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Exercises for Improvisation, Composition, and Compovisation
- 2020-01-24, 13:51:28
This article was originally written for a module of the Master of Arts in Ethnomusicology which I did in 1996.
Creative music making has always been seen as something which is difficult to do, some thing which is not for the average musician, but which can only be done by certain types of performer: the Jazz musician, the Rock guitarist, etc. Somehow people seem to forget that in 99% of cases their very first experiences with a musical instrument will have been of an improvisatory nature, for how many of us were able to pick our instrument up that first time all those years ago & read & play a piece of music from a piece of paper; indeed how many of us were even able to read music when we first bashed at the keys of the classroom piano as a child ?
Nowadays the ability to play more than just what has been written down by some body else is becoming more & more important, & also to teach this ability to other people. The British National Curriculum for Music has composition as a major part of its syllabus. Music Colleges, such as Birmingham Conservatoire, have as a constituent part of their courses classes in improvisation & composition, & options to take this further for more advanced students. For the professional musician, contemporary music increasingly includes elements where the player must take more responsibility for what happens next, & the jobs in the London Sinfonietta & the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group are going to go to the people who can do this. Additionally, what is the sense in turning down a lucrative recording session for UB40's next album just because you cannot improvise ? Indeed, for a serious career in musical performance the ability to improvise is in this day an essential requirement, rather than a useful addition, of a player's abilities.
This work is intended for use by teachers of music at all levels, whether at a music college where the need is to reawaken the students' long forgotten latent creative abilities, or at a school where your purpose is to make sure these abilities don't go to sleep in the first place. The intention is to work the excercises in groups; between 5 & 10 people is a good number - less than that & there isn't really enough room for interpersonal interaction, & more than that is leading dangerously towards chaos.
It is highly recommended that all work you do is recorded & listened to afterwards, since this is the only way people can know how they are actually sounding, which bits are good & which bits are not so good. Also, you never know, one session might actually produce an embryo masterpiece which is worth writing down & turning into a composition for others to play.
THE TERMS 'COMPOVISATION, IMPROVISATION, & COMPOSITION'
For my purposes here, I feel it is convenient to introduce a new term into the language of creative music, & slightly redefine two old terms.
Composition is the act of sitting down & planning a new piece of music in advance of one or many subsequent performances. The composer is using to create the new piece the product of his or her entire musical education; various techniques, scales, & catchphrases (s)he has picked up along the rocky road of life are bound to make an appearance. The piece may be composed bit by bit, part by part, section by section; but ultimately the important thing that makes it (according to my definition) a composition is the fact that it is preserved in some form (be it recorded, printed, or memorised) for performers to play again on subsequent occasions.
Improvisation is related to composition, in that it is often described as 'composition in real time'. In my definition scheme, the important aspect which makes a creative act an improvisation is the fact that the new music that is being created is significantly based on material that has already been composed. Perhaps the most obvious illustrative example of this is in jazz or folk music - the pieces being improvised upon have already been composed, often by another, & the improviser is adding their own new music to the material already extant.
Compovisation is the natural fusion of techniques used in the practice of Composition & Improvisation. In coining this term, I feel it is necessary to make a distinction between this & the definitions of composition & improvisation stated above, which, although certainly a musician will be using composition techniques during a standard improvisation, & probably vice versa, they will still be mainly concerned with the one & not really interested in the other. As an example, a composer will be writing their music down from their mind's working out, using whatever techniques they use, & may occasionally improvise some rhythms, melodies, & chords at some instrument or other in order to furnish themselves with some musical material. An improviser on the other hand may be in a jazz group improvising a solo during a performance of Thelonious Monk's 'Well You Needn't'. The piece has already been composed; the soloist is making up their own part to augment the musical material already established - it is acknowledged that they are playing Thelonious Monk's music written some time ago, not their own music written now. The Compoviser has as their starting point nothing or at most very little in comparison. It might be an Indian Raga or Mela, an Arabic Maqam, a Persian Dastgah, or a Medieval Church Mode. It might even be only the tacit agreement between the musicians in a free - form jazz group that when they are playing together, whatever happens they will not get in each other's faces & will go with whoever has the strongest musical idea at any given snapshot in time. A compoviser is truly composing in real time, & radically different processes are taking place than when in the act of improvising or composing which make new terminology necessary.
A compovisation does not need to be restricted to the original event when it was created. If, for example, the sitarist's raga performance is recorded in a form where a musician can then recreate that performance on a subsequent occasion with a comparitively small degree of variation from the original, then that piece has become a composition. The performer might indeed like to improvise with the new composition. A musician may also use compovisation with the sole purpose of creating a composition, without any need for an audience or a live concert: One might be in a recording studio using a computer & MIDI equipment to build up a piece part by part, playing in each part 'live', & reacting to previously recorded parts & parts that are known to be recorded in the future with the same scarcity of predecided material as in a dastgah performance, & the same spontaneity of creation as exhibited by the free jazz group.
THE BARRIERS TO COMPOVISATION, IMPROVISATION, & COMPOSITION.
The following barriers exist to prevent an inexperienced musician from creating music in any improvised manner:
2: Lack of knowledge of the processes involved
3: Lack of ability to communicate
4: Lack of ability to express oneself effectively on one's instrument
5: Lack of desire to do so in the first place
Clearly, barrier #5 will be insurmountable at any given time, so it is not worth even attempting to overcome it. Barrier #4 is not really relevant here; the musician involved should practise their instrument sufficiently so that they can express themselves effectively. Barrier #1 is, to me, the most sigificant, & may or may not, depending on the individual concerned, be linked to #2 & #3. It is the purpose of these exercises to overcome them, & if the individual follows them properly, & can be sure of not being hampered by #4 & #5, then they will finish being expert compovisers.
Cycle around the exercises in whatever order you deem specifically appropriate (though do bear in mind that they are in this order for a reason), spending as much time as is required on each one at a time, being aware of course that it makes more sense to spend less time on them with beginners & increase the time on a gradient as people get more advanced. If you feel that whilst cycling around any particular exercise has outlived its usefulness with the given group, then obviously don't keep labouring upon it, as this will only be counterproductive by boring people. Likewise, remember that these exercises are far from exhaustive, & you are encouraged to adapt these exercises & devise new ones of your own.
I have found that when rehearsing groups generally & when working these exercises specifically that the most efficient layout to have the players sit is in a circle - as tight a circle as can be comfortable managed. The reason for this is because an essential component of this work is interpersonal communication - the players need to see & hear each other with a clear line of sight & sound. Unfortunately I have also found that most musicians, especially orchestral ones, tend to be lazy about sitting in a circle, so you may have to exert your authority in pursuading them to sit where you want them to. If you have the opportunity to, it is best to prepare the room beforehand with the chairs already set out this way. If you can perform the exercises in the dark, then so much the better; darkness stimulates the imagination, & also lessens the problem of embarrassment - if nobody can see you, then they don't know it was you who played a dodgy note !
Purpose:To focus the minds of the participants into the tasks ahead, & to aclimatise their ears to static, focussed sounds.
Action:Whilst still sat in the circle, the group hums a single note that is comfortable to every body's range. Spend a few seconds getting it in tune. Then, when it is settled, each person in turn sings a word of their choice, 'Stockhausen - style'. It can be any word; their name, somebody else's name, or whatever. Go around the circle at least once.
Notes:If the participants are not embarrassed about performing this exercise, then that is good; they obviously understand the purpose & inhibitions are not likely to be a major problem in the future. If any body is embarrassed, then this is useful for you to see too; latent inhibitions have manifested themselves early & you will be able to act on this. If an individual deems that they have made a fool out of themselves by humming their name in a circle, then being a fool later on when they have to demonstrate their perceived inability to improvise should no longer matter to them. Do not take this for granted, however, only you with your own personal knowledge & the fact that you are on the spot at the time can make accurate judgements as to what is going on.
Purpose:An initial compovisational exercise. Basic aural skills of listening to other musicians & knowing what they are playing are developed, along with building up people's confidence to play a note & worry less about whether it was the 'right' note.
Action:Somebody, probably you, sits at a piano. It could be a vibraphone, or a synthesiser, or bells or whatever, but a piano is most likely to be at hand. You choose a note, any note will do. Keeping the sustain pedal depressed, you repeatedly play this note with a moderate crotchet pulse in the four octaves that your two hands will allow you. The first person in the circle then plays a long note of their own choosing on their instrument. They must stick with the first note chosen & not change it. They must also keep holding the note on, without stopping, though of course they are allowed to breathe etc. Then the next person joins in with a note, & the next, & so on around the circle. When it gets back to the start, the first person then plays another, different, note & it goes around again until you get bored & stop.
Notes:The participants shouldn't really play any old note at random, rather they should use their ears to try & work out what note they should choose to play in order to make an overall pleasing sound. However, the temptation for every body to end up producing a quaint little C major chord should be avoided at all costs (!), as the object is to show that dissonance is a pleasing sound. This is why people are not allowed to correct their mistakes, which will inevitably occur unless the entire group possesses the facility of perfect pitch.
Further developments of this exercise could include things such as people not having to keep the note sustained all the time, & thus introducing space & dynamics to the proceedings. Also, people can be allowed to change the note that they are playing at any time rather than waiting their turn, so allowing a much faster change in the ensuing harmonies. The person playing the piano can also change note occasionally, as well as tempo, & can introduce accented notes into the pulse to make the overall sound more interesting; in addition they might like to throw the odd chord in to the mix.
The exercise is deemed to be successful when the participants are obviously not shy about taking part in it, & you won't need to labour on it further. However, it is a useful exercise to come back to it occasionally afterwards as the group gets more advanced, & compare results. For this reason, it is a good idea if possible to record all of your sessions & play them back afterwards.
Purpose: To develop the participants' rhythmic skills.
