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Block of the Week: Note Block

Music to your ears?

Shed a tear, ladies and gentlemen, because we’ve almost reached the end of our Block of the Week series. Over the last year or two, we’ve gone through almost every block in the game, identifying its natural habitat, useful qualities, fun facts - and, in many cases, the closest thing to that block in real life.

You’ll notice that we didn’t cover every block in the game. We didn’t include individual colours of wool and other dyeable blocks, for example, or differentiate between the raw and polished versions of rocks like diorite. That would have got boring fast. Nor did we include blocks-that-aren’t-reeeeally-blocks, like Enchantment Tables, Cake and Minecarts.

But there’s one block that we we know you’ve been clamouring for us to feature almost since the start of the series. One block that has inspired you lot to send us hundreds of tweets, fanart and memes (so many memes). One block that we don’t quite see what all the fuss is about but is clearly popular, and who are we to argue with that. Is it time? Is it happening? It’s time. It’s happening. It’s note block. Note block is our block of the week. Oh. My. Block. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

Note blocks were added to Minecraft alongside charcoal, lapis lazuli, dispensers, cake and squid in version Beta 1.2, which was released on 13 January 2011. That makes them seven years old, probably older than some of our youngest players.

“Right click to tune, trigger to play” were the instructions given in the release notes at the time, which still hold true today. When you hit one or give it a redstone pulse, a little note will pop out of the top and anyone within 48 blocks will hear a sound - with the volume decreasing as you get further away.

The exact sound the note block gives off can be controlled by changing the block directly underneath it. Wood, glass, stone and sand create drum noises, while most other blocks will play a harp/piano sound. If you’re playing the Java edition of the game, or the legacy console version, you get a few more options - gold for bells, ice for chimes, wool for guitar, bone block for xylophone sounds, and clay for flutes. A veritable orchestra!

But to produce music that uses more than one note, you’ll need to tune your blocks. That’s done by hitting “use” on the block, or right-clicking, for those of you playing with a mouse. Each time you do so, you’ll raise the pitch of the blocks a small amount — a semitone, in the language of musicians. You can do that 24 times before it resets to where it was originally. While you’re tuning, the colour of the note will change from green to red to blue and back to green again.

The default tuning of note blocks is F#, which is kinda odd. There aren’t many man-made instruments tuned naturally to F#. So we asked Samuel Åberg, Mojang’s lead sound designer, what the deal is.

“All planets emit an audible modulation, a musical tune which we find traces of in ancient theory,” he said. “Astronomers know that the intervals of the planets of the solar system correspond to the intervals between the notes of music. Each planet has a dominant note. It so happens that unlike (pretty much) any instrument designed by humankind, the note emitted by the Earth is tuned to F#. So, note blocks are our way to help boost the planetary vibration rate.”

Samuel’s a big fan of the note block, even though it was added to the game long before he started working on Minecraft. “I like the simplicity of it,” he explains. “A collection of small short notes with a lot of design possibilities. I also like the distinct sound of note block music with the game's attenuation and stereo width. Note blocks have an acoustic feeling, rather than digital. Note blocks are used to create music, of course, but also atmosphere. It takes a lot of time, skill and practice to play them nicely.”

He says he’s got plans to develop note blocks further. “A lot of players use them to create immersion in their worlds, like alarms and doorbells. In the future, I would like to extend the line up of noteblocks to offer players even more possibilities.”

Note blocks have a surprisingly large fanbase, scattered all over the world. Lots of people make covers of popular songs and post them on YouTube, like the Noteblock Lizard, Grande1899 and Ultrasmurf. “You can search for pretty much any popular song and add "noteblock" and find a version of it,” says Samuel.

Sometimes these covers are made simply by placing blocks in the world, and almost all note block composers started out that way. “The first piece of music I made with note blocks was a cover of a Pokémon song I like from one of the early Game Boy games,” note block musician Kristina Alfredsson told us. “I found a YouTube video with the song that had lines showing the notes being played. I used that and calculated how many right-clicks each note should have, and wrote that down in notepad using the wiki as an aid.”

