Why hip-hop is interesting

The title of this post is also the title of a tutorial I’m giving at ISMIR 2016 with Jan Van Balen and Dan Brown. Here are the slides:

The conference is organized by the International Society for Music Information Retrieval, and it’s the fanciest of its kind. You may well be wondering what Music Information Retrieval is. MIR is a specialized field in computer science devoted to teaching computers to understand music, so they can transcribe it, organize it, find connections and similarities, and, maybe, eventually, create it.

Spectrogram of "Famous" by Kanye West created with Chrome Music Lab

So why are we going to talk to the MIR community about hip-hop? So far, the field has mostly studied music using the tools of Western classical music theory, which emphasizes melody and harmony. Hip-hop songs don’t tend to have much going on in either of those areas, which makes the genre seem like it’s either too difficult to study, or just too boring. But the MIR community needs to find ways to engage this music, if for no other reason than the fact that hip-hop is the most-listened to genre in the world, at least among Spotify listeners.

Hip-hop has been getting plenty of scholarly attention lately, but most of it has been coming from cultural studies. Which is fine! Hip-hop is culturally interesting. When humanities people do engage with hip-hop as an art form, they tend to focus entirely on the lyrics, treating them as a subgenre of African-American literature that just happens to be performed over beats. And again, that’s cool! Hip-hop lyrics have significant literary interest. (If you’re interested in the lyrical side, we recommend this video analyzing the rhyming techniques of several iconic emcees.) But what we want to discuss is why hip-hop is musically interesting, a subject which academics have given approximately zero attention to.

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Prepping my rap and rock class at Montclair State

This summer, I’m teaching Cultural Significance of Rap and Rock at Montclair State University. It’s my first time teaching it, and it’s also the first time anyone has taught it completely online. The course is cross-listed under music and African-American studies. Here’s a draft of my syllabus, omitting details of the grading and such. I welcome your questions, comments and criticism.

Rap and Rock

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Afrofuturist pedagogy

Väkevä, L. (2010). “Garage band or GarageBand®? Remixing musical futures.” British Journal of Music Education, 27(01), 59.

I believe that music education should engage with the music that’s meaningful to students. The field is coming to agree with me. School music programs have been gradually embracing rock, for example via Modern Band. Which is great! Unfortunately, rock stopped being the driver of our musical culture sometime in the early 1990s. The kids currently in school are more about computer-generated dance music: hip-hop, techno, and their various pop derivatives. We live in an Afrofuturist world.

Afrofuturist album cover

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Music education at the grownups’ table

I was asked by Alison Armstrong to comment on this Time magazine op-ed by Todd Stoll, the vice president of education at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Before I do, let me give some context: Todd Stoll is a friend and colleague of Wynton Marsalis, and he shares some of Wynton’s beliefs about music.

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis advocates for  jazz as “America’s classical music,” the highest achievement of our culture, and the sonic embodiment of our best democratic ideals. The man himself is a brilliant practitioner of the art form. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing him play live several times, and he’s always a riveting improvisor. However, Wynton’s definition of the word “jazz” is a narrow one. He thinks that jazz history ended in about 1965, right before Herbie Hancock traded in his grand piano for a Fender Rhodes. All the developments after that–the introduction of funk, rock, pop, electronic music, and hip-hop– have bastardizations of the music.

Wynton Marsalis’ public stature has given his philosophy enormous weight. His effect on jazz culture has thus been profound, but problematic. On the one hand, he’s been a key force in getting jazz the institutional recognition that it was denied for too many years. On the other hand, the form of jazz that Wynton advocates for is a museum piece, a time capsule of the middle part of the twentieth century. When jazz gained the legitimacy of “classical music,” it also got burdened with classical music’s stuffiness, pedantry, and disconnection from the broader culture. As the more innovative jazz artists try to keep pace with the rest of the culture, they can find themselves more hindered by Wynton than helped.

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Resisting imperialism through secular devotion

I have struggled for years to articulate why I like the music descending from Africa so much better than the music descending from Europe. I’m a typical American in this respect. Every genre that the mainstream enjoys takes its rhythms and loop structures from the African diaspora: rock, hip-hop, and EDM, of course, but country too, and pop, which blends together all of the above. The music academy remains firmly rooted in the Western European classical tradition, but even in Europe, popular music is dominated by loops of heavy percussion. Why?

Timothy Brennan gives a compelling answer in his book Secular Devotion: Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz. White dudes like me are attracted to the music of the African diaspora because it’s a way for us to unconsciously enact traditional African religious practices. And why would we want to do enact African religious practice? Because it helps us resist Judeo-Christian morality and industrial capitalism.

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The harmonica explains all of Western music

If you want to understand the cultural struggle taking place in music education right now, you could do worse than to start with the harmonica.


This unassuming little instrument was designed in central Europe in the 19th century to play the music popular in that time and place: waltzes, oom-pah music, and the like. All of this music is diatonic, meaning that it’s based around the major scale, the do-re-mi you learned in school. It’s also the music that you learn if you take a formal music theory class.

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Music theory blues

I’m reading a lot Schenkerian analyses of blues right now in service of my forthcoming article about blues tonality. Each paper I read is wronger than the last. On the one hand, they fill me with righteous rage, but on the other hand, that rage does at least help 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


The blues is a foundational element of America’s vernacular and art music. It is commonly described as a combination of African rhythms and European harmonies. This characterization is inaccurate. Blues follows harmonic conventions that are quite different from those of European common-practice tonality. Blues does not fit into major or minor tonality, and it makes heavy use of harmonic intervals considered by tonal theory to be dissonant. But blues listeners do not experienced the music as dissonant; rather, they hear an alternative system of consonance. In order to make sense of this system, we need to understand blues as belonging to its own tonality, distinct from major, minor and modal scales. The author argues that blues tonality should be taught as part of the basic music theory curriculum.
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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.

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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