Pop songwriting in the age of the DAW

Bennett, J. (2011). Collaborative songwriting – the ontology of negotiated creativity in popular music studio practice. Journal on the Art of Record Production, (5), online.

My professional life at the moment mostly consists of teaching classical and jazz musicians how to write pop songs. While every American is intuitively familiar with the norms of pop music, few of us think about them explicitly, even trained musicians. It’s worth considering them, though. While individual pop songs might be musically uninteresting, in the aggregate they’re a rich source of information about the way our culture evolves. Bennett describes popular song as an “unsubsidized populist art form,” like Hollywood movies and video games. The marketplace exerts strong Darwinian pressures on songwriters and producers, polishing pop conventions like pebbles being tumbled in a river.

Tin Pan Alley

Continue reading

The poetics of rock

I’m teaching at Montclair State University because of Adam Bell, a fellow self-taught rock and pop musician turned academic. Adam loves to quote The Poetics of Rock by Albin Zak, and rightly so.

The Poetics of Rock

Zak’s major point is that rock is an art form about making records, and that the creativity in making records is only partially in the songs and the performances. A major part of the art form is the creation of sound itself. It’s the timbre and space that makes the best recordings come alive as much as any of the “musical” components. We need some better language to describe the different components that go into making a rock record, or any kind of recording.

Continue reading

Mixing “Call Me Maybe”

Sound On Sound ran this highly detailed account of mixing the inescapable summer jam of 2012. It’s the most thorough explanation of how a contemporary pop song gets mixed that I’ve ever read.

I’m interested in this article not so much for the specifics of the gear and the plugins, but rather just out of sheer awe at the complexity and nuance of the track’s soundscape. My cadre of pop-oriented music academics likes to say that the creativity in recordings lies not in their melodies and the chords necessarily, but in their timbre and space. “Call Me Maybe” is an excellent case in point. Its melody and chords are fun, but not exactly groundbreaking. Yet the track leaps out of the speakers at you, demanding your attention, managing both to pound you with sonic force and intrigue you with quiet detail. Whether you want your attention grabbed in this way is a matter of taste. I happen to love the song, but even if it isn’t your cup of tea, the craft behind it bears some thinking about.

Continue reading

First day of music tech class

I recently began my second semester of teaching Music Technology 101 at Montclair State University. In a perfect world, I’d follow Mike Medvinsky’s lead and dive straight into creative music-making on day one. However, there are logistical reasons to save that for day two. Instead, I started the class with a listening party, a kind of electronic popular music tasting menu. I kicked things off with “Umbrella” by Rihanna.

I chose this song because of its main drum loop, which is a factory sound that comes with GarageBand called Vintage Funk Kit 03–slow it down to 90 bpm and you’ll hear it. The first several class projects use GarageBand, and I like the students to feel like they’re being empowered to create real music in the class, not just performing academic exercises.

Continue reading

Listening, hearing, and the infinite loop

I was reading this super valuable post by Rob Walker listing different strategies for how to pay attention. Deep attention makes the difference between looking at something and actually seeing it. Rob is talking mostly to visual artists and designers, but his methods work well for musicians too–seeing is to looking as hearing is to listening. Paying attention is the most basic skill an artist needs in any medium, and one of the most basic skills a person needs in life. Not only does artistic practice require attention, but it also helps you learn it. When you look critically at a painting or listen critically to a song, you’re disciplining your attentional system.

Being able to focus deeply has its obvious practical benefits, but it’s also an invaluable tool for making your emotional life more manageable. It’s significant to me that the image below appears in two different Wikipedia articles: attention and flow.

Attention, and flow

When people ask why we should study the arts, the attention argument is the best answer. The variety of deep attention known as mindfulness is a powerful antidepressant. Teaching the arts isn’t just about cultural preservation and transmission; it’s also a cost-effective public health measure. Music isn’t the only method for practicing your attention, but it’s one of the best. This post will address my preferred method for focusing my musical attention: the infinite loop.

Continue reading

Subverting music education

Kratus, J. (2015). The Role of Subversion in Changing Music Education. In C. Randles (Ed.), Music Education: Navigating the Future (pp. 340–346). New York & London: Routledge.

