands of performers; the huge marketing operations of the record companies; the global business of producing and selling musical instruments and the kit to record it and play it back. The biggest company in the world, Apple, got its second wind from a music playback device and musical performers are amongst the most popular celebrities.

But why do our brains favour some forms of  sound over others? What makes a melody, a harmony, a rhythm, more or less attractive to us? I recently read a very good book on this subject, The Music Instinct by Philip Ball. The bottom line is that we have no idea why music affects us like it does, but that’s unsurprising given that the human brain is still very much a black box to science. It does show, however, that across human cultures there are some commonalities: rhythm, the recognition of the octave, where we perceive two notes an octave apart as being the same note, and also something close to the fifth and the third. It’s also true that music is about ratios between frequencies rather than the frequencies themselves, with perhaps the exception of people with perfect pitch. The more finely grained the intervals become, the more cultures diverge, and it’s probably safe to say that the western twelve tone chromatic scale with its ‘twelfth root of two’ ratio is very much a technical innovation to aid modulation rather than something innate to the human brain. Regardless of how much is cultural or innate, the western musical tradition is very much globally dominant. Indeed, it’s hard buy a musical instrument that isn’t locked down to the twelve note chromatic scale.

However, despite having evolved a very neat, mathematical and logical theory, western music suffers from a common problem that bedevils any school of thought that’s evolved over centuries, a complex and difficult vocabulary and a notation that obfuscates rather than reveals the structure of what it represents. Using traditional notation to understand music theory is like doing maths with Roman numerals. In writing the music engine of guitar dashboard, by far the most difficult challenges have been outputting the correct names for notes and intervals.

This is a shame, because the fundamentals are really simple. I will now explain western music theory in four steps:

  1. Our brains interpret frequencies an octave apart as the same ‘note’, so we only need to care about the space between n and 2n frequencies.
  2. Construct a ratio such that applying the ratio to n twelve times gives 2n. Maths tells you that this must be the 12th root of 2. (first described by Simon Stevin in 1580). Each step is called a semitone.
  3. Start at any of the twelve resulting notes and jump up or down in steps of 7 semitones (traditionally called a 5th) until you have a total of 7 tones/notes. Note that we only care about n to 2n, so going up two sets of 7 semitones (or two 5ths) is the same as going up 2 semitones (a tone) (2 x 7 – 12 = 2. In music all calculations are mod 12). This is a diatonic scale. If you choose the frequency 440hz, jump down one 7-semitone step and up 5, you have an A major scale. Up two 7-semitone steps and down four gives you A minor. The other five modes (Lydian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Phrygian and Locrian) are just different numbers of up and down 7-semitone steps.
  4. Having constructed a scale, choose any note. Count 3 and 5 steps of the scale (the diatonic scale you just constructed, not the original 12 step chromatic scale) to give you three notes. This is a triad, a chord. Play these rhythmically in sequence while adding melody notes from the scale until you stumble across something pleasing.

That, in four simple steps, is how you make western music.

OK, that’s a simplification, and the most interesting music breaks the rules, but this simple system is the core of everything else you will learn. But try to find this in any music textbook and it simply isn’t there. Instead there is arcane language and confusing notation. I really believe that music education could be far simpler with a better language, notation and tools. Guitar Dashboard is an attempt to help people visualise this simplicity. Everything but the fretboard display is common to all musical instruments. It’s only aimed at guitarists because that’s what I play and it also helps that guitar is the second most popular musical instrument. The most poplar, piano, would be easy to add. Piano Dashboard anyone?

9 comments:

Ethan Hein said...

Thanks for the kind words! Guitar Dashboard has enormous potential value for people learning guitar and should be a model for how people teach music theory generally. Really excited to see what you come up with next.

Unknown said...

The Fripp NST is CGDAEG, but with that said I'm pumped that it is included

gil ortiz said...

Its great... Thanks.

Jay Flaherty said...

Wow. Just, wow.

Alexander said...

Thanks, I started learning classical guitar and I find the hardest part is not in reading the musical stave which is somewhat intuitive but rather in mapping those notes to their positions on the fretboard.

Hopefully guitar dashboard can help 😊

Anonymous said...

I love guitar dashboard. It would be great if you could somehow make it so it would include any number string guitars like 7 or 8 string guitars, or alternate tunings. That would make it Ultra flexible and much more easier for people exploring those extended range guitar options and the different approach to understanding theory around them. I use this tool everyday with the scalerator tool website. Thanks for creating guitsrdashboard!

Craigers said...

Excellent. Thanks for creating this. Reminds me of Guitar Grimoire which is what I used to learn early on!

Christian Sakai said...

I am a software developer and a guitarist as well. I know how to play within major scale, CAGED system and play by ear generally but still struggling with music theory, especially modes. I love this! Thanks for making it. I'm forking it! Is there any plan for further improvement? I'd like to contribute

Mike Hadlow said...

Hi Christian, thanks for the kind words. Take a look at the issues list on the GitHub repo.