Personhood and music education

With this post, I begin some public-facing note taking on Music Matters by David Elliott and Marissa Silverman. The goal here is to explain the book to myself, but if this is helpful to you in some way, good.

Music Matters

What is the point of music education? For Elliott and Silverman, the goal is to develop each student as a person. Music engages and emerges from every aspect of your personhood, and so does music education. To talk about music education, then, you first have to define what a person is.

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Ultralight Beam

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.

Ultralight Beam

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.

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Please stop saying “consuming music”

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.

Barbara Kruger, "Untitled"

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.

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We dream of Star Wars

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.

The passage of time

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Scale necklaces and symmetry

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:

C Lydian mode

C Locrian mode

Does this geometric relationship mean anything musically? Turns out that it does.

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Why is there so much Auto-Tune on everything?

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.

Auto-Tune

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.)

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The saddest chord progression ever

My fellow NYU adjunct Rebecca Feynberg recently hipped me to Vasily Kalinnikov.

If you listen to this piece at 6:16, there’s a particularly lovely and tragic chord progression. It’s in the key of E-flat, but I transposed it into C for ease of understanding:

||: Am | D7 | Fm | C :||

I mentally refer to this progression as the Willie Nelson turnaround, because I first heard it in his classic tune “I’d Have To Be Crazy” (written not by Willie, but by Steven Fromholz.) I had the pleasure of performing this many times back in my country music days, and it makes a great lullaby for Milo.

The version of the progression in “I’d Have To Be Crazy” uses a different harmonic rhythm, and starts on the I chord instead of vi, but the emotional effect is the same. Willie’s tune is in E, but again, I transposed into C for easier comparison.

|| C | % | % | % | D7 | Fm | C | % ||

At the top of the tune and in various other spots, he also uses this variant:

|| C | % | G7 | % | D7 | Fm | C | % ||

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Why do people love music so much?

We’re attracted to music for the same reason we’re attracted to fire: it’s been a critical survival tool for us for hundreds of thousands of years.

Partying in the stone age

Music cognition is one of the first high-level brain functions to emerge in infants, coming long before walking and talking. It’s also one of the last to go in people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Music (and its twin sibling dance) are fundamental tools for soothing infants, for attracting mates, and for motivating and bonding groups ranging from kindergarten classes to infantry units. It enables us to both express our emotions and to actively modulate them, both within ourselves and among one another. Music is one of the very few known cultural universals. It’s incredibly ancient — there’s good reason to believe that it precedes language in human evolutionary history. There’s plausible speculation that it precedes bipedal walking as well. It’s no great mystery why people like it.

The real mystery is why we in modern western civilization developed the perverse idea that music is a frivolity. Steven Pinker, an otherwise very smart person who should know better, describes music as “auditory cheesecake.” Here in America, we relegate music-making to highly skilled experts, while most of us participate in it passively or not at all. We shouldn’t be surprised that depression, violence, drug abuse and suicide are epidemic in our country, even among our unprecedented levels of wealth, stability and safety. Lack of musical participation is both a cause and symptom of our unhappiness, and it demonstrates the failure of modern civilization to meet our emotional needs. In other human societies, probably in most of them throughout our deep history, music has always been a part of daily life, on a level with cooking or gossip. We would be wise to restore routine music-making to its proper place in the center of our lives.

Provoked by this Quora thread, which includes an answer by Hans Zimmer.