Action: An audible metronome is set ticking to a 4/4 beat at a moderate tempo. Better still, if you have access to a drum machine, then set that grooving away with a fairly simple beat. Alternatively, you keep the pulse going yourself. Each person is given a simple hand percussion instrument, such as a woodblock, claves, guiro, etc. If there are not enough instruments to go around then some people will have to clap, but be careful to distribute these people evenly around the circle rather than having them all bunched together at the end. The first person starts playing a rhythm on top, any rhythm they like (excluding irrational rhythms such as 13 in the time of 16; this is just trying to be clever & not helping any body); though be particularly aware that if each individual plays a simple rhythm to start with, the overall effect is likely to be more successful - stress upon the participants that we are not engaged in a competition to see who can play the cleverest rhythm, we are engaged in an exercise to produce an excellent group output. After a pause of a set number of bars the next person joins in, playing a different rhythm. Then the next person joins in, & so on around the circle. People do not need to wait for a complete revolution to change their own rhythm, rather they change after another pre - agreed number of bars. This continues until a natural end is reached.
Notes: When 4/4 has been mastered, change the timing to things such as 3/4, 5/4, 6/8, 10/8, etc. Make sure you do add the so - called 'complex' timings, as the myth that they are more difficult to play than simple ones needs to be exploded. You can also change the tempo as you wish. As with Exercise #1, introduce space & dynamic to the proceedings by allowing people to stop playing for a while. Something else you can do, which can be quite fun if taken seriously, is to have one person without an instrument (or not clapping as the case may be), ie dothing nothing other than listening. After a set number of bars the person sitting next to them stops playing & hands them their instrument, & after another interval the new person starts playing. This passes around the circle as with the rhythms, so that every body ends up having played at least two instruments by the end. Try having the instrument changing going around in the opposite direction to that which people joined in. Try having a different set number of bars for each different event, such as joining in, resting, changing rhythm, instrument, & so on.
In all of the Exercises you will need to keep careful control over proceedings to make sure that things don't degenerate into anarchy through silly behaviour, but experience shows that this one can be particularly anarchy prone; as it is unfortunately the case that a number of people who play predominantly melodic instruments have a tendency to look down on percussion (for example, the 'kitchen sink department' of an orchestra, just a 'knocking noise in the background' of a big band), & the embarrassment caused by having to play it themselves can cause them to act up in this way. Once again, this knowledge can be useful to you, because if they can get over the shame of performing what they deem to be an inferior musical activity then they should have no excuse for not being able to get over any inhibitions later on when they have to start doing more difficult improvisation work. If you have any trained percussionists in the group, then this should be useful as they will be instinctively able to play more interesting rhythms straight off, which should provide ideas for those less experienced in rhythm.
Be careful to make sure people only change their state with relation to the set number of bars. This is not to hamper any body's creativity, but rather to instill from the beginning the discipline of working in phrases, rather than just playing slap - dash any old how & where.
Purpose: To develop the musician's ability to improvise with relation to a drone.
Action: A mode is chosen. It could be any mode, but a relatively 'normal' sounding one such as the Dorian mode is recommended initially, though the Ionian mode is most definitely not recommended, as the likelihood of producing twee little tunes is too horrible to contemplate. All the people in the group play a drone note in the background of the agreed 'tonic' that you are going to be working around. Do not add the 5th degree to the drone, because that complicates things needlessly, & also can tend to incite people to try to mimic the Scottish bagpipe stereotype, which is both incorrect, corny, & not pleasing to listen to. Going around the circle, each person in turn plays a melody in the mode, without much regard for any pulse. Start off short & simple, just a few notes will do at first, & gradually build up the length & complexity of what is played as people get more comfortable & more experienced. Finish when a natural end seems to have been reached, but go around the circle at least twice.
Notes: When the Dorian mode has been exhausted, try some other modes, particularly the Phrygian, the Lydian, & the Locrian ones, as the more exotic sound can provide useful ideas to people, as well as further training for the ear to accept dissonance. For the more advanced, using some Indian ragas can be useful, & a few examples are provided in the appendix. When free arhythmic playing gets boring, try introducing some pulse of some description into the proceedings.
It will probably be helpful for the group or individual to sing through a few medieval plainchants etc., in order to get the modal sound firmly established in peoples' minds in a musical context, as opposed to one's initial experiments with a keyboard when one is younger. Try changing modes during the course of a run. You could change the note to drone on part way through a few times as well, either announcing the new note or letting the participants use their ears to try & find it themselves. Be careful to point out to people when they are playing endless streams of notes without any gaps. It is often forgotten, even by advanced musicians, that space & phrasing is just as important an element in music as the notes themselves, so this tendency should be nipped in the bud from the outset. As each persons' turn gets longer, encourage them to play actual phrases with musical full stops & commas rather than just inconsequential meandering.
It is at this point where signs of being inhibited are going to become very obvious indeed; people are still only playing a few notes after repeated repetitions when every body else has started producing concertos, or they are playing for quite a long time but only sticking to one octave. If the whole group seems to be working like this, then you need to intervene by demonstrating a few ideas of how to be more interesting. Be careful not to intimidate people by playing something excessively flashy & difficult, rather just do something slighty better than the best thing done already.
Cycle around Exercises #1 to #3 a few times, & do not start to introduce Exercise #4 until some mastery of the earlier principles has been attained.
Name: Chords & Solos
Purpose: To consolidate what has been learned so far, & to prepare for what is to follow.
Action: A mode is chosen. You sit at the piano & play the root of the mode in a crotchet pulse, in much the same manner as Exercise #1, & each player joins in & holds a single note of their choosing as before, only this time the note they choose must be part of the initial mode. When a few people have started playing (at least 4), then people may start changing their notes to set up continuously shifting harmonies. At the appropriate moment, when every body has joined in is a good one, the first person then starts playing a solo over the top of it in much the same manner as Exercise #3, using their ears to pick up & highlight some of the changing harmonies. When they have finished, there is a suitable wait, & the next person has a turn, & so on around the circle, until it is time to stop.
Notes: When the first mode is exhausted, try another one, & another one. Don't just stick to the western modes, try a few of the eastern ones. The ultimate aim is to be able to play in a mode which consists of all twelve notes of the western chromatic scale, as a development of the earlier aim of getting used to the sound of dissonance & finding it pleasing. Change other aspects, as before, like the root note, the dynamics, & the density of orchestration.
Name: First Composition
Purpose: To get people starting to write music down, & practise composition themselves.
Action: By now people should have a few basic ideas about organisation of music, & so the next logical step is for them to write these ideas down. Each person should use what they have already experienced in the preceding exercises, & write down a few structures themselves. The results do not have to be wildly original, what is important is the fact that people are actually doing something. Use devices that have been used improvisationally such as changing orchestration, mode, pulse, speed, etc. Each piece should be played through by the group at least once. Don't have a block of only composed pieces; rather intersperse these with work on the other exercises.
Name: Chords, Solos, & Rhythms
Purpose: Further development of earlier work.
Action: The group is divided up into people who are going to play chords (as in Exercise #1), rhythms (Exercise #2), & solos (Exercise #3). Starting modes, times, & speeds are chosen. The rhythmic people start, then the chord people, then the melody people cycle around. Finish when you finish.
Notes: By now you will have got the idea of how to develop this, by changing modes, times, & speeds as & when, & working towards using all 12 notes. Have the people who are doing the various different things rotate around one by one as before during the run, so that people get a chance to do all 3 things.
Purpose: To learn to play over the top of simple basslines.
Action: A bassline is chosen - either one of your devising, or better still, one devised by members of the group, perhaps as part of the previous exercise. A person playing a bass instrument is given the task of repeating it, or better still, several people can share the responsibility. If there is nobody playing a suitable instrument, then you will have to handle it on the piano or synthesiser. If you still have the drum machine from exercise #2 then use that to accompany the group, as this should make things easier. As usual, each person takes it in turn to play a solo on top, starting as simply as necessary (remembering that by now people should be reasonably competant) & gradually getting longer & more complex.
Notes: Use simpler basslines in the early stages, & gradually move on to more involved ones. When everybody is comfortable with playing this exercise, which by now should be sooner rather than later, then you can start to encourage other people within the group to start adding harmonies & counter melodies etc. underneath the soloist. Remember to make sure however that those playing underneath bear in mind that they are only accompanying, so that they do not overpower the soloist by playing all the time, too loudly, too densely etc. Knowing when to leave a space in the music is still just as important as knowing when to fill the hole in.
By now the group members should have some facility in compovisation in a general sense; the preceding exercises should have given them enough confidence to begin to explore improvisation in jazz (both 'normal' & free - form); if they are interested in performing folk music, they will be able to make the 16 bar tunes come alive by incorporating their own arrangements of them, & if they are intending to perform Stockhausen's improvisation works, they should now have sufficient creative imagination that the short poetic verses & single lines of music can become a large 20 minute group performance. The final exercise deals with a specific form of 'compovisation', that of classical Persian music, which requires some prior explanation.
The initial starting point that is used for performing Persian music is the Dastgah - this can be compared with the Indian Raga (or perhaps more accurately the That), or the western mediæval Church Modes; there are 12 of these dastgah-e. To be more specific, each dastgah is a collection of melodic fragments (called gusheh-e) which are used as starting points for compovisation. Unlike the melodic 'catch phrases' of a raga, however, which are just 'known' by performers 'because', the gusheh-e are actually available in a printed form, known as the Radif (translated literally as 'row'). Performers of Persian music memorise the gusheh-e, & because of the vast number in the radif, most people tend to concentrate on learning 2 or 3 dastgah-e rather than all 12. A few gusheh-e from 2 dastgah-e (Shur & Segah) are included in the appendix. It must be stressed that these fragments are used only for starting points in compovisation - the musician doesn't simply play through them in sequence.
