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 have been a practicing musician and music teacher for fifteen years. But my formal music education ended in middle school, and did not resume in earnest for over two decades. My story is a sadly common one. The vast majority of Americans who have access to formal musical study abandon it as soon as they are able. Yet most of us have an emotional relationship to music. I am unusual only insofar as I had the means and the tenacity to find my way back into musical practice on my own. I wish for a world in which music education produces broad-based communities of enthusiastic music makers, using a variety of styles at a variety of skill levels. My goal as a PhD candidate is to work toward making that wish a reality.

I intend to advance change via three parallel, mutually informative avenues: 1) the direct teaching of future music teachers; 2) scholarship and advocacy; and 3) the design of new technologies and user experiences. I want to help students use technology as a tool for liberating their expressive potential, to partake of the essential social vitamin that is active musical engagement. I further hope to devise and spread culturally authentic teaching practices that guide students toward the discovery of their own musical truths.

I have encountered a great many music teachers who would like to take a more creativity-centered, culturally relevant approach. However, most music teachers have no idea how popular music is being made. It is not a technical issue, but rather a musical one. Traditional music training does not map easily onto the rhythmically intricate, harmonically static loop structures of contemporary Afrocentric pop and dance music. Study of harmonic movement at the quarter note level is poor preparation for creative engagement with music that lacks harmony entirely. Classically trained musicians rarely learn how to write songs, use the studio as an instrument, improvise, rap, make beats, or identify the timbral qualities that make one synth sound work better than another. Music education has tended to treat composition, performing and audio engineering as separate disciplines, but in contemporary popular practice, the distinctions between the three are no longer meaningful. Having given myself a hard-won education in the digital studio, I am passionately committed to sharing my toolkit with other educators.

Access to the digital studio is invaluable for young music learners. It is a constructivist axiom that music students work best when they feel like they are making something of value. Digital audio editing makes it possible to apprach the artifacts of our culture as producers rather than consumers. Software enables complete beginners to engage with music at the intuitive morpheme level—riffs, phrases, chord cycles, beat patterns and samples. Approaching music this way does not just give entry into pop; I can attest that it also opens significant inroads into jazz and classical. My goal as a scholar is to extoll the musical values and possibilities of the digital studio to as wide a range of practitioners and policymakers as I can. As a prolific music blogger, I have been undertaking this project for some years already; my hope is that scholarly publication will greatly increase my reach and credibility.

Montclair State student works with Logic

In my own teaching practice, I strive to erase the distinction between “school music” and “real music.” I focus heavily on the production of original student work, and I require all of that work to be posted on the open internet. I am moving in the direction of having all student writing live on the web as well. I have seen how good a motivator the internet can be; rather than creating a folder of exercises that will be heard only by a few teachers and peers, students can build an online portfolio available to anyone in the world who cares to listen.

I also believe that dance music practice has a great deal to offer teachers of any kind of music. For example, there is no better form of compositional critique than the remix. Rather than evaluating student work according to some arbitrary rule set, a teacher can simply remix it, thus starting a conversation about alternative musical choices using the language of music itself. Teachers can carry out the remix/critique during class, so students can see the process, make suggestions, and ask questions.

For pop musicians, most education takes place outside of the classroom. Some of this education happens via peer-to-peer networks, YouTube videos and books, but a substantial percentage is through direct trial and error. 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 Adam Bell 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.

For the past year, I have had the privilege of working with the NYU Steinhardt Music Experience Design Lab. Rather than taking a narrow view of interface design or curriculum development, the MusEDLab approaches the holistic experience of the music learner, considering both the design of new technologies and their underlying pedagogical values and assumptions. The Groove Pizza is an emblematic MusEDLab project: a circular drum machine that visualizes rhythm patterns in the arrangement of plastic mushrooms, sausages, 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. In addition to music, radial rhythm visualizations 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.

How to write a pop song

My students are currently hard at work writing pop songs, many of them for the first time. For their benefit, and for yours, I thought I’d write out a beginner’s guide to contemporary songwriting. First, some points of clarification:

  1. This post only talks about the instrumental portion of the song, known as the track. I don’t deal with vocal parts or lyric writing here.
  2. This is not a guide to writing a great pop song. It’s a guide to writing an adequate one. Your sense of what makes a song good will probably differ from mine, whereas most of us can agree on what makes a song adequate. To make a good song, you’ll probably need to pump out a bunch of bad ones first to get the hang of the process.
  3. This is not a guide to writing a hit pop song. I have no idea how to do that. If you’re aiming for the charts, I refer you to the wise words of the KLF.
  4. You’ll notice that I seem to be talking a lot here about production, and that I never mention actual writing. This is because in 2014, songwriting and production are the same creative act. There is no such thing as a “demo” anymore. The world expects your song to sound finished. Also, most of the creativity in contemporary pop styles lies in rhythm, timbre and arrangement. Complex chord progressions and intricate melodies are neither necessary nor even desirable. It’s all in the beats and grooves.

