Musical simples

The NYU Music Experience Design Lab is putting together a new online music theory resource, and I’m writing a lot of the materials. We want to keep everything grounded in real-life musical practice. To that end, we’ve been gathering musical simples: phrases, riffs, and earworms that beginners can learn easily. My criteria for a good musical simple: It should be a piece of music that can stand on its own, and that makes a satisfying loop. It should be catchy, attractive, and (ideally) already familiar. And it should be between one and four measures long. We’re developing a web-based interface that will make it easy to learn a musical simple, play it back, and mutate and adapt it. Each theory concept will come with at least one simple to give it authentic cultural context.

It’s an axiom of constructivism that you learn best when you’re enjoying yourself. This might seem obvious, but it represents a break with music education orthodoxy. Music students too often have to do a lot of tedious drilling before they get to try some real music. Even then, those tunes tend to be nursery rhymes or dorky educational pieces. It makes a certain amount of sense to structure lessons this way: real music is complicated and usually well out of reach of beginners. Unfortunately, too many beginners give up before they make it past the nursery rhyme stage.

Beginner-level music teaching nearly always starts at the atomic level: single pitches, note values, time signatures. It seems logical that the smallest units of music would be the simplest ones. But this is not actually true. Beginners conceive of music at a more intermediate level of abstraction: fragments of tunes, moments of tension and resolution, loops and grooves. Self-taught and informally taught musicians do most of their learning at this level. A three-chord song by Bob Marley or Neil Young is a better entry point than the single notes comprising those three chords and the relationship between them.

Here’s a diagram from my masters thesis, adapted from a paper by Jeanne Bamberger:

Moving up and down the structural ladder

For more discussion of these ideas, see also Bamberger’s “Developing Musical Structures: Going Beyond The Simples.”

It’s hard to resist the temptation to start at the bottom of the abstraction ladder. Even though I’m a self-taught pop musician, I still instinctively “start at the beginning” whenever I set out to explain something to a student, and have to consciously remind myself to find a mid-level explanation first. I try to think in terms of chemistry. Atoms and their component particles are “simpler” than molecules and complex substances. But most of us don’t have direct experience with atoms. We’re familiar with water and air and rocks and metals. We need to think about water before we can understand hydrogen and oxygen. So it is with music. The musical simples are our molecules and substances, mid-level entry points that scaffold learning of atoms and electrons.

I was unconsciously gathering musical simples long before I heard the term. I was looking for stuff that’s easy to learn, but that’s also substantive enough to work as real music. The good news is that there’s plenty of simple music that isn’t lame. The music of the African diaspora is built on riffs and loops, and jazz and rock and pop are full of easy yet richly satisfying musical ideas. By carefully curating a simples collection, we’re hoping to make life easier for anyone who wants to teach or learn music in an engaging and pleasurable way. Here’s an assortment, shown both in standard notation and MIDI piano roll format. Continue reading

A history of pop production in three tracks

Earlier this spring, I subbed for Adam Bell‘s Music Technology 101 class at Montclair State. His sections were populated more exclusively with classical conservatory kids than mine, so for my one-shot lesson, I figured I’d talk them through some items from my illicit collection of multitrack stems, and give them a sense of the history of the recorded art form.

First up was “A Day In The Life” by the Beatles.

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Were the Beatles great musicians?

Most of us agree that the Beatles made great music. But “real” musicians like to argue that the Beatles were not necessarily themselves great. They certainly weren’t exceptionally great guitarists, or drummers, or keyboard players, or even singers. They were pretty good at those things, and had flashes of greatness, but you could walk into any music school and quickly find yourself dozens of more proficient instrumentalists. At this point, a Beatles fan might come back and say, well, the Beatles were great songwriters, which is different from being a great musician. The Beatles did indeed write brilliant songs (though they wrote their share of clunkers too.) Is musicianship coextensive with the ability to play or sing or write? I’m going to say that it isn’t.

We’re right to regard the Beatles as great, but not because of their performances, or even their songwriting. The Beatles are great because of their ability to create studio recordings. Their albums from Revolver onwards are hugely greater than the sum of the material, arrangements, and performances. Those late albums are masterpieces of recording, editing, mixing, and effects, of hyperrealist timbral and spatial manipulation, and of surrealist tape editing.

The Beatles produce some electronica

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Sampling composers

Morey, J., & McIntyre, P. (2014). The Creative Studio Practice of Contemporary Dance Music Sampling Composers. Dancecult, 6(1), 41–60.

There is so much to love about this paper, starting with the title. You can read it the way it was intended, that dance music producers are composers. Or you can creatively misread it to mean that the dance producers are using samples of other composers. It works equally well either way.

Black Milk's studio setup

Sampling consists of acts of listening, selecting and editing

In the age of the internet, effectively any sound that has ever been recorded becomes available raw material for new music. The challenge with sampling isn’t so much identifying possible sample sources as it is managing the vast universe of possibilities. The listening and selecting steps in the sampling process are really the hard parts. The editing and looping are comparatively easy.

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How to tell funk from disco

Here’s a short excerpt from my blues tonality paper that I thought would stand alone well on its own.

How do we decide that a song is rock, or folk, or country, or country-rock, or folk-rock? Nearly all American popular and vernacular is informed by blues. We can use this fact to help delineate overlapping and vaguely defined genre boundaries. Just as we can explain genre in terms of characteristic rhythms and timbres, so too can we explain it in terms of the amount of blues harmony present. Good pop and jazz practitioners already do this implicitly. A guitarist or singer needs a sense of how much blues tonality to use in order to sound more characteristically ‘jazzy’ or ‘country’ or ‘rock.’

