Pop songwriting in the age of the DAW

Bennett, J. (2011). Collaborative songwriting – the ontology of negotiated creativity in popular music studio practice. Journal on the Art of Record Production, (5), online.

My professional life at the moment mostly consists of teaching classical and jazz musicians how to write pop songs. While every American is intuitively familiar with the norms of pop music, few of us think about them explicitly, even trained musicians. It’s worth considering them, though. While individual pop songs might be musically uninteresting, in the aggregate they’re a rich source of information about the way our culture evolves. Bennett describes popular song as an “unsubsidized populist art form,” like Hollywood movies and video games. The marketplace exerts strong Darwinian pressures on songwriters and producers, polishing pop conventions like pebbles being tumbled in a river.

Tin Pan Alley

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The poetics of rock

I’m teaching at Montclair State University because of Adam Bell, a fellow self-taught rock and pop musician turned academic. Adam loves to quote The Poetics of Rock by Albin Zak, and rightly so.

The Poetics of Rock

Zak’s major point is that rock is an art form about making records, and that the creativity in making records is only partially in the songs and the performances. A major part of the art form is the creation of sound itself. It’s the timbre and space that makes the best recordings come alive as much as any of the “musical” components. We need some better language to describe the different components that go into making a rock record, or any kind of recording.

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Mixing “Call Me Maybe”

Sound On Sound ran this highly detailed account of mixing the inescapable summer jam of 2012. It’s the most thorough explanation of how a contemporary pop song gets mixed that I’ve ever read.

I’m interested in this article not so much for the specifics of the gear and the plugins, but rather just out of sheer awe at the complexity and nuance of the track’s soundscape. My cadre of pop-oriented music academics likes to say that the creativity in recordings lies not in their melodies and the chords necessarily, but in their timbre and space. “Call Me Maybe” is an excellent case in point. Its melody and chords are fun, but not exactly groundbreaking. Yet the track leaps out of the speakers at you, demanding your attention, managing both to pound you with sonic force and intrigue you with quiet detail. Whether you want your attention grabbed in this way is a matter of taste. I happen to love the song, but even if it isn’t your cup of tea, the craft behind it bears some thinking about.

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Listening, hearing, and the infinite loop

I was reading this super valuable post by Rob Walker listing different strategies for how to pay attention. Deep attention makes the difference between looking at something and actually seeing it. Rob is talking mostly to visual artists and designers, but his methods work well for musicians too–seeing is to looking as hearing is to listening. Paying attention is the most basic skill an artist needs in any medium, and one of the most basic skills a person needs in life. Not only does artistic practice require attention, but it also helps you learn it. When you look critically at a painting or listen critically to a song, you’re disciplining your attentional system.

Being able to focus deeply has its obvious practical benefits, but it’s also an invaluable tool for making your emotional life more manageable. It’s significant to me that the image below appears in two different Wikipedia articles: attention and flow.

Attention, and flow

When people ask why we should study the arts, the attention argument is the best answer. The variety of deep attention known as mindfulness is a powerful antidepressant. Teaching the arts isn’t just about cultural preservation and transmission; it’s also a cost-effective public health measure. Music isn’t the only method for practicing your attention, but it’s one of the best. This post will address my preferred method for focusing my musical attention: the infinite loop.

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How should we be teaching music technology?

This semester, I had the pleasure of leading an independent study for two music students at Montclair State University. One was Matt Skouras, a grad student who wants to become the music tech teacher in a high school. First of all, let me just say that if you’re hiring for such a position in New Jersey, you should go right ahead and hire Matt, he’s an exceptionally serious and well-versed musician and technologist. But the reason for this post is a question that Matt asked me after our last meeting yesterday: What should he be studying in order to teach music tech?

Matt is an good example of a would-be music tech teacher. He’s a classical trumpet player by training who has found little opportunity to use that skill after college. Wanting to keep his life as a musician moving forward, he started learning guitar, and, in his independent study with me, has been producing adventurous laptop music with Ableton Live. Matt is a broad-minded listener, and a skilled audio engineer, but his exposure to non-classical music is limited in the way typical of people who came up through the classical pipeline. It was at Matt’s request that I put together this electronic music tasting menu.

So. How to answer Matt’s question? How does one go about learning to teach music technology? My first impulse was to say, I don’t know, but if you find out, please tell me. The answer I gave him was less flip: that the field is still taking shape, and it evolves rapidly as the technology does. Music tech is a broad and sprawling subject, and you could approach it from any number of different philosophical and technical angles. I’ll list a few of them here. Continue reading

Composing for controllerism

My first set of attempts at controllerism used samples of the Beatles and Michael Jackson. For the next round, I thought it would be good to try to create something completely from scratch. So this is my first piece of music created specifically with controllerism in mind.

