Victor Wooten teaches music teaching

Victor Wooten is an absurdly proficient bassist best known for his work with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. There was a period in my life when the Flecktones’ music was my favorite thing in the world. That period is long behind me, but I have a lingering fondness for their amiably nerdy sound. Recently, I came across a TED talk that Vic gave, and it’s a good one.

Vic’s experience doesn’t necessarily generalize. Most of us aren’t born into families of professional musicians. Still, his central message applies: we do a much better job teaching language than teaching music, and we barely “teach” language at all. We learn to talk by being around other people while they talk, and by doing it badly a lot without anyone correcting us. Eventually, through real-life practice, we iron out the technical kinks, find our own voice, and in the process, barely even notice that we’re learning. What if we learned music this way? It would probably be more effective.

Vic’s wisdom about music education is undeniable. What about the wisdom contained in his actual music? On this, my feelings are mixed. If you aren’t familiar with Vic’s playing, here’s a representative sampling.

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Musical simples: Stir It Up

The I-IV-V chord progression is one of the cornerstones of Western music, uniting everything from Mozart to Missy Elliott. Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” is as clear and concise an introduction to I-IV-V as you could ask for.

The song uses three chords: A, D, and E. They’re shown in the diagram below as turquoise, blue, and pink lines respectively.


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Musical simples: Army Of Me

Björk did the music theory world a huge favor by writing a pop hit entirely in Locrian mode, since it’s really hard to find a good real-world example of it otherwise.

You don’t see too many melodies written entirely, or even partially, in Locrian mode. It’s not a friendly scale. That mostly has to do with its fifth degree. In a typical Western scale, the fifth note is seven semitones above the root (or five semitones below, same thing.) In the key of C, that note is G. Almost all scales starting on C will have a G in them somewhere. But not Locrian. It has the note on either side of G, but not G itself.


This is confusing to the Western listener. So confusing, in fact, that it’s hard to even hear C Locrian as having a C root at all. Depending on the phrasing, it quickly starts feeling like D-flat major, or A-flat Mixolydian, or B-flat natural minor, all of which are way more stable.

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Musical simples: Chameleon

Herbie’s 1973 funk epic opens with an extended exploration of a characteristic chord progression from Dorian mode, one that’s a defining sound of groove-based music in general.

Start on the first note of Bb Dorian and jump to the next three alternating scale tones. The resulting chord is B-flat minor seventh, abbreviated Bb-7. Now start on the fourth note and jump to the next three alternating scale tones. The resulting chord is E-flat dominant seventh, abbreviated Eb7. These two chords are known as i-7 and IV7, respectively. (The lowercase Roman numeral denotes a minor triad, and uppercase denotes a major triad.) In the diagram below, the red arrows connect the notes in Bbm7. The blue arrows connect the notes in Eb7. The purple arrows connect the notes that are in both chords.


There are uncountably many funk tunes based on the i-7 to IV7 chord progression. The bassline to “Chameleon” is an exceptionally hip way of spelling the progression out.

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Musical Simples: Once In A Lifetime

“Once In A Lifetime” is a simple but remarkable tune based on a simple but remarkable scale: the major pentatonic.

Like its cousin the minor pentatonic scale, major pentatonic is found in just about every world musical culture. It’s also incredibly ancient. In Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, a paleontologist plays an unmistakeable major pentatonic scale on a replica of a 35,000 year old flute made from a vulture bone.

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Musical Simples: Superstition

If you had to explain funk to a visitor from outer space, Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” would be a great place to start.

Aside from the refrains at the end of each verse, the entire tune consists of variations on a single two-bar clavinet riff on the E-flat minor pentatonic scale. The scale might have a daunting name, but it’s extremely easy on the piano: just play the black keys.


The minor pentatonic scale is found in almost all world musical cultures. It’s no great mystery why everyone likes it: you can play the five notes in any order and any combination and nothing will ever sound bad. Notice that the scale notes are right next to each other on the circle of fifths above. Each note shares a lot of its constituent overtones with its neighbor, so it’s no wonder they all feel so closely related to each other.

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Compound musical simples

As I’ve been gathering musical simples, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to categorize them. There are melodic simples, otherwise known as riffs, hooks, and licks. There are rhythmic simples, otherwise known as beats, claves, and rhythm necklaces. And then there are the simples that combine a beat with a melody. Alex came up with the term “compound simples” for this last group. You might argue that all melodic simples are compound, because they all combine pitches and rhythms. But unless the rhythm stands on its own independent of the pitches, I don’t consider it to be a musical simple.

Here’s the first set of compound simples I’ve transcribed. Click each score to view the interactive Noteflight version.

Queen, “We Will Rock You

We Will Rock You compound simple - notation

The simplest simple of them all. If I needed to teach someone the difference between eighth notes and quarter notes, I’d use the stomp/clap pattern.

The melody is good for introducing the concept of rests, since you have to count your way through the gap between “rock you” and the next “we will.” Continue reading

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