Re: Twelve Tones by Vi Hart

Vi Hart is amazing. She’s a fantastic YouTuber who posts videos playing with or introducing science or math concepts while often drawing with Sharpies in a notebook. She’s creative, intelligent, and great at communicating complex ideas. A lot of what she draws or writes is clever and cute, too. (If you need more incentive!)

The video above is one that sat on my “watch later” list for about a year. I knew since it was Vi Hart that I’d love it, but I just never clicked on it to understand what the title meant and what the video was about. It’s unfortunate I waited so long, because it’s an amazing stream-of-consciousness exploration of creativity, randomness, music, math, and, of course, copyright law! It’s dense with great ideas and visuals that whiz by in favor of the next in this half-hour work.

I had so many thoughts while watching that I had to turn what is normally a simple share on social media to a full-blown blog post. Needless to say, I highly recommend it. Sit down with a drink and have your mind engaged and entertained.

The video covers numerous topics quite rapidly that I’d like to pick out individually.

Randomness and Creativity

Vi Hart plays with concepts of randomness and creativity while trying to recreate lullabies with a new set of rules. (Well, technically the “twelve tone” rules were actually developed a long time ago.) Showing the process of developing variations on classic songs demonstrated the new ways of thinking this ruleset encouraged. She describes creators or even people in conversation being stuck in traditional pathways in their fields or regular subjects and how little games can get them unstuck. Switching nouns or verbs or coming at an idea from a new angle can generate original modes of thinking or solutions.

Restriction breeds creativity, as Mark Rosewater (Magic: The Gathering designer) says. I remember that phrase strongly from back when I read the MTG website and played regularly. When parts of your normal motion or movements are restricted, you’re forced to think in different ways and discover new techniques and territory.

Vi Hart also discusses the mixture of known paths and randomness in the creation of art. Certain foundations are taken for granted and either built upon or toyed with to be novel or new. She describes this process as relating to randomness, of trying different things until it intuitively feels right. It’s about a balance: not thwarting all know tropes and mashing hands on a keyboard, but also not using the same four chords for everything.

Suffice it to say that I’m not doing the topic justice in just this post!


Perhaps I’d forgotten or was simply ignorant, but I had no idea Vi Hart had this musical talent! Her knowledge of theory and ability to improvise puts my school playing of trombone and remedial understanding of the foundations of music to shame. The way she uses theory, though, makes perfect sense. While music and math absolutely have connections, she exploits those to create art and describe her technique.

Your reward for the watching the video to the end is seeing some of her exploration of the intersection of music and math through graphs and pictures.

Relations to Myst

Vi Hart doesn’t mention video games at all in her video, but I’ve had my previous blog post on my mind this weekend where I discuss the impact the 1993 computer adventure/puzzle game Myst had on the medium.

I started to relate her attempt to play music without preconceived notions (avoiding “That sounds like ___!” or “I bet this will resolve like ___.”) to Myst’s design. Particularly, the game gave you hardly any direction at all. It plopped you on a dock and let you walk around. This was markedly different from so many other games encouraging you to run right, shoot upwards at aliens, or arrange falling pieces into rows. It remade what a game could be in our heads. It thwarted norms and expectations and created a new space in video gaming.

That to me seems a high point of art when it expands our understanding of the medium it resides in. The efforts of the twelve tones composers and Vi Hart seem to be similar in forcing a ruleset that prevents old habits from taking hold.

Copyright Law

Oh, and one can’t forget the subtle lambasting of Disney and lamenting of copyright law. Vi Hart wants to play numerous musical pieces that were the inspiration for the video, but they are mostly still under copyright law, even though the composers are relatively unknown by the public and would presumably be quite happy to have their work shared and explored by someone just like her. She draws a mouse with conspicuously black and round ears to represent what she hates about these restrictions.(1)Namely that they are being extended further and further into the future because of the protective Disney of their cherished Mickey Mouse.

Finishing Up

This post had little more to do than share how I related to Vi Hart’s “Twelve Tones” video and encourage people to watch. It’s half an hour, and quite dense, but I promise you’ll catch a drawing or sentence that makes you think about these subjects in a new way.

Which of course is what we all need from time to time.

Notes   [ + ]

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