Let’s use the example of funk. Aficionados like me know when music is funky. But how do we know? The most obvious characteristic to point to is the beat. But you can also hear funk rhythms in disco, hip-hop, R&B, rock, and even country — Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is super funky. We can distinguish funk as a genre more specifically using its harmonic content. Funk is the most heavily blues-based genre aside from blues itself. While rock and country combine blues harmony with diatonicism, funk adds in jazz harmony instead.


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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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Ableton Session View and instrument design

We usually think of “recorded” and “live” as two distinct and opposed forms of music. But technology has been steadily eroding the distinction between the two. Controllerism is a performance method using specialized control surfaces to trigger sample playback and manipulate effects parameters with the full fluidity and expressiveness of a conventional instrument. Such performance can take place on stage or in the studio.

Controllerism is attractive to me because I came to music through improvisation: blues, jazz, jam bands. I spent years improvising electronic music with Babsy Singer, though she did the beats and loops, not me. My life as a producer, meanwhile, has involved very little improvisation. Making music with the computer has been more like carefully writing scores. Improvisation and composition are really the same thing, but the timescales are different. Improvisation has an immediacy that composing on paper doesn’t. The computer shortens the loop from thought to music, but there’s still a lot of obligatory clicking around.

It’s certainly possible to improvise on the computer with MIDI controllers, either the usual keyboard variety or the wackier and more exotic ones. Improvising with MIDI and then cleaning up the results more meticulously is pretty satisfying, though my lack of piano skills make it almost as slow and tedious an input system as the mouse. Jamming on iPhone and iPad apps like Animoog or GarageBand is better. What they lack in screen real estate, they make up for with form factor. Making music on the computer comes to feel like office work after a while. But you can use the phone or the tablet while lying in bed or on the ground, or while pacing around, or basically anywhere. Multitouch also restores some of the immediacy of playing instruments.

There’s also the option of recording a lot of vocal or instrumental improvisation, and then sorting out all the audio afterwards. This is the most satisfying strategy for infusing electronic music with improvisation that I’ve found so far. You get all the free-flowing body-centered immediacy of live jamming, with no pressure whatsoever to be flawless. However, then you have to do the editing. It’s easier now than it was five or ten years ago, but it’s still labor-intensive. It can take an hour of work to shape a few minutes of improv into musical shape.

All of this time, I’ve had severe DJ envy, since their gear is designed for immediacy and improvisation. It’s a lame DJ indeed who meticulously stitches together a set ahead-of-time in an audio editor. However, DJ tools operate at the level of entire songs. It’s not easy to use Serato to write a new track. I’ve been wanting a tool that gives me the same sense of play, but at the scale of individual samples rather than entire songs.

Enter the APC40. The form factor resembles an MPC, and you can use it that way, to trigger one-shot samples like drum hits or chord stabs. But the intended use case is for Ableton session view, starting and stopping the playback of loops. By default, loop playback is quantized to the bar, so whenever you hit a pad, the loop begins playing cleanly on the next downbeat. (You can set the quantization interval to be as wide or narrow as you want, or disable it completely.) Playing your loops live makes happy accidents more likely. Of course, unhappy accidents are more likely too. But those are easy to fix in Arrange view. When I discovered that NYU has a little-used APC, I signed it out and started teaching myself controllerism. Here’s a picture of it.

It seems complex, and it is. The Starship Enterprise quality appeals to my tech nerd side. Creating an Ableton session for APC playing is like inventing a new musical instrument, every time. After you design your instrument, then you have to learn how to play it. On the other hand, if you design your instrument right, the actual playing of it can be fun and easy. When I set up the APC with some Michael Jackson samples and let Milo try it, he figured out the concept immediately.

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Electronic music tasting menu

Right now I’m teaching music technology to a lot of classical musicians. I came up outside the classical pipeline, and am always surprised to be reminded how insulated these folks are from the rest of the culture. I was asked today for some electronic music recommendations by a guy who basically never listens to any of it, and I expect I’ll be asked that many more times in this job. So I put together this playlist. It’s not a complete, thorough, or representative sampling of anything; it mostly reflects my own tastes. In more or less chronological order:

Delia Derbyshire

This lady did cooler stuff with tape recorders than most of us are doing with computers. See her in action. Here’s a proto-techno beat she made in 1971.

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Repetition defines music

Musical repetition has become a repeating theme of this blog. Seems appropriate, right? This post looks at a wonderful book by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, called On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind. It investigates the reasons why we love repetition in music. You can also read long excerpts at Aeon Magazine.

Here’s the nub of Margulis’ argument:

The simple act of repetition can serve as a quasi-magical agent of musicalisation. Instead of asking: ‘What is music?’ we might have an easier time asking: ‘What do we hear as music?’ And a remarkably large part of the answer appears to be: ‘I know it when I hear it again.’

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Remixing “Here Comes The Sun” in 5.1 Surround

For my final project in Advanced Audio Production at NYU, I created a 5.1 surround remix of the Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun.” You can download it here. If you don’t have surround playback, you can listen to the stereo version:

I was motivated to create a surround remix of a Beatles song by hearing the Beatles Love album in class.

I chose “Here Comes The Sun” because I have the multitracks, and because I heard potential to find new musical ideas within it. Remixing an existing recording is always an enjoyable undertaking, but the process takes on new levels of challenge and reward when the source material is so well-known and widely revered. Much as I enjoy Beatles Love, I feel that it didn’t take enough liberties with the original tracks. I wanted to depart further from the original mix and structure of “Here Comes The Sun.”

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