Whereas Indian music is often performed by soloists, Persian music is typically an ensemble affair; 4 or 5 melody instrumentalists, a singer, & 1 or 2 percussionists make up the usual Persian ensemble. Improvised music is freely mixed with pre-composed music in the standard dastgah performance. The generic structure for a performance goes as follows: the whole ensemble plays a Pish-Daramad, which is a piece composed (often, though not always, by the leader of the ensemble) in the overiding mode of the chosen dastgah, usually in a 4/4 metre, & may last for a few minutes. There is no harmony in Persian music, so each member of the ensemble plays the piece in unison, though textural interest is added by the fact that the piece is performed with a degree of improvised ornamentation on the part of the individual musicians. Then the members of the ensemble each in turn perform a free (typically arhythmic) improvisation in the dastgah, interspersed by shorter composed instrumental ensemble interludes called Tasnif. The performance ends with another extended composition called a Reng, which is typically in a 6/8 dance feel.
The accompaniment for the solo improvised passages is traditionally heterophonic; that is to say, the soloist is improvising away, & one of the other instrumentalists is carefully listening to what the soloist is playing, picking out key phrases & echoing them in the background (taking care to remain in the background) as a kind of 'dialogue'; thus the effect is of a manner of 'fluid drone', as opposed to the usually static drone of Indian music. At times the soloist will decide to move from the highly rubato playing to more rhythmic playing, at which points the percussionists shall join in.
The final exercise involves the members of the group first devising a 'dastgah' of there own, by making up a mode (or choosing one already available), & composing some short gusheh-e in that mode; approximately 10 - 20 should suffice. From this dastgah, they will also compose a pish-daramad & a reng (around 40 - 60 bars long), & a few tasnif-he (perhaps 8 or 16 bars long). With this, they shall organise a group improvisation using the format described above.
The Secret Power of Music
- 2020-01-24, 13:34:40
This article was originally written for the Musical Philosophies module of the Master of Arts in Ethnomusicology which I did in 1996; I've often had cause to refer to it since then so I've reproduced it here on my main site to make it easier to. It is presented as a description of philosophies held be other people and groups and not necessarily a personal view.
"All music, based upon melody & rhythm, is the earthly representative of heavenly music" - Plotinus (AD 205 - 269)
"Hear, & your soul shall live" - Isiah 55:3
Music as an organisation of sound is known to have existed for over 3000 years, & writings from the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, India & China suggest there was such an artform at least 1000 years previous to this. In our so - called 'scientific age' it is often easy to forget this; & music as it was taught in English schools until very recently even served to implicate a denial of this fact, by its labelling of our mediaeval music as 'primitive', its concentration on the theory of music apparent in the 'common practice' period, & by completely failing to mention the existence of methods of making music outside of the traditional Western art music mould.
Along with the increase in interest in the study of the theory & practise of other musical cultures on an equal footing to our own, there has been an upsurge of interest in what some people like to describe as the spiritual side of music - a side of musical philosophy that has had an important (almost to the point of becoming religious in nature) influence on every musical culture on the planet at some point during their histories, even our own. Contemporary theorists, composers, & performers such as David Tame, Joscelyn Godwin, Terry Riley, Peter Michel Hamel, Joachim-Ernst Berendt, & Dane Rudhyar have all made studies in this area & published their findings & opinions. Even medical science has come to formulate the opinion that music has some kind of power beyond mere soothing & relaxation with the science of Music Therapy - in 1984 David Tame (Tame 1984: p 157) noted that music therapy was not in wide use save for a few private practitioners, yet 16 years on in 1996 respected colleges such as the Roehampton Institute, & the Guildhall School of Music have courses in the subject, & local education & health authorities in places such as Birmingham employ peripatetic music therapists to visit patients in hospitals & special schools. New technology has been developed in order to assist practitioners, devices such as the EMS Soundbeam (a modern day development of the Theramin) & its associated peripherals enable the physically disadvantaged to benefit from sharing in the music making experience, & some hospitals have specially designed 'sense rooms', containing a myriad of coloured lights & fascinating sounds, in which even profoundly blind & deaf children experience the wonder & magic of the environment around them.
MICROCOSM & MACROCOSM - MICROSOUND & MACROSOUND ?
The further back in time we go, the greater emphasis was placed on the concept of music, & even sound in general, as inextricably connected to spirituality, & even the act of Creation itself. Just as Rennaissance philosophers such as Robert Fludd (1574 - 1637) had their ideas of Microcosm & Macrocosm (ideas which in themselves were strongly influenced by the views of Pythagoras (6th C. BCE) & Boethius (480 - 525)), with the microcosm as the physical world here on Earth (the Temporal Universe) being a reflection of the macrocosm of Heaven, or the Spiritual Universe, so the Ancients believed that audible sound (& thus music) was a reflection of a kind of 'Primal' sound or vibration, which was taking place in the spiritual universe. This inaudible sound was thought to be the basis of all matter & energy in the temporal universe, & in its fundamental form was known to the ancient Hindu people as Om. However, just as pure white light can be differentiated with a prism into the 7 colours of the rainbow, & as audible sound can be Fourier analysed into a series of tones of the Harmonic Series, so the primal scream was thought to have been differentiated into a series of harmonics, or Cosmic Tones, which were present in varying combinations throughout the universe - in fact, these tones, as the most powerful force in the universe, were the universe. In ancient Egypt these cosmic tones were declared as the Words of the Gods, the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece knew them as the Music of the Spheres, & the ancient Chinese described them as the Celestial Energies of Perfect Harmony. With this in mind, to Christians, the words from the Gospel of St John 'In the beginning was the Word, & the Word was with God, & the Word was God' could be interpreted literally in this manner to provoke thought as to the consequences of more sound upon the governance of the Universe; especially if one draws parallels with Hindu concepts: it is possible to equate the Hindu Om with the Word, for each are associated in scripture with the process of Creation, & each are associated with the 'Son' (Vishnu & Christ) in the respective Trinity.
So, if one chooses to believe i: that there is such a thing as Microcosm & Macrocosm, & ii: the concept of Om (or whatever one might wish to call it - the Word, or the Primal Vibration) as the maintainance of Creation, then it is not such a great leap of faith to consider the possibility that audible sound as we hear it in the temporal universe is the same reflection of the inaudible sound that governs the spiritual universe - we have here the concept of Microsound & Macrosound. Furthermore, it is possible to take this belief further, & assume that, since the microsound is a reflection of the macrosound (& vice versa), whatever happens in the microsound also affects the macrosound - ultimately extrapolated, this means that audible sound, & therefore music, affects the spiritual universe; since according to this belief, the spiritual universe affects the temporal one, audible sound, & therefore music, affects the physical world around us.
MUSIC & PHILOSOPHY IN ANCIENT CHINA
One of the earliest people to have implemented these ideas in their philosophy to the extreme were the ancient Chinese. To them, each piece of music was more than a mere entertainment, or even a worshipful act, it was an energy-formula which realised the sacred power of sound in its own unique way; each composition had its own effects on people, civilisation, & the world. It was this belief which influenced Chinese philosophers into directing more than an insignificant portion of their attention to the music of the nation - if the people were to be protected from the 'dangers' of the misuse of the power of music, & if they were to bask in its optimally beneficial use, then it had to be ensured that only the 'correct' music was allowed to be sounded. For them all music should convey eternal truths, & influence the peoples' character for the better; it is no accident therefore that the word for music (yüo) is the same pictogram as that for the word for serenity (lo). The ancient Chinese writings which are still extant make no bones about this power of music over the emotional wellbeing of man - such as in the Yo Ki ('Memorial of Music') we read thus:
'Under the effect of music, the 5 social duties are without admixture, the eyes & ears are clear, the blood & the vital energies are balanced, habits are reformed, customs are improved, & the empire is at complete peace.'
The philosophers were convinced that all 'course' & sensual music (in the terms of how they defined that) had an immoral effect on the person listening to it, & consequently kept an ear on music to ascertain its potential for spirituality or degradation. Confucius (551 - 479 BC) singled out several styles for moral condemnation: 'The music of Cheng is lewd & corrupting, the music of Sung is soft & makes one effeminate, the music of Wei is repetitious & annoying, & the music of Ch'i is harsh & makes one haughty' (Tame 1984: p 34). He also had positive things to say about music, thus: 'The noble-minded man's music is mild & delicate, keeps a uniform mood, enlivens & moves. Such a man does not harbour pain or mourn in his heart; violent & daring movements are foreign to him'.
THE PRIMAL SOUND & THE HUANG CHUNG
After coming to the conclusion that audible sound was inextricably linked to celestial sound, & the ramifications that had for civilisation, the Chinese then set about attempting to align their music to the principles & proportions of cosmic order; thus aligning all consciousness & life to this celestial order. From this we can draw parallels between the Chinese concept of consciousness (when correctly aligned) embodying the celestial sound, & the Christian concept of Christ being the physical manifestation of the Word of God. We have the 'divine right of kings' idea here - the Chinese emperors were also seen as gods, & their word was the Word. We can see this by examining some of the language - as an example, the name given to Chinese music's foundation tone was 'huang chung' ('yellow bell'), but this phrase was also used to refer to both the ruler (symbolically) & also to divine will itself. The colour yellow was seen as the colour of sacred wisdom, the imperial colour, & the emperor was a priest - king.
In terms of the microsound, the huang chung was used as the standard pitch upon which the music of the nation was based (ie, much the same as our contemporary A=442 Hz standard). As far as the philosophers related it to the macrosound, the audible huang chung was the most perfect audible manifestation of the primal vibration possible; it was considered as a several octave transposition of the 'macrochung', & as such was an actual audible embodiment of the Word. In cosmology, the purpose of the Word was to act as mediator between Heaven & Earth, so therefore the celestial huang chung (& consequently the audible transposition of it) was the vehicle for the transference of divine will into the microcosm. So, given this the analogy of the huang chung as both divine & temporal ruler is complete - as the bell set the pitch of all music, so did the Emperor set the laws of State, & both were seen as the transference objects through which divine will passed.