The APC40 has forty trigger pads. You can use more than forty loops, but it’s a pain. I created eight loops that fit well together, and then made four additional variations of each one. That gave me a set of loops that fit tidily onto the APC40 grid. The instruments are 808 drum machine, latin percussion, wood blocks, blown tube, synth bass, bells, arpeggiated synth and an ambient pad.

40 loops

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Toward a statement of purpose

I’m in the process of applying for a PhD in music education, and I have to come up with a statement of purpose. Here’s my most current draft.

I dream of a world where music education serves everyone, not just potential classical virtuosos, with a radically revised curriculum that erases the distinction between “school music” and “real music.” This curriculum would be accompanied by accessible, thoughtfully designed technology for meaningful individual and group music making. Educators would incubate communities of enthusiastic music makers across skill levels and styles. My goal as a PhD candidate is to work toward making this vision a reality, using three mutually informative approaches: 1) scholarship and advocacy for curriculum change; 2) the design of new technologies and user experiences; and 3) the direct teaching of future music teachers. As a prolific and influential music blogger whose writing has been included in college syllabi internationally, I have been working toward these goals for some years already; my hope is that continued work with Alex Ruthmann, John Gilbert and the rest of NYU Steinhardt’s Music Education and Music Technology faculty will greatly increase my knowledge, credibility and reach.

My primary avenue of intended research is to design learning experiences that lead to active creative music making, even at the beginner level. Specifically, I want to devise new curriculum materials centered on the digital studio. In so doing, I hope to stem the epidemic of abandonment of formal music study. Tools like Ableton Live and Apple’s Logic are invaluable for encouraging students to produce original, culturally authentic music of their own. Creating pop tracks is an exercise with a low floor and high ceilings; novices can participate meaningfully, and experts can explore large-scale structure and novel timbral combinations. This work can and should come before theory and notation; otherwise we risk alienating the majority of would-be student musicians.

A great many teachers would naturally prefer their classes to be engaging and socially relevant rather than dry and antiquated. However, most music teachers have no idea how pop music is made. This is not due to lack of technical skill, but rather to a disconnect in musical sensibilities. The study of harmonic movement at the quarter-note level is poor preparation for music that eschews harmony completely, and the study of classical form does not give much insight into the loop structures of dance and hip-hop. Formal music education generally omits songwriting, improvisation, beatmaking, synthesis, MIDI, audio engineering, critical listening to recordings, and much else of value both to casual students and would-be pop practitioners. It is especially crucial that music teachers recognize the digital studio as a new musical medium, one that erases the distinction between composition, improvisation, performance, recording and mixing. Digital audio editing makes it possible for young musicians to approach the artifacts of their culture as producers rather than consumers, and enables even complete beginners to engage with music at the intuitively approachable level of riffs, phrases, chord cycles, and drum patterns. Approaching music this way does not just give entry into pop; it also opens new inroads into the study of jazz and classical. One of my main goals as a scholar is to devise music education curriculum materials that will help teachers adapt to this new paradigm.

Montclair State student works with Logic

The design of music learning technology is as important as the design of curricula. Indeed, the education of most pop musicians takes place outside of a classroom, in large part through direct trial and error. In this context, the presets, default sounds and user interface affordances in music production software and hardware are de facto music teachers with enormous cultural reach and impact. As Dr. Adam Bell (NYU Steinhardt PhD 2013) memorably put it, “purchasers of computers are purchasers of an education.” I would like to find ways to make that educational experience a better one. My intimate expertise both with formal theory and informal pop practice makes me ideally suited to design music education technology. My Masters thesis was a prototype introductory-level rhythm learning app that uses an innovative radial visualization scheme combined with creative exercises drawn from genuine dance, pop and hip-hop repertoire. I have since been asked by engineers at iZotope and Ableton for design insights, and my blog posts on interface and experience design have a substantial and growing global following.

My thinking on the role of technology in music education has been shaped profoundly by the MusEDLab, with whom it has been my privilege to work as a researcher for the past year. The Groove Pizza, an outgrowth of my Master’s thesis, is an emblematic MusEDLab project: a circular drum machine that visualizes rhythm patterns in the arrangement of plastic mushrooms, pepperoni and sausages. Beyond the novelty of the form factor, we believe that there is deep value in circular rhythm visualization as an intuitive representation of the loops comprising all pop and dance music. Radial rhythm visualizations also have rich value outside the music classroom; for example, they can be used to teach mathematical subjects including ratios and proportional relationships, angles, polar coordinates, rotational and reflectional symmetry, and modular arithmetic. I expect that my doctoral studies will dovetail neatly with the MusEDLab’s work, and that the two will mutually inform each other. I look forward to sharing the findings of our research with advocates for change in music curricula at the university as well as the primary and secondary school levels.

