Vuvuzilla: The Science of a Musical Monstrosity

In the midst of the chaos, mania and staggering bolshiness of the World Cup is an instrument that is chaotic, manic and bolshy.  The marmite of the horn family, the dreaded vuvuzela.

The vuvuzela (I prefer vuvuzilla), let’s face it, is a monstrous instrument.  And those that say they like it, are actually enjoying the effect it induces in others rather than loving its intrinsic sound.

Why does it sound so horrendous? Well firstly, it is loud, a staggering 120dB(A) at the bell-end. Can you imagine having to stand right in front of that bell-end, while someone is blowing it hard? That big bell-end? The horn of the bell-end is really impressive! Blowing a big impressive bell-end. Can you imagine? Bell-end.

But a trumpet is equally loud, but does not elicit such an eargag reflex, so what’s the problem?

Firstly, it produces only one note with any consistency, a B-flat (Bb3 just below middle-C on the piano, around 233Hz). Technically, monotonous.  However there is a microtonal wobble on this note so that it actually wavers around 210-240Hz range, Actually I’ve heard, presumably in the mouth of a particularly exuberant bell-end, the pitch drop up to a perfect 4th below. (See figure 1)

Figure 1. A particularly pissy vivuzela caught fucking around the 233Hz mark.
Note its untrustworthy slow glides and sudden pitch disruptions. Bastard.

This, en-masse, contributes to the siren-like, ominous swarming drone, however the fluctuating pitch is not where the irritation lies.The big problem, my bell-end blowing friend, is the overtones.

What are overtones? Well… every sound is actually made up of not just a fundamental pitch but a series of higher pitches called overtones, that make up its particular tonal character, or timbre. (The only sound with only a fundamental with no overtones is the sine wave, that pure test-tone sound, to which a tuning fork comes close to emulating)

Some overtones are harmonic, they exist at regular frequency intervals to the fundamental. Like 2/1, 3/2. 4/1, 5/2 etc. These make up ‘musical’ intervals above the fundamental pitch like octaves, fifths, major 3rds and so on. Musical instruments that are pitched tend to possess mainly harmonic overtones.

Overtones that have no simple relationship to the fundamental are non-harmonic and contribute to a noisy timbre. A crash cymbal for example, has a smear of close intervals heading up to the top of our hearing range. The most non-harmonic, or noisiest sound is white noise, which is like a random waveform containing all overtones at random amplitudes. Think the sound of constant static, or in nature, a noisy seashore.

Actually musical instruments contain a complex, dynamic combination of overtones. A piano for example has a smattering of non-harmonic overtones at the initial ‘click’ but quickly settles into a regular harmonic pattern. A violin has beautifully regular overtones heading up into the stratosphere, mixed with a bunch of crazily chaotic non-harmonic high overtones.

The vuvuzela, however is an odd frog. It has a simple and regular pattern of overtones but they don’t match harmonic overtones.  So it masquerades as a ‘musical’ instrument but is actually noisy, without the decency of being part of the percussion family (a highly respected family, incidentally, despite you know, the rumours) So what you get is the impression of musicality but the effect of irritation. (Figure 2) It’s like false advertising. We are trained to expect a musical timbre when you hear regular intervals but we get is the death-knell rasp of 10,000 kazoos in a giant blender.

Figure 2. Look at those sneaky regular intervals, pretending to be harmonic.
Bloody Charlatans. And look how fucking high they go.

So what good is the vuvuzela other than giving a clear “Hey look at me blowing my bell-end!” message. Can it be used musically?  Well I leave you with some half-hearted attempts to depict a parallel musical universe where the vuvuzela holds equal esteem to the violin, piano, cello, trumpet and human voice. Enjoy.

So in a ballad, perhaps? (Led Vuvuzeppelin)

Or more dramatically: (Vu-thoussand-and-one)

Alas, I have found but one place where it really works. (Voot’s Theme)

Any requests?


Deux Points! How to write the perfectly average Eurovision song.

The dust, and glitter, have settled on the saccharin post-ironic campfest that is Eurovision.

I’ve witnessed the spectacle a number of years, find it quite enjoyable, and admire some of the songs and flamboyance. However there is this amazing middle-ground of songs between the quite good and deliciously terrible.  A luke-warm competence of song that is just utterly ok, which I find fascinating. How, and why do these songs jump all the hurdles to make it to the final?  The answer? They are perfectly accessible and completely musically unchallenging. Not bad at all, not good at all, not anything at all.

Would you like to write one of these super-mega-normal bet-hedging epic mediocrities?

Here are the rules:

1)     Sing in barely discernible English. Everyone loves English right? No need to alienate people with your mother tongue. Pronounce words phonetically so any semblance of sincerity is removed.

2)     Make the lyrics perfectly intelligible but mean nothing. Essential words: Love, heart, sing, dance, night, hear, feel, eyes, look, boy, girl, kiss, forever, one, last, day.

The actual ordering of the words is unimportant, just so long as the basic sentence structure is superficially correct. Repeat one word a little too much, and use rhetorical or nonsensical questions, like an online translation of a teenager’s facebook status.

Thus:

“Look into my eyes, Do you hear them cry? Do you see my heart sing?

Listen to my heart, can you feel my love? Do you hear my heart sing?

Is it just one night?  Don’t you hold me tight? Can you feel my loving?

You are just a boy, I am just a girl, don’t you know I’m loving?”

When the lyrics run out, las, dums and doos may be substituted freely.

