Looping and stasis in Medúlla

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.

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The Makossa diaspora

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:

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Visualizing music

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.

Music notation

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.

"Chameleon" by Herbie Hancock

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.)

John Coltrane's solo on "All Blues"

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.

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The freakiness of melodic minor

My last post on minor keys covered the three scales you need for most situations in rock, pop and so on: natural minor, harmonic minor and dorian. There’s also the blues scale, which sounds good in any key, major or minor. For musical Jedi masters, there’s one more valuable minor scale. It’s called the melodic minor scale, also known as the jazz scale. If you want to push your playing or writing in a more adventurous, exotic and challenging direction, melodic minor is a good tool to have in your musical toolbox.

A melodic minor scale clockface

Here’s how to program the scale into Auto-tune. And here’s a new composition of mine using two melodic minor scales, C and G.

Melodic Minor

mp3 download

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The major scale modes

When you first set out to learn your scales, it can be discouraging. There are so many of them, and their names are so bewildering. The good news is that when you learn one scale, you get a bunch of other scales “for free.” This is because many scales share the same pitches, just in different orders. Scales that are related in this way are called modes.

To understand modes, picture a set of Scrabble tiles. Say you have seven Scrabble tiles that spell the word RESPECT. You can take the first two letters off and stick them on the end to get SPECTRE (the British spelling of specter.) In music theory terms, SPECTRE is a mode of RESPECT; conversely, RESPECT is a mode of SPECTRE.

Now imagine your Scrabble tiles spell ABCDEFG. If you treat the letters as note names, this is a scale called A natural minor. If you take the first two letters off and put them on the end, you get CDEFGAB, the C major scale. C major and A natural minor are modes of one another; learning to play one gives you the other one for free.

This post will walk you through all of the modes of C major. To find a mode, pick any red note on the diagram below and read clockwise to get the mode starting on that note.

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Meet the major scale

The C major scale is the foundation that the rest of western music theory sits on. If you master it, you get a bunch of cool chords and scales for free, along with a window into a huge swath of our musical culture.

How to form the scale

Imagine an ice cube tray with twelve slots, one for each note in the western tuning system, labeled like so:

C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B

To make the C major scale, you just remove all the ice cubes with # in their names, like so:

C [ ] D [ ] E F [ ] G [ ] A [ ] B

Here’s a graphic representation of the C major scale. Scale tones are in red, the notes you skip are gray. Continue reading

Björk thought she could organize freedom, how Scandinavian of her

I revere Björk above most other musicians. She knows how to balance the coldness of electronic production with hotly unpredictable vocals and instrumental textures. Not everybody loves Björk as much as I do; her approach is eccentric and her sound gets on some people’s nerves. It took me a couple years to be convinced by her. I’m glad I hung in there, because she’s been one of my best teachers in the art of making music with computers.

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Can robots DJ?

Now that I have an office job, I’m spending a lot of time under headphones while I correct people’s grammar. It’s a good opportunity to explore the outer reaches of my music tastes. The office has some networked iTunes libraries heavy on the Pitchfork 500, and I have whatever I’m bringing from home. I’ve also been making my first serious adventure with internet radio. I arbitrarily picked Pandora because they have a free iPhone app. The web version is nothing to write home about design-wise, but the iPhone version is fun, and over wi-fi there are none of the buffering delays that have kept me from enjoying internet radio in the past.

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When The Levee Breaks

The drum intro from Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” is the perfect embodiment of The Awesome Majesty Of Rock.

John Bonham

What makes John Bonham’s drums on this track so staggeringly heavy? Partially it’s his playing, and partially it’s the innovative production. Bonham’s performance was recorded by engineer Andy Johns in Headley Grange, a Victorian-era poorhouse in England. Bonham played a brand new drum kit at the bottom of a big stairwell. The microphones were placed at the top of the stairs three stories above. The stairwell created a huge natural reverb, making the sound both big and powerful, and oddly diffuse and distant. To make the drums sound even more humungous, the band slowed the tape down a little, lowering the pitch and giving the track a thick, sludgy quality.

Zeppelin only ever played “When The Levee Breaks” live a couple of times. On the recording, the tempo is seventy beats per minute, which is a tempo more usually associated with ballads. It’s very hard to maintain a heavy groove when you’re playing that slow. Also, it’s impossible to replicate the timbre of the pitch-shifted drums acoustically. It’s as if “Levee” was meant to live purely in the electronic realm. Continue reading