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♭, 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 he uses it extensively in his classic tune “I’d Have To Be Crazy.” I had the pleasure of performing this many times back in my country music days, and it makes a great lullaby for Milo.

Willie’s version 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.

Toward a statement of purpose

I’m in the process of applying for a PhD in music education, and I have to come up with a statement of purpose. Here’s my most current draft.

I dream of a world where music education serves everyone, not just potential classical virtuosos, with a radically revised curriculum that erases the distinction between “school music” and “real music.” This curriculum would be accompanied by accessible, thoughtfully designed technology for meaningful individual and group music making. Educators would incubate communities of enthusiastic music makers across skill levels and styles. My goal as a PhD candidate is to work toward making this vision a reality, using three mutually informative approaches: 1) scholarship and advocacy for curriculum change; 2) the design of new technologies and user experiences; and 3) the direct teaching of future music teachers. As a prolific and influential music blogger whose writing has been included in college syllabi internationally, I have been working toward these goals for some years already; my hope is that continued work with Alex Ruthmann, John Gilbert and the rest of NYU Steinhardt’s Music Education and Music Technology faculty will greatly increase my knowledge, credibility and reach.

My primary avenue of intended research is to design learning experiences that lead to active creative music making, even at the beginner level. Specifically, I want to devise new curriculum materials centered on the digital studio. In so doing, I hope to stem the epidemic of abandonment of formal music study. Tools like Ableton Live and Apple’s Logic are invaluable for encouraging students to produce original, culturally authentic music of their own. Creating pop tracks is an exercise with a low floor and high ceilings; novices can participate meaningfully, and experts can explore large-scale structure and novel timbral combinations. This work can and should come before theory and notation; otherwise we risk alienating the majority of would-be student musicians.

A great many teachers would naturally prefer their classes to be engaging and socially relevant rather than dry and antiquated. However, most music teachers have no idea how pop music is made. This is not due to lack of technical skill, but rather to a disconnect in musical sensibilities. The study of harmonic movement at the quarter-note level is poor preparation for music that eschews harmony completely, and the study of classical form does not give much insight into the loop structures of dance and hip-hop. Formal music education generally omits songwriting, improvisation, beatmaking, synthesis, MIDI, audio engineering, critical listening to recordings, and much else of value both to casual students and would-be pop practitioners. It is especially crucial that music teachers recognize the digital studio as a new musical medium, one that erases the distinction between composition, improvisation, performance, recording and mixing. Digital audio editing makes it possible for young musicians to approach the artifacts of their culture as producers rather than consumers, and enables even complete beginners to engage with music at the intuitively approachable level of riffs, phrases, chord cycles, and drum patterns. Approaching music this way does not just give entry into pop; it also opens new inroads into the study of jazz and classical. One of my main goals as a scholar is to devise music education curriculum materials that will help teachers adapt to this new paradigm.

Montclair State student works with Logic

The design of music learning technology is as important as the design of curricula. Indeed, the education of most pop musicians takes place outside of a classroom, in large part through direct trial and error. In this context, the presets, default sounds and user interface affordances in music production software and hardware are de facto music teachers with enormous cultural reach and impact. As Dr. Adam Bell (NYU Steinhardt PhD 2013) memorably put it, “purchasers of computers are purchasers of an education.” I would like to find ways to make that educational experience a better one. My intimate expertise both with formal theory and informal pop practice makes me ideally suited to design music education technology. My Masters thesis was a prototype introductory-level rhythm learning app that uses an innovative radial visualization scheme combined with creative exercises drawn from genuine dance, pop and hip-hop repertoire. I have since been asked by engineers at iZotope and Ableton for design insights, and my blog posts on interface and experience design have a substantial and growing global following.

My thinking on the role of technology in music education has been shaped profoundly by the MusEDLab, with whom it has been my privilege to work as a researcher for the past year. The Groove Pizza, an outgrowth of my Master’s thesis, is an emblematic MusEDLab project: a circular drum machine that visualizes rhythm patterns in the arrangement of plastic mushrooms, pepperoni and sausages. Beyond the novelty of the form factor, we believe that there is deep value in circular rhythm visualization as an intuitive representation of the loops comprising all pop and dance music. Radial rhythm visualizations also have rich value outside the music classroom; for example, they can be used to teach mathematical subjects including ratios and proportional relationships, angles, polar coordinates, rotational and reflectional symmetry, and modular arithmetic. I expect that my doctoral studies will dovetail neatly with the MusEDLab’s work, and that the two will mutually inform each other. I look forward to sharing the findings of our research with advocates for change in music curricula at the university as well as the primary and secondary school levels.

