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Playing the Numbers

Can random numbers make a song?

Lately there have been a lot of ruts in my playing so you may have noticed a pattern (pun intended) in these past few articles on rut-busting. Here is another fun way to not only break out of your typical playing style, but to brush up on sight reading and theory -- all in one simple exercise.

The idea behind “playing the numbers” is to throw out a bunch of random numbers that correspond to intervals in a scale, then assemble them and play them back on the guitar. For simplicity’s sake, we''ll use C major as an example. The number 1 would equal a C, 2=D, 3=E, and so on. If you go past 7, you’re obviously in the next octave (i.e. 9=D2) and it moves on from there. By using the random number generator at you will be able to input the amount of integers you’d like to generate, and the value of the integers (for instance, 1-21 for a 3-octave scale). Once you have the numbers generated, choose a key and map out the notes on the fingerboard. I instantly found it rewarding to have intervallic and octave jumps in the pattern that I’d never have created on my own. The best part about it is it ends up being musical most of the time because you are using the notes of one particular scale.

Here’s an example of a simple, one-octave generation with ten notes: 7, 1, 6, 4, 1, 6, 4, 1, 1, 7. In the key of C, that translates to B, C, A, F, C, A, F, C, C, B. It’s pretty clear how this works out as you get more involved with numbers that bring you into the multi-octave range. In fact it can become downright difficult to jump between them and it lends to opening your mind and finding notes in places on the fingerboard that you probably would never go to using “pattern” logic.

Check out some of the various samples of these different lines with multiple octaves. If you’re feeling extra crazy you can generate another set of numbers to determine the rhythm of the pattern. Since the random integer generator doesn’t do exclusions of integers you’ll have to be creative in what the rhythmic note values are assigned as. I preferred to just use a simple 1=whole, 2=half, 3=quarter, etc. Making up a chart allows for easy translation of the notes. Taking things a step further to reacquaint yourself with notation (come on, you know you’re reading tabs WAY too much!), you can write out the notes on paper or enter them in a sequencer to hear them playback and learn them.

I generated a 25 number sequence, which you can hear in this clip. Rather than using multiple octaves I kept it simple and in one octave register (7 numbers), then rearranged the octaves to taste. It became a pretty haunting and expressive melody that I played over a basic A minor chord using Spectrasonic’s Atmosphere, which is a soft synth plug-in for Pro Tools.

Download playing_numbers.mp3

The possibilities of playing the numbers are endless. Next time you find yourself in a rut this might just be the trick to dig yourself out of the hole. Heck, if you like the way the pattern sounds maybe you could enter them in the lottery and win big!

Good luck and I’ll see you next month.