The happiest chord progression ever

If you’re interested in learning more about chords and emotions, take my online course.

See also the saddest chord progression ever.

We think of descending melodies and chord progressions as being sad. But the happiest song of all time also has a descending progression: “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5.

This recording was made just after Michael’s eleventh birthday. I do not approve of child labor, and making a prepubescent boy sing all these songs about romantic love ended up having some grim long-term psychological consequences. But god, what a performance.

Continue reading

Duke Ellington, Percy Grainger, and the status of jazz in the academy

Final paper for The History of the African-American Freedom Struggle with Thomas Sugrue

On October 25, 1932, Percy Grainger invited Duke Ellington and his orchestra to perform “Creole Love Call” as part of a music lecture at New York University. It was the first time any university had invited a jazz musician to perform in an academic context. I will argue that the meeting of Grainger and Ellington is a prism refracting the broader story of the music academy’s slow and reluctant embrace of jazz. This story, in turn, is a cultural reflection of the broader African-American freedom struggle.

Percy Grainger and Duke Ellington, 1935

Ellington has come to embody the cultural prestige now enjoyed by jazz. He appears on Washington DC’s state quarter, and his statue overlooks a corner of Central Park in New York City. In 1932, however, Ellington was known to official music culture as the leader of a popular dance band and the writer of a few catchy tunes. While he was already a celebrity, few white people outside of jazz fandom considered him to be a serious artist. That year, Ellington received his first favorable review from a classical critic, followed by endorsements from Grainger and a few other figures from the music establishment. However, for the most part, authorities of the time held jazz in low regard, relegating it to much the same position occupied by hip-hop in the present: undeniably popular, vibrant perhaps, but deficient in musical quality, and even, according to some critics, a threat to the nation’s morals.

Continue reading

In praise of the Reflex Re-Edit

The Reflex is a London-based French DJ and producer named Nicolas Laugier. He specializes in a particular kind of remix, the re-edit, in which you rework a song using only sounds found within the song itself, ideally using the multitrack stems. Some re-edits keep the original more or less intact, but with a punchier mix and a new breakdown section or whatever. Others (the ones I find more interesting) radically transform their source material by moving pieces around in unexpected ways. Read this Greg Wilson interview to learn more about Laugier’s process.

The Reflex

I really love Laugier’s tracks, on several levels. First, he has a fine ear for mixing, and his edits always have spectacular clarity and depth, often sounding better than the originals. There’s intellectual pleasure, too: it’s fun to hear a fresh take on these deeply familiar recordings, and the music educator in me adores the idea of using music itself as a medium for music criticism. Laugier implicitly critiques the music he edits, saying, “This song is cool, but wouldn’t it be cooler if the drums were more prominent, and we heard this keyboard part in isolation, and there was a longer groove in the intro?” I always prefer music analysis that I can dance to.  Continue reading

The fake and the real in Chance the Rapper’s “All We Got”

Every semester in Intro to Music Tech, we have Kanye West Day, when we listen analytically to some of Ye’s most sonically adventurous tracks (there are many to choose from.) The past few semesters, Kanye West Day has centered on “Ultralight Beam,” especially Chance The Rapper’s devastating verse. That has naturally led to a look at Chance’s “All We Got.”

All the themes of the class are here: the creative process in the studio, “fake” versus “real” sounds, structure versus improvisation, predictability versus surprise, and the way that soundscape and groove do much more expressive work than melody or harmony.

Continue reading

The vocoder and Auto-Tune

This post documents a presentation I’m giving in my History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See also a more formal history of the vocoder.

The vocoder is one of those mysterious technologies that’s far more widely used than understood. Here I explain what it is, how it works, and why you should care.

Casual music listeners know the vocoder best as a way to make the robot voice effect that Daft Punk uses all the time.

Here’s Huston Singletary demonstrating the vocoder in Ableton Live.

You may be surprised to learn that you use a vocoder every time you talk on your cell phone. Also, the vocoder gave rise to Auto-Tune, which, love it or hate it, is the defining sound of contemporary popular music. Let’s dive in!

Continue reading

Teaching myself the Bach chaconne with Ableton Live

Recently someone posted this performance of the chaconne from Bach’s violin partita in D minor on an eleven-string guitar.

My favorite interpretation by an actual violinist is Viktoria Mullova’s. I appreciate her straightforward approach, without all the romantic schmaltz.

I also enjoy the version from Morimur, and I’m not alone. This is one of the most popular classical albums of all time:

Continue reading

It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Blogging)

My favorite Bob Dylan song is “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding.)” It’s not the one I listen to the most, and it’s not the one I’ve given the most effort to singing or playing. But it’s the one that sounds the most “Bob Dylan-y,” the one that combines all of his many influences into the most singular whole. A close runner up would be “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” but while that song has remarkable lyrics, it’s melodically pretty conventional. “It’s Alright Ma” is rivetingly strange on every level.

Steven Rings wrote this epic study of the song’s evolution over the past 45 years, and if you’re at all interested in Bob’s music, it’s a must-read. It’s the closest musical analysis of Bob I’ve ever seen. Reading Rings’ paper and doing listening with fresh ears has made me realize that “It’s Alright Ma” is stronger musically than lyrically. This is true of a lot of Bob’s songs, his literary reputation notwithstanding. On the page, he can have a dated Holden Caulfield quality. But when you hear his words sung, or better yet, when you sing them yourself, they’re as fresh as they ever were. Continue reading