Then she built it in the world. “The song had a lot of long notes so I put as many note blocks of the same pitch as I could to make up for it, and ended up building 2183 note blocks. It was nuts, a lot of those blocks had 15-20+ right clicks on them and my hand hurt for a while after that. I probably spent 90+ hours on it.”

Soon afterward, to save her hands, she switched to using a a bit of free software called Note Block Studio, which many of the most prolific note block composers use. It lets you create music outside of Minecraft, and then import it into the game. Some composers use other music software too. “I use a program called Ableton for composing,” Kristina said. “It lets me play on my keyboard like I was playing an actual note block instrument. It sounds the same in Ableton as if it was built in-game, so it lets me finish writing the song and not have to rebuild mid-way.”

Today, Kristina’s process for composing with note blocks is very similar to composing other music, you just have to get the parameters right. “I usually start composing by letting the metronome tick at 150 BPM so I get a feel for how fast it needs to go, then pick an instrument to record a bassline, then I just keep adding to that,” she said.

“It's all layers, really — starting with a simple melody that determines the feel and then adding other melodies and instruments that work well with the previous ones. Most of it is subconscious, I can hear potential melodies inside my mind at the same time I'm recording and go mainly on instinct. I never know exactly how a song will sound from the start, it grows and takes form as I add more melodies. It's more like discovering potential music than composing, it's all about chasing the sound.”

Once the sound is caught, she records it. “I record in the same speed as redstone ticks, 150 BPM, and export the MIDI file of each instrument - a MIDI file is just code of when a note starts and stops and which note it is, it's like sheet music,” she told me. “Note Block Composer lets me import MIDI tracks so I can just export from Ableton and import there, and then use Note Block Studio to export as a schematic. I can use MCEdit to remove all the blocks that aren't note blocks and instrument blocks, and move that on to my own structures. I like using different materials for the build, MCEdit helps a lot when you want to swap between types of blocks.”

Her note block builds don’t stop there, though. “Composing the songs is the fast part, it usually only takes one hour to record the bulk of the song, a few more for getting everything exactly how I want it. The build takes a ton of time. I don't just want to have a note block song, I want things to happen and to create a story.

"The most recent build I did took over 100+ hours, I had a redstone fireworks show attached to the note blocks, I built scenery, made pixel art using beacon beams and for the video I added dialogue that looked like chat to keep it interesting. I kept adding more and more details and it took a lot of time, but I'm really happy with how it turned out! The difference in time between creating the music and doing the build is the hardest part for me because by the time that I'm done with a build I'll have written ten more songs. There's too many songs, not enough time!”

But brilliantly, she did take the time to make us a Block of the Week theme song! Play the video below to hear it!

Some of the most impressive note block creations that we’ve seen are coming out of Japan, where there’s a whole subculture dedicated to note blocks - and even a music festival.

It can be quite hard to follow the scene if you don’t speak Japanese, but many of the participants use a site called Nicovideo to share their work. One of the most impressive composers from the Japanese scene is Pote Suto, who put together this amazing video using custom textures and shaders:

What note block composers like most about the medium, it seems, is its ability to give shape to something which you can’t see. “Music is this intangible thing,” says Kristina. “It's there one moment and gone the next and even with sheet music you only have a 2D transcription of the notes. With note blocks it's different — you actually get to build a song in 3D space. You can move and hear the music being played from different angles when you fly around.”

She added: “It's extremely satisfying to see it grow, being able to press a button and hear the song play a little bit longer each time as you get further along. Since it's redstone, you can make almost anything happen if you combine note blocks with command blocks or other redstone blocks. Spawn mobs or blocks, change time, even have lightning strike in time with the music! Anything's possible — the sky (@Y=255) is the limit.”

Duncan Geere
Written By
Duncan Geere

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