Most Americans who study music formally do so using common-practice erawestern tonal theory. Tonal theory is very useful in understanding the music of the European aristocracy in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the music derived from it. Tonal theory is not, however, very useful for understanding the blues, or any of the music that derives from it.
The blues is based around a set of harmonic expectations that are quite different from the classical ones. 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 tonal theory, the basis of all harmony is the major scale and its associated chords, which you modify in various ways to make all the other scales and chords. For example, in C major, you modify the “natural” seventh, B, to get the “flat” seventh, B♭. If you come into music through rock, hip-hop, R&B, country or any other musical form originating in the African diaspora (what the music academy calls “pop”,) you develop a quite different sense of what “natural” harmony is. When you’re enculturated by blues-based music, you’re likely to hear B♭ as more natural than B in C major. And you are likely to be closely familiar with the blues scale, which western tonal theory has no explanation for whatsoever.
When you absorb the blues rule set first, as I did, the classical one seems painfully obtuse. Many of my pop musician friends think they don’t “get” music theory because the rules of eighteenth century western European court music are frequently at odds with their intuition. Who can blame them for being confused, and why should we be surprised when so many give up? Most of the working musicians I know outside of classical and jazz are substantially self-taught. How can we design a harmony pedagogy that applies to the music that students actually know and care about? Continue reading →
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.
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.
First, a little on my background. I’m not from the suburbs, I’m from New York City. My experience growing up was an odd blend of the city and the suburbs. I lived in a posh little corner of an otherwise pretty tough neighborhood. I attended a very fancy school, but traveled there by public bus and/or subway through other tough neighborhoods. My social circle included very suburban white kids and very urban nonwhite kids. As a younger kid, I loved hip-hop. As a teenager, I succumbed to rockism, probably due to social pressure from our racist society, and pretended not to like hip-hop anymore. As an adult, I’m more centered and confident, and have resumed loving it. So I think I have some pretty good insight into why white kids in the suburbs like hip-hop, especially of the gangsta variety. It boils down to the fact that the suburbs are lame, and hip-hop is cool.
Hip-hop is cool in general. So why is gangsta rap cooler than Will Smith or Drake? The big thing is that gangsta rap tends to be musically stronger and more creative. It has grittier beats, denser and more ambitious rhymes, more pointed political and social commentary, and darker humor. It’s also dramatically more offensive, but that’s part of the allure. If you’re a teenager wanting to annoy your parents, there’s no better method than to blast the Wu-Tang Clan, especially if your dad is a mountain climber who plays the electric guitar. I myself have been known to climb mountains and play the electric guitar, and the fact that GZA is directing his ire specifically at me makes listening to the Wu a complex experience. But listen I do, because why would I want to deprive myself of the music?
As a kid, I liked everything: rock, hip-hop, classical, jazz, pop, dance, country, whatever. In my teenage years, however, I succumbed to the pressures of a racist society and turned into a devout rockist. I dutifully renounced pop, disco, techno, even hip-hop, anything that was “inauthentic.” I swallowed the rockist dogma that grants legitimacy to Delta blues and classic Motown but not contemporary R&B; to bluegrass but not commercial country; to acoustic jazz but not fusion. I felt earnestly moved by the rockist national anthem:
It took me until my twenties to shake this atavistic silliness and re-embrace the whole universe of Afrocentric music not made by white guys with guitars. Wherever I go, however, I continue to encounter resistance to such musical practices as sampling, synths, rapping, dancing and fun. This resistance is epidemic among my friends, fellow musicians and students, and the music world at large. Consider this post my contribution to the fight against rockism.
The backbeat is a ubiquitous, almost defining feature of American popular and vernacular music. Clapping or snapping on the backbeats is generally considered by musicians to be more correct than doing so on the strong beats. However, audiences have a tendency to clap or snap on the wrong beats, to the irritation of the performers.
On October 6th, 1993, the blues musician Taj Mahal gave a solo concert at the Modernes Club in Bremen, Germany. The concert was later released as the album An Evening of Acoustic Music. On the recording, Taj Mahal begins to play “Blues With A Feeling,” and the audience enthusiastically claps along. However, they do so on beats one and three, not two and four like they are supposed to. Taj immediately stops playing and says, “Wait, wait, wait. Wait wait. This is schvartze [black] music… zwei and fier, one TWO three FOUR, okay?” He resumes the song, and the audience continues to clap on the wrong beats. So he stops again. “No, no, no, no. Everybody’s like, ONE, two, THREE, no no no. Classical music, yes. Mozart, Chopin, okay? Tchaikovsky, right? Vladimir Horowitz. ONE two THREE. But schvartze music, one TWO three FOUR, okay?” He starts yet again, and finally the audience claps along correctly. To reinforce their rhythm, Taj Mahal continues to count “one TWO three FOUR” at various points during the song.
Musicians: How do you deal with playing songs that have very monotonous parts?
I’m going to use James Brown’s Sex Machine as an example. Don’t get me wrong, I love the song. However, the rhythm guitar seems to be nothing but 2 chords played over and over and over with no variation (except for the bridge). What is it like to have to play songs like that? Even if you like the song, do you dread it, or do you just have fun as long as you are playing music? If you are bored, how do you deal with it? Does your mind wander while you play, or do you have to concentrate?
This is actually quite a profound question. It gets to the heart of the major conflict playing out in western music right now between linearity and circularity.
I recently saw Under African Skies, the documentary about Paul Simon’s Graceland, and it was spellbinding. The music is so beautiful, the politics are so agonizing.
I watched it with my mom and sister, which is appropriate since Graceland was in heavy rotation through my childhood. Mom isn’t a big pop scholar and knew next to nothing about the album beyond the fact that she likes it. My sister had some dim awareness of the politics, but not much more. I’ve studied the music closely but only had a vague grasp of the human story. So the film was quite a revelation for all of us, a whole new dimension to an artifact that’s both utterly familiar and mysterious. I think it hits the art houses in a few weeks. Do not miss it.
Chapman, Dale. “That Ill, Tight Sound”: Telepresence and Biopolitics in Post-Timbaland Rap Production. Journal of the Society for American Music (2008) Volume 2, Number 2, pp. 155–175.
Chapman examines the impact that Timbaland has had on popular music production, and what his significance is to the broader culture. While Timbaland himself is no longer the tastemaker he was at his peak ten or fifteen years ago, his sonic palette has become commonplace throughout the global pop landscape.