To make a track, you’ll need a digital audio workstation (DAW) and a loop library. I’ll be using GarageBand, but you can use the same methods in Ableton Live, Logic, Reason, Pro Tools, etc. I produced this track for illustration purposes, and will be referring to it throughout the post:

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Ableton Session View and instrument design

We usually think of “recorded” and “live” as two distinct and opposed forms of music. But technology has been steadily eroding the distinction between the two. Controllerism is a performance method using specialized control surfaces to trigger sample playback and manipulate effects parameters with the full fluidity and expressiveness of a conventional instrument. Such performance can take place on stage or in the studio.

Controllerism is attractive to me because I came to music through improvisation: blues, jazz, jam bands. I spent years improvising electronic music with Babsy Singer, though she did the beats and loops, not me. My life as a producer, meanwhile, has involved very little improvisation. Making music with the computer has been more like carefully writing scores. Improvisation and composition are really the same thing, but the timescales are different. Improvisation has an immediacy that composing on paper doesn’t. The computer shortens the loop from thought to music, but there’s still a lot of obligatory clicking around.

It’s certainly possible to improvise on the computer with MIDI controllers, either the usual keyboard variety or the wackier and more exotic ones. Improvising with MIDI and then cleaning up the results more meticulously is pretty satisfying, though my lack of piano skills make it almost as slow and tedious an input system as the mouse. Jamming on iPhone and iPad apps like Animoog or GarageBand is better. What they lack in screen real estate, they make up for with form factor. Making music on the computer comes to feel like office work after a while. But you can use the phone or the tablet while lying in bed or on the ground, or while pacing around, or basically anywhere. Multitouch also restores some of the immediacy of playing instruments.

There’s also the option of recording a lot of vocal or instrumental improvisation, and then sorting out all the audio afterwards. This is the most satisfying strategy for infusing electronic music with improvisation that I’ve found so far. You get all the free-flowing body-centered immediacy of live jamming, with no pressure whatsoever to be flawless. However, then you have to do the editing. It’s easier now than it was five or ten years ago, but it’s still labor-intensive. It can take an hour of work to shape a few minutes of improv into musical shape.

All of this time, I’ve had severe DJ envy, since their gear is designed for immediacy and improvisation. It’s a lame DJ indeed who meticulously stitches together a set ahead-of-time in an audio editor. However, DJ tools operate at the level of entire songs. It’s not easy to use Serato to write a new track. I’ve been wanting a tool that gives me the same sense of play, but at the scale of individual samples rather than entire songs.

Enter the APC40. The form factor resembles an MPC, and you can use it that way, to trigger one-shot samples like drum hits or chord stabs. But the intended use case is for Ableton session view, starting and stopping the playback of loops. By default, loop playback is quantized to the bar, so whenever you hit a pad, the loop begins playing cleanly on the next downbeat. (You can set the quantization interval to be as wide or narrow as you want, or disable it completely.) Playing your loops live makes happy accidents more likely. Of course, unhappy accidents are more likely too. But those are easy to fix in Arrange view. When I discovered that NYU has a little-used APC, I signed it out and started teaching myself controllerism. Here’s a picture of it.

Learning how this thing works. Major musical challenge.

It seems complex, and it is. The Starship Enterprise quality appeals to my tech nerd side. Creating an Ableton session for APC playing is like inventing a new musical instrument, every time. After you design your instrument, then you have to learn how to play it. On the other hand, if you design your instrument right, the actual playing of it can be fun and easy. When I set up the APC with some Michael Jackson samples and let Milo try it, he figured out the concept immediately.

Can a two-year-old live remix Michael Jackson with an APC40? Let's find out!

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All student work should go on the web

Well, it’s official. All of my students are now henceforth required to post all music assignments on SoundCloud.

It solves so many problems! No fumbling with thumb drives, no sharing of huge files, no annoyances with incompatible DAWs. No need to mess with audio-hostile Learning Management Systems. Everyone gets to listen to everyone else’s music. And best of all, the kids get into the habit of exposing their creative work to the blunt indifference of the public at large. Students can comment on and fave each others’ tracks, and so can randos on the web. It really takes the “academic” out of academic work.

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A book you should read

I’m currently reading On Immunity by Eula Biss, which is so good you can’t believe it. Recommended if you’re interested in vaccination, health generally, being a parent, gender, race, class, the history of medicine, Greek mythology, vampires, or if you just need an example of how to parse out a difficult subject in a warm and elegant manner.

On Immunity

Also, if you have money and want to make a well targeted public health intervention, I recommend buying a bunch of copies and handing them out in front of the Park Slope Food Coop and the equivalent locations in Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Laurel Canyon, Portland, and wherever else well-educated professionals aren’t getting their kids vaccinated.