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.

Continue reading

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 the European aristocracy in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the music derived from it. Tonal theory is not, however, very useful for understanding the blues, or any of the music that derives from it.

The blues is based around a set of harmonic expectations that are quite different from the classical ones. 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 tonal theory, the basis of all harmony is the major scale and its associated chords, which you modify in various ways to make all the other scales and chords. For example, in C major, you modify the “natural” seventh, B, to get the “flat” seventh, B♭. If you come into music through rock, hip-hop, R&B, country or any other musical form originating in the African diaspora (what the music academy calls “pop”,) you develop a quite different sense of what “natural” harmony is. When you’re enculturated by blues-based music, you’re likely to hear B♭ as more natural than B in C major. And you are likely to be closely familiar with the blues scale, which western tonal theory has no explanation for whatsoever.

Blues scale

When you absorb the blues rule set first, as I did, the classical one seems painfully obtuse. Many of my pop musician friends think they don’t “get” music theory because the rules of eighteenth century western European court music are frequently at odds with their intuition. Who can blame them for being confused, and why should we be surprised when so many give up? Most of the working musicians I know outside of classical and jazz are substantially self-taught. How can we design a harmony pedagogy that applies to the music that students actually know and care about? Continue reading

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

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading