Musical simples

The NYU Music Experience Design Lab is putting together a new online music theory resource, and I’m writing a lot of the materials. We want to keep everything grounded in real-life musical practice. To that end, we’ve been gathering musical simples: phrases, riffs, and earworms that beginners can learn easily. My criteria for a good musical simple: It should be a piece of music that can stand on its own, and that makes a satisfying loop. It should be catchy, attractive, and (ideally) already familiar. And it should be between one and four measures long. We’re developing a web-based interface that will make it easy to learn a musical simple, play it back, and mutate and adapt it. Each theory concept will come with at least one simple to give it authentic cultural context.

It’s an axiom of constructivism that you learn best when you’re enjoying yourself. This might seem obvious, but it represents a break with music education orthodoxy. Music students too often have to do a lot of tedious drilling before they get to try some real music. Even then, those tunes tend to be nursery rhymes or dorky educational pieces. It makes a certain amount of sense to structure lessons this way: real music is complicated and usually well out of reach of beginners. Unfortunately, too many beginners give up before they make it past the nursery rhyme stage.

Beginner-level music teaching nearly always starts at the atomic level: single pitches, note values, time signatures. It seems logical that the smallest units of music would be the simplest ones. But this is not actually true. Beginners conceive of music at a more intermediate level of abstraction: fragments of tunes, moments of tension and resolution, loops and grooves. Self-taught and informally taught musicians do most of their learning at this level. A three-chord song by Bob Marley or Neil Young is a better entry point than the single notes comprising those three chords and the relationship between them.

Here’s a diagram from my masters thesis, adapted from a paper by Jeanne Bamberger:

Moving up and down the structural ladder

For more discussion of these ideas, see also Bamberger’s “Developing Musical Structures: Going Beyond The Simples.”

It’s hard to resist the temptation to start at the bottom of the abstraction ladder. Even though I’m a self-taught pop musician, I still instinctively “start at the beginning” whenever I set out to explain something to a student, and have to consciously remind myself to find a mid-level explanation first. I try to think in terms of chemistry. Atoms and their component particles are “simpler” than molecules and complex substances. But most of us don’t have direct experience with atoms. We’re familiar with water and air and rocks and metals. We need to think about water before we can understand hydrogen and oxygen. So it is with music. The musical simples are our molecules and substances, mid-level entry points that scaffold learning of atoms and electrons.

I was unconsciously gathering musical simples long before I heard the term. I was looking for stuff that’s easy to learn, but that’s also substantive enough to work as real music. The good news is that there’s plenty of simple music that isn’t lame. The music of the African diaspora is built on riffs and loops, and jazz and rock and pop are full of easy yet richly satisfying musical ideas. By carefully curating a simples collection, we’re hoping to make life easier for anyone who wants to teach or learn music in an engaging and pleasurable way. Here’s an assortment, shown both in standard notation and MIDI piano roll format. Continue reading

Pedagogical remixing with Splice

My newest music student is a gentleman named Rob Precht. As is increasingly the case with people I teach privately, Rob lives many time zones away, and he and I have never met face to face. Instead, we’ve been conducting lessons via a combination of Skype and Splice. It’s the first really practical remote music teaching method I’ve used, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Rob came to me via this very blog. He’s a semi-retired lawyer who took some piano lessons as a kid but doesn’t have much other music training or experience. He approached me because he wanted to compose original music, and he thought (correctly) that computer-based production would be the best way to go about it. He had made a few tracks with GarageBand, but quickly switched over to Ableton Live after hearing me rave about it. We decided that the best approach would be to have him just continue to stumble through making original tracks, and I would help him refine and develop them.

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Diverge, converge, diverge, converge

Soon after I became a composer, Marc Weidenbaum made me a meta-composer. Which I guess makes him a meta-meta-composer? A hyperproducer? There isn’t a word for what Marc is, aside from “awesome.” The most concise way I can think of to describe what he does: he writes reviews of music that doesn’t exist yet and then gets internet strangers to make it. Each track on this playlist is a reading of my score called “Divergence/Convergence,” and each one is quite different from the next.

