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What Is Black MIDI And What Does It Want With Your Soul?

Sure, music is the highest form of art, but it rarely gets as abstract and conceptual as Black MIDI, a genre of electronic music that's pretty hard to dance to. But be warned: Black MIDI might give you nightmares, or, if you're epileptic, a seizure. Dealing with literally millions of notes in some cases, Black MIDI tends to overload a computer's RAM, causing it to glitch and lag in a tangled mess of number-crunching racket.

As you may know, MIDI stands for 'Musical Instrument Digital Interface,' which is a standard format for interconnection electronic instruments and computers. Commonly used in synthesizers and drum machines, MIDI's grid-based dashes and dits resemble a kind of Morse code, teaching the PC the duration, pitch, and volume of each note.

The "black" part of the name comes from how these "songs" appear in classical notation - the entire sheet of music looks almost completely black, like someone's printer on the fritz. The geeks interested in this kind of cacophonous symphony are known as "blackers." Starting in Japan around 2009, it would be a few years before Black MIDI crossed the pond. The first Black MIDI composer to reach notoriety was YouTube user kakakakaito1998, who first released his tune in February 2011.

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YouTube user kakakakaito1998's Black MIDI.

The overwhelming crashes typical of Black MIDI combine to create a kind of high-pitched drumming while still somehow maintaining some kind of melody and standard chord progression. Psychotic multi-octave chords punch through the keys with the fury of a thousand enraged Mozarts. The sound resembles something like microwaving a Super Nintendo before drop-kicking it down the Large Hadron Collider. Watching these videos too long could easily cause an epileptic seizure, or give you the worst ever case of hypnagogic "Tetris Effect."

As the trend caught on, The Impossible Music Wiki sprouted to help document these atrocities, with blackers trying to outdo each other with hand-wringing opuses clocking in millions of notes. Xinyu Qian's version of Fujiwara no Mokou's theme song from the Touhou Project contained 21 million notes, with 12 million in the last two seconds alone. However, in the middle of the track, the computer completely fucks up, playing only an extended silence.

At a whopping 1.1 terabytes, "Bad Apple!! feat. nomico" is the largest Black MIDI created so far, with allegedly 280 billion notes. At such a large size, it's not exactly streamable. The biggest Black MIDI stream we could find was the 50-minute "Klonoa" with only 109 million notes, which one commenter claimed would require 32GB of RAM to play.

The avant-garde energy of Black MIDI has a John Cage element to it, but harkens back to Conlon Nancarrow's player piano experiments in the '40s. Frustrated with musicians unable to play his complex, technically demanding compositions, Nancarrow began utilizing auto-playing pianos, the kind that use spools of paper to trigger notes.

Using a custom-built manual punching machine, Nancarrow was able to create music unplayable by human hands, even going so far as to alter the pianos with metal and leather to create more percussive sounds. The swirling raindrops of notes definitely evoke a similar interface -- and in a way, MIDI files are the piano rolls of today.

Want to try your hand at creating some Black MIDI? Most blackers use applications like MIDITrail, Piano From Above, Synthesia, and the Japanese program Singer Song Writer. From there, it's a matter of fitting as many notes as possible into the program before it fries itself. You can record your compositions using programs like Bandicam, DxTory, and FRAPS, the latter being the most CPU-intensive. But maybe that's what you're going for - just don't blame us when your soundcard explodes.

Troy Farah goes hard in the motherfuckin' MIDI on Twitter.

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Troy Farah is an independent journalist and documentary field producer. He has worked with VICE, Fusion, LA Weekly, Golf Digest, BNN, Tucson Weekly, and Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Troy Farah