To write music in any capacity is an act of turning yourself inside out. (If you’re not a musician of any kind, bear with me.) It’s synthesization, alchemy, a wringing of the brain. I write music sometimes, and it often feels like a blind swipe toward anything to bring intangible ideas into a physical form. Coming up with ideas is often the easy part. I can picture orchestral hits and trumpet lines all day long. I can hear them in my mind’s ear, but the problem lies in pulling these ideas out of the brain and throwing them on paper.
Let’s say you want to compose a string quartet about the sadness of losing a friend. How do you begin? Some basic first decisions are that of finding a good tempo and a good key. A tempo is a choice of number, a speed for the beats to march at and for the rhythms to operate within. A key signature is a choice of one of a finite set of sharps or flats, designating which notes can be bumped down a half step and which you’ll bump up a half step.
Minor keys tend to be associated with sad songs, so maybe you choose something like B minor and pair it with a slow 52 beats per minute. We can give the lower registers of the cello and viola’s long, droning notes. Give cello the B, and give the viola D and an occasional C♯. If the second violin plays an F♯, that would round off the full B minor chord, and the first violin could cry a softly lilting melody above. Make the chord stretch like taffy, make the melody dance slowly through the scale, and simple as that, you have a sad song.
But do you really?
What if I told you that slow songs in a minor key don’t always have to be connected with feelings of sadness? Or that you don’t even need to choose a tempo for a song if you don’t want to? Or that notes that lie in spaces between two piano keys can be used? There are widely accepted and used conventions for music, almost like figures of speech that can be utilized to easily convey different messages. But music is so much more than its western conventions, the formulas European white men declared most pleasing to the ear.
The best musicians are those who oscillate between the rules and the rebellion with ease, using conventions when they suit the music but remaining unfettered by going off-grid. Jacob Collier is an artist and musician who often writes unconventional-sounding music, to say the least. I once heard him say his favorite polyrhythm is two against three against four against five against six, demonstrating it by tapping his fingers on a table. There’s no doubt that he’s a music theory genius, but part of music theory is studying the rules and patterns that music tends to follow.
The brilliance of Jacob Collier in particular is the way he knows the theory like the back of his hand and then challenges it. When I started to learn some theory, the prevailing idea when it came to writing was “you learn the rules to break the rules.” Theory is a tool, but what would a toolbox be if there was only one hammer in it?
Let’s examine a small musical rebellion in action through one of Jacob Collier’s songs. Collier makes his music in the digital audio workstation (DAW) Logic Pro, which is a program for music making designed for Mac computers. For many of his songs, he’s organized livestreams during which he picks apart every individual vocal and instrumental layer and explains the thought processes and methods behind them. In a “Logic Session Breakdown” of his single “Time Alone with You” with Daniel Caesar, he takes a moment to explain what the quantizing tool is and how it affects his music.
The song’s groove is quite swingy and doesn’t exactly align with the beats of the tempo he chose. The quantize button in Logic Pro, when pressed, snaps every hit of the drums to the nearest linear beat. As he clicks the button on and off, playing the rhythm both ways, he highlights the difference of feeling between the two versions. He wouldn’t “get jiggy” to the quantized version, but the space an uncommon snare landing creates can open up new groove possibilities. “Time Alone with You” wouldn’t exist in its current dynamic form if the groove weren’t actively railing against the traditional beat.
On a larger scale, jazz music as we know it today might not exist if musicians didn’t start playing with the idea of swinging rhythms. Breaking conventions makes music progress to new heights, to places we didn’t know we could go.
Disregarding the rules of 18th-century counterpoint is not a new idea by any means. But, Jacob Collier completely changed the way I thought about theory rule-breaking and life in general with one of the metaphors he’s used to criticize music software such as Logic Pro. In the same Logic Session Breakdown video, Collier says:
“Grids are not the same as humans. Humans are some of the least grid based creatures in the world, in the universe … I think it’s about time for music software to stop being grid based. It’s one of my, like, real passions, is to get the grid out of people’s psychologies, because the moment we start thinking in grids, then everything becomes grids.”
A grid, in the simplest of forms, is a pattern of evenly spaced and perfectly perpendicular lines spanning a two dimensional plane, much like graph paper. A mathematician might use grids to create graphs with utmost accuracy, using the carefully blocked out dividers as a tool for eliminating mistakes.
