Music theory blues

Reading Schenkerian analyses of blues, each one wronger than the last, fills me with righteous rage, and helps me focus my arguments. Here are some particularly awful quotes from a scholar who will remain nameless, because I don’t believe that the racism is intended:

Blue notes, by nature, are alienated from their harmonic environment and have a dissonant relationship with them, giving the blues and all its derivatives a rough, angry character. Nevertheless, the hostility of blue notes toward the surrounding world may be mitigated—“domesticated”—through consonantization.

Blue notes (BNs), by nature, spoil the diatonicism of and cause dissonance in “clean” chords. But these notes may achieve their own independent harmonization, thereby being domesticated and turning into “environment-friendly” consonant notes.

The products of the consonantization of the BNs, which appear in a major-mode harmonic environment, are necessarily flatted degrees. These degrees turn the BNs from minor notes, which are “alien” to the major chords that build the basic harmonic progression, into “family” notes that are “at home” in these chords. The legitimacy that the flatted chords give the BNs is ostensibly the opposite of the “emancipation”that Arnold Schoenberg gave dissonant notes when he freed them from having to resolve to consonance, since the BNs by nature are dissonant notes with no obligation to be resolved.

However, the domestication of the BNs is an emancipatory act, since they thereby stop clashing with the harmony and instead become settled in it.

In Example 1(e), we see flatted or “minorized” degrees, among them VI and III. These degrees now include 3ˆ and 7ˆ not as BNs but in a mixtural framework—that is, as an insertion of flatted notes in a major key. Both of these—mixture and BNs—are common in the Beatles’ songs. Are they related? Ostensibly, they are two completely different things: the journey back in time in quest of the origins of blues will take us to the Mississippi Delta and from there to Africa, whereas the search for the origins of mixture, which is anchored in traditional harmony, will eventually lead us to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. The connection goes through the “domestication of BNs”—when it can be shown that a particular BN has changed from being outside the consonant harmony, in which case we may regard it as a garnish or a “disturbance,”to being an integral part of a consonant triad. If, for example, we can claim in a particular context that the III chord in Example 1(e) is based on a BN (G), then the status of this BN has improved substantially relative to its status in (c): instead of being an outsider, it becomes a distinguished member of the club of the flatted mediant without losing its blues character.

The status of these [blue] notes in the harmonic society improves substantially in part B: they become the roots of VII and III, and thus they become respected members of the community and live in consonant harmony with the rest of the notes. Their past is nevertheless evident in the descriptive term CBN, which is imprinted on their identity cards.

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Blues tonality

Most Americans who study music formally do so using common-practice era western tonal theory. Tonal theory is very useful in understanding the music of western Europe in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the music derived from it. However, tonal theory is inadequate to explain the blues and other musics of the African diaspora. Given the central role of this music in both popular culture and art music, music theory classes do their students a grave disservice by not discussing its harmonic content.

The blues is based around a very different set of harmonic expectations than the ones underlying classical music. In the blues, major and minor tonality are freely intermingled. Dominant seventh chords can function as tonics. Tritones may or may not resolve. The blues scale is as basic in this context as the major scale is in tonal harmony. We need some new and better vocabulary. In this post, I propose that we teach blues tonality as a distinct category from major or minor, combining elements of both with elements not found in either.

In conventional tonal theory teaching, the major scale is taught as the most basic and fundamental theoretical building block. The very language of tonal theory proceeds from the assumption that the major scale is the most ‘natural’ one. For example, in the key of C major, we modify the ‘natural’ seventh B to produce the ‘flat’ seventh B♭. In the context of western Europeans music, this convention makes good musical sense. But western Europe is not the only salient influence on the musical culture of the United States. The music of the African diaspora is equally fundamental, and it has come to weigh increasingly heavily over time.

African diasporic musical culture expresses itself through all of America’s indigenous music: jazz, rock, hip-hop, R&B, country, and of course, the blues. The music academy gathers all of these genres together under the term ‘popular music’ (with the exception of jazz, which in recent decades has become a ‘legitimate’ art music.) Steven Feld goes so far as to describe American popular music as “a euphemism for Afro-American popular musics” (31). Growing up in America’s popular culture enculturates us with a quite different sense of what ‘natural’ harmony is. For example, DeClerq and Temperley (2011) show that the ♭VII chord is vastly more prevalent in rock than in common-practice classical music. To a lifelong rock listener, B♭ may well sound more ‘natural’ in the key of C than B does.