THE ALIGNMENT OF MICROCOSM & MACROCOSM
We have thus far dealt with the ideas that all musical pitches were aligned & standardised according to the huang chung, but there are yet more philosophical implications involved. For, if one gives it careful consideration, if one believes that earthly music should be standardised according to the heavens, it is possible for one to extrapolate a belief that all in the microcosm should be standardised to conform with the macrocosm, all weights & measures in addition to all music. To the ancient Chinese, this indeed was the case, & since they were assigning the greatest significance to the huang chung, it made perfect sense, if not absolutely essential, to use it as the yardstick by which weights & measures were set.
The question might be asked, just how could one derive such a system from a musical tone ? A system of length measurement is easy - a vibrating string of a specific length produces a specific pitch, but what about weight (the concept of mass was yet to be discovered), or volume ? The answer was deceptively simple; only a pipe of the correct length & correct volume could produce the correct huang chung tone, so the length of this pipe became the standard unit of distance measurement, its capacity became the unit of volume, & the weight of the amount of rice it contained became the standard unit of weight. So closely connected were the standardisation of music & dimensions that the Imperial Office of Music was actually associated with the Imperial Office of Weights & Measures, & the original pipe which was the standard by which all dimensions were copied from was more often than not kept at the latter office.
MUSIC & CHINESE ASTROLOGY
In addition to the huang chung tone (which was known as 'kung' - cf the Indian 'Sa', or our 'tonic' ('doh')), the Chinese octave was also differentiated into 12 tones tuned more or less according to the circle of 5ths common to many musical systems around the world, & each of these 12 tones were associated with one of the 12 zodiacal regions of the sky. So, given a belief in astrology, ie, the influence of heavenly objects on earthly life, with particular prominence given to the influence afforded by the zodiacal constellations, it is not too unreasonable to add to this a further belief in a similar influence of a particular tone during a particular month; & likewise, given the division of the day into units of 12 hours, a different tone was believed to also be in prominence during each hour.
As well as the 'dodecality' of the zodiac, it must also be remembered that Chinese philosophy was also riddled with the duality of opposites - the 'yin' & the 'yang' forces which were respectively masculine & feminine, positive & negative etc. Bearing this in mind, it comes as no surprise to learn that of the 12 tones, 6 of them were believed to be yin in nature, which corresponded to the later 6 months of the year, & the other 6 were believed to be yang tones, being aligned to the first 6 months of the year. In accordance with the belief that earthly music must exist in tandem with the heavenly music, the musicians performed their music according to whatever tone, or 'lüi' was dominating at the time, especially ceremonial music.
This was necessary because of the idea that the perfect State could only be maintained by remaining in alignment with the Celestial Order, & as well as aligning music along these lines various other functions of state were also associated with a tone; to take the line of reasoning further, even the officials of the nation were seen as the embodiment of the Cosmic Tones, & were thus assigned their own audible tone. The key of the music of a given ceremony was also influenced by the tone of the officiating office. Thus the music of the state, & the actions of the state, became the embodiment of divine will, & by its alignment with the principles of the macrocosm, the music of the microcosm could retroactively influence by the act of sympathetic resonance the energies of heaven to embody themselves within the leaders of the nation (Rudhyar 1928). If any of this attunement with celestial order were to be lost or corrupted, then such a loss had, according to the philosophy, a corresponding effect of reducing the nation to a state of imperfection & impermanence. A significant deviation was believed to run the risk of catastrophic effect.
THE LOSS OF THE HUANG CHUNG
For four & a half thousand years the music of China & its civilisation were maintained in harmonious alignment. & then, with the rise to power of the Ch'ing Dynasty (AD 1644 - 1912) music fell into decline. Parallelling this decline in music was a deterioration of the ancient civilisation, finally culminating in 1912 with the revolution of Sun Yat - Sen & followed by the rather temporary rise of the Republic (& then the later, even more temporary new Empire) of Chiang Kai - Shek & his Kuomintang Party.
This decline in the Chinese traditional music began with the arrival of Catholic missionaries from the West, along with their music. Gradually the western secular music was introduced, & then western instruments, & eventually western musicians became professors at the Imperial Court. However, the blame for the decline in the traditional music cannot be directed entirely at the hands of the west; after all, 'foreign' music had infiltrated Chinese music before - in AD 581 there were as much as 7 foreign orchestras in permanent residence at the imperial court, one of which had been there since as early as AD 384 (Sachs 1943). The difference between the earlier occasions & the last one was that whilst previously the traditional music had actually absorbed the palatable aspects of the foreign sounds into itself, & rejected the indigestible ones, this time around it was more a case of the ancient philosophy weakening its hold over the nation, & the nation ultimately rejecting it entirely, until finally with the Revolution the entire civilisation collapsed.
OTHER THOUGHTS & MODERN IMPLICATIONS
We have looked in some small detail into one area of philosophical thought regarding music, but this is by no means all of what there is - up until comparatively recently the performance of North Indian music was governed by similar concepts - for example, certain ragas could only be performed at certain times of the day or even year. The ancient Indian religion, Vedism (the precursor to Hinduism) had its parallel to the Chinese Huang Chung with its concepts of 'ahata' & 'anahata'; the former representing the audible sound heard by ears, & the latter representing the inaudible Primal Sound, perhaps interestingly also being the name given to the heart 'chakra' - the most important of the 7 spiritual centres in Vedic belief. The Hindus/Vedists have an audible representation of the Sound too; the Om, as the Mandukya Upanishad describes thus: 'The syllable Om, which is the imperishable Brahman, is the Universe. Whatsoever has existed, whatsoever exists, whatsoever shall exist hereafter, is Om. & whatsoever transcends past, present, & future, that is also Om.'
Science also notes correlations with the laws of music & the laws of the Universe; first there is the 'mystery' of the Pythagorean Comma. This is the phenomenon whereby if one has a starting pitch, & raise it successively by an acoustic perfect 5th thus:
F - C - G - D - A - E - B - F# - C# - G# - D# - A#
when one tries to complete the cycle of 5ths to return to the initial pitch class of E# (F), one finds that one has slightly 'overshot' the mark; the difference being known as the Comma. It was this difference (which has led to the multitudinous tuning systems that Western musical theory has devised over the last 600 years) which was used by ancient philosophers to represent humanity's; fall from perfection - furthermore, the fact that the difference is an excess rather than a deficit, symbolically spiralling upwards, was used to represent renewal - the phoenix rising from the ashes, & the hope of resurrection & immortality in Heaven (Tame 1984: pp 248-250).
There are other scientific correlations to note; in his books 'Mysterium Cosmographicum' (1596) & 'Harmonices Mundi V' (1619), Johannes Kepler (1571 - 1630) pointed out the harmonic nature of the Solar System - the proportions of the orbital positions of the planets (& the position of the Jovian asteroids) around the Sun correspond exactly with the proportions between pitches in the harmonic series (Godwin 1987). Furthermore, referring back to the Pythagorean Comma for a second, there is a relationship between the length of the Sidereal year (equinox to equinox) of 365.256 days & the length of the Lunar year (12 new moons) of 354.333 days; in fact the former exceeds the latter by a factor of 1.03082, which, given the coincidences, is shatteringly close to the figure of 1.01364, which is the factor of overlap of the Pythagorean Comma. The coincidence extends still further; if we took a period of time which corresponds to the true Comma to the Sidereal year, we find a year lasting 360.27390 days - with 360 days being the length of the year as measured by the Pharisees of Israel.
So, where do these ideas of sound & music being fundamental to the governance of the Universe leave those of us who are responsible for the creation & production of sound & music in the closing years of the twentieth century ? I have been referring at length to David Tame's book 'The Secret Power of Music' for a very good reason. It is a highly comprehensive work, containing a lot of useful information. However, careful reading of it shows up to me what are the dangers of taking any philosophical dogma too literally (indeed, the book could be described as a 'microcosm' of musical philosophy), for interspersed amongst the facts & informations it is possible to detect a not-so-hidden agenda; namely, to denigrate & condemn as evil the majority of music to have been made since the Emancipation Of Dissonance of all flavours - 'art' music, jazz, & pop, by referring to certain experiments performed on plants (Tame 1984: pp 141-145) whilst carefully avoiding quoting precise references for the research, & also many other sniping condemnations of specific composers & performers, such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, & Steve Reich, describing them with terms such as 'antimusic' & 'perverted', & at the same time promoting the music of his personal 'favourites', such as Ralph Vaughan - Williams, Gustav Holst, Ludwig van Beethoven, & Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At the end of the book, he then (actually quite subtly) introduces what is obviously his own religious affiliation, the Summit Lighthouse aka The Church Universal & Triumphant as the practitioners of the New Morally Correct Music.
Subsequent to my original writing of this article as an essay in 1996 I came across a recording of rituals performed by the Summit Lighthouse in their meetings, and turned it into a musical work of my own:
As can be heard, some of their opinions on people, society, and lifestyles are considerably more ugly even than their opinions on music.
It is my own opinion that there is a real & scientific connection between the artistic laws that make beautiful music & the physical laws that make a beautiful Universe; however, just as philosophy is humanity's search for those physical laws at the Ultimate Level, so musical philosophy of this nature is the search for the aesthetic correspondence with them. However, I find that philosophy, like physics, is never complete; & any attempt to impose such completeness is, at best aesthetically bankrupt, & at worse aesthetic Fascism.
