What’s missing from music theory class?

In a recent comment, a reader posed a good question:

I’m classically trained (I do recognize a blues progression when i hear it though) so i would like to hear more of your insights into the forms, styles and methods of pop music — your observation that “most of the creativity in pop lies in the manipulation of timbre and space”, for example, was very interesting.To me the compositional technique of most pop and esp. rock/blues seems to based on noodling on a guitar and is directly the result of the tuning of the instrument and the ease with which a beginner can learn a few chords. The fact that many popular songs have been written by teams (mostly duos) of songwriters to me seems to corroborate my noodling theory — but I am very interested to learn if there are common practices, disciplines, methods, etc that have been used and transferred over time.

I have to add that I’m a little surprised to hear that pop musicians are baffled by the relevance of “academic” music theory to their music. If you wanted to teach a pop musician about the theory of his craft, what would you teach other than what is offered in any freshman theory course? (all right, you can skip the figured bass and species counterpoint).

Biz

My response: Continue reading

How should we be teaching music technology?

This semester, I had the pleasure of leading an independent study for two music students at Montclair State University. One was Matt Skouras, a grad student who wants to become the music tech teacher in a high school. First of all, let me just say that if you’re hiring for such a position in New Jersey, you should go right ahead and hire Matt, he’s an exceptionally serious and well-versed musician and technologist. But the reason for this post is a question that Matt asked me after our last meeting yesterday: What should he be studying in order to teach music tech?

Matt is an excellent case study for the music ed tech field generally. He’s a classical trumpet player by training who has found little opportunity to use that skill after college. Wanting to keep his life as a musician moving forward, he started learning guitar, and, in his independent study with me, has been producing adventurous laptop music with Ableton Live. Matt is a broad-minded listener, and a skilled audio engineer. His exposure to non-classical music is limited in the way typical of people who came up through the classical pipeline, but he’s eager to fill in the gaps. It was at Matt’s request that I put together this electronic music tasting menu.

So. How to answer Matt’s question? How does one go about learning to teach music technology? My first impulse was to say, um, I don’t know, but if you find out, please tell me. The answer I gave him was less flip: the field is still taking shape, and it evolves rapidly as the technology does. Music tech is a broad and sprawling subject, and you could approach it from any number of different philosophical and technical angles. I’ll list a few of them here. Continue reading

Pop musicians in the academy

Together with Adam Bell, I’m planning some in-depth writing about the phenomenon of pop musicians (like me) teaching in formal, classically-oriented institutional settings. This post is a loosely organized collection of relevant thoughts.

School of Rock

What even is “pop music?”

As far as the music academy is concerned, all music except classical or folk is “popular.” People who make bluegrass or death metal or underground hip-hop might be surprised to learn that their wildly unpopular music is referred to this way. In the past few decades, jazz has moved out of the “popular” column and into the “art” column. I myself have made a small amount of actual pop music, but for the past few years have mostly been involved in the production of artsy electronica.

How classical musicians learn: an absurd oversimplification

Classical musicians learn The Western Canon by performing and analyzing scores. The defining instrument of this music is the piano. All vocalists and instrumentalists are expected to be able to think in pianistic terms. Students are part of a pyramid-shaped hierarchical structure with long-dead composers at the top, followed by long-dead music theorists, followed by living music theorists and conductors and academics, and so on down to the individual section player. There is a contingent of living composers whose role in the hierarchy is confused at the moment. Most student composers are expected to operate within a tightly bounded tradition, whether that’s common-practice tonality or one of the various schools of modernism. The analysis of large-scale structure happens only at the very advanced level, if ever. Recordings are something of an afterthought.

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My Montclair State students evaluate me

I’m wrapping up my first semester as a legit college professor, and that means my first round of student evaluations. Here’s what my Intro to Music Tech students at Montclair State University had to say about me.

Paul composes in Logic

The creation of original music was a big hit, predictably. Everyone in the class is from the classical pipeline, and producing pop tracks was well outside of their comfort zone. After their initial resistance, though, everybody quickly got caught up in it, and I started having to chase them out of the room at the end of class. People thought I was a supportive and effective songwriting teacher, which is nice. A student wanted to learn more about song structure. I would like to teach more about it. In general, this is something I plan to start doing on day one in future semesters.

I also got rave reviews for talking through Beatles and Michael Jackson stems. Classical musicians don’t often get exposure to the creative use of the recording studio. Those stems are a rich resource for examining songwriting, arrangement, recording, mixing and editing. I wish I didn’t have to acquire them illegally from the shadiest corners of the internet.

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Adam Bell evaluates my teaching

Adam Bell is a fellow pop musician turned academic, and he hired me to teach at Montclair State University. He recently offered to observe my teaching; here’s what he found.

