Friday, June 29, 2012

"Insanity 101: Mozart, Math, and Music"

- David "Skinny Devil" McLean
 Originally published at Insane Guitar

This month’s installment of "Insanity 101" has little to do with shredding; more to do with charging up your creative energy. Let’s take a look at some classic Western masters of music.

There have been many composers who have used formalized systems as tools for composing. They range from serious and often complex methodologies (Schoenberg, Cage, etc.) to little games that toy with numbers or letters (Bach, Mozart, Stadler, etc.). One game I’d like to talk about today is one attributed to Mozart.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) was a jolly fellow and had a certain fondness for not only gambling and drinking, but for (musically) playing with names and numbers and math puzzles. One such game (perhaps not really invented by Mozart, but one he certainly would have enjoyed), published in 1792, was called "Musikalisches W├╝rfelspiel" (Musical Dice Game). The specifics of this game (like Kimberger’s "The Ever-ready Composer of Polonaises and Minuets", published some 30-odd years earlier) can get a bit tedious to describe, so we’ll play a dumbed-down version of it here.

First, we’ll use our system not for composing entire pieces of music, but just for little 16 bar exercises. Whether these exercises will focus on blazing scales, shred-fest arpeggios, or simple melodies is up to you. We’ll break each section up into 1-bar "themes" (a melody, scale fragment, or arpeggio) and go from there.

Next, you need to compose and write out simple 1-bar themes….try 6 of them to start. Now assign a number to each one. Then you’ll need to get one standard 6-sided die (that is singular for dice, right?).

The game is simple: Roll the die and jot down the number. Do this 16 times. Now, say your sequence is "1, 6, 3, 4, 2, 5, 2, 4, 6, 1, 3, 1, 5, 1, 4, 2" – you simply play each theme (smoothly and without hesitation) in the assigned order.

When you get comfortable with this one, try using 2 dice and 12 themes.

In later installments of "Insanity 101", we’ll discuss other games (like Bach’s Tone Painting and another game of Mozart’s, often called "Musical Game in C"), but for now, immerse yourself in this game and see where it takes you.

See you next time!


  1. The one-die version will give a random mix of your 6 themes, but a two-dice version will be weighted toward themes 6, 7 and 8 and away from 2,3,11 and 12. Theme 1 will never turn up at all!