My own teaching practice has been and will continue to be a proving ground for new approaches. As an adjunct at NYU and Montclair State University, I am introducing future music educators to the possibilities of technology in the classroom, as both a toolkit for teaching music fundamentals and for fostering creative expression even at beginner levels. This work has already informed my thinking about the potential for experience design to make musical practice more accessible. I eagerly look forward to using my doctoral studies to engage in evidence-based design of new music learning experiences, to advocate for the adoption of those experiences, and to help teachers bring culturally authentic music into the classroom. In so doing, I hope to widen access to the essential social vitamin of active musical practice, and to guide students toward the discovery of their own musical truths. Thank you for your consideration.


Ableton Session View and instrument design

We usually think of “recorded” and “live” as two distinct and opposed forms of music. But technology has been steadily eroding the distinction between the two. Controllerism is a performance method using specialized control surfaces to trigger sample playback and manipulate effects parameters with the full fluidity and expressiveness of a conventional instrument. Such performance can take place on stage or in the studio.

Controllerism is attractive to me because I came to music through improvisation: blues, jazz, jam bands. I spent years improvising electronic music with Babsy Singer, though she did the beats and loops, not me. My life as a producer, meanwhile, has involved very little improvisation. Making music with the computer has been more like carefully writing scores. Improvisation and composition are really the same thing, but the timescales are different. Improvisation has an immediacy that composing on paper doesn’t. The computer shortens the loop from thought to music, but there’s still a lot of obligatory clicking around.

It’s certainly possible to improvise on the computer with MIDI controllers, either the usual keyboard variety or the wackier and more exotic ones. Improvising with MIDI and then cleaning up the results more meticulously is pretty satisfying, though my lack of piano skills make it almost as slow and tedious an input system as the mouse. Jamming on iPhone and iPad apps like Animoog or GarageBand is better. What they lack in screen real estate, they make up for with form factor. Making music on the computer comes to feel like office work after a while. But you can use the phone or the tablet while lying in bed or on the ground, or while pacing around, or basically anywhere. Multitouch also restores some of the immediacy of playing instruments.

There’s also the option of recording a lot of vocal or instrumental improvisation, and then sorting out all the audio afterwards. This is the most satisfying strategy for infusing electronic music with improvisation that I’ve found so far. You get all the free-flowing body-centered immediacy of live jamming, with no pressure whatsoever to be flawless. However, then you have to do the editing. It’s easier now than it was five or ten years ago, but it’s still labor-intensive. It can take an hour of work to shape a few minutes of improv into musical shape.

All of this time, I’ve had severe DJ envy, since their gear is designed for immediacy and improvisation. It’s a lame DJ indeed who meticulously stitches together a set ahead-of-time in an audio editor. However, DJ tools operate at the level of entire songs. It’s not easy to use Serato to write a new track. I’ve been wanting a tool that gives me the same sense of play, but at the scale of individual samples rather than entire songs.

Enter the APC40. The form factor resembles an MPC, and you can use it that way, to trigger one-shot samples like drum hits or chord stabs. But the intended use case is for Ableton session view, starting and stopping the playback of loops. By default, loop playback is quantized to the bar, so whenever you hit a pad, the loop begins playing cleanly on the next downbeat. (You can set the quantization interval to be as wide or narrow as you want, or disable it completely.) Playing your loops live makes happy accidents more likely. Of course, unhappy accidents are more likely too. But those are easy to fix in Arrange view. When I discovered that NYU has a little-used APC, I signed it out and started teaching myself controllerism. Here’s a picture of it.

It seems complex, and it is. The Starship Enterprise quality appeals to my tech nerd side. Creating an Ableton session for APC playing is like inventing a new musical instrument, every time. After you design your instrument, then you have to learn how to play it. On the other hand, if you design your instrument right, the actual playing of it can be fun and easy. When I set up the APC with some Michael Jackson samples and let Milo try it, he figured out the concept immediately.

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All student work should go on the web

Well, it’s official. All of my students are now henceforth required to post all music assignments on SoundCloud.

It solves so many problems! No fumbling with thumb drives, no sharing of huge files, no annoyances with incompatible DAWs. No need to mess with audio-hostile Learning Management Systems. Everyone gets to listen to everyone else’s music. And best of all, the kids get into the habit of exposing their creative work to the blunt indifference of the public at large. Students can comment on and fave each others’ tracks, and so can randos on the web. It really takes the “academic” out of academic work.

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Electronic music tasting menu

Right now I’m teaching music technology to a lot of classical musicians. I came up outside the classical pipeline, and am always surprised to be reminded how insulated these folks are from the rest of the culture. I was asked today for some electronic music recommendations by a guy who basically never listens to any of it, and I expect I’ll be asked that many more times in this job. So I put together this playlist. It’s not a complete, thorough, or representative sampling of anything; it mostly reflects my own tastes. In more or less chronological order:

Delia Derbyshire

This lady did cooler stuff with tape recorders than most of us are doing with computers. See her in action. Here’s a proto-techno beat she made in 1971.

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