My own teaching practice has been and will continue to be a proving ground for new approaches. As an adjunct at NYU and Montclair State University, I am introducing future music educators to the possibilities of technology in the classroom, as both a toolkit for teaching music fundamentals and for fostering creative expression even at beginner levels. This work has already informed my thinking about the potential for experience design to make musical practice more accessible. I eagerly look forward to using my doctoral studies to engage in evidence-based design of new music learning experiences, to advocate for the adoption of those experiences, and to help teachers bring culturally authentic music into the classroom. In so doing, I hope to widen access to the essential social vitamin of active musical practice, and to guide students toward the discovery of their own musical truths. Thank you for your consideration.


Participatory music vs presentational music

In this post, I’ll be doing some public-facing note-taking on Music As Social Life: The Politics Of Participation by Thomas Turino. I’m especially interested in chapter two: Participatory and Presentational Performance. We in America tend to place a high value on presentational music created by professionals, and a low value on participatory music made by amateurs. It’s useful to know that there are people in the world who take a different view.

Turino divides music into four big categories:

  1. Participatory music. Everyone present is actively doing something: playing an instrument, singing or chanting, and/or dancing. For example: a bluegrass jam, campfire singing, a hip-hop cypher.
  2. Presentational music. There’s a clear divide between the performers and the audience. Audience members might dance or sing along, but they are not the focus. For example: a classical, rock or jazz concert.
  3. High-fidelity recording. A document of a live performance (or a convincing illusion of such.) For example: a classical or jazz album.
  4. Studio sound art. A recording that was constructed in the studio using techniques other than (or in addition to) people performing in real time. For example: a late Beatles album, or any pop song since 1980.

Turino devotes a lot of his attention to three examples of participatory music cultures:

Aymara ceremony

Shona witch doctor

Contra dancers in New Hampshire

This last group might strike you as the odd one out. Turino sees more commonalities between the musical experience of American contra dancers and participants in Shona rituals than he does between the contra dancers and audiences at, say, a jazz concert.

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Play with your music theory

Last week I put together a new set of music theory videos.

These videos are aimed at participants in Play With Your Music, who may want to start producing their own music or remixes and have no idea where to start. I’m presuming that the viewer has no formal background, no piano skills and no reading ability. This would seem to be an unpromising place to start making music from, but there’s a surprising lot you can do just by fumbling around on a MIDI keyboard. Playing the white keys only gives you the seven modes of the C major scale, with seven very different emotional qualities. Playing the black keys only gives you the G♭ major and E♭ minor pentatonic scales. From there, you can effortlessly transpose your MIDI data into any key you want.

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Everyone can and should be making music

I have a strongly held belief about musical talent: there is no such thing. Every neurotypical human is born with the ability to learn music, the same way the vast majority of us are born with the ability to learn to walk and talk. We still have to do the learning, though; otherwise the capacity doesn’t develop itself. When we talk about “musical talent,” we’re really talking about the means, motive and opportunity to activate innate musicality. When we talk about “non-musicians,” we’re rarely talking about the Oliver Sacks cases with congenital amusia; usually we mean people who for whatever reason never had the chance to develop musically.

The NYU Chorale

So what if almost everyone is a potential musician? Why should you care? Because participation in music, particularly in groups, is an essential emotional vitamin. We here in America are sorely deficient in this vitamin, and it shows in our stunted emotional growth. Steve Dillon calls music a “powerful weapon against depression.” We need to be nurturing musicality wherever it occurs as a matter of public health.

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Can science make a better music theory?

My last post discussed how we should be deriving music theory from empirical observation of what people like using ethnomusicology. Another good strategy would be to derive music theory from observation of what’s going on between our ears. Daniel Shawcross Wilkerson has attempted just that in his essay, Harmony Explained: Progress Towards A Scientific Theory of Music. The essay has an endearingly old-timey subtitle:

The Major Scale, The Standard Chord Dictionary, and The Difference of Feeling Between The Major and Minor Triads Explained from the First Principles of Physics and Computation; The Theory of Helmholtz Shown To Be Incomplete and The Theory of Terhardt and Some Others Considered

Wilkerson begins with the observation that music theory books read like medical texts from the middle ages: “they contain unjustified superstition, non-reasoning, and funny symbols glorified by Latin phrases.” We can do better.

Standing waves on a string

Wilkerson proposes that we derive a theory of harmony from first principles drawn from our understanding of how the brain processes audio signals. We evolved to be able to detect sounds with natural harmonics, because those usually come from significant sources, like the throats of other animals. Musical harmony is our way of gratifying our harmonic-series detectors.

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