Music education at the grownups’ table

I was asked by Alison Armstrong to comment on this Time magazine op-ed by Todd Stoll, the vice president of education at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Before I do, let me give some context: Todd Stoll is a friend and colleague of Wynton Marsalis, and he shares some of Wynton’s ideas about music.

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis has some strong views about jazz, its historical significance, and its present condition. He holds jazz to be “America’s classical music,” the highest achievement of our culture, and the sonic embodiment of our best democratic ideals. The man himself is a brilliant practitioner of the art form. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing him play live several times, and he’s always a riveting improvisor. However, his definition of the word “jazz” is a narrow one. For Wynton Marsalis, jazz history ends in about 1965, right before Herbie Hancock traded in his grand piano for a Fender Rhodes. All the developments after that–the introduction of funk, rock, pop, electronic music, and hip-hop– are bastardizations of the music.

Wynton Marsalis’ public stature has given his philosophy enormous weight, which has been a mixed bag for jazz culture. On the one hand, he has been a key force in getting jazz the institutional recognition that it was denied for too many years. On the other hand, the form of jazz that Wynton advocates for is a museum piece, a time capsule of the middle part of the twentieth century. When jazz gained the legitimacy of “classical music,” it also became burdened with classical music’s stuffiness, pedantry, and disconnection from the broader culture. As the more innovative jazz artists try to keep pace with the world, they can find themselves more hindered by Wynton than helped.

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What should we call classical music?

Everyone can agree that the term “classical music” is silly, unless we’re specifically talking about European music of the Classical period.

The Mozart family played actual Classical music

It’s incorrect to call Baroque or Romantic or modernist music “classical,” even though we all colloquially do, to the annoyance of the classical tribe. It makes even less sense to call the music of Steve Reich or Julia Wolfe “classical.” So what should we call it?

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Teaching reflections

Here’s what happened in my life as an educator this past semester, and what I have planned for the coming semester.

Montclair State University Intro To Music Technology

I wonder how much longer “music technology” is going to exist as a subject. They don’t teach “piano technology” or “violin technology.” It makes sense to teach specific areas like audio recording or synthesis or signal theory as separate classes. But “music technology” is such a broad term as to be meaningless. The unspoken assumption is that we’re teaching “musical practices involving a computer,” but even that is both too big and too small to structure a one-semester class around. On the one hand, every kind of music involves computers now. On the other hand, to focus just on the computer part is like teaching a word processing class that’s somehow separate from learning how to write.

MSU Intro to Music Tech

The newness and vagueness of the field of study gives me and my fellow music tech educators wide latitude to define our subject matter. I see my job as providing an introduction to pop production and songwriting. The tools we use for the job at Montclair are mostly GarageBand and Logic, but I don’t spend a lot of time on the mechanics of the software itself. Instead, I teach music: How do you express yourself creatively using sample libraries, or MIDI, or field recordings, or pre-existing songs? What kinds of rhythms, harmonies, timbres and structures make sense aesthetically when you’re assembling these materials in the DAW? Where do you get ideas? How do you listen to recorded music analytically? Why does Thriller sound so much better than any other album recorded in the eighties? We cover technical concepts as they arise in the natural course of producing and listening. My hope is that they’ll be more relevant and memorable that way. Continue reading

You kids like the wrong music

I saw this meme posted to a music education group on Facebook. The caption was something like, “Typical middle school/high school student.” I’ll leave the poster anonymous, because I’m sure they meant well.

contempt

Let me offer a translation of the translation: “I, the maker of this meme, think that kids should enjoy music with tempo variation, triple meter, no groove, and long orchestral forms. I loathe pop music and can’t imagine why a person might enjoy it, so I condescendingly presume that the kids are being suckered in by marketing and image, and that they’re too lazy and dumb to pay attention. Furthermore, not only are the kids enjoying the wrong things, their listening preferences are performing sexual violence against the arts.” That’s a lot of anger for an internet meme! Let’s unpack.

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Musical simples – Possibly Maybe

I’ve said it before and will say it again: Björk is the best thing to happen to contemporary music theory education. No matter what weird scale you’re trying to teach, she’s used it in a catchy, memorable tune. “Possibly Maybe” uses two weird scales: Lydian mode, in the verses, and melodic minor scale, in the chorus.

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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.

stir-it-up-chords

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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.

army-of-me-circles

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.

chameleon-circles

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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