Teaching Observation of Ethan Hein – MUTC-101: Introduction to Music Technology

As the students began to trickle into the music technology lab and power up their iMacs, discussions immediately hatched about an upcoming assignment. A young woman turned on her speakers and played a work in progress made with the program Logic. “That’s cool!” responded one of her classmates as he listened intently. The piece commenced with a heavy guitar riff and shared sonic similarities with the “nu-metal” style of the early 2000s, comprised by the traditional trio of rock instruments: guitar, bass, and drumset. “Can we all listen to your song again? All the way through and more loudly?” asked Professor Hein. If there was a distinct moment when class had officially begun, this was it, and this was the first of many indications that the education occurring in this room under the guidance of Professor Hein is a continuing conversation that his students are engaged in and enjoying.

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What if music theory made sense?

Music theory is hard. But we make it harder by holding on to naming and notational conventions that are hundreds of years old, and that were designed to describe very different music than what we’re playing now. Here are some fantasies for how note naming might be improved.

music lens

Right now, the “default setting” for western diatonic harmony is the C major scale. It’s the One True Scale, from which all else is derived by adding sharps and flats. Why do we use the C major scale for this purpose? Why not the A major scale? Wouldn’t it make more sense if harmonic ground zero for our whole harmonic system was the sequence ABCDEFG? I know there are historical reasons why the unmodified first seven letters of the alphabet denote the natural minor scale, but so what? How is a person supposed to make sense of the fact that scale degree one falls on the third letter of the alphabet?

Furthermore, I question whether the major scale really is the one we should consider to be the most basic. I’d prefer that we use mixolydian instead. The crucial pitches in mixo are close to the natural overtone series, for one thing. For another, Americans hear flat seven as being as “natural” as natural seven, if not more so. While the leading tone is common inside chords, it’s rare to hear it in a popular melody. Flat seven is ubiquitous in the music most of us listen to, and in plenty of other world cultures besides.

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The saddest chord progression ever

My fellow NYU adjunct Rebecca Feynberg recently hipped me to Vasily Kalinnikov.

If you listen to this piece at 6:16, there’s a particularly lovely and tragic chord progression. It’s in the key of E♭, but I transposed it into C for ease of understanding:

||: Am | D7 | Fm | C :||

I mentally refer to this progression as the Willie Nelson turnaround, because he uses it extensively in his classic tune “I’d Have To Be Crazy.” I had the pleasure of performing this many times back in my country music days, and it makes a great lullaby for Milo.

Willie’s version uses a different harmonic rhythm, and starts on the I chord instead of vi, but the emotional effect is the same. Willie’s tune is in E, but again, I transposed into C for easier comparison.

|| C | % | % | % | D7 | Fm | C | % ||

At the top of the tune and in various other spots, he also uses this variant:

|| C | % | G7 | % | D7 | Fm | C | % ||

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Why do people love music so much?

We’re attracted to music for the same reason we’re attracted to fire: it’s been a critical survival tool for us for hundreds of thousands of years.

Partying in the stone age

Music cognition is one of the first high-level brain functions to emerge in infants, coming long before walking and talking. It’s also one of the last to go in people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Music (and its twin sibling dance) are fundamental tools for soothing infants, for attracting mates, and for motivating and bonding groups ranging from kindergarten classes to infantry units. It enables us to both express our emotions and to actively modulate them, both within ourselves and among one another. Music is one of the very few known cultural universals. It’s incredibly ancient — there’s good reason to believe that it precedes language in human evolutionary history. There’s plausible speculation that it precedes bipedal walking as well. It’s no great mystery why people like it.

The real mystery is why we in modern western civilization developed the perverse idea that music is a frivolity. Steven Pinker, an otherwise very smart person who should know better, describes music as “auditory cheesecake.” Here in America, we relegate music-making to highly skilled experts, while most of us participate in it passively or not at all. We shouldn’t be surprised that depression, violence, drug abuse and suicide are epidemic in our country, even among our unprecedented levels of wealth, stability and safety. Lack of musical participation is both a cause and symptom of our unhappiness, and it demonstrates the failure of modern civilization to meet our emotional needs. In other human societies, probably in most of them throughout our deep history, music has always been a part of daily life, on a level with cooking or gossip. We would be wise to restore routine music-making to its proper place in the center of our lives.

Provoked by this Quora thread, which includes an answer by Hans Zimmer.

Composing for controllerism

My first set of attempts at controllerism used samples of the Beatles and Michael Jackson. For the next round, I thought it would be good to try to create something completely from scratch. So this is my first piece of music created specifically with controllerism in mind.

The APC40 has forty trigger pads. You can use more than forty loops, but it’s a pain. I created eight loops that fit well together, and then made four additional variations of each one. That gave me a set of loops that fit tidily onto the APC40 grid. The instruments are 808 drum machine, latin percussion, wood blocks, blown tube, synth bass, bells, arpeggiated synth and an ambient pad.

40 loops

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Toward a statement of purpose

I’m in the process of applying for a PhD in music education, and I have to come up with a statement of purpose. Here’s my most current draft.

