The harmonica explains all of Western music

If you want to understand the cultural struggle taking place in music education right now, you could do worse than to start with the harmonica.


This unassuming little instrument was designed in central Europe in the 19th century to play the music popular in that time and place: waltzes, oom-pah music, and the like. All of this music is diatonic, meaning that it’s based around the major scale, the do-re-mi you learned in school. It’s also the music that you learn if you take a formal music theory class.

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Music theory for the perplexed guitarist

I hear it all the time from my friends in the rock world, and see it all the time in internet discussions: guitarists are struggling with their music theory, or they’ve given up on it completely. This is not their fault! Music theory is taught pretty badly for the most part, and it rarely addresses the music that rock musicians are playing.

I’ve been working on rectifying that situation. If you play guitar, or any other rock-adjacent instrument, I hope that these posts are useful to you:
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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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What’s missing from music theory class?

In a recent comment, a reader posed a good question:

I’m classically trained (I do recognize a blues progression when i hear it though) so i would like to hear more of your insights into the forms, styles and methods of pop music — your observation that “most of the creativity in pop lies in the manipulation of timbre and space”, for example, was very interesting. To me the compositional technique of most pop and esp. rock/blues seems to based on noodling on a guitar and is directly the result of the tuning of the instrument and the ease with which a beginner can learn a few chords. The fact that many popular songs have been written by teams (mostly duos) of songwriters to me seems to corroborate my noodling theory — but I am very interested to learn if there are common practices, disciplines, methods, etc that have been used and transferred over time.

I have to add that I’m a little surprised to hear that pop musicians are baffled by the relevance of “academic” music theory to their music. If you wanted to teach a pop musician about the theory of his craft, what would you teach other than what is offered in any freshman theory course? (all right, you can skip the figured bass and species counterpoint).


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Pop musicians in the academy

Together with Adam Bell, I’m planning some in-depth writing about the phenomenon of pop musicians (like me) teaching in formal, classically-oriented institutional settings. This post is a loosely organized collection of relevant thoughts.

School of Rock

What even is “pop music?”

As far as the music academy is concerned, all music except classical or folk is “popular.” People who make bluegrass or death metal or underground hip-hop might be surprised to learn that their wildly unpopular music is referred to this way. In the past few decades, jazz has moved out of the “popular” column and into the “art” column. I myself have made a small amount of actual pop music, but for the past few years have mostly been involved in the production of artsy electronica.

How classical musicians learn: an absurd oversimplification

Classical musicians learn The Western Canon by performing and analyzing scores. The defining instrument of this music is the piano. All vocalists and instrumentalists are expected to be able to think in pianistic terms. Students are part of a pyramid-shaped hierarchical structure with long-dead composers at the top, followed by long-dead music theorists, followed by living music theorists and conductors and academics, and so on down to the individual section player. There is a contingent of living composers whose role in the hierarchy is confused at the moment. Most student composers are expected to operate within a tightly bounded tradition, whether that’s common-practice tonality or one of the various schools of modernism. The analysis of large-scale structure happens only at the very advanced level, if ever. Recordings are something of an afterthought.

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Music theory blues

I’m reading a lot Schenkerian analyses of blues right now in service of my forthcoming article about blues tonality. Each paper I read is wronger than the last. On the one hand, they fill me with righteous rage, but on the other hand, that rage does at least help me focus my arguments. Here are some particularly awful quotes from a scholar who will remain nameless, because I don’t believe that the racism is intended:

Blue notes, by nature, are alienated from their harmonic environment and have a dissonant relationship with them, giving the blues and all its derivatives a rough, angry character. Nevertheless, the hostility of blue notes toward the surrounding world may be mitigated—“domesticated”—through consonantization.

Blue notes (BNs), by nature, spoil the diatonicism of and cause dissonance in “clean” chords. But these notes may achieve their own independent harmonization, thereby being domesticated and turning into “environment-friendly” consonant notes.

The products of the consonantization of the BNs, which appear in a major-mode harmonic environment, are necessarily flatted degrees. These degrees turn the BNs from minor notes, which are “alien” to the major chords that build the basic harmonic progression, into “family” notes that are “at home” in these chords. The legitimacy that the flatted chords give the BNs is ostensibly the opposite of the “emancipation”that Arnold Schoenberg gave dissonant notes when he freed them from having to resolve to consonance, since the BNs by nature are dissonant notes with no obligation to be resolved.

However, the domestication of the BNs is an emancipatory act, since they thereby stop clashing with the harmony and instead become settled in it.

In Example 1(e), we see flatted or “minorized” degrees, among them VI and III. These degrees now include 3ˆ and 7ˆ not as BNs but in a mixtural framework—that is, as an insertion of flatted notes in a major key. Both of these—mixture and BNs—are common in the Beatles’ songs. Are they related? Ostensibly, they are two completely different things: the journey back in time in quest of the origins of blues will take us to the Mississippi Delta and from there to Africa, whereas the search for the origins of mixture, which is anchored in traditional harmony, will eventually lead us to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. The connection goes through the “domestication of BNs”—when it can be shown that a particular BN has changed from being outside the consonant harmony, in which case we may regard it as a garnish or a “disturbance,”to being an integral part of a consonant triad. If, for example, we can claim in a particular context that the III chord in Example 1(e) is based on a BN (G), then the status of this BN has improved substantially relative to its status in (c): instead of being an outsider, it becomes a distinguished member of the club of the flatted mediant without losing its blues character.

The status of these [blue] notes in the harmonic society improves substantially in part B: they become the roots of VII and III, and thus they become respected members of the community and live in consonant harmony with the rest of the notes. Their past is nevertheless evident in the descriptive term CBN, which is imprinted on their identity cards.

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Blues tonality


The blues is a foundational element of America’s vernacular and art music. It is commonly described as a combination of African rhythms and European harmonies. This characterization is inaccurate. Blues follows harmonic conventions that are quite different from those of European common-practice tonality. Blues does not fit into major or minor tonality, and it makes heavy use of harmonic intervals considered by tonal theory to be dissonant. But blues listeners do not experienced the music as dissonant; rather, they hear an alternative system of consonance. In order to make sense of this system, we need to understand blues as belonging to its own tonality, distinct from major, minor and modal scales. The author argues that blues tonality should be taught as part of the basic music theory curriculum.
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Internet blues

Recently, WNYC’s great music show Soundcheck held a contest to see who could do the best version of the 100 year old song “Yellow Dog Blues” by WC Handy.

Marc Weidenbaum had the members of the Disquiet Junto enter the contest en masse. I did my track, put it on SoundCloud, and promptly forgot all about it.

A month later, I was surprised and delighted to learn from Marc’s blog that the contest winner was Junto stalwart Westy Reflector.

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