I recently posted a track on SoundCloud that included the sonification of LIGO’s gravitational wave data. A student asked me what that meant. Since today is Albert Einstein’s birthday, what better time to try to formulate an answer?
First, some context: 1.3 billion years ago, two black holes collided. Each was about thirty times as heavy as the sun. The collision took a tenth of a second and released fifty times more energy than all the stars in the observable universe. Here’s how it looked:
Of course, black holes being black, you can’t see them; the graphic shows the way that they would warp the appearance of stars behind them.
The first song on Kanye West’s Life Of Pablo album, and my favorite so far, is the beautiful, gospel-saturated “Ultralight Beam.” Say what you want about Kanye as a public figure, but as a musician, he is in complete control of his craft. See a live performance on SNL.
The song uses only four chords, but they’re an interesting four: C minor, E-flat major, A-flat major, and G7. To find out why they sound so good together, let’s do a little music theory.
In the wake of David Bowie’s death, I went on iTunes and bought a couple of his tracks, including the majestic “Blackstar.” In economic terms, I “consumed” this song. I am a “music consumer.” I made an emotional connection to a dying man who has been a creative inspiration of mine for more than twenty years, via “consumption.” That does not feel like the right word, at all. When did we even start saying “music consumers”? Why did we start? It makes my skin crawl.
The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the verb “to consume” descends from Latin consumere, which means “to use up, eat, waste.” That last sense of the word speaks volumes about America, our values, and specifically, our pathological relationship with music.
Anna and I went on one of our vanishingly rare parent dates to go see The Force Awakens a few days ago. We had a great time. The movie is loaded with gratuitous fan service and doesn’t stand up to even casual scrutiny, but then, that was true of episodes IV and V too. Nothing that happens in the reality of Star Wars makes an ounce of sense. Why try to pick apart the logical inconsistencies in these movies? It’s like picking apart the logical inconsistencies of dreams.
All movies are a kind of waking dream. The good Star Wars movies (in my opinion, IV, V and VII) are as dreamlike as it’s possible for movies to get without becoming impenetrably avant-garde. There is no stranger or more dreamlike special effect than plain old human aging. Seeing the familiar actors playing the familiar characters, but thirty years older, is a kind of strangeness I have never experienced in the movies before.
Spoilers follow! Continue reading
Linear music notation is good for reading, but it doesn’t tell you everything you want to know about underlying musical structure. Notes that are close to each vertically are not necessarily the most closely related. The concept of harmonic relatedness is a complex one, but there’s an excellent tool for beginning to get a handle on it: the circle of fifths.
The left circle above shows the chromatic circle, the pitch sequence you find on the piano. The right circle shows the circle of fifths. Each note is a fifth higher or a fourth lower than its counterclockwise neighbor, and each note is also a fourth higher or a fifth lower than its clockwise neighbor.
Unlike a lot of music theory you learn in school, the circle of fifths is not some arbitrary Western European cultural convention. There’s actual science behind it. If two notes are adjacent on the circle of fifths, it means they have a lot of overtones in common. If you know what overtones are, you can skip the next few paragraphs. Otherwise, read on.
My computer dictionary says that a melody is “a sequence of single notes that is musically satisfying.” There are a lot of people out there who think that rap isn’t music because it lacks melody. My heart broke when I found out that Jerry Garcia was one of these people. If anyone could be trusted to be open-minded, you’d think it would be Jerry, but no.
I’ve always instinctively believed this position to be wrong, and I finally decided to test it empirically. I took some rap acapellas and put them into Melodyne. What I found is that rap vocals use plenty of melody. The pitches rise and fall in specific and patterned ways. The pitches aren’t usually confined to the piano keys, but they are nevertheless real and non-arbitrary. (If you say a rap line with the wrong pitches, it sounds terrible.) Go ahead, look and listen for yourself. Click each image to hear the song section in question. Continue reading
While I was doing some examination of rhythm necklaces and scale necklaces, I noticed a symmetry among the major scale modes: Lydian mode and Locrian mode are mirror images of each other, both on the chromatic circle and the circle of fifths. Here’s Lydian above and Locrian below:
Does this geometric relationship mean anything musically? Turns out that it does.
I don’t know a lot about Afro-Caribbean rhythms, beyond the fact that they cause me intense joy whenever I hear them. My formal music education has focused almost exclusively on harmony, and I’ve had to learn about rhythm mostly on my own. That’s why it was so exciting for me to discover the work of Godfried Toussaint. He introduced me to a startlingly useful pedagogical tool: the rhythm necklace.
A rhythm necklace is a circular notation for rhythm. Let’s say your rhythm is in 12/8 time. That means that each cycle of the rhythm has twelve slots where sounds can go, and each slot is an eighth note long (which is not very long.) A 12/8 rhythm necklace is like a circular ice cube tray that holds twelve ice cubes.
What’s so great about writing rhythms this way? Rhythms are relationships between events that are non-adjacent in time. When you write your rhythms from left to right, as is conventional, it’s hard to make out the relationships. On the circle, the symmetries and patterns jump right out at you. I recommend the Toussaint-inspired Rhythm Necklace app to get these concepts under your fingers and into your ears.
You can’t look into Afro-Caribbean beats without coming across a bell pattern called Bembé, also known as “the standard pattern” or the “short bell pattern.” Here’s how it sounds:
I was probably first exposed to Bembé by Santana’s “Incident at Neshabur.”
Bembé’s meter is ambivalent. You can represent it as duple (4/4) or triple (6/8 or 12/8). Practitioners urge you not to think of the bell pattern as being in one meter or the other. Instead, you’re supposed to hold both of them in your head at the same time. The ambiguity is the point.
When we talk about Auto-Tune, we’re talking about two different things. There’s the intended use, which is to subtly correct pitch problems (and not just with vocalists; it’s extremely useful for horns and strings.) The ubiquity of pitch correction in the studio should be no great mystery; it’s a tremendous time-saver.
But usually when we talk about Auto-Tune, we’re talking about the “Cher Effect,” the sound you get when you set the Retune Speed setting to zero. The Cher Effect is used so often in pop music because it’s richly expressive of our emotional experience of the world: technology-saturated, alienated, unreal. My experience with Auto-Tune as a musician has felt like stepping out the door of a spaceship to explore a whole new sonic planet. Auto-Tune turns the voice into a keyboard synth, and we are only just beginning to understand its creative possibilities. (Warning: explicit lyrics throughout.)
My fellow radical music educator Jared O’Leary wrote a pretty remarkable paper with a deceptively dry title: A Content Analysis on the Use of the Word ‘Talent’ in the Journal of Research in Music Education, 1953-2012. It got me thinking about talent, and what a pernicious concept it is.