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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Fractal music

Continuing my series of posts on the ways that science might explain why we like the music we like. See also my posts on the science of rock harmony, harmony generally, and Afro-Cuban rhythms.

Quora user Marc Ettlinger recently sent me a paper by Sherri Novis-Livengood, Richard White, and Patrick CM Wong entitled Fractal complexity (1/f power law) determines the stability of music perception, emotion, and memory in a repeated exposure paradigm. (The paper isn’t on the open web, but here’s a poster-length version.) The authors think that fractals explain our music preferences. Specifically, they find that note durations, pitch intervals, phrase lengths and other quantifiable musical parameters tend to follow a power law distribution. Power-law distributions have the nifty property of scale invariance, meaning that patterns in such entities resemble themselves at different scales. Music is full of fractals, and the more fractal-filled it is, the more we like it.

Mandelbrot zoom

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Highbrow musicians need to bring the funk

Here are three stories about the relationship of funk to the avant-garde.

Meshell Ndegeocello at Tonic

In my twenties, I forced myself to experience a lot of very highbrow avant-garde music: free jazz, experimental electronica, and various combinations thereof. One such experience was a show at Tonic. I forget who was on the bill exactly, but it included Susie Ibarra and various other downtown luminaries. The group was ad hoc and clearly had never played together before. Their freeform improvisation was colorful and interesting, but tough to get an emotional hold on.

During the second set, Meshell Ndegeocello showed up, and the band invited her to sit in. She sat onstage with her bass for a minute or two, just listening to all the atonal noise swirling around her. Then she started playing a simple G minor funk groove, quietly but insistently. One by one, the other musicians locked into it, until the whole group was actually playing together, not just at the same time, but together. It was the best show I ever saw at Tonic. It also made me realize that the best musicians play stuff that makes sense.

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Jay-Z and Alan Lomax

Why does folk music collector Alan Lomax have a copyright interest in “Takeover” by Jay-Z?

I learned the answer from Creative License: The Law And Culture Of Digital Sampling by Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola. It’s a companion book to the invaluable documentary Copyright Criminals. The story of Jay-Z and Alan Lomax isn’t quite as epic a copyright fail as the Biz Markie lawsuit or the story of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” but it’s still pretty absurd.

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How do you know what key you’re in?

It’s hard to figure out what key a piece of music is in. There are a lot of conflicting answers from different music theory texts. To make matters worse, it’s not at all unusual for a song to change keys, even within a section or phrase. Even rock songs written by totally naive songwriters can be full of key changes. So a lot of the time, you aren’t trying to figure out the key for the entire song; you’re figuring out keys for particular passages.

The good news is that while figuring out keys is complex, it’s not impossible. Before you can do it, you need to know what all the possibilities are, and you need some tools to help you in your analysis. I’m assuming here that you don’t have sheet music of the tune you’re trying to figure out, but you do have an audio recording. You’ll want a program that can loop and slow down different sections. I recommend Transcribe for this purpose. Audio editing tools like Ableton Live and Pro Tools work too.

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Harmonica guide

I have a new harmonica student starting today, so while I gather materials for him, I figured I’d put them in a blog post too.

I started learning harmonica in high school. It was the first instrument I learned voluntarily, not counting my ineffectual middle school attempt at classical cello. As a teenager, my obsession with the Grateful Dead was at its high water mark. The Dead’s first frontman, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, was a more than respectable blues harmonica player. Through the Dead, I got exposed to all the blues and country greats. I forget exactly how and why I started playing harmonica myself, but it’s probably because it was inexpensive and looked easy. I started with Country And Blues Harmonica For The Musically Hopeless by Jon Gindick, which I enthusiastically recommend.

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Diminished chords and the blues

The blues is a good entry path for beginner guitarists. If you learn the standard fifteen chords and the blues scale, you’ll be well on your way. However, there’s one crucial piece of additional music vocabulary you need to fully inhabit blues tonality, and that’s diminished chords.

To make a diminished chord, you start on any note, go up a minor third, then another, then another. Here are the notes in C diminished — the scale tones are in red.

C diminished chord clockfaceHere are some good guitar fingerings for diminished chords.

Diminished chords are highly symmetrical, which gives them a peculiar property. The circle above shows C diminished, but the same notes also make Eb, F# and A diminished. The only difference between these four chords is their respective bass notes. This symmetry means that there are only four diminished chords total. The diagrams below show what I mean. On the left is the circle of fifths; on the right is the circle of half-steps. Each square is a diminished chord.

Minor thirds on the circle of fifths and the circle of half-steps

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