BIBLIOGRAPHY & FURTHER READING
The Secret Power of Music, David Tame, Thorsons Publishing (1984)
Nada Brahma, The World is Sound, Joachim-Ernst Berendt, Insel Verlag (1983)
Music, Mysticism, & Magic, Joscelyn Godwin, Routledge & Kegan Paul (1986)
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilisations, ed Arthur Cotterell,
Grove's Dictionary of Music & Musicians
The Rebirth of Hindu Music, Dane Rudhyar (1928)
The Rise of Music in the Ancient World, Curt Sachs (1943)
The Magic of Tone & the Art of Music, Dane Rudhyar, Boulder (1982)
Through Music to the Self, Peter Michel Hamel, Compton Press (1978)
Harmonies of Heaven & Earth, Joscelyn Godwin, Thames & Hudson (1987)
Manifesto for Local Government Digital Services - part two
- 2019-11-06, 17:02:48
I recently attended Nick Hill’s Public Sector Digital Transformation Forum event Local Gov MIDLANDS Transformation, Collaboration & Digitisation at which I did a session to introduce and talk about my Manifesto for Local Government Digital Services.
One thing which especially pleased me about the event was the extent to which the other speakers there were sharing insight and experiences which complemented the ideas in the Manifesto quite well - to the degree that rather than simply write up the other sessions as a simple event report, I can write it up as a Part Two of the Manifesto.
So, to round up what I learned from listening to Kate Hurr, Hilary Jones, Ben Proctor, and others and their presentations:
For about the last 10 years, the work we’ve collectively done to develop and improve our online services has been done so under the banner of Transformation. We could say there have been four phases of that transformation up to now:
- Phase one - 1996. The creation of the first council websites and the baby steps of development they took, starting with initially with just a handful of pages and a handful of reporting forms, eventually crystallising into comprehensive websites (some of which may have been over-comprehensive!), some of which following the standardised pattern of the Local Government Navigation List. The LGNL has come in for a lot of stick in recent years, much of which is now justified, but we often forget what it was for and what it replaced - as the first experimental council websites were created there was a lot of mish-mash of different councils putting different content on their sites sometimes without any strategy behind it, often without any actual navigation structure to enable a user to easily find that content. The LGNL was an attempt to standardise what a council website should contain, providing what at the time was agreed to be a clearly defined information architecture and navigation structure to save web managers the burden of having to make it up from scratch, and to enable users to easily know where to find any given piece of content on any council website.
- Phase two. The first online accounts started to appear, allowing users to login before making reports, which would be entered into Customer Relationship Management systems allowing citizens to receive reports when there was an update to a ticket they’d raised and refer back to the ticket ID when subsequently contacting the council to find out what was going on.
- Phase three. These online accounts and CRM systems, initially standalone entities requiring service area staff to copy and paste information from an email or a service ticket into a dedicated system used by the service to manage their own work - planning management systems, highways management systems, waste management systems, etc. In Phase Three of Digital Transformation these separated systems started to be connected to each other using what’s known as middleware or APIs, allowing the citizen’s report from one system to go straight into the other system - with integration coming back in the other direction when the request was completed - without the need for a human being to be intervening in between.
- Phase four. The phase we are currently in could be characterised by the rise of Local Government as a Platform, and Cloud-based services. As we currently are, these two concepts are more or less interlinked, and are more specifically directed at how the council itself works rather than how the citizen interacts with it. Cloud-based services are services which are not tied to a certain individual being tied to a certain specific computer, or desk, or whatever, but enable a user wherever they are in the world on any device to login to some kind of portal in a web browser, hosted by the service provider rather than within the council’s own network, and be able to access everything they need to do their job instantly. LGaaP is an aspiration by service providers and software vendors to create common services which they’ll host on a single platform and deploy to multiple organisations with changes and updates available instantly to everybody rather than each council having to schedule in those updates onto their own infrastructure.
So far, the main focus of digital transformation has been all about prevention:
- Preventing phone calls and in-person visits
- Preventing paper-based processes
- Preventing duplication of effort
- Preventing long term issues
- Preventing paper-based notifications
Some directions that future phases of digital transformation could take could include
- Artificial Intelligence-Driven Automation. I’ve written in the past about how intelligent council websites could make educated guesses about what individual users are interested in based on information which the council’s website can already determine about the user - eg, their location, the weather, the time of day or the season of the year, whether they have council tax accounts with us or not, what the pages they most often visit are, etc. AIDA could be about service areas having computers to predict things which are likely to happen based on what’s happened in the past - if it rains, which street’s bins are least likely to be collected, if it snows, where are more potholes likely to appear, if it’s hot, which leisure centres and swimming pools are most likely to get overcrowded, etc. These kinds of predictions based on the wealth of data we’ve accumulated over the years can enable us to more target and prioritise work in order to better serve our citizens before they realise they need serving - and if it’s a service where it is appropriate for that AI to act automatically, then our citizens can be better served before we even realise they need service.
- True Local Government as a Platform (LGaaP). A lot of council service delivery and service management work is reasonably common in its needs - we have services which need to send bills, take payments, instigate recovery action against people who don’t pay, make payments back to people, take requests, case manage those requests, send notifications. So why do we have separate council tax billing and payment systems, car park season ticket payment systems, penalty charge notice for overstaying parking or straying into a bus lane payment systems, and payment systems to allow people to book a bulky waste collection or subscribe to a commercial waste collection? Why do we have completely separate systems for logging and managing pothole reports, reporting bin collections which haven’t happened, booking bulky waste collections, booking a squash court at the local leisure centre, etc? True LGaaP will recognise that life can be much simpler for council staff, council service designers, and council citizens if these disparate disconnected systems were replaced with single systems which can be configured individually for each particular service’s particular needs. With, of course, the appropriate backup and resilience systems put in place to reduce the possibility of ‘the system’ going down, and if the system does go down, the work of the council can continue until it’s restored.
- Two-way integration between central government and local government. There are some areas of life where the boundary between services provided by local government and services provided by central government are blurred, cross over, or are simply downright confusing. The benefits system is the obvious case here, but other services also have a degree of crossover - health and social care services are another big area, but even things as mundane as trying to report an abandoned vehicle will ultimately end up being dealt with by or require input from a central government agency or a local government agency depending on the unique circumstances surrounding the vehicle. Getting so far into a process only to at some point be told ‘ah, it’s not us you need to tell, it’s them’ is incredibly frustrating for a person, especially if you need to start again providing information you’ve already provided. The Government Digital Service have already created some tools as part of their mission of Government as a Platform - a notification service, a payment service, and an authentication service - these tools could be made available to local government as part of facilitating such two way integration.
- One common Citizen (and Business) ID for all local and central government services. Why do we need so many logins in order to interact with ‘the government’ anyway? Why do we need a separate council website login, a separate HMRC login, a separate library login, a separate leisure services login (whether or not leisure services have been contracted out to the private sector), a separate NHS login, etc? Why can we not have a single government login which will log us into any government service? Such a single government login could incorporate a personal data store for each citizen that they can share relevant pieces of data with other parties as desired / needed - you don’t need to share your leisure bookings with HMRC, you don’t need to share your tax history with your GP, and you don’t need to share your GP appointments with the waste management service. A common government identity which allows the citizen control over what data they share with what government agency would be able to simplify things for the citizen and for the government. With, of course, the appropriate backup and resilience systems put in place to reduce the possibility of ‘the system’ going down, and if the system does go down, the work of local and central government can continue until it’s restored. And the appropriate security controls and measures put in to ensure data can’t fall into the wrong hands.
- Political boundaries crumble. During the whole of my adult life I’ve only ever lived in a unitary local authority area, the Metropolitan County Councils having been abolished when I was 16. I’ve never really understood the concept of two-tier local government, why you might need to go to one council to report a pothole and to another council to report that your bins weren’t collected. The websites of some two-tier local authority areas do better jobs of signposting a service to the correct website than others, but it is plainly inconvenient for the user to need to be signposted in the first place, whether that’s between district and county council websites or between local government and central government websites. It’s equally inconvenient for the user to be wanting to report an issue which they’ve noticed somewhere which happens to be near a boundary, only to be told it’s on the other side of the boundary and they need to report it again to the other council. I myself experienced how broken the process of applying for a copy of a birth certificate is a couple of years ago when it turned out I was applying to the wrong authority and I could have applied centrally anyway. A single government portal which all citizens interact with would mean we won't need to interact with different individual council / central government digital services, we’d just interact with a central common service which sends the request to or pulls the data or information from where it needs to go to automatically. With, of course, the appropriate backup and resilience systems put in place to reduce the possibility of ‘the system’ going down, and if the system does go down, the work of local and central government can continue until it’s restored. Colleagues who’ve been around the block a few times might groan and this ‘this is the Local GDS yet again’ - I too have had some concerns about the concept of a LGDS, not least because of the potential for such a thing to stifle innovation - if different bodies are unable to compare themselves with other similar bodies they can’t see what works better or worse about their own service in comparison with another body’s service. But a common single government portal constructed properly need not be the single instance of the portal - a portal constructed properly using APIs would allow each individual body to put its own local flavour on to it; far from stifling innovation, a proper Open Source API-based Government as a Platform digital service would allow other agencies - public or private sector - to develop their own skins and ways of implementing the service, whether that’s a group of keen individuals who, like the Wikipedia community or the Open Street Map community, simply see a shortfall and choose to fix it out of civic duty, or commercial entities who might see an opportunity to profit out of offering their own premium services on top of the core offer.
Some of these ideas of future phases of Transformation might be easier to realise than others. Some of them might even be more or less desirable to embark on than others.
Do we even want to bring about further Transformation anyway? Is Transformation an appropriate term to use for bringing about the future of local government digital services, of Local Government Digital Services 4.0 or 5.0?
