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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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 the casual bloggy version.

Through a combination of research, writing and my own practice, I’m hoping to effect some changes in the way music is taught in schools.

We all know that music is not available to enough kids. But I’m alarmed by the fact that those kids who do have access to music classes don’t choose to take them. One survey found that as of 2012, 95% of kids who have access to elective music classes in high school don’t take them. It can’t possibly be true that 95% of kids are uninterested in music — that 95% includes me! So what’s going on?

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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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Will musicians ever be replaced by robots?

A Quora user asks whether artificial intelligence will ever replace human musicians. TL;DR No.

David Cope and Emily

If music composition and improvisation could be expressed as algorithmic rule sets, then human musicians would have reason for concern. Fortunately, music can’t be completely systematized, much as some music theorists would like to believe it can be. Music is not an internally consistent logical system like math or physics. It’s an evolved set of mostly arbitrary patterns of memes. This should be no surprise; music emerges from our consciousness, and our consciousness is an evolved system, not an algorithmic one. We can do algorithmic reasoning if we work really hard at it, but our minds are pretty chaotic and unpredictable, and it isn’t our strong suit. It’s a good thing, too; we may not be so hot at performing algorithms, but we’re good at inventing new possible ones. Computers are great at performing algorithms, but are lousy at inventing new ones. Continue reading

Shared sample projects

My students at NYU and Montclair State are beginning to venture into producing their own tracks. There are two challenges facing them, the small one and the big one. The small challenge is learning3 the tools: remembering where the menus are and which key you hold down to turn the mouse pointer into a pencil, learning to conceive of notes and beats as rectangles on the piano roll, troubleshooting when you play notes on the MIDI keyboard and no sound comes out. The big challenge is option paralysis. Even a lightweight tool like GarageBand comes with a staggeringly large collection of software instruments, loops and effects, even before you start dealing with recording your own sounds. Where do you even begin?

The solution I’m using with my classes is the shared-sample project. Students are challenged to build a track out of a particular sound, or set of sounds. The easy version requires that they use the given sound, along with any additional sounds they see fit to include. The hard version, and for me the really interesting one, requires that they use the given sound(s) and absolutely nothing else. I was inspired in creating these assignments by the many Disquiet Junto shared sample projects I’ve had the pleasure of participating in. I’m trying out my own project ideas on MSU advanced audio production independent studiers Dan Bui and Matt Skouras, and will soon be giving shared-sample projects to my beginner-level classes as well.

The first assignment I gave Dan and Matt was to use eight GarageBand factory loops to build a track. They were free to do whatever processing they wanted, but they could not use other sounds. Also, they only had an hour to put their tracks together. Here are the loops:

Eight loops

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Electronic music tasting menu

Right now I’m teaching music technology to a lot of classical musicians. I came up outside the classical pipeline, and am always surprised to be reminded how insulated these folks are from the rest of the culture. I was asked today for some electronic music recommendations by a guy who basically never listens to any of it, and I expect I’ll be asked that many more times in this job. So I put together this playlist. It’s not a complete, thorough, or representative sampling of anything; it mostly reflects my own tastes. In more or less chronological order:

Delia Derbyshire

This lady did cooler stuff with tape recorders than most of us are doing with computers. See her in action. Here’s a proto-techno beat she made in 1971.

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Remix as compositional critique

This month I’ve been teaching music production and composition as part of NYU’s IMPACT program. A participant named Michelle asked me to critique some of her original compositions. I immediately said yes, and then immediately wondered how I was actually going to do it. I always want to evaluate music on its own terms, and to do that, I need to know what the terms are. I barely know Michelle. I’ve heard her play a little classical piano and know that she’s quite good, but beyond that, I don’t know her musical culture or intentions or style. Furthermore, she’s from China, and her English is limited.

I asked Michelle to email me audio files, and also MIDI files if she had them. Then I had an epiphany: I could just remix her MIDIs, and give my critique totally non-verbally.

Remix as compositional critique

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