The Opposite of Brain Candy—Decoding Black MIDI
“Black MIDI” refers to the moments in a piece where the notes, if displayed on a traditional two-stave piano score, are so dense that there appears to be just a mass of black noteheads. The increased density of notes also affects the computer, which is sometimes unable to process all of the notes within a particularly complex section. The goal of Black MIDI is to approach this processing failure without actually crossing that line.
Niche music genres are nothing new. They existed before hipsters, before Stravinsky, and before Mozart. However, in the last two decades there has been a blossoming of niche music genres, made possible by technological advancements such as personal computers and Digital Audio Workstations as well as decreasing costs to build home studios and widespread use of the internet. As more and more people are creating music, they are subjugated less and less to the genre-defining artists of the status quo. The result is the emergence of countless niche genres, each with its own unique following.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating niche genres to recently surface is Black MIDI. Created by self-proclaimed “blackers,” Black MIDI exists almost exclusively on YouTube in the English-speaking world, with total video views numbering in the millions while total subscribers for teams (groups of blackers who collaborate on Black MIDI tracks) remain less than 50,000. Black MIDI is presented on YouTube as a video recording of a MIDI file containing millions of individual notes played back through a sequencer.
The term “Black MIDI” refers to the moments in a piece where the notes, if displayed on a traditional two-stave piano score, are so dense that there appears to be just a mass of black noteheads. The increased density of notes also affects the computer, which is sometimes unable to process all of the notes within a particularly complex section. The goal of Black MIDI is to approach this processing failure without actually crossing that line. “We try to make it insane—but not too insane,” says Jason Nguyen, the person behind the major Black MIDI distribution YouTube channel Gingeas.
The origin of Black MIDI can be traced back to Japan in 2009 when the first blacker, Shirasagi Yukki @ Kuro Yuki Gohan, created the first black MIDI and uploaded it to the Japanese video site Nico Nico Douga. The piece is based on U.N. Owen Was Her?, the theme song from the extra boss level in the Touhou Project, a vertically scrolling Japanese shooter video game. The use of Japanese video game music has since remained iconic to Black MIDI.
For the next couple of years, Black MIDI spilled over from Japan into China and Korea, where it continued to grow. It was not until 2011 that the genre took off in the West, the first major hit being this upload by YouTube user Kakakakaito1998. Typical of Black MIDI’s early style, the video features a traditionally notated two-stave piano score rather than a MIDI piano scroll alone.
Blackers also began pushing the limits of their art, adding more notes (numbering in the millions) and making the visual presentation as important as the sonic presentation. Black MIDI became a marriage of visuals and sound, a cascade of colors and patterns paired with an ordered complexity of notes. While the popular songs of choice remained music from Japanese video games, blackers also started making black MIDIs based on recent pop songs.
“My videos are edited for no lag,” says Nguyen. “They aren’t real-time: I record the MIDI program slowed down, and then speed it up in a video editor.” This technique takes less of a toll on computer processing power and RAM.
In addition to software and visual changes in Black MIDI in the West, English-speaking blackers established their own team, BMT (Black MIDI Team). Teams, including BMT, consist of a number of blackers who serve various roles, from blackening songs to creating the videos and hosting them on YouTube. This collaboration creates a virtual production and distribution chain that ensures blackers get their work out to as many people as possible through several main YouTube accounts—including Gingeas—while also being credited for their work. Additionally, while BMT is separate from the other major teams that exist in China and Korea, they frequently collaborate with each other on videos and MIDI tracks.
The lack of a major Japanese team brings up an interesting observation: Black MIDI has since disappeared from Japan where it originated. According to Nguyen, Japanese blackers “are analogous to those TV shows where there’s a mysterious founder of a civilization that is not really known throughout the course of the show.” The Japanese blackers have now assumed this role of a silent creator. Although the forebears of Black MIDI are long gone, the Black MIDI community has spread around the globe and is thriving.
One can’t help but draw comparisons between Black MIDI and Conlon Nancarrow’s studies for player piano. Both Nancarrow and blackers have tested the possibilities of note density in their pieces, creating astounding polyrhythms and textures in the process. In addition, the method of note entry is essentially the same between the two. However, Nancarrow’s medium was acoustic while the blackers’ is digital. In some regards, black MIDI could be construed as the 21st century’s response to Nancarrow.
Despite this apparent connection to Nancarrow, the Guide to Black MIDI claims it does not exist and that Black MIDI was an independent evolution: “We believe that references to Conlon Nancarrow and piano rolls are too deep and black midi origins must be found in digital MIDI music world” [sic]. Notwithstanding the blackers’ contentions, there are obviously significant similarities between Nancarrow and Black MIDI.
More recently, other artists have been creating music from a combination of both Nancarrow’s acoustic techniques and the blackers’ digital techniques to achieve intricate musical effects. For example, electronic composer Dan Deacon has written multi-layered player piano tracks that create an acoustic sound more complex than Nancarrow and are only made possible through the addition of modern MIDI technology and a Digital Audio Workstation. While Deacon’s style is entirely different from both Nancarrow and the blackers, the techniques he employs remain the same.
Though only one of many niche music genres that are internet-exclusive, Black MIDI stands out as unique. The simple melodies and tonal harmonies combined with the possibility of near or total computer processing failure are captivating. Additionally, Black MIDI’s connection to visual art adds a third dimension that makes the art form even more engaging. For a genre that has only existed for six years, it is difficult to tell where black MIDI is headed or where its influence will plant its seed, but for the time being I’ll enjoy the ride and listen to this along the way.