Music Education: Navigating the Future

Here’s a horrifying story from John Kratus:

In 2009 I gave a presentation on collegiate curricular change in music for the Society for Music Teacher Education in Greensboro, North Carolina. One of the first slides in my presentation was an outline of Michigan State University’s degree requirements for the Bachelor of Music in Music Education. The outline included certain numbers of semesters for applied lessons, large ensembles, theory and ear training, and history and literature, as well as music education requirements including three tracks (instrumental, string, choral/general), introduction to music education, conducting, instrument and voice classes dependent on student teaching. I asked the audience members how many of them taught in a college program similar to that. Nearly every hand went up. Then I revealed that the program I described was taken from the Michigan State University Academic Programs book from 1959. The course descriptions, the performance repertoire, even the delivery of instruction were, for all, practical purposes, nearly unchanged in 50 years.

Kratus goes on to say that music education is way more than fifty years out of date.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the type of music education provided to contemporary collegiate music majors has deep roots in the conservatories of European capitols of the 19th century. In fact more than its roots are located there–21st-century collegiate music has retained the stems, branches, leaves, flowers, seeds, and pollen of its 200-year-old predecessors.

Continue reading

How to tell funk from disco

Here’s a short excerpt from my blues tonality paper that I thought would stand alone well on its own.

How do we decide that a song is rock, or folk, or country, or country-rock, or folk-rock? Nearly all American popular and vernacular is informed by blues. We can use this fact to help delineate overlapping and vaguely defined genre boundaries. Just as we can explain genre in terms of characteristic rhythms and timbres, so too can we explain it in terms of the amount of blues harmony present. Good pop and jazz practitioners already do this implicitly. A guitarist or singer needs a sense of how much blues tonality to use in order to sound more characteristically ‘jazzy’ or ‘country’ or ‘rock.’

Let’s use the example of funk. Aficionados like me know when music is funky. But how do we know? The most obvious characteristic to point to is the beat. But you can also hear funk rhythms in disco, hip-hop, R&B, rock, and even country — Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is super funky. We can distinguish funk as a genre more specifically using its harmonic content. Funk is the most heavily blues-based genre aside from blues itself. While rock and country combine blues harmony with diatonicism, funk adds in jazz harmony instead.

Funk

Continue reading

DJ Earworm on the art of the mashup

DJ Earworm is the foremost practitioner of the art of the mashup. I don’t think there’s a more interesting musician in the world right now. I was on public radio with him once! His main claim to fame is the United State of Pop series, where he combines the top 25 US pop songs of a given year into a single, seamlessly coherent track. I’ve scattered several of them throughout this post. He has started doing more seasonal mashups as well; here’s one from this past summer:

It’s rare that an artist talks you through their production process in depth, so I was delighted to discover that DJ Earworm wrote an entire book about mashup production. He wrote it in 2007 and focused it on Sony Acid, so from a technical standpoint, it might not be super useful to you. But as with the KLF’s pop songwriting tutorial, the creative method he espouses transcends technology and time period, and it would be of value to any musician. Some choice passages follow.

Continue reading

Terry Riley and Taylor Swift

I don’t have much of a relationship to… what should we call it? Modern classical music? That’s the term commonly used by ignoramuses like me, but it’s a silly one, contradictory on its face. The practitioners themselves call it “new music,” which is even worse, since it implies that all that other music out there that’s new is not really music. Steve Reich has the best term: notated music. It’s accurate and non-judgmental, and it encompasses the vast range of styles currently being explored by composers. Anyway, I don’t have much of a relationship to notated music. Terry Riley is a name that people in my circle throw around, but I hadn’t listened closely to him until I read an amazing New Music Box post about him. More on that below.

Terry Riley’s most salient influence on my musical life comes from A Rainbow In Curved Air. Fans of The Who will immediately recognize it as the template for the intro to “Baba O’Riley.”

Riley’s pattern-sequenced organ also inspired a ton of prog rock and ambient electronica. However, this post is not about A Rainbow In Curved Air. It’s about the piece that cemented Riley’s place in the High Culture Canon: In C.

Continue reading