Here’s Marc’s version of the narrative behind all this music. In a nutshell: I was asked to write a score for the NYU Laptop Orchestra. They performed it. I got a recording of the performance and remixed it. Marc assigned the members of the Disquiet Junto to “perform” the score solo. I got to have the strange and delightful experience of hearing all of the diverse music that resulted.

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Music in a world of noise pollution

One of the great privileges of working at NYU is having access to the state-of-the-art Dolan Studio. Listening to music on top-end Lipinskis through an SSL console in a control room designed by Philippe Starck is the most exquisite audio experience I’ve ever had, and likely will ever have. Unfortunately, it’s also very far removed from the circumstances in which I listen to music in my normal life. It isn’t even an issue of the speakers or amps, though of course mine are nowhere near as good as the ones in Dolan. It’s more about the listening environment.

Pete Campbell drowns it all out

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A history of pop production in three tracks

Earlier this spring, I subbed for Adam Bell‘s Music Technology 101 class at Montclair State. His sections were populated more exclusively with classical conservatory kids than mine, so for my one-shot lesson, I figured I’d talk them through some items from my illicit collection of multitrack stems, and give them a sense of the history of the recorded art form.

First up was “A Day In The Life” by the Beatles.

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Rhythm Necklace

I have a thing for circular rhythm visualizations. So I was naturally pretty excited to learn that Meara O’Reilly and Sam Tarakajian were making an app inspired by the circular drum pattern analyses of Godfried Toussaint, who helped me understand mathematically why son clave is so awesome. The app is called Rhythm Necklace, and I got to beta test it for a few weeks before it came out. As you can see from the screencaps below, it is super futuristic.

Rhythm Necklace

The app is delightful by itself, but it really gets to be miraculous when you use it as a wireless MIDI controller for Ableton. Here’s some music I’ve made that way.

I was expecting to use this thing as a way to sequence drums. Instead, its real value turns out to be that it’s a way to perform melodies in real time. Continue reading

Were the Beatles great musicians?

Most of us agree that the Beatles made great music. But “real” musicians like to argue that the Beatles were not necessarily themselves great. They certainly weren’t exceptionally great guitarists, or drummers, or keyboard players, or even singers. They were pretty good at those things, and had flashes of greatness, but you could walk into any music school and quickly find yourself dozens of more proficient instrumentalists. At this point, a Beatles fan might come back and say, well, the Beatles were great songwriters, which is different from being a great musician. The Beatles did indeed write brilliant songs (though they wrote their share of clunkers too.) Is musicianship coextensive with the ability to play or sing or write? I’m going to say that it isn’t.

We’re right to regard the Beatles as great, but not because of their performances, or even their songwriting. The Beatles are great because of their ability to create studio recordings. Their albums from Revolver onwards are hugely greater than the sum of the material, arrangements, and performances. Those late albums are masterpieces of recording, editing, mixing, and effects, of hyperrealist timbral and spatial manipulation, and of surrealist tape editing.

The Beatles produce some electronica

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Modern classical techno

One of my Montclair State students recently did a class presentation on Venetian Snares, the stage name of highbrow electronica producer Aaron Funk.

The track uses samples from the first movement of Béla Bartók’s fourth string quartet, accompanied by shuffled slices of the Amen break. It sounds to me like an EDM artist trying to deal with “art” music. Eliot Britton wrote an art-musical scholarly response. Britton makes a good-faith effort to engage the track on its own terms, but he’s writing from within the classical academic tradition. That tradition can be a king-sized drag.

The climb from a popular musical style to acceptance as an elevated form of artistic expression is steep. The struggle to include jazz as legitimate art music took many years and the endeavour continues to this day. However, it is no longer acceptable for educated musicians to dismiss jazz as “dance music” because of its association with the dance hall. To dismiss jazz as an artistic musical form would be a rejection of a major element of North American music history.

Oh boy. Let’s unpack! Continue reading