Have you ever tried to cram five million MIDI notes into a two-minute composition? No, of course not. That would be impossible.
Or would it?
You can thank the wonders of modern processing speed for the Internet’s new weird micro-genre, a YouTube phenomenon known as “Black MIDI." Imagine the bastard love child of Mozart, Steve Vai, and Final Fantasy, or the sound of a million pianos being run through a blender, or a nightmarishly, impossibly difficult game of Dance Dance Revolution being played by aliens on amphetamines. That's what Black MIDI sounds like.
Popularized in the mid-80s for digital music composition, MIDI is a pretty humble computer protocol used for telling electronic musical instruments like synthesizers what notes to play and when. Every producer in the world uses it, and it’s traditionally transcribed on a grid, using dashes laid out to indicate the pitch, volume, duration and the timing of musical notes.
But you can also transcribe MIDI notation into standard sheet music format, and a couple years ago some bedroom producers in Japan started trying to stack as many MIDI "notes" into a score as they could, sometimes clocking up to 100,000 in a single piece. As more and more notes get stacked in insane multi-octave chords, arpeggios, and overclocked melodies, the score literally blackens. Here's one of the earlier examples:
Blackers across the globe, many of them teens and preteens, are embroiled in a ferocious game of one-upsmanship, battling to see how many notes they can cram into a single composition. First it was 100K, then 500K, then a million—now upwards of five million notes are common.
The songs aren't just sheer noise. Many are based on the music from video games and cartoons, thanks to a healthy crossover in interest between blackers, anime heads and gamers. And once young dudes start competing in nerdiness, you know it's going to end up on YouTube. Videos are appearing with mesmerizing patterns of criss-crossing notes representing insane scales flipping back and forth in front of your eyes. Tunes cram in “crash” notes—hyper-stutters where every key on the “piano” is “playing” thousands of times a second. There's so much visual info happening that your computer is likely to choke and sputter unless you’ve spent a couple Gs on a high-end graphics card.
But don't take our word for it:
Of course, we’d understand if this was your reaction:
Tracking down the young note-wizards for an interview has proven difficult, because none of them have official websites with email contacts listed. But they’re all quite active on YouTube, so I was able to contact TheTrustedComputer, aka TTC, one of Black MIDI’s reigning kings and the moderator of The Impossible Music wiki. Though he asked us not to reveal his full name, we do know that the 15-year-old Californian’s leading video has over 1,361,551 views at the time of publication. His wiki is a Black MIDI bible—your source for Black MIDI everything, from leaderboards of tunes ranked by MIDI note count (the currently leader clocks in at 280 billion notes) to links to other Black MIDI champions like TheSuperMarioBros2, Gingeas, and RetroUniversalHT.
Through a series of YouTube messages, comments, and eventually email, TTC answered our burning questions about Black MIDI, taught us the basics for making a Black MIDI tune, and even made us an exclusive cut for the holiday season.
THUMP: What do you think Black MIDI is exactly?
TheTrustedComputer: Black MIDI has been around since 2009. It actually falls under a remix category, rather than [a genre] of electronic music. The term "Black MIDI" was derived from a sheet music being "blacked out" by tons of notes. The MIDI part is MIDI, nothing special about it. I believe all that came from the idea of these "bullet hell" games. [“Bullet hell games” are the visual equivalent of Black MIDI, shooter games with "so many bullets at a time your eyes can't keep up." Check Touhou Project and don’t forget to breathe periodically! –ed.]
How did you get started making Black MIDI?
My first Black MIDI was the opening theme of the anime, Fushigi Yuugi, “For My Loved One.” It only consisted of about 102,916 notes in under a minute and 30 seconds. I was not good at blacking songs at the time and my first black was published somewhere around September of 2012; furthermore, it sounds kind of ugly too because of the notes that take away the melody.
As I practiced blacking songs by making more, I was able to improve my blacking skills a lot. “Dream Battle” and “Love-Colored Master Spark”—yet another one from Touhou Project—are some of the examples of my early Black MIDIs. “Dream Battle” has 200,000 notes, and “Love-Colored Master Spark” has 300,000 notes. Then I messed around with “Necrofantasia” quite a bit and eventually hit a million notes! I was the first one to have a million note MIDI in history.
What advice would you give to someone trying to make Black MIDI songs?
Blacking songs is really complex and cannot be explained in a few sentences. When you do attempt to black a song, make sure the notes maintain the melody, harmony, chords, progressions, and anything music-related. Modify these notes to make the notes even shorter. Frequently, 16th notes and smaller and high note density will be enough for a basic setup for a Black MIDI. If you black a song the wrong way, chances are that you may end up a scary, creepy song, or a garbage mess of notes playing that does not even sound like music.
In fact, MIDI has the ability to have extremely short notes—up to 65,536th notes! Ensure that the notes are quiet enough to make it count as music, if these notes are not supportive to the melody. The "crash" notes which often appear in Black MIDIs shall not be tolerated as literally crashing ones will just be too much and may ruin the piece. Reduce the amount of notes so it can be playable to many computers—those are some basics of blacking some songs. Normally, they are remixes of existing songs on the Internet. You can, if you like, make a whole new song by yourself. Use your time wisely before blacking any songs.
What programs do you used to make these songs?
Mostly educational programs, and some non-educational programs like MIDI players. For example: Synthesia, Piano From Above (an educational program like Synthesia), MIDITrail, vanBasco Karaoke Player, MIDIPlayer (Java program), MAMPlayer, Music Studio Producer, Singer Song Writer, Tom's MIDI Player, TMIDI, and Timidity++.
Archaically, the blackers from 2009 through 2012 only used MAMPlayer, Music Studio Producer, Singer Song Writer, and Timidity++. I would very, very appreciate it if people created programs just for the purpose of Black MIDIs, yet none of them are meant for Black MIDIs at all.
We asked TheTrustedComputer to create a Black MIDI composition for THUMP in the holiday spirit. He came back with no less than six songs all crammed into three and a half minutes! Check it out, and all hail TheTrustedComputer, the reigning king of Black MIDI:
Matt Earp is the DJ and writer Kid Kameleon. He currently lives in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter -@kidkameleon