I dream of a world where music education serves everyone, not just potential classical virtuosos, with a radically revised curriculum that erases the distinction between “school music” and “real music.” This curriculum would be accompanied by accessible, thoughtfully designed technology for meaningful individual and group music making. Educators would incubate communities of enthusiastic music makers across skill levels and styles. My goal as a PhD candidate is to work toward making this vision a reality, using three mutually informative approaches: 1) scholarship and advocacy for curriculum change; 2) the design of new technologies and user experiences; and 3) the direct teaching of future music teachers. As a prolific and influential music blogger whose writing has been included in college syllabi internationally, I have been working toward these goals for some years already; my hope is that continued work with Alex Ruthmann, John Gilbert and the rest of NYU Steinhardt’s Music Education and Music Technology faculty will greatly increase my knowledge, credibility and reach.

My primary avenue of intended research is to design learning experiences that lead to active creative music making, even at the beginner level. Specifically, I want to devise new curriculum materials centered on the digital studio. In so doing, I hope to stem the epidemic of abandonment of formal music study. Tools like Ableton Live and Apple’s Logic are invaluable for encouraging students to produce original, culturally authentic music of their own. Creating pop tracks is an exercise with a low floor and high ceilings; novices can participate meaningfully, and experts can explore large-scale structure and novel timbral combinations. This work can and should come before theory and notation; otherwise we risk alienating the majority of would-be student musicians.

A great many teachers would naturally prefer their classes to be engaging and socially relevant rather than dry and antiquated. However, most music teachers have no idea how pop music is made. This is not due to lack of technical skill, but rather to a disconnect in musical sensibilities. The study of harmonic movement at the quarter-note level is poor preparation for music that eschews harmony completely, and the study of classical form does not give much insight into the loop structures of dance and hip-hop. Formal music education generally omits songwriting, improvisation, beatmaking, synthesis, MIDI, audio engineering, critical listening to recordings, and much else of value both to casual students and would-be pop practitioners. It is especially crucial that music teachers recognize the digital studio as a new musical medium, one that erases the distinction between composition, improvisation, performance, recording and mixing. Digital audio editing makes it possible for young musicians to approach the artifacts of their culture as producers rather than consumers, and enables even complete beginners to engage with music at the intuitively approachable level of riffs, phrases, chord cycles, and drum patterns. Approaching music this way does not just give entry into pop; it also opens new inroads into the study of jazz and classical. One of my main goals as a scholar is to devise music education curriculum materials that will help teachers adapt to this new paradigm.

Montclair State student works with Logic

The design of music learning technology is as important as the design of curricula. Indeed, the education of most pop musicians takes place outside of a classroom, in large part through direct trial and error. In this context, the presets, default sounds and user interface affordances in music production software and hardware are de facto music teachers with enormous cultural reach and impact. As Dr. Adam Bell (NYU Steinhardt PhD 2013) memorably put it, “purchasers of computers are purchasers of an education.” I would like to find ways to make that educational experience a better one. My intimate expertise both with formal theory and informal pop practice makes me ideally suited to design music education technology. My Masters thesis was a prototype introductory-level rhythm learning app that uses an innovative radial visualization scheme combined with creative exercises drawn from genuine dance, pop and hip-hop repertoire. I have since been asked by engineers at iZotope and Ableton for design insights, and my blog posts on interface and experience design have a substantial and growing global following.

My thinking on the role of technology in music education has been shaped profoundly by the MusEDLab, with whom it has been my privilege to work as a researcher for the past year. The Groove Pizza, an outgrowth of my Master’s thesis, is an emblematic MusEDLab project: a circular drum machine that visualizes rhythm patterns in the arrangement of plastic mushrooms, pepperoni and sausages. Beyond the novelty of the form factor, we believe that there is deep value in circular rhythm visualization as an intuitive representation of the loops comprising all pop and dance music. Radial rhythm visualizations also have rich value outside the music classroom; for example, they can be used to teach mathematical subjects including ratios and proportional relationships, angles, polar coordinates, rotational and reflectional symmetry, and modular arithmetic. I expect that my doctoral studies will dovetail neatly with the MusEDLab’s work, and that the two will mutually inform each other. I look forward to sharing the findings of our research with advocates for change in music curricula at the university as well as the primary and secondary school levels.

My own teaching practice has been and will continue to be a proving ground for new approaches. As an adjunct at NYU and Montclair State University, I am introducing future music educators to the possibilities of technology in the classroom, as both a toolkit for teaching music fundamentals and for fostering creative expression even at beginner levels. This work has already informed my thinking about the potential for experience design to make musical practice more accessible. I eagerly look forward to using my doctoral studies to engage in evidence-based design of new music learning experiences, to advocate for the adoption of those experiences, and to help teachers bring culturally authentic music into the classroom. In so doing, I hope to widen access to the essential social vitamin of active musical practice, and to guide students toward the discovery of their own musical truths. Thank you for your consideration.