Inscrutability in Musical Tools

alternate title: the value of being a novice

this idea was spurred as a possibly interesting contrast to the flight hours thread, which talked about the values and processes around fully learning and understanding limited sets of musical tools. I wanted to talk about the value, processes, and psychology behind musical tools that are inscrutable.

it strikes me that many of us seek out intentionally opaque interfaces for musical creation. the grid certainly lives up to that description. Peter Blasser’s instruments are also a clear example. based on discussions I’ve seen on other sites around Mannequins modules included manuals, I would say that many find them fairly unpenetrable. all of these tools are often mystifying at first use, but all of them also have the capacity to become deeply intuitive for creative use, even if total understanding never fully develops.

if this resonates with anyone, I’m curious where this desire comes from for you.

for me, I remember first getting into music production and finding everything, even the very accessible interfaces in Reason, totally baffling. at the time, I had access to my school’s decrepit music studio, which featured a neglected original Serge modular. I slowly began to understand the tools I had at my disposal and to develop my own flow through those tools, but in using that Serge I often couldn’t even tell if it was working or broken, just that sound was (mostly) coming out of it.

somehow this was thrilling.

it seems like the feeling of being truly under water in comprehension but forging ahead anyway can yield very interesting musical results. I wonder if people have perspectives around how they seek this in their process. Also very curious to hear from anyone who makes tools and instruments with this in mind.


I think it appeals as the process is closer to what is generally regarded as play in children’s behaviour. Adults need play too…


In general I tend to most enjoy things that provide layers of complexity and renewed opportunities for discovery, and am more likely to begin losing interest once mastery occurs.

That some instruments, tools, fields of study, careers, games, etc. are rejected by others due a perception of being too complex or unknowable is actually quite delightful to me. That presents an immediate challenge to be patient, dig deeper, overcome my own frustrations, or otherwise do the thing that others aren’t willing to do in order to be involved in something that’s perhaps a bit more unique or difficult than the more popular low-hanging fruit.


I don’t know why all I can come up with are negative posts to this way of thinking. Maybe it’s my personality? I don’t consider myself too orthological and I completely agree that exploration is a huge part of the process (and the fun). Still, I find myself on the opposite camp almost completely.

In any case, I’m very curious to see what other people post as a reply. Ready to have my mind changed about these cryptic instruments. I know their merits already, I just don’t get the whole “let’s keep things veiled” shtick.

I’ve had a discussion when working with a manufacturer (who shall remain nameless) who said he didn’t want to box his customers and have them work in a certain way with his instrument(s). But aren’t you boxing your users by not trusting them to be creative enough without some mambo jumbo or without explaining how things work?

Oh well, here I am being negative. Feel free to ignore, I’m here for the magic.


is the end of this process always to eventually find mastery (followed by lost interest)?

Not always or necessarily. Sure, sometimes I get frustrated and quit something because it was too much for me at the time, or because the correct approach wasn’t obvious, or because life happened. But I almost always return to it at a later date, sometimes years later, and find that I make significant progress more easily.

The repetition of this process, however, regardless of the subject or end result, builds a library of knowledge over time. You learn how to learn. There’s those moments of realization that you’ve accumulated a whole stack of skills and resilience to frustrations without realizing it, briefly breaking the imposter syndrome.

Perhaps something to note, is that as far as I can tell, complex tools don’t necessarily result in superior or more popular works. They also get largely ignored on social media, or rejected by podcasters. Mass audiences these days are often wowed by things that are quickly accessible, things they can most easily relate to - not things they are bewildered by or that make the artist look like a genius. This way lies a mostly internal pursuit.


I’m in the same camp I think. To me it’s similar to another topic that produces never-ending debates in online forums about music production: Music theory and whether or not it is beneficial to learn about it.

My stance on these topics is that more understanding always leads to more agency (I hope that’s the correct word in english?) and that what I want when I create is maximum agency. I don’t want to stumble through the dark and happen upon something interesting randomly, I want to understand my surroundings and be able chose my path and find my way back if necessary. Especially for the latter, I need knowledge about where I am and how I got here.

It is then my responsibility as a musician to not fall into the trap of simply treating my knowledge as “rules” and regurgitating patterns used by those who have come before me, but to think deeper and further to find new ideas.