3)     Include a veneer of ‘world music’ (relationship to your country not essential) This means percussion, flamenco rasgueados, mandolins, bodrum or washboard etc. AT NO TIME should the presence of these instruments infuse the music with any authenticity.

4)     When it comes to the rhythm think BLAND.  4/4 is essential and a tempo comfortably between 105 and 135bpm. Despite the presence of ‘ethnicity’ (see 3), rhythmic patterns should stay resolutely unfunky and must be underpinned with a 4-on-the-floor techno kick drum just in case there are any remaining species still unaware of where the beat is.

5)     Structurally, make the chorus indistinguishable from the verse (ie equally meh), and the verse not really different to the intro. Any solos should repeat the melody like you are bludgeoning the listener over the head with your simple melody, forcibly crushing a neural imprint into their auditory cortices. An intro or middle section or outro with a pad, piano & strings and the same melody is also advisable.

6)     The scale.  You have some choices here, but the safest, and thus recommended, is the natural minor or Aeolian scale. (C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C) This has the advantage of having the veneer of sophistication but also being completely accessible. There are no awkward augmented 2nds, no characteristically quirky modal notes, and a tonic bass-line is all that’s needed. The pinnacle of excitement is the minor 6th which should only be used with epic showmanship and harmonic support.

7) The melody should be very, very short and memorable like the pain of a recently stubbed toe.  Here’s the trick. Short phrase, repeat short phrase and then short phrase again ending slightly differently. Add your lyrics and you’re done. Thus:


Note: very little syncopation, and no chromatic notes. The ‘hook’ starts and ends on the root so as not to disorientate the listener. The 3rd dramatic phrase starts on the root but ends of the 5th which is about as obvious as you can be in the absence of a sledgehammer. Avoid any temptation to harmonize the melody with your clever elitist chords. The I, IV & V, (even over a tonic pedal is all they need), anything else is showing off. Notice also how the V chord avoids any complications with the B-natural, this isn’t bloody music college.

8)     Despite the presence of our ‘ethnic’ elements, instrumentation & vibe must remain early 90s Eurotechno. Start with an ethereal pad as the singer is in the illuminated windtunnel then let rip with a Vaseline-in-the ear techno beat. Don’t leave anything to the listener’s imagination. Give every beat and repeat the melody a lot. When you think you’ve done it too much, do it again, or 2/3 into the tune modulate up a minor 3rd, but that’s only if you think you might win.Put melodies in parallel octaves and fifths, use harmonies sparingly and with deep suspicion. Your mantra should be dramatic nothing.

So following these basic rules, after 86mins of production, we reach the following results, it’s just a 2 minute blast, but that’s all you need and want.

Note the incongruous and tasteless blend of off-the-shelf 3-layer techno, derivative ‘Bulgarian’ rhythm, excruciating rap, soft-metal, crudely auto-tuned out of tune singing and Turkish Oud. A real mullet, committee camel a Frankenstein monster of a track. And yet I think you’ll agree Listen to My Heart(Just One Night) (by Lårs & Marise) stands a good chance of making it past the semi-finals, and even scraping a few points in the final. It is perfectly okay.

Et voilá! Deux Points!

All content ©2010 Milton Mermikides shhh…


Welcome To The Real World

Just returned from 4 days at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios.

Wow, what a place!  High-end technology and a Pavlovian saliva-inducing stash of microphones & gear.

All that would you expect from a good studio, what makes Real World a uniquely wonderful residential studio is the great effort made to make the artists feel relaxed with wonderful surroundings.  The studios are perfectly sound proofed yet awash with natural light. Cast your gaze up from the mixing desk and you are treated with a delightful view of a bridge over a stream amidst gorgeous English countryside.  Stroll through the picturesque Wilstshire grounds, coffee in hand between takes. Or why not, mid-recording, gaze at a running stream through the glass floor of the studio.  A team of helpful people or on hand to keep you in excellent home-cooked food & endless hot beverage. The ideal place to work.

So what did the precocious Peter Gregson and I achieved in those 4 short days?  A superb recording of Steve Reich’s 2003 work ‘Cello Counterpoint’ for 8 cellos. What a pieces:  labyrinthine rhythmic ideas, stunning ensemble interplay & a deep jzz-influenced harmonic language.  Our production really is something special. But we earned it, 4 looong days of intense work, We go back to mix in the next few weeks, (together with some original compositions) and look forward to sharing the album with the world.

Now for some unedited sleep.


The MiltCentral (alternative) Christmas Single

Filming on the MiltCentral (alternative) Christmas Single is happening today – and everyone is invited to join in the video! The documentary film crew will be there to capture the action, and the video will accompany the song on its launch on MiltCentral.com.

So come and join Milton and the gang at Bond Street from 10.00 to 12.00, and help us make Milton’s song the most popular download this Christmas! (If you need help finding everyone, call me on 07830 287737 and I’ll try to point you in the right direction!)

The MiltCentral (alternative) Christmas Single is being written and produced by Milton to prove that love spreads faster than leukaemia – we want to get it heard as many times as possible, all around the world. The aim is to eventually beat Milton’s original leukaemia cell count (344,000) when he was diagnosed!

Milton’s Christmas Party and New Year’s Concert..
The whole world is cordially invited to join Milton on Christmas Day for a packed day of live chats, webcams, music and much more from MiltCentral HQ. Don’t miss it! And on New Year’s Day, Milton will be hosting a live concert from his room.. watch this space for more info!

– Matt J