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

Most Americans who study music formally do so using common-practice era western tonal theory. Tonal theory is very useful in understanding the music of western Europe in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the music derived from it. However, tonal theory is inadequate to explain the blues and other musics of the African diaspora. Given the central role of this music in both popular culture and art music, music theory classes do their students a grave disservice by not discussing its harmonic content.

The blues is based around a very different set of harmonic expectations than the ones underlying classical music. In the blues, major and minor tonality are freely intermingled. Dominant seventh chords can function as tonics. Tritones may or may not resolve. The blues scale is as basic in this context as the major scale is in tonal harmony. We need some new and better vocabulary. In this post, I propose that we teach blues tonality as a distinct category from major or minor, combining elements of both with elements not found in either.

In conventional tonal theory teaching, the major scale is taught as the most basic and fundamental theoretical building block. The very language of tonal theory proceeds from the assumption that the major scale is the most ‘natural’ one. For example, in the key of C major, we modify the ‘natural’ seventh B to produce the ‘flat’ seventh B♭. In the context of western Europeans music, this convention makes good musical sense. But western Europe is not the only salient influence on the musical culture of the United States. The music of the African diaspora is equally fundamental, and it has come to weigh increasingly heavily over time.

African diasporic musical culture expresses itself through all of America’s indigenous music: jazz, rock, hip-hop, R&B, country, and of course, the blues. The music academy gathers all of these genres together under the term ‘popular music’ (with the exception of jazz, which in recent decades has become a ‘legitimate’ art music.) Steven Feld goes so far as to describe American popular music as “a euphemism for Afro-American popular musics” (31). Growing up in America’s popular culture enculturates us with a quite different sense of what ‘natural’ harmony is. For example, DeClerq and Temperley (2011) show that the ♭VII chord is vastly more prevalent in rock than in common-practice classical music. To a lifelong rock listener, B♭ may well sound more ‘natural’ in the key of C than B does.

I propose that we teach blues tonality as a distinct category from major or minor, combining elements of both with elements not found in either. Furthermore, I propose that we present blues tonality as being as fundamental a tonal category as major or minor, rather than as a strange exception. Popular musicians, who tend to be self-taught, already effectively do treat blues this way (Green 2002, 43). The music academy should do the same.

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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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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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