I think that intentionally not learning music theory or using instruments with cryptic user interfaces are basically ways to avoid that trap by staying ignorant. It works, but I think it’s not the most desirable route to take.


I don’t think that using inexplicit interfaces or designing tools that re-interpret ways to describe or expose aspects to users have to come at the cost of learning.

I agree that explicitly avoiding learning more about a subject you’re interested in and treating it as some sort of virtue isn’t wise, but I think this is good community to talk about the value and attraction to some of these interfaces where substantial technical & musical knowledge already exists.

modular synthesis is an interesting environment for this, because the nature of the medium explicitly breaks out each parameter into individual access points that can be understood at an engineering level, but I’m unsure how useful or necessary that is in the context of music-making.


This can be a sensible counter argument if you are interested in making music that is any way related to (traditional western) music theory. i.e. writing songs with chords and melodies in them.

BUT if you are not interested in that, then learning music theory can have an impact that I wouldn’t say is necessarily negative, but it will certainly frame things in a certain way. As in, thinking about “pitch” in a way that includes “chords” and “melody” in the first place. None of those are prerequisites to music, “music”, or Music.

So in a sense it can act like a conceptual quantization where you end up thinking in the manner of the system you are studying/learning.

As I said, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s also not necessarily a good one either.


So I picked that little music theory nugget as a more general commentary on the idea posted in this thread. In that having a “deep” (again, in the generally western/traditional sense) understanding of an instrument or piece of gear, can be useful…but not always.

More importantly, what does that mean for people who part of their creative process is making new instruments. And by that I don’t mean making a single instrument and mastering it (again, in the traditional sense), but more in that making instrumentS is part of what they do.

Maybe the “deepness” comes from the process of making (or not at all).


On to my own specific relationship with the idea.

I like instruments that have a bit of illegibility, while still having them be somewhat correlated. As in, as much as I love pure randomness, I don’t necessarily like it in an instrument. BUT I do like it when playing an instrument, that I can end up in territories that I not only wasn’t planning, but couldn’t imagine. Some instruments offer this kind of experience, and I appreciate it.

I do try to “get better” at these instruments, but I’m aware that that’s often not really a thing, and that by negotiating a bunch of these instruments, interfaces, and ideas, I can just get better (or not) at THAT thing.


Three words: woodwind fingering chart.

Clearly inscrutability and mastery can coexist. I don’t need to understand the physics in detail that led to the specific arrangement of holes and keys to know how to play the scales.

But even though there is much that is beyond my total comprehension, there are certain facts about a clarinet that I can count on. If I put it on the shelf for years and come back to it, the challenges I’ll face will be familiar ones.

And the depth of those challenges is huge. Compelling enough to make me want to put up with an arrangement of keys that looks as at home in a Star Wars cantina as it does in a high school band class.

But not every flavor of inscrutability is to my taste. I’ve given quite a bit of thought to why I have the preferences I have, but in the end I generally conclude that that’s all they really are, preferences.


Cool to see the flight hours-thread carrying over! In fact, I very much value the opaque and mystery as well.

I suppose it’s a truism that to make something new you need to allow yourself to leave familiar terrain. I often find it more rewarding to get myself lost and then find my way back home. Rather than the other way around.

This is very much in line with Brian Enos concept Control/Surrender, and the idea that we need to switch between these different mindsets. Control being about knowing what you’re doing and Surrender being to allow yourself to get lost, to adapt and react to things outside your control.

This is what makes retuning my guitar to a non-familiar tuning so rewarding. Suddenly I’m a newbie again, everything is by ear and I can’t play any of my usual clichés - the guitar becomes fresh again.


Building on this — what does inscrutable really mean? Is a guitar inscrutable? Is an oboe? They might be if you have no idea how to play one. Same for many forms of written music…

IMO any of these interfaces are learnable through exploration, instruction, and practice. I’d say the same for all the instruments mentioned in the original post. If they are not learnable they becomes inscrutable, but I have yet to encounter one like that.

Now, whether or not the effort to learn them and what they do feels worth it to you as a musician is a different story, one that is very personal.


I feel the same – I want to understand what I’m working with.

Many inexplicit interfaces are just a temporary speed bump on the way to mastery – the example of woodwind fingering is one of those. It seems partially arbitrary and confusing, but once you’ve learned it, there’s no mystery in it.

