Musical simples: Stir It Up

The I-IV-V chord progression is one of the cornerstones of Western music, uniting everything from Mozart to Missy Elliott. Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” is as clear and concise an introduction to I-IV-V as you could ask for.

The song uses three chords: A, D, and E. They’re shown in the diagram below as turquoise, blue, and pink lines respectively.


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Musical simples: Army Of Me

Björk did the music theory world a huge favor by writing a pop hit entirely in Locrian mode, since it’s really hard to find a good real-world example of it otherwise.

You don’t see too many melodies written entirely, or even partially, in Locrian mode. It’s not a friendly scale. That mostly has to do with its fifth degree. In a typical Western scale, the fifth note is seven semitones above the root (or five semitones below, same thing.) In the key of C, that note is G. Almost all scales starting on C will have a G in them somewhere. But not Locrian. It has the note on either side of G, but not G itself.


This is confusing to the Western listener. So confusing, in fact, that it’s hard to even hear C Locrian as having a C root at all. Depending on the phrasing, it quickly starts feeling like D-flat major, or A-flat Mixolydian, or B-flat natural minor, all of which are way more stable.

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Musical simples: Chameleon

Herbie’s 1973 funk epic opens with an extended exploration of a characteristic chord progression from Dorian mode, one that’s a defining sound of groove-based music in general.

Start on the first note of Bb Dorian and jump to the next three alternating scale tones. The resulting chord is B-flat minor seventh, abbreviated Bb-7. Now start on the fourth note and jump to the next three alternating scale tones. The resulting chord is E-flat dominant seventh, abbreviated Eb7. These two chords are known as i-7 and IV7, respectively. (The lowercase Roman numeral denotes a minor triad, and uppercase denotes a major triad.) In the diagram below, the red arrows connect the notes in Bbm7. The blue arrows connect the notes in Eb7. The purple arrows connect the notes that are in both chords.


There are uncountably many funk tunes based on the i-7 to IV7 chord progression. The bassline to “Chameleon” is an exceptionally hip way of spelling the progression out.

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Musical Simples: Once In A Lifetime

“Once In A Lifetime” is a simple but remarkable tune based on a simple but remarkable scale: the major pentatonic.

Like its cousin the minor pentatonic scale, major pentatonic is found in just about every world musical culture. It’s also incredibly ancient. In Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, a paleontologist plays an unmistakeable major pentatonic scale on a replica of a 35,000 year old flute made from a vulture bone.

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Musical Simples: Superstition

If you had to explain funk to a visitor from outer space, Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” would be a great place to start.

Aside from the refrains at the end of each verse, the entire tune consists of variations on a single two-bar clavinet riff on the E-flat minor pentatonic scale. The scale might have a daunting name, but it’s extremely easy on the piano: just play the black keys.


The minor pentatonic scale is found in almost all world musical cultures. It’s no great mystery why everyone likes it: you can play the five notes in any order and any combination and nothing will ever sound bad. Notice that the scale notes are right next to each other on the circle of fifths above. Each note shares a lot of its constituent overtones with its neighbor, so it’s no wonder they all feel so closely related to each other.

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Defining harmonic relatedness

Linear music notation is good for reading, but it doesn’t tell you everything you want to know about underlying musical structure. Notes that are close to each vertically are not necessarily the most closely related. The concept of harmonic relatedness is a complex one, but there’s an excellent tool for beginning to get a handle on it: the circle of fifths.

The chromatic circle and the circle of fifths

The left circle above shows the chromatic circle, the pitch sequence you find on the piano. The right circle shows the circle of fifths. Each note is a fifth higher or a fourth lower than its counterclockwise neighbor, and each note is also a fourth higher or a fifth lower than its clockwise neighbor.

Unlike a lot of music theory you learn in school, the circle of fifths is not some arbitrary Western European cultural convention. There’s actual science behind it. If two notes are adjacent on the circle of fifths, it means they have a lot of overtones in common. If you know what overtones are, you can skip the next few paragraphs. Otherwise, read on.

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Resisting imperialism through secular devotion

I have struggled for years to articulate why I like the music descending from Africa so much better than the music descending from Europe. I’m a typical American in this respect. Every genre that the mainstream enjoys takes its rhythms and loop structures from the African diaspora: rock, hip-hop, and EDM, of course, but country too, and pop, which blends together all of the above. The music academy remains firmly rooted in the Western European classical tradition, but even in Europe, popular music is dominated by loops of heavy percussion. Why?

Timothy Brennan gives a compelling answer in his book Secular Devotion: Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz. Brennan says that white dudes like me are so attracted to the African diaspora because it’s a way for me to unconsciously enact traditional African religious practices, and in so doing, resist Judeo-Christian morality and industrial capitalism.

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User interface case study: Patterning

The folks at Olympia Noise Co recently came out with a new circular drum machine for iOS called Patterning, and it’s pretty fabulous.


The app’s futuristic look jumps right out at you: flat-colored geometric shapes with zero adornment, in the spirit of Propellerhead Figure. There’s nothing on the screen that doesn’t function in some way. It’s a little dense at first glance, but a complex tool is bound to have a complex interface, and Patterning reveals itself easily through exploration.

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