Beatmaking fundamentals

I’m currently working with the Ed Sullivan Fellows program, an initiative of the NYU MusEDLab where we mentor up and coming rappers and producers. Many of them are working with beats they got from YouTube or SoundCloud. That’s fine for working out ideas, but to get to the next level, the Fellows need to be making their own beats. Partially this is for intellectual property reasons, and partially it’s because the quality of mp3s you get from YouTube is not so good. Here’s a collection of resources and ideas I collected for them, and that you might find useful too.

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Musical simples: Family Affair

We’re putting together the segment of Theory For Producers that deals with the minor modes. We needed an iconic example of natural minor, and we ideally wanted it to be by a woman. After many rejected alternatives, we settled on one of the high water marks of contemporary R&B, “Family Affair” by Mary J Blige.

I didn’t know until I looked it up just now that this was produced by Dr Dre. I’m not surprised, though, because it’s such a banger. Here’s my transcription of the string riff:

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Theory for Producers: the White Keys

I’m pleased to announce the second installment of Theory For Producers, jointly produced by Soundfly and the MusEDLab. The first part discussed the scales you can play on the black keys of the piano. This one talks about three of the scales you get from the white keys. The next segment will deal with four additional white-key scales. Go try it!

Theory for Producers: the White Keys

If you’re a music educator or theory nerd, and would like to read more about the motivation behind the course design, read on. Continue reading

Afrofuturist pedagogy

Väkevä, L. (2010). “Garage band or GarageBand®? Remixing musical futures.” British Journal of Music Education, 27(01), 59.

I believe that music education should engage with the music that’s meaningful to students. The field is coming to agree with me. School music programs have been gradually embracing rock, for example via Modern Band. Which is great! Unfortunately, rock stopped being the driver of our musical culture sometime in the early 1990s. The kids currently in school are more about computer-generated dance music: hip-hop, techno, and their various pop derivatives. We live in an Afrofuturist world.

Afrofuturist album cover

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Compositional prompts

One of the challenges in creating Theory for Producers (or any online learning experience) is to build community. When you’re in a classroom with people, community emerges naturally, but on the web it’s harder. We’re using email to remind students to stay engaged over time, but we don’t want to end up in their spam folders. To make our emails welcome rather than intrusive, we decided to do Weekly Challenges, one-line prompts for music creation. Participants post their challenges in our SoundCloud group.

I’ve been doing something similar with guitar students for a long time, in person rather than via email, for example with the one-note groove. In coming up with more prompts, I’ve been drawing on my recent foray into prose scores, inspired by the example of Pauline Oliveros.

Pauline Oliveros

Really, you could think of my collection of prompts as very short and simple prose scores. Please feel free to use these, for yourself, for students, or for any other purpose. All I ask is that you drop me a line to tell me how you used them. Continue reading

Musical simples – Under Pressure

Let’s just get Vanilla Ice out of the way first. White people and hip-hop, oy.

“Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie is a testament to the power of a great bass groove. The song itself is pretty weak sauce–it emerged out of studio jam sessions and it doesn’t sound like it was ever really finished. But what a bass groove!

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Musical simples – Teenage Dream

I’m working with Soundfly on the next installment of Theory For Producers, our ultra-futuristic online music theory course. The first unit covered the black keys of the piano and the pentatonic scales. The next one will talk about the white keys  and the diatonic modes. We were gathering examples, and we needed to find a well-known pop song that uses Lydian mode. My usual go-to example for Lydian is “Possibly Maybe” by Björk. But the course already uses a Björk tune for different example, and the Soundfly guys quite reasonably wanted something a little more millennial-friendly anyway. We decided to use Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” instead.

A couple of years ago, Slate ran an analysis of this tune by Owen Pallett. It’s an okay explanation, but it doesn’t delve too deep. We thought we could do better.

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Milo meets Beethoven

For his birthday, Milo got a book called Welcome to the Symphony by Carolyn Sloan. We finally got around to showing it to him recently, and now he’s totally obsessed.

Welcome To The Symphony by Carolyn Sloan

The book has buttons along the side which you can press to hear little audio samples. They include each orchestra instrument playing a short Beethoven riff. All of the string instruments play the same “bum-bum-bum-BUMMM” so you can compare the sounds easily. All the winds play a different little phrase, and the brass another. The book itself is fine and all, but the thing that really hooked Milo is triggering the riffs one after another, Ableton-style, and singing merrily along.

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Ultralight Beam

The first song on Kanye West’s Life Of Pablo album, and my favorite so far, is the beautiful, gospel-saturated “Ultralight Beam.” Say what you want about Kanye as a public figure, but as a musician, he is in complete control of his craft. See a live performance on SNL.

Ultralight Beam

The song uses only four chords, but they’re an interesting four: C minor, E-flat major, A-flat major, and G7. To find out why they sound so good together, let’s do a little music theory.

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