One argument has it that Transformation is irrelevant to the modern era – it's a term based on industrial-era thinking about spending money to invent a machine, deploying that machine, and measuring the return on investment in that machine; the modern era is a complex ecosystem in constant flux where tools, skills, and culture are constantly changing and evolving; it could be said that we need to do gardening rather than transforming. We need to think more in terms of planting seeds, trimming, tending, and pruning, and harvesting in a process of continuous improvement rather than the transformation model of an old-skool waterfall project with the delivery of A Thing at the end of it.
Culture and skills
Of course, part of our gardening activity has to be as much about improving our own skills and cultures as it is about providing services which are of use to citizens. First of all we need to encourage and ensure a positive culture within the organisation - we need to ensure staff are able to openly share their frustrations and their successes, being enabled and encouraged to talk about what they do, how they do it, and why they do it, and what barriers they face in doing it well and what needs to be done organisationally to remove those barriers. Culture change does not come about just as a result of doing an annual staff survey and the chief executive doing a weekly blog post name-checking ‘great team of the week’, it comes about as a result of staff being listened to when they are asked to describe a good day at work and a bad day at work.
And we need to recognise that too many of our colleagues really are, putting it charitably, not quite as IT savvy as the average 14 year old. Worse than that, too many of our colleague - perhaps too many of ourselves, in fact - wear our IT incapabilities on our sleeves as badges of honour; ‘oh, I’m not really very computer literate’ too many of us say in a tone of faux-apology. In 2019 there are too many service areas in too many councils where if a staff member wants to communicate electronically with a citizen, they’ll open up a Word document, with the council headers and footers included and the boilerplate letter formatting, they’ll type their communication into that Word document, they’ll save it to their documents folder on their computer hard drive, open up an email window, and type ‘Dear (sir / madam) - please see attached letter’.
We need to introduce mandatory IT training for all staff - not just training in how to use Word etc, but training in the conceptual bases of how to think about how ITCD can be used to improve service delivery. As well as this we need to create environments in which staff go beyond replicating a 1980s office environment with the tools we’re using, but get up to speed in using modern tools and concepts in our work, tools like videoconferencing, collaboration tools like Teams, Slack, and Sharepoint, planning tools like Trello, etc.
Rules of citizen engagement have changed – citizens have higher expectations; we need to design user-centric services which align with modern (mobile) lifestyles which are speedy and frictionless, which build trust and reassurance, make people feel engaged and consulted, with a service which is personal to them and their choices allowing targeted action, with one single place to transact.
Essential to help us doing this we need a deeper understanding of our citizens, redesigned end-to-end citizen-centric service delivery processes, and new business operating models and ways of working.
#localgovdigital #localgov #manifestoIn group Public / Third Sector Digital
Local Government Digital Services 3.0 - A manifesto
- 2019-06-11, 17:41:11
"There will come a time soon when for some councils there won't be a council website any more - the website will be the council" - Tom Steinberg, founder, MySociety
This is the second time I've opened an article with this quote - the first occasion was in March 2016 at the start of A Web strategy for local government. I don't normally do pithy quotes from other people in articles, but this one seems sufficiently relevant that it bears repeating.
But what does it mean?
Go to any modern council website these days, and you'll see more or less the same layout of links on the home page - at the top, you'll see the so-called Top Tasks, links to specific services such as paying your council tax or a parking ticket or reporting a pothole or that your bins weren't collected, followed perhaps by some links to more general service areas, some links which will have been provided by the council's communications and marketing team to the latest council news stories and some marketing and information campaigns they want highlighting, and a series of other links which make perfect sense to the council but perhaps seem a little random to the website visitor.
A lot of the choices for links on the home page, particularly the Top Tasks area won't have come out of the website managers' heads, they will be data driven - if the most prominent four links at the top of your council's home page are to pay your council tax, see when the school terms dates are, report that your bins haven't been collected, and check for planning applications, that will be because the data for the website in question shows that out of all the people who are visiting the council website, they're the most numerous tasks all of those users in the aggregate are wanting to perform on the website.
Does that fit your profile?
I don't know about a lot of people reading this, but personally I pay my council tax automatically by direct debit (and my wife, who is not the bill payer, does not pay it at all), this coming September will be the first time in 30 years of living here that the school term dates will be relevant to me, only a few times since I've lived in this house have my bins not been collected, and I'm generally a live and let live sort who is quite content to let planned development, whether it's the people three doors down wanting to build an extension or a supermarket wanting to build on empty land up the road, be done without the benefit of my opinion on the matter. In short, whilst the home page of a council website might meet the individual needs of an aggregated majority of visits to it, it doesn't meet my own personal needs as an individual citizen.
And the data shows that I am not alone in this, either.
Taking the last 30 days of analytics data of a certain UK council website, there were 3,839,287 total page views. The top viewed page is the home page, clocking up 137,121 or 3.6% of those views, a pair of login-related pages occupy the two and three slots combining to 196,497 / 5.12% of the page views, and some jobs-related pages at positions 4, 5, 6, 9, and 11 account for 187,843 / 4.9% of the site. The first actual service-related pages to show up in the top 20 are a group of rubbish-related pages at 7, 8, and 15 totalling 93,652 / 2.44% of the page views. The next service-related pages are the council tax main page in number 10 at 31,489 / 0.82% of the views, then the school term dates page at 27,508 / 0.72% in position 14.
So to put it another way, on a typical council website home page, the three top service tasks on it account for 2.44%, 0.82%, and 0.72% of the total page views for the site. It would take a piece of detailed analysis outside the scope of this article to drill through the data to see how many of the pages further down the list are part of the suite of pages featured on the home page, but at a rough guess based on the data already analysed, it's reasonable to suggest that the content of the home page is not relevant to 95% of the site's actual visitors, never mind 95% of the citizens the site is supposed to serve.
Of course, we also know from our data that most people using the site don't come in by typing the web address in their browser anyway, we know that 71.6% of visitors have come via search and only 15.3% of those visitors have come directly. What we are less clear on though from a cursory glance at the data is how many of those searches are for '[council name] council tax' which would take them straight to the council tax page, and how many of them are searches for '[council name]' which indeed take them to the home page anyway. Regardless of this, the website's home page is clearly an important page - it sets the standard for all that lies within, it sets out the ethos of the organisation, and indeed it shows the ethos of the design of the digital service it's the principle representative of.
We may never get it perfect, but I contend that the current strategy as has been adopted across the local government digital sector the last 10 years is up for revision.
For the last year or so I've been keeping an eye on the monthly Govmetric channel satisfaction emails. Govmetric's methodology is based on three faces the user clicks - if the user clicks the green smiley face, that scores a 1, if the user clicks the red frowny face, that scores a -1, and if the user clicks the neutral amber face it scores a 0. The scores are added up every month and divided by the number of entries to produce a satisfaction index - so a positive score indicates users have been broadly satisfied during that month, a negative score indicating broad dissatisfaction, and a score around 0 indicates users are broadly content, considering the site to be neither brilliant nor terrible.
Over the few years I've been keeping track, satisfaction for the top three councils for the telephone and face-to-face channels - channels which in most councils have faced significant cuts, with neighbourhood offices being closed and moved to appointment-only and with telephone queue times increasing - have remained consistently high around the net 0.9 score, and indeed increasing slightly over time, with the top council's face-to-face score in April 2019 achieving the maximum possible 1. The top three council's web scores have been consistently much lower in the 0.25 to 0.3 area, and in the time I've been following there has been a slight, but consistent, drop in levels of measured satisfaction, with the top council achieving 0.4 in January 2015, and the top council in April 2019 acheiving 0.32. Council number 10 on the April 2019 list acheived a score of 0.05 from which we can make a reasonable deduction that most of the council websites using Govmetric are achieving negative levels of satisfaction.
We can make all kinds of speculation about why satisfaction has been decreasing over time; ideally we will ask our users. We can speculate that people are expressing their dissatisfaction with the council's actual service delivery rather than expressing dissatisfaction with the information and reporting platform, but that does not explain why citizens are generally well satisfied with the telephone and face-to-face channels. We can say that the warm fuzzies of human contact make people feel slightly less bad about getting a rubbish service, we can say that in an Amazon and Facebook world people have higher expectations of an online service so will be more inclined to click their dissatisfaction with ours.
But these various possible speculations are just self-serving excuses. The data clearly and unequivocally shows that our website homepages are not meeting our citizens' needs, and our sites as a whole are not meeting their expectations; at best, the work we as a sector have been doing over the last three years has failed to keep pace with citizens' expectations, at worst, we have been actively annoying them.
We may never get it perfect, but I contend that the current strategy as has been adopted across the local government digital sector the last 10 years is up for fundamental revision.
If the limit of our ambition is to get more citizens paying council tax and reporting potholes online rather than phoning up to do that, then we will be failing from the outset. We may never get it perfect, but we at least have to try.
One of the websites which consistently features high in the Govmetric satisfaction top 10 is the site for the States of Jersey; not strictly speaking UK local government, but close enough for the purpose under discussion. On hearing about Jersey's success, a friend and colleague, new to working in the local government digital sector, went to look at their website and landed on https://www.jersey.com/ . 'Wow', they said, until I pointed out that was the tourism promotion website, and Jersey's government website is https://www.gov.je/ , which looks somewhat more like any standard UK local government website.
Why is it the limit of our ambition to build websites which look like standard local government websites? Why is it not our ambition to build websites with the same vibrancy and attractiveness of tourism promotion websites? Both classes of websites have the same intrinsic goals - to attract users to the site to engage them in what the organisation (be it the city or the council) has to offer, and to pursuade them to make a quick decision to act there and then. There is no inherent reason why we have to present our top tasks - such is the importance they'll always have on our sites, however they're determined - in a boring plain white oblong on the screen, there is no reason why we cannot present our top tasks in a manner which makes the user go 'wow'. We will never make a user feel good about paying a parking fine, but if we make the experience of paying it be done a little more flair we might make them resent it less. If we make the information about parking in our districts easier to navigate, more engaging to view, and more up to the minute when they park their car, people might incur fewer parking fines in the first place. And if we put the same amount of effort into making the pages on the website containing the county's parking strategy as engaging and readable as the website editor of an online general interest magazine puts into making an article engaging and readable, then we'll have an increase in the number of active and civically engaged citizens who better understand the thinking behind the decisions we have to make and are less likely to complain to us when we have to make difficult ones based on impossible choices.
