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.


Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

chameleon-notation Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Defining harmonic relatedness

Linear music notation is good for reading, but it doesn’t tell you everything you want to know about underlying musical structure. Notes that are close to each vertically are not necessarily the most closely related. The concept of harmonic relatedness is a complex one, but there’s an excellent tool for beginning to get a handle on it: the circle of fifths.

The chromatic circle and the circle of fifths

The left circle above shows the chromatic circle, the pitch sequence you find on the piano. The right circle shows the circle of fifths. Each note is a fifth higher or a fourth lower than its counterclockwise neighbor, and each note is also a fourth higher or a fifth lower than its clockwise neighbor.

Unlike a lot of music theory you learn in school, the circle of fifths is not some arbitrary Western European cultural convention. There’s actual science behind it. If two notes are adjacent on the circle of fifths, it means they have a lot of overtones in common. If you know what overtones are, you can skip the next few paragraphs. Otherwise, read on.

Continue reading

Prototyping Play With Your Music: Theory

I’m part of a research group at NYU called the Music Experience Design Lab. One of our projects is called Play With Your Music, a series of online interactive music courses. We’re currently developing the latest iteration, called Play With Your Music: Theory. Each module presents a “musical simple,” a short and memorable loop of melody or rhythm. Each simple is a window into one or more music theory concepts. Users can learn and play with the simples using a new interface called the aQWERTYon, which maps scales and chords to the regular computer keyboard.

aqw screengrab

Continue reading

Rhythmic simples

In the service of teaching theory using real music, I’ve been gathering musical simples: little phrases and loops that are small enough to be easily learned, and substantial enough to have expressive value. See some representative melodic simples, more melodic simples, and compound simples. This post showcases some representative rhythmic simples, more commonly known as beats, grooves, or drum patterns. They’re listed in increasing order of syncopation, also known as hipness. Click each image to hear the interactive Noteflight score.

Boots N Cats

Boots n Cats rhythmic simple

The basis of “Billie Jean” and many other great beats. Continue reading


I have a whole lot of explanatory writing about rhythm in the pipeline, and thought it would be good to have a place to link the word “syncopation” to every time it arises. So here we go. Syncopation is to rhythm what dissonance is to harmony. A syncopated rhythm has accents on unexpected beats. In Western classical music, syncopation is usually temporary and eventually “resolves” to simpler rhythms. In the music of the African diaspora, syncopation is a constant, in the same way that unresolved tritones are constant in the blues.

Syncopation is not just a subjective quality of music; you can mathematically define it. Before we do, it helps to visualization a measure of 4/4 time, the amount of time it takes to count “one, two, three, four.”

The more times you have to subdivide the measure to get to a given beat, the weaker that beat is. When you accent weak beats, you get syncopation. Continue reading