I propose that we teach blues tonality as a distinct category from major or minor, combining elements of both with elements not found in either. Furthermore, I propose that we present blues tonality as being as fundamental a tonal category as major or minor, rather than as a strange exception. Popular musicians, who tend to be self-taught, already effectively do treat blues this way (Green 2002, 43). The music academy should do the same.

Defining blues tonality

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Internet blues

Recently, WNYC’s great music show Soundcheck held a contest to see who could do the best version of the 100 year old song “Yellow Dog Blues” by WC Handy.

Marc Weidenbaum had the members of the Disquiet Junto enter the contest en masse. I did my track, put it on SoundCloud, and promptly forgot all about it.

A month later, I was surprised and delighted to learn from Marc’s blog that the contest winner was Junto stalwart Westy Reflector.

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Reflections on teaching Ableton Live, part two

In my first post in this series, I briefly touched on the problem of option paralysis facing all electronic musicians, especially the ones who are just getting started. In this post, I’ll talk more about pedagogical strategies for keeping beginners from being overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities of sampling and synthesis.

Building a pop song structure

This is part of a larger argument why Ableton Live and software like it really needs a pedagogy specifically devoted to it. The folks at Ableton document their software extremely well, but their materials presume familiarity with their own musical culture. Most people aren’t already experimental techno producers. They need to be taught the musical values, conventions and creative approaches that Ableton Live is designed around. They also need some help in selecting raw musical materials. We the music teachers can help, by putting tools like Ableton into musical context, and by curating finitely bounded sets of sounds to work with. Doing so will lower barriers to entry, which means happier users (and better sales for Ableton.) Continue reading

Composing improvisationally with Ableton Live

I just completed a batch of new music, which was improvised freely in the studio and then later shaped into structured tracks.

I thought it would be helpful to document the process behind this music, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I expect to be teaching this kind of production a lot more in the future. Second, knowing how the tracks were made might be helpful to you in enjoying them. Third, composing the music during or after recording rather than before has become the dominant pop production method, and I want to help my fellow highbrow musicians to get hip to it. Continue reading

Recording Peter Gabriel’s Security

This post was originally written for the Play With Your Music blog. Also be sure to check out our interview with engineer Kevin Killen and drummer Jerry Marotta.

Peter Gabriel’s songwriting and recording process in the early 1980s was unusual for its technological sophistication, playfulness and reliance on improvisation. While Peter was considered avant-garde back then, now that music technology is a lot cheaper and more accessible, his practices have become the baseline standard for pop, dance and hip-hop.

Peter Gabriel's Security

The South Bank Show’s long 1983 documentary on the making of Peter Gabriel’s fourth solo album Security follows the production of the album from its earliest conception to its release and critical reception. It’s an invaluable record both of Peter’s creative process and the technology behind it.

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TufAmerica suing Frank Ocean is ridiculous

Maybe, like me, you’re a fan of “Super Rich Kids” by Frank Ocean featuring Earl Sweatshirt.

Maybe, like me, you were especially delighted by the part at 1:59, when Frank unexpectedly quotes “Real Love” by Mary J. Blige.

A “record label” (really a group of lawyers) called TufAmerica heard that quote too, and now they’re suing Frank Ocean for sampling their property without permission. TufAmerica owns 3.15% of “Real Love.” They acquired this stake by suing Mary J. Blige, whose song samples “Top Billin'” by Audio Two.

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Against Music Theory – some commentary

My fellow music tech student Laura Dickens had some thoughts about my recent music theory rant. This is a lightly edited version of our Facebook conversation.

Laura: Have you ever read any Susan McClary? I feel like you could probably get into that…

Me: Yes! Susan McClary is the best! She shares my belief in the joy of repetition.

Laura: Personally, I loved music theory when it became more about analysis and interpretation, and less about doing endless counterpoint exercises. All music theory is is a way of understanding music from the past, using certain rules gleaned from that music and seeing how those rules are played with by certain composers and and how those rules changed over time… although I agree with you that theory as it is taught in big institutions is very Eurocentric. It is a tool for analysis, and learning all those boring counterpoint rules aren’t so that you can then go out and write a bunch of chorales… it’s more like learning to read middle English so that you can read/analyze some Chaucer. Or learning about 17th century poetic/styles forms in order to which still influence the way poems are written today… So that’s why I think music theory is important/useful.

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Hereditary units in music

Another thought-provoking Quora question: Are there any hereditary units in music? The question details give some context:

In his blog post “The Music Genome Project is no such thing,” David Morrison makes an edifying distinction between a genotype and a phenotype. He also makes the bold statement “there are no hereditary units in music.” Is this true?

Morrison’s post is a valuable read, because it’s so precisely wrong as to be quite useful in clarifying your thinking.

Nas -

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