Usually, when you start learning music, you begin by playing a simple song. You learn the notes one by one, you practice them in the same order until what you’re playing begins to feel like music, and then you gradually build up to playing more and more difficult songs.
But with Shapes, you don’t start by playing a song. Instead, you start by playing along with songs.
And not just with one song, but with lots of songs. An endless playlist of songs.
And not just with songs, but with songs that have music videos.
This is because the Shapes Playlist is meant to represent an idea that’s impossible to capture: the musical world around us. The music that we listen to every day, sometimes without even knowing it. The music that forms our musical intuitions.
Of course this idea will be different for everyone, depending on where you live, the styles of music you most like to listen to, where you buy your groceries, and so on. But everyone’s collection of musical experiences also have some things in common. We all come across music we don’t know, and even music we don’t like. We come across music we do know, and do like. We listen to songs in particular moments and attach memories to them. We recognize nuances in songs that feel familiar but that we can’t quite explain. We identify with certain artists, and not with others.
In short, the music around us—and especially the music that’s come out closest to the current moment we’re living in—is absolutely saturated with meaning. The most subtle detail might remind us of another song, or of a style, or a feeling, or a friend. And when you add the music video, the world of the song grows even richer. The setting, the lighting, the colors, a certain brand of clothing, a car, the rhythm of how the video is edited, a hairdo… all of these things also become a part of the song, and of your associations with the song.
And so the playlist of music videos represents two ideas that are central to Shapes. First, that the musical world around us is unimaginably vast, rich, and meaningful. Like the world at large, it’s something we can contemplate, but that we couldn’t possibly capture or recreate, or ever fully understand. And second, because we’re so deeply connected to this world, it is the context for everything we can understand. When you listen to an unfamiliar piece of music, or encounter a new musical idea, you bring the fullness of this context to that experience, and to that understanding. You are hardly starting from the beginning.
The music in the playlist is a mixture of styles, genres, and levels of popularity, but all have percolated in one way or another to the surface, to the most visible and audible layer of our collective culture. These songs fit together into the broad category of “current music,” which has an extraordinary ability to absorb traces of all the music that has come before it.
But its most significant quality is that it is infinite and pre-categorical, because it represents right now. When you pair this endless playlist of songs with a shape, you give yourself a way to begin interacting rationally and intentionally with something infinite. You begin to play with all of those intuitions and associations, and your playing becomes a way of listening.
This works, in part, because a shape is an attempt to find some particular quality that generalizes across all of the songs in the playlist. Pitch is a useful musical domain in this respect, because it’s something you can recognize in a song, bring into your own voice, and then recognize in another song. This is not so broadly the case for, say, the sound of an instrument, or the qualities of a musical style. Pitch is very abstract when you start to think about it—where exactly does this quality exist, if you can find it in so many songs, and also in your own voice?
Pitch context is a similar kind of idea. Not only do you recognize pitches in a song, but you can feel that certain pitches fit together, and you can recognize this quality intuitively across endless songs. In fact, the complete collection of pitches you recognize doesn’t necessarily have to occur in any individual song, but it is nonetheless implicitly present in the song, it floats up out of the song, and out of a lot of other songs, and gives you a way to relate all those songs to one another.
An idea that generalizes in this way, like a shape, is very useful, because it gives us a way into all the infinite other domains of music. But the real focus is on the infinite, saturated, pre-categorical whole. This is what a playlist of music videos is meant to represent. The whole is absorbed into any musical concept, like a shape, that is able to draw you more deeply into your musical world, to give you a different way to play around inside of it, and to begin noticing new things.
The moment our musical concepts no longer feel like they have this kind of relationship with the world around us, it will be because our current music is inviting us, or perhaps even urging us to reconsider the design of our concepts.