This post originally took the form of a couple of Twitter threads, which I’ve collected and edited here for easier reading.
Greg Sandow asks two very interesting and provocative questions of classical music:
When the Museum of Modern Art did its first retrospective of a seminal musical artist, no surprise it was Björk who reached past music into the larger cultural world. Some day, couldn’t somebody from classical music do that? When a major musical artist died and the New York Times did more than 20 stories tracing his influence on our culture and on people’s lives, well, of course it was David Bowie. Couldn’t it someday be someone from classical music?
My answer: Probably not.
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.
I’ve said it before and will say it again: Björk is the best thing to happen to contemporary music theory education. No matter what weird scale you’re trying to teach, she’s used it in a catchy, memorable tune. “Possibly Maybe” uses two weird scales: Lydian mode, in the verses, and melodic minor scale, in the chorus.
Björk did the music theory world a huge favor by writing a pop hit entirely in Locrian mode, since it’s really hard to find a good real-world example of it otherwise.
You don’t see too many melodies written entirely, or even partially, in Locrian mode. It’s not a friendly scale. That mostly has to do with its fifth degree. In a typical Western scale, the fifth note is seven semitones above the root (or five semitones below, same thing.) In the key of C, that note is G. Almost all scales starting on C will have a G in them somewhere. But not Locrian. It has the note on either side of G, but not G itself.
This is confusing to the Western listener. So confusing, in fact, that it’s hard to even hear C Locrian as having a C root at all. Depending on the phrasing, it quickly starts feeling like D-flat major, or A-flat Mixolydian, or B-flat natural minor, all of which are way more stable.
As I’ve been gathering musical simples, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to categorize them. There are melodic simples, otherwise known as riffs, hooks, and licks. There are rhythmic simples, otherwise known as beats, claves, and rhythm necklaces. And then there are the simples that combine a beat with a melody. Alex came up with the term “compound simples” for this last group. You might argue that all melodic simples are compound, because they all combine pitches and rhythms. But unless the rhythm stands on its own independent of the pitches, I don’t consider it to be a musical simple.
Here’s the first set of compound simples I’ve transcribed. Click each score to view the interactive Noteflight version.
Queen, “We Will Rock You“
The simplest simple of them all. If I needed to teach someone the difference between eighth notes and quarter notes, I’d use the stomp/clap pattern.
The melody is good for introducing the concept of rests, since you have to count your way through the gap between “rock you” and the next “we will.” Continue reading
Here’s an explanation for why I’m gathering these things.
Wagner, “Ride of the Valkyries”
I’m no great fan of Wagner, but there’s no denying that this is a killer hook. You don’t have much occasion to play in 9/8 time these days, but this melody can be adapted to fit 4/4 pretty easily. Also, because I’m a lowbrow goofball:
While my son’s birth has been the most joyous event of my life, he has put a serious damper on my and Anna’s concert-going. I tell my musician friends: I’ll happily come to your gig, as long as it’s on a Sunday afternoon with walking distance of my apartment. Well, today, Björk obliged us by doing exactly that.
Anna and I have been to two of her shows previously, and both were delightful experiences, but they were also in support of her two weakest albums (Volta and Biophilia.) This time, however, Björk is touring with Vulnicura, a beautiful set of songs, her best work since Medúlla and a welcome return to the sonic palette of Homogenic. Here’s my favorite track:
Much as I love it, I thought it would be improved by adding samples of Marvin Gaye, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the bassist on Paul Simon’s Graceland.
Malawey, Victoria. Harmonic Stasis and Oscillation in Björk’s Medúlla. Music Theory Online, Volume 16, Number 1, January 2010.
The fundamental unit of electronic popular music is the loop. This puts it at odds with the Western art music tradition, which typically favors linear structures with a narrative arc. Repetition has mostly appeared in classical music at the macro level of phrases and sections. While shorter repetitive cells do appear in classical music, they are not always welcome. The term ostinato, from the Italian “obstinate,” does not connote approval. Popular music (and some minimalist classical) of the twentieth century has been significantly more repetitive, deriving its harmony from western Europe but its rhythms and circular loop-based structures from Africa and the Caribbean. The advent of synthesizers, drum machines and computers has strongly encouraged the trend toward cyclic repetition, since the default output of such devices is the endless loop.
Björk produced relatively conventional dance music early in her solo career, but her use of loops has become more sophisticated and complex over the course of her career. Her 2004 album Medúlla is comprised entirely from vocals, aside from the occasional synthesizer. Some of the songs are traditional songs and choral works, but most are built from vocals that have been heavily edited, sampled and looped in Pro Tools.
The first time I heard Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” was courtesy of Motorcycle Guy, a prominent Brooklyn eccentric who drives around on a tricked-out motorcycle bedecked with lights and equipped with a powerful sound system. I encounter him every so often and he’s always bumping some good funk, soul or R&B. One night, he was playing what I thought was an extreme remix of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” by Michael Jackson, with the end chant slowed down and pitch-shifted radically. As it turns out, I got the chronology reversed. Here’s Manu Dibango’s song:
Update: check out my masters thesis, a radial drum machine. Specifically, see the section on visualizing rhythm. See also a more scholarly review of the literature on visualization and music education. And here’s a post on the value of video games in music education.
Computer-based music production and composition involves the eyes as much as the ears. The representations in audio editors like Pro Tools and Ableton Live are purely informational, waveforms and grids and linear graphs. Some visualization systems are purely decorative, like the psychedelic semi-random graphics produced by iTunes. Some systems lie in between. I see rich potential in these graphical systems for better understanding of how music works, and for new compositional methods. Here’s a sampling of the most interesting music visualization systems I’ve come across.
Western music notation is a venerable method of visualizing music. It’s a very neat and compact system, unambiguous and digital, and not too difficult to learn. Programs like Sibelius can effortlessly translate notation to and from MIDI data, too.
But western notation has some limitations, especially for contemporary music. It doesn’t handle microtones well. It has limited ability to convey performative nuance — after a hundred years of jazz, there’s no good way to notate swing other than to just write the word “swing” at the top of the score. The key signature system works fine for major keys, but is less helpful for minor keys and modal music and is pretty much worthless for the blues.
Here’s a suggestion for how notation could improve in the future. It’s a visualization by Jon Snydal of John Coltrane’s solo in Miles Davis’ “All Blues” (I edited it a little to be easier on the eyes.)
Snydal’s visualization is more analog than digital — it shows the exact nuances of Coltrane’s performance, with subtle shadings of pitch, timing and dynamics.