So what might a digital service fit for the next five to ten years - yes, I accept we have to still be pragmatic about the constraints we're under even though I want to raise the threshold of our ambitions - start to look like?
It should be a number of things. It should be:
- proactive, integrated, and timely,
- personal, and
This does not mean the same website looks nice on your laptop screen as well as your mobile phone screen. It means it should adapt according to all changing conditions, as automatically as possible. If a service depends on the time - such as for example if a citizen can't report a missed bin collection until after 3:30pm on the collection day (because until 3:30pm the crews are still collecting), then don't give them the option to report it before 3:30pm that day, rather than annoying them by letting them start the process and then annoying them. If it's a page about a building, service, or event with open and closed times, if the user visits when the thing is closed put a message on the page to say it's closed, and when it will be open again. If it's a page about events in the area, if it's raining or cold right now prioritise showing the indoor events, if it's sunny and warm prioritise showing the outdoor events.
Proactive, integrated, and timely
Personal digital assistants such as Alexa and Siri are proliferating in the home. I've manually set mine to tell me several times during Tuesday evening every week to do the bins. A digital service which can be integrated into a user's PDA could not just automatically be set up to do the reminder, it would know which bins need to be done on any given week. A digital service which is proactive, integrated, and timely would be tracking and displaying the route of the bin wagon in real time, so that if first thing on Wednesday morning I realise that despite Tuesday's reminders I've still forgotten to put them out, I can see if the wagon has not reached my house yet so I can quickly put my dressing gown and slippers on and catch them before they get to me, and if for whatever reason the bins end up not being collected, I can see the route the wagon took before it decided not to come down my road, and I'll get a message telling my why they didn't collect my bins and when they'll get collected instead so I don't even need to report a missed collection. If I see a pothole, broken manhole cover, or faulty traffic light during my daily walkabout and go to report it, if on the reporting page I can see it's already been reported then I don't need to waste mine and the council's time reporting it again.
Most councils are working with a plethora of line-of-business systems for managing council tax records, housing records, planning applications, committee meetings, street defect reports, etc. Most of which are mutually incompatible (even when created by the same vendor), many of which were designed and built in an earlier age. A lot of effort has to go in to making online systems talk to each other. Sometimes it can't be done at all, so either an online service involves double-handling, or it doesn't happen at all.
The work that most of these systems need to do isn't inherently complicated - most of them are just databases containing records which are created and edited according to a workflow, with various outputs and reports. There is an opportunity for local government digital service providers to clean up here looking at some of the worst examples of poorly designed line-of-business systems and creating modern alternatives. And after all, if the citizen goes to the council website to find out information about logging a planning application, why can they not log that planning application on the same website, and the planning department access and workflow that application through its whole life in the planning cycle in the same system. Planning applications will thus also show up in the local area search on the website - and of course a citizen will also be able to get proactive notifications from their online account of new planning applications related to their chosen area(s).
Of course a lot of local government digital service providers won't want to get into the business of trying to enter a market for a system that another provider already has significant market share and expertise in delivering - they might want or need to just concentrate on their own particular offer. There's no shame in that. However, if all local government systems were to work with open standards and open APIs, with full two way integration that is easy to set up and configure between different systems, then that's fine. If I submit a planning application on the website, a two way integration to the separate planning management system will still make it look to me as the citizen that I'm dealing with one council digital service. With open standards and APIs there will be no need for people configuring different systems to go through the pain of trying to make the public-facing versions of those systems look the same - and then have to update them all when the main council website gets a site refresh, because the data from the LoB system can be surfaced to the website via JSON or another technology. And of course a digital service designed and built in a modular fashion able to easily recieve the data from open APIs doesn't just need to be restricted to other council systems, it could receive relevant data from central government systems, it could receive data from any other system.
Since the council knows that I already pay my council tax automatically by direct debit, there should be no need for the council website to encourage me to pay my council tax every time I go to it. Since the council can see that I look like I live outside the borough rather than in it, it doesn't need to promote so heavily all the services directed at residents, it can instead prioritise showing services directed at visitors. Since the council website is anonymously tracking my user journey behaviour anyway, why not introduce the option for it to explicitly track my personal user journey behaviour, so that over time it can learn which pages I access the most and offer them up to me in the home page top tasks area, rather than offering the top tasks everybody else apparently is interested in? And give me the option to add my own shortcuts on the home page. Why do I have to login to access some of this personalisation, if the personalisation is not personally sensitive - why can't there be an option for some of those preferences to be stored and available to me without an explicit login? And since the website can be configured to receive data from external sources via open APIs, why not enable me to configure the data I want to see myself on the home page from internal and external sources, so I can build up my own local portal?
If we make people go 'wow!' when they come to do something trivial, and make people go 'wow!' when they come to do something important, then they'll tell their friends. Their friends will tell their friends. The local media will tell its readers how good the council digital service is and how well the money is being spent. We'll achieve our channel shift and savings goals because people will not want to interact with us any other way - for those people, the council website will indeed become the council.
If we limit our ambition to getting more people to pay their council tax online, then we'll probably struggle to even achieve that. Let's raise our ambitions to create digital services which make people go 'wow!'.
#localgovdigital #localgov #manifestoIn group Public / Third Sector Digital
The Crumbling of Parliament
- 2019-04-05, 09:31:10
So everybody laughed yesterday at the House of Commons being suspended yesterday because of water gushing in through the ceiling. But here's the thing.
The Palace of Westminster is an historic building, part of our nation's heritage. Like all our other historic buildings it's supposed to be held in trust and protected, just like the buildings and monuments from ancient history have been by their civilised custodians.
The occupants of the Palace of Westminster have know for years that the building is literally crumbling around them - not only do all the utilities within a working building need upgrading, the masonry itself is falling apart - on a near-monthly basis a piece of the stonework will fall off and come crashing to the ground. But the elected occupants have for years prevaricated about coming to a decision on what to do about it. Everybody knows what actually needs to happen is they all need to decant to somewhere else entirely for a couple of years whilst a relatively short and relatively cheap complete repair and upgrade job is done, all in one go. But a sizeable number of MPs don't want to do that, they want to instead spend a couple of decades, and considerably more money - your money and my money, which could be spent on the NHS instead - on a bit by bit repair and upgrade programme, closing off sections of the building and re-opening them bit by bit.
So because they've been unable to agree on how the major repair works get done (hell, they only just managed to agree to start the repairs to the Elizabeth Tower in which the clock is kept, and there were plenty of them who opposed even that), they've not done anything beyond the odd urgent patch here and there. Leading to what happened yesterday.
Not only are they pissing about whilst the nation falls apart around them, they're pissing about whilst their own workplace falls apart around them; if they can't even be trusted to fix their workplace, how can they be trusted to fix the nation?
It's not just time for a General Election, it's time for a General Election in which every single sitting MP has to contest an open primary to be selected as their party's candidate. Or not be permitted to stand at all - we need a fundamental restacking of our democracy.
Brexit - what should happen next
- 2019-01-16, 09:16:41
The country and Parliament have failed to agree, and it's pretty clear they never will agree; the wheels have fallen off the Brexit train not least because the people who voted for and campaigned to leave have been unable to agree amongst themselves what 'leave' actually means. Here's what should happen next:
Revoke Article 50, make it clear to the Leave folks that the matter is not ended, spend the next two years trying to do what David Cameron failed to do at the beginning of 2016 (whilst the EU might be a bit more predisposed to grant the concessions they told him to whistle for back then, having seen that the UK actually is stupid enough to jump off a cliff if it so desires), also spend the next two years fixing some of the problems - including the UK's own botched implementations of EU directives and regulations - which led to the slender Leave victory in the first place, put the matter to The People again in a binding referendum with a properly fairly agreed franchise and a realistic enhanced majority threshold (55% / 45% seems reasonable enough), and implement any subsequent second Leave victory in an orderly manner with a National Unity Government rather than a minority leader behaving like they've got an absolute divinely-sanctioned majority.
Nobody could argue such a course would be undemocratic, because the procedure would be legally binding from the outset, and all but the minority extremists on both sides will get what they want, and the rest of the rhetorical 90% of the population who never cared one way or the other until 2.5 years ago can see the country talk about something else for a bit.
#politics #eu #brexit
Brexit, omelettes, and eggs
- 2018-10-17, 07:44:06
This, by or via Facebook user Jane Cody, is currently being widely shared around Facebook; reproduced here as fair use to allow people to see it without having to login to Facebook.
LEAVER: I want an omelette.
REMAINER: Right. It’s just we haven’t got any eggs.
LEAVER: Yes, we have. There they are. [HE POINTS AT A CAKE]
REMAINER: They’re in the cake.
LEAVER: Yes, get them out of the cake, please.
REMAINER: But we voted in 1974 to put them into a cake.
LEAVER: Yes, but that cake has got icing on it. Nobody said there was going to be icing on it.
REMAINER: Icing is good.
LEAVER: And there are raisins in it. I don’t like raisins. Nobody mentioned raisins. I demand another vote.
DAVID CAMERON ENTERS.
DAVID CAMERON: OK.
DAVID CAMERON SCARPERS.
LEAVER: Right, where’s my omelette?
REMAINER: I told you, the eggs are in the cake.
LEAVER: Well, get them out.
EU: It’s our cake.
JEREMY CORBYN: Yes, get them out now.