An artist can use the “grid method” as a technique to draw a visual reference as precisely as possible. Instead of taking in the whole image at once, you mentally focus on replicating one square at a time, and the result comes out looking more real than if it was eyeballed from the start.
The grid of musicians is the series of musical staves that make up sheet music. Or in Jacob Collier’s case, the digital audio workstation.
These examples are what I’d call the “kneejerk visualization” of a grid. They’re literal manifestations of the dictionary definition for “grid,” lines that “are parallel to or cross each other.” However, the definition can be expanded in a way that wraps around infinitely more ideas.
The main goal of a grid is to divide. The way it achieves division is through repeating patterns. So, I like to think of a grid as being any pattern or structure that uses its various categories and groupings in service of division. A clock. Political parties. An ordered recipe. Assembly lines. Country borders. Multiplication tables. The five paragraph essay. A nine-to-five job. The scientific method. Instagram. Systems of government. Systems of education. Gender roles. Gender labels. And graph paper.
But, just like a clock can only divide time into equal hours if there is first a conscious feeling of ever-unfolding existence, so can a grid only be a grid if there’s something to divide. Because of this, I would claim it’s not possible for everything to be classified as a grid. Not everything in this world can or should be divisible.
If a grid’s job is to be a pattern for division, then a non-grid is a dynamic, transforming whole that can allow for infinite potential and fluidity. The non-grids of the world are my favorite. In a dimly lit jazz club filled with the electricity of the current moment and nothing else, a singer with a pixie cut and a lavish red velvet jumpsuit improvises a solo that makes everyone in the room believe in magic for at least one night.
Entropy, the constant and reliable motion toward chaos. A fallen tree eventually caking apart and rejoining the earth it once sprang from. Empathy, the great comfort of knowing someone else sees and understands and feels your joy, your pain, your disappointment, your frustration. Giving knowledge to someone who needs it. A glance becoming a smile becoming a conversation becoming a friendship becoming love. A tightly constricted and vibrantly violet wavelength of light bobbing, weaving, sailing, relaxing, until it meanders through blue and green, takes another breath as it descends to sour lime and buttery yellow, relaxes into orange and finally settles into a sluggishly raging red.
I see these nebulous non-grids as dynamic spectrums, or expanses. Grief, love, emotion, personality, volcanoes, communication, wandering, spectrums of sexuality, spectrums of neurodivergency, irrational numbers, opinions, neural pathways, language and time. These transform and bend in ways that can’t ever be truly static or patterned or divided in two.
So why does it feel so natural for us to force these nebulae into patterns of separation?
Let’s take personality, for example. True inner personalities aren’t predictable or replicable. Sometimes people can get close to mimicry, like when actors play real people in biopics, but resemblance on the outside is not the same as representation of the inside. Even if you’ve known and loved someone your entire life, there is always the possibility of being surprised by them. Personality is definitively nebulous, “unpindownable.”
And somehow, many systems have been devised to sort personalities into discrete categories, such as: the Myers–Briggs system, the Enneagram system and astrology. And this is discounting countless online quizzes made to reveal which Marvel superhero you are or which teen drama you belong in.
Personality tests are fun, but the very existence of the Myers–Briggs, Enneagram and the like implies that there are a finite number of human experiences that can be explained in a few paragraphs of information. This is a gross miscalculation. People want to know who they are so bad that they’ll let a preconceived grid tell them.
I’m no exception. I’m an INFP, a 9w1 and a Libra (Taurus rising). I read about them every once in a while, just to see how right they are, but I hope no one relegates me to just the qualities of those categories. Personalities can be systematically divided, just like music. But should they? If you fully trust and believe in your horoscope and personality type, doesn’t it take away some of everyone’s agency?
Another example of conflicting spectrum-grid paradoxes: The act of learning is a spectrum, something that can take form in an endless number of ways, but education is a grid. Today’s method of separating subjects into isolated blocks and having teenagers periodically walk between classes was designed decades ago with the intention of getting every adolescent to the same end result. Even though the understanding of how kids tend to learn best has changed, this factory-like slog of a school day still remains the standard. The biggest problem is, it caters toward only one type of learning, and it attempts only to strengthen the same skills in every individual.
Kids in middle and high school all across the country wake up early in the morning, get to school at the same time every day, and cycle through the monotony of first hour chemistry to second-hour English to third-hour history, maybe fourth-hour orchestra if they’re lucky, and on and on for weeks straight. There’s little time outside this strict schedule for anything other than school. Then, factor in the difference in learning needs for every individual student, and for some, you have a recipe for failure. Schools often don’t take spectrums of neurodivergence and disability into consideration, adding yet another level of deficiency for kids who could learn well if they were supported in the right ways.
