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.”

Beat subdivisions

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

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

Pedagogical remixing with Splice

My newest music student is a gentleman named Rob Precht. As is increasingly the case with people I teach privately, Rob lives many time zones away, and he and I have never met face to face. Instead, we’ve been conducting lessons via a combination of Skype and Splice. It’s the first really practical remote music teaching method I’ve used, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Rob came to me via this very blog. He’s a semi-retired lawyer who took some piano lessons as a kid but doesn’t have much other music training or experience. He approached me because he wanted to compose original music, and he thought (correctly) that computer-based production would be the best way to go about it. He had made a few tracks with GarageBand, but quickly switched over to Ableton Live after hearing me rave about it. We decided that the best approach would be to have him just continue to stumble through making original tracks, and I would help him refine and develop them.

Continue reading

Making chords from scales

A chord and a scale are two different ways of looking at the same thing: a group of pitches that sound good together. If you organize the pitches sequentially and play them one at a time, you get a scale. If you stack them up and play them simultaneously, you get chords. Here’s a guide to the most commonly-used scales in Western music and their moods.

To make a chord, you start on the first note of a scale and then move up it in thirds, meaning that you skip every alternating note. To get more notes for your chord, just keep adding thirds on top.

  • If you start on the first scale degree, add the third scale degree, and then add the fifth scale degree, you get a simple three-note chord called a triad.
  • If you add the seventh scale degree on top, you get a seventh chord.
  • Next you come to the ninth note of the scale, which is really just the second note an octave up. Adding it gives you a ninth chord.
  • Then you come to the eleventh note of the scale, which is the fourth note an octave up. Adding it gives you an eleventh chord.
  • Finally, you arrive at the thirteenth note of the scale, which is the sixth note an octave up. Adding it gives you a thirteenth chord.
  • The next third after the thirteenth is just the root of the scale. You’ve now used every possible note in your chord.

Continue reading