But on the other hand – I think musical systems tend to have enough complexity that, even knowing full well what everything does individually, putting it all together can lead to unexpected sounds. And by “musical systems” I don’t just mean modular synths, but effects, timbre, harmony, rhythm… pretty much everything about music. There are always surprises and synergistic effects waiting to be found.

I look at something like a Ciat-Lombarde synth and I think “that’s kind of beautiful and neat and mysterious” but I have no desire to actually play one. Especially not after I saw an unofficial manual for the Cocoquantus 2.

When I got a Wogglebug, I put it on a scope and attacked the puzzle for a few hours until I understood a fair amount of what it was doing – and the rest I didn’t really like anyway to be honest :slight_smile: That understanding made it more useful to me.

Recently, thanks to a couple of online articles, I came to a greater understanding of wavefolding, sine shaping and how it relates to phase modulation and FM. I was able to use that to implement a wavefolder for the ER-301 which sounded good enough I sold my analog wavefolder; I figured out how to patch an oscillator of the E370 as a wavefolder; the knowledge inspired a couple of pieces of music and ideas for a few more. I personally want more of that kind of technical understanding. Rather than removing the mystery, I think it increases agency (yeah, that’s a good word for it) and the mystery is in the music itself :slight_smile:

It’s like how knowing that the sun is an enormous ball of hydrogen undergoing fusion that we orbit around, doesn’t ruin a lovely sunset. Ugh that sounds cheesy but I’m making myself late for work :blush:


yes, this is an interesting question. it seems to me that all instruments that employed new interfaces were inscrutable at one point. only learnability and time rendered them as standards.

addressing this in the context of more modern electronic instruments is interesting because more new kinds of instruments and interfaces to those instruments have been created in the last few decades than in the many decades before and the nature of those interfaces have expanded beyond largely applying to controlling pitch to include timbral controls that are sometime far more expansive than pitch controls.


I love the idea of conceptual quantization! It’s related in some way, at least in my head, to Orwell’s idea in 1984 of controlling language and vocabulary in order to control thought… it’s hard to think things for which there are no words…

On this basis I tend to prefer the obscure and oblique to the understood, but also appreciate mastery and depth of engagement over time…

To some degree I suspect that the key to a balanced approach involves finding fresh inspiration not from abandoning familiar instruments or techniques but from opening to other non- or quasi-musical inputs… e.g., somehow translating the experience of a walk in the woods into a new melody…


Example of the opposite would be Elektron. They have a rep for producing some pretty steep machines accompanied by thick manuals explaining every detail.

We do need more beat makers. :grin:

Still, the widely recognized authorities and creators who have chosen alternative methods have a deep understanding of the ‘traditional’. History and rules can be enlightening change agents.

One of the most complicated of the woodwind family. Lower octave fingering not the same as higher octave fingering. Forked fingerings… A worthy adversary!

Very Zen, of course. And not unlike fluent Jazz musicians who routinely report that when they are soloing, they don’t even think about the instrument, just the music they are creating.

I do enjoy deep electronic instruments. But there is something very pure about the simple wooden recorder that is more in tune with my inner, expressive being.



Well, imagine having to deal with a purposefully cryptic Elektron box. Instead of “click twice to edit” it would be “nudge the instrument as many times as necessary to have it do your biding”. Argh!

PS: it’s funny that Clarinet has been mentioned so many times, as it was my go-to horn a decade back. Such a lovely instrument! I never found it that difficult, but maybe it’s because the sound was too captivating to let it go.

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OT: I was a saxophone player to start. When I first picked up the clarinet and oboe, I was struck by the differences in fingerings. Saxophone is simple by comparison.

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It always seemed to me that the inscrutable-ness of the mannequins set, as an example, was rather direct! Especially if you didn’t try to learn how the thing worked through the language. The cryptic manuals are really more like microcosms of the builder’s manifesto towards synthesis and sound. It doesn’t really matter if they describe the operation of the thing so much as express what the intent is. I bought them because the language resonated with me, and I wanted to find out if I could integrate/explore in parallel the same concepts I saw in the descriptions. Idk if it’s happened, but I know my entry point changed because of them.


Actually, if I’m not mistaken, the saxophone was designed with that in mind: the idea was that it could have a single fingering for all registers. It shares the fingering of the middle register of the clarinet (if I recall correctly, it’s been a while).

Back to topic!

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