REMAINER: I have absolutely no idea how to get them out. Don’t you know how to get them out?
LEAVER: Yes! You just get them out and then you make an omelette.
REMAINER: But how?! Didn’t you give this any thought?
LEAVER: Saboteur! You’re talking eggs down. We could make omelettes before the eggs went into the cake, so there’s no reason why we can’t make them now.
THERESA MAY: It’s OK, I can do it.
THERESA MAY: There was a vote to remove the eggs from the cake, and so the eggs will be removed from the cake.
REMAINER: Yeah, but…
LEAVER: Hang on, if we take the eggs out of the cake, does that mean we don’t have any cake? I didn’t say I didn’t want the cake, just the bits I don’t like.
EU: It’s our cake.
REMAINER: But you can’t take the eggs out of the cake and then still have a cake.
LEAVER: You can. I saw the latest Bake Off and you can definitely make cakes without eggs in them. It’s just that they’re horrible.
REMAINER: Fine. Take the eggs out. See what happens.
LEAVER: It’s not my responsibility to take the eggs out. Get on with it.
REMAINER: Why should I have to come up with some long-winded incredibly difficult chemical process to extract eggs that have bonded at the molecular level to the cake, while somehow still having the cake?
LEAVER: You lost, get over it.
THERESA MAY: By the way, I’ve started the clock on this.
REMAINER: So I assume you have a plan?
THERESA MAY: Actually, back in a bit. Just having another election.
REMAINER: Jeremy, are you going to sort this out?
JEREMY CORBYN: Yes. No. Maybe.
EU: It’s our cake.
LEAVER: Where’s my omelette? I voted for an omelette.
REMAINER: This is ridiculous. This is never going to work. We should have another vote, or at least stop what we’re doing until we know how to get the eggs out of the cake while keeping the bits of the cake that we all like.
LEAVER/MAY/CORBYN: WE HAD A VOTE. STOP SABOTAGING THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE. EGGSIT MEANS EGGSIT.
REMAINER: Fine, I’m moving to France. The cakes are nicer there.
LEAVER: You can’t. We’ve taken your freedom of movement.
Have the police lost control of the city centre streets of Birmingham?
- 2018-10-03, 14:20:57
A couple of weeks ago when I was walking from work to the railway station along Dale End / High Street in Birmingham I commented that just about every evening when I walk that way there's some kind of blue light incident going on in the area.
Last night as I was walking along the road I saw that the blue light incident had been levelled up considerably by the entire area being sealed off.
It turned out what had occurred this time was a mass brawl of about 100 youths resulting in three people being stabbed. From eye-witness reports of the lead-up to the incident, it seems that to a certain extent some kind of rumble was already pre-planned:
"I was on the bus going into town and everyone started making weird noises as it started pulling up at the bus stand near the McDonald's.
There was a massive group of kids, I'd say they were probably aged around 16.
They all went after this one guy who looked the same age and grabbed him - he nearly went under a taxi.
There were probably about 30 of them. Then about 10 or 12 guys started stamping on him. I was on the phone to my mum when it happened and I told her I wouldn't be surprised if he was dead. They were stamping on his head and legs, everywhere. They kept doing it".
But it also turns out that my anecdotal perception of there being some kind of incident in the area every evening is borne out by the data - it turns out that on average, 48 crimes a month are reported just on that 20 yard section of road - you know, like at least one every day.
Hundreds of schoolchildren are causing “chaos” to businesses and shops around Dale End, with one shop owner revealing how youths “just steal things and run off”.
The “free-for-all” around Dale End and Bull Street is hitting shopkeepers hard, none more so than at Pound Palace near the ever-busy McDonald’s.
The shop owner, who didn’t want to be named, said: “It’s happening all the time after 3pm.
“The children come and then there’s around 200 people blocking the door and customers can’t get in.
“You try asking them to move and they just steal things and run off. The police are nowhere to be seen.”
But bearing in mind there is currently an enhanced police presence in the city centre just the other side of town right now because of the Conservative Party conference taking place, you've got to wonder, a mass gang brawl by a bunch of yobboes that looks like it was planned in advance? And they expected to get away with it because they know they get away with the disorder that is a constant feature of the area? There's only one conclusion - that the police have lost control of the streets.
Still, we're not entirely without measures to be kept safe in town - the entire of the city centre is encircled by a Ring of Steel of tank traps as a now permanent fixture since Christmas 2017.
So that's OK, if the yobboes causing 48 crimes a month wanted to storm the area in their stolen hothatches they'd be prevented from doing so.
Perhaps the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner might like to reconsider the effectiveness of these measures to prevent a hypothetical crime and instead consider re-prioritising the resources that are currently allocated to them into preventing the actual crime which is going on under their noses?
Given that this is a known crime blackspot during a known time of day, why isn't there a permanent police presence in the area to deter it - and ready to follow it around should it move from Dale End to, say, Pigeon Park?
Of course police budgets are stretched and getting more stretched with more cuts almost certainly on the way - this too needs addressing. But come on, what is it about our society that is now evidently so broken that this kind of behaviour is occurring anyway, regardless of whether there are police officers on hand to deter it? What kind of parents do these 100 children have that have clearly raised 100 yobboes who are quite prepared to kick the shit out of and stab - potentially fatally - one of their number in a mass attack in broad daylight in the city centre anyway?
#birmingham #society #crimeIn group Birmingham
Gmail - no longer considered secure enough for business or consumer use
- 2018-07-06, 09:59:03
So yeah, I've been generally working on reducing my reliance on Google services, not least because of Google's habit of withdrawal mission critical services that people are even paying for at the drop of a hat. Looks like Gmail is the next thing to replace, since currently all mail to star-one dot org dot uk actually gets read by us through Gmail.
I wonder what businesses - especially tech businesses tt- who are using Gmail Pro think of the possibility all their confidential business emails may have been read by developers at other tech businesses?
#technology #business #security
What laptop should I buy?
- 2018-06-15, 13:52:04
Roughly once a month or so I see requests from friends asking the world for general advice on buying laptops. Since it's quite burdensome to type out the advice I always give on my phone, here's a handy guide on the internet.
First of all, for most people's uses, pretty much any Windows, Linux, or Mac laptop you can buy these days will be sufficiently powerful for your needs. The only areas which will need extra power will be computationally-heavy tasks such as real-time audio (for example if you're making music with your computer), video editing and rendering (to be fair, a less-powered computer will still be able to do it, it'll just take a lot longer), or gaming. If you're doing any of these tasks, you'll need to go for the fastest computer you can afford; if you're doing real-time audio a Windows laptop will be OK, but if you've got the budget for a Mac then go for one of those instead, because Macs' audio handling tends to be much more efficient than Windows'.
If literally all you're wanting to do is a bit of Word, a bit of web and email, and a bit of streaming video from Netflix, then indeed the cheapest new computer you can get will see you right.
So on that basis, how do you choose?
First of all, you'll need to balance drive size, processor speed, and RAM.
If it's going to be your only computer, then you'll almost certainly need at least 500GB of drive space on which to store everything; this probably means you'll be needing one of the bulkier laptops rather than one of the modern ultra light ultra slim laptops, though laptops with larger faster Solid State Drives rather than slower Hard Drives are getting cheaper all the time. Yeah, you can use cloud storage, but the last thing you want is when you actually need it the file you need now to be in the cloud needing you to download it rather than right there on your computer. Alternatively, if you've got another computer as your main computer and you're looking for a laptop for handy out-and-about use then that increases your options, as you can get ultra-thin laptops with smaller hard drives for reasonably cheap, though I wouldn't recommend getting anything smaller than 128GB if your budget can stretch to it, and definitely don't get anything smaller than 64GB (I don't know if there are any ultrabooks smaller than 64GB, though).
You of course want the fastest processor and largest RAM your budget can stretch to - but if the selection you see in front of you all have the same processor speeds, go for the ones with more RAM, ideally at least 8GB, definitely not less than 4GB. In fact, for the most part if you see two computers for the same price, one with 8GB RAM and a slower processor, the other with 4GB RAM and a faster processor, then go for the 8GB/slow option, because your experience of using the computer will almost certainly be faster with more RAM than with faster processing - faster processors are better for single computationally heavy tasks (such as rendering video that you've been editing), whereas more RAM is better for allowing the computer to do multiple tasks at once. OK, you might be only doing one task at once, but your computer is always doing many things simultaneously!
We have not yet covered the most important things to bear in mind when choosing a laptop, though - and for that reason, you're best not choosing a laptop by looking at specifications on the internet, your best bet for choosing a laptop is to go into an actual real shop.
Having decided on your budget, go to the laptop shop and go to the section of the shop which has them in your budget range. Look at them. Pick them up. If they're not too tightly tethered to the counter, try resting them on your lap. Type a bit on them.
Because for the most part most cheap consumer laptops are pretty much evenly matched in terms of power, and as discussed above, for most consumer applications the least powerful laptop you can buy will serve most people's needs anyway, the differentiators between laptops isn't the power, but the product design and build quality.
Is it a nice weight to carry in your bag? Indeed, is it big enough to be able to use, and small and light enough to fit in your handbag rather than needing to be carried in a rucksack or laptop bag? Does it balance nicely on your lap? Is it easy and comfortable to type on (and rest your hands on when you pause to think)? Does it feel nice to hold? Is the screen sharp and easy to read, and reflection and glare free? (Though note that sharper screens tend to be more prone to reflection and glare, so consider what kind of environment you're most likely to be using it in) Is the pointing device - either a nipple in the middle of the keyboard or a trackpad below it - easy to use, accurate, and not prone to accidental clicking when your palm shifts? Does the actual whole thing look good on the desk?
These are the things which are most important to think about when choosing a cheaper end laptop - does it look and feel like a nice, comfortable, quality product?
One last thing - don't, under any circumstances, get a Chromebook.