Standardized, multiple-choice testing ensures memorization rather than real understanding, so the students who can succeed in this environment might not glean the long term knowledge teachers hope for. And there, there’s the key. Teachers hope for kids to learn what they need to be a functioning member of society, but the students themselves would rather be anywhere else. Someone who doesn’t want to learn, to put it simply, won’t.
There’s a common analogy used for understanding how America’s public schools teach kids with varying backgrounds and needs. If the standardized schooling system is a circular shaped hole, then only round pegs could fit comfortably and successfully through that hole. A square peg, or a triangle peg, or an oval peg could try to jam itself through the circular hole all it wants, but it would take some severe contorting for any of these shapes to squeeze to the other side. The education grid simply doesn’t work for everyone, making students suffer as a result.
Gender and sexuality are also spectrums of human experience, but labels are grids. This makes identity an interesting case when it comes to grids. There are so many labels to cover a wide range of gender identities and sexual orientations. In many of these cases, multiple labels exist on a spectrum. To publicly label something like identity is almost like stamping yourself with the average experiences of every other person who identifies with that same label. While they might often be confining and inaccurate, labels can nonetheless be incredibly helpful for self discovery.
The grid of labels and the spectrum of identities currently coexist. For example, demisexual — classifying those who feel sexual attraction only when they develop a deep emotional connection with their partner — is a label on the asexual (ace) spectrum. But, the spectrum it sits on allows for variation between the many ace labels. It’s interesting how the LGBTQIA+ movement rebels against and dismantles one grid — heterosexism/the gender binary — by simultaneously fighting for the creation of a larger, more inclusive grid. I use labels to understand myself more fully, and a framework for understanding can be a huge relief. Some people find relief in the absence of a label, and that’s perfectly valid. Ultimately, it’s up to the individuals who come across this grid whether or not to use it.
Perhaps the best, most productive grids we have in the world are the ones people can opt out of if they so choose, the ones in which participation isn’t mandatory.
As the societal grid around LGBTIA+ currently stands, there’s a considerable population of people who refuse to reshape the grid they view the world through. They condemn those who wish to move the world in a direction where everyone can be who they are and have equitable opportunity to do so. This is when grid-like ways of thinking begin to feed into the “othering” of people who “don’t fit the norm,” who are trying to live beyond the confines of an oppressive grid. Homophobia is a grid. Racism is a grid. Xenophobia is a grid. White supremacy is a grid. These are some of the worst man-made grids of all, the systems of racism and hate, the patterns of division that are used to oppress, and they often feel inescapable.
Humanity is a spectrum of differences that converse and collide in messily beautiful ways, and othering is a corrosive and destructive grid. Grids can cause such a magnitude of pain that the only rational course of action is to get rid of them entirely.
Prominent sci-fi author Octavia E. Butler once did an interview in which she touched on the othering that often appears in sci-fi, stating that “human beings unfortunately spend enormous amounts of time playing dominance games. When they don’t have race, they divide themselves in other ways.”
This sentiment paints a bleak picture of human nature, one that’s grid-based and difficult to deviate from.
Difficult, but not impossible.
We need to recognize grids when we see them, rejecting them when they start to hurt not only ourselves, but the people around us.
The first step is becoming aware of the grids that affect our daily lives. Once we can see the grid for what it is, point at it and give it its name, we must decide if it causes more harm than good.
Some of these grids are not like the others. I see schools jamming star pegs into round holes, succeeding with some but tragically failing with others. I point to standardized testing, to narrow styles of teaching, to the separation of subjects into isolated and unrelated blocks of time. I zero my gaze in on the systemic racism in this country, point my finger at legislation, at police departments, at the foundations of the U.S. I name them culprits, purveyors, unequalizers. And now I know the next grids that must be dismantled.
If Jacob Collier is to be believed in that “humans are some of the least grid-based creatures in the world,” then we should start acting on it. Anything less would be an offense to the complexity of humanity and the possibilities that each of our nebulae create. It would be a disservice to you, in all your wonderful plasticity and potential.
Get the grid out of your psychology, as much as you can.
Statement Correspondent Danielle Canan can be reached at email@example.com.