I’m a proud member of the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, a research group that crosses the disciplines of music education, technology, and design. Here’s an overview of our many ongoing projects.
Here’s an explanation for why I’m gathering these things.
Wagner, “Ride of the Valkyries”
I’m no great fan of Wagner, but there’s no denying that this is a killer hook. You don’t have much occasion to play in 9/8 time these days, but this melody can be adapted to fit 4/4 pretty easily. Also, because I’m a lowbrow goofball:
The NYU Music Experience Design Lab is putting together a new online music theory resource, and I’m writing a lot of the materials. We want to keep everything grounded in real-life musical practice. To that end, we’ve been gathering musical simples: phrases, riffs, and earworms that beginners can learn easily. My criteria for a good musical simple: It should be a piece of music that can stand on its own, and that makes a satisfying loop. It should be catchy, attractive, and (ideally) already familiar. And it should be between one and four measures long. We’re developing a web-based interface that will make it easy to learn a musical simple, play it back, and mutate and adapt it. Each theory concept will come with at least one simple to give it authentic cultural context.
It’s an axiom of constructivism that you learn best when you’re enjoying yourself. This might seem obvious, but it represents a break with music education orthodoxy. Music students too often have to do a lot of tedious drilling before they get to try some real music. Even then, those tunes tend to be nursery rhymes or dorky educational pieces. It makes a certain amount of sense to structure lessons this way: real music is complicated and usually well out of reach of beginners. Unfortunately, too many beginners give up before they make it past the nursery rhyme stage.
Beginner-level music teaching nearly always starts at the atomic level: single pitches, note values, time signatures. It seems logical that the smallest units of music would be the simplest ones. But this is not actually true. Beginners conceive of music at a more intermediate level of abstraction: fragments of tunes, moments of tension and resolution, loops and grooves. Self-taught and informally taught musicians do most of their learning at this level. A three-chord song by Bob Marley or Neil Young is a better entry point than the single notes comprising those three chords and the relationship between them.
For more discussion of these ideas, see also Bamberger’s “Developing Musical Structures: Going Beyond The Simples.”
It’s hard to resist the temptation to start at the bottom of the abstraction ladder. Even though I’m a self-taught pop musician, I still instinctively “start at the beginning” whenever I set out to explain something to a student, and have to consciously remind myself to find a mid-level explanation first. I try to think in terms of chemistry. Atoms and their component particles are “simpler” than molecules and complex substances. But most of us don’t have direct experience with atoms. We’re familiar with water and air and rocks and metals. We need to think about water before we can understand hydrogen and oxygen. So it is with music. The musical simples are our molecules and substances, mid-level entry points that scaffold learning of atoms and electrons.
I was unconsciously gathering musical simples long before I heard the term. I was looking for stuff that’s easy to learn, but that’s also substantive enough to work as real music. The good news is that there’s plenty of simple music that isn’t lame. The music of the African diaspora is built on riffs and loops, and jazz and rock and pop are full of easy yet richly satisfying musical ideas. By carefully curating a simples collection, we’re hoping to make life easier for anyone who wants to teach or learn music in an engaging and pleasurable way. Here’s an assortment, shown both in standard notation and MIDI piano roll format. Continue reading
A chord and a scale are two different ways of looking at the same thing: a group of pitches that sound good together. If you organize the pitches sequentially and play them one at a time, you get a scale. If you stack them up and play them simultaneously, you get chords. Here’s a guide to the most commonly-used scales in Western music and their moods.
To make a chord, you start on the first note of a scale and then move up it in thirds, meaning that you skip every alternating note. To get more notes for your chord, just keep adding thirds on top.
- If you start on the first scale degree, add the third scale degree, and then add the fifth scale degree, you get a simple three-note chord called a triad.
- If you add the seventh scale degree on top, you get a seventh chord.
- Next you come to the ninth note of the scale, which is really just the second note an octave up. Adding it gives you a ninth chord.
- Then you come to the eleventh note of the scale, which is the fourth note an octave up. Adding it gives you an eleventh chord.
- Finally, you arrive at the thirteenth note of the scale, which is the sixth note an octave up. Adding it gives you a thirteenth chord.
- The next third after the thirteenth is just the root of the scale. You’ve now used every possible note in your chord.
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.
One of the great privileges of working at NYU is having access to the state-of-the-art Dolan Studio. Listening to music on top-end Lipinskis through an SSL console in a control room designed by Philippe Starck is the most exquisite audio experience I’ve ever had, and likely will ever have. Unfortunately, it’s also very far removed from the circumstances in which I listen to music in my normal life. It isn’t even an issue of the speakers or amps, though of course mine are nowhere near as good as the ones in Dolan. It’s more about the listening environment.
This fascinating thread about music theory on Hacker News showed up recently in my blog pingbacks.
Two posts in particular caught my eye. Continue reading
This question gets asked a lot. It’s really four questions: 1) What is music theory? 2) Does music theory really teach you what music is? 3) Does music theory teach you how to create music? And 4) how do you learn music theory? Let’s take these questions one at a time.
One of my Montclair State students recently did a class presentation on Venetian Snares, the stage name of highbrow electronica producer Aaron Funk.
The track uses samples from the first movement of Béla Bartók’s fourth string quartet, accompanied by shuffled slices of the Amen break. It sounds to me like an EDM artist trying to deal with “art” music. Eliot Britton wrote an art-musical scholarly response. Britton makes a good-faith effort to engage the track on its own terms, but he’s writing from within the classical academic tradition. That tradition can be a king-sized drag.
The climb from a popular musical style to acceptance as an elevated form of artistic expression is steep. The struggle to include jazz as legitimate art music took many years and the endeavour continues to this day. However, it is no longer acceptable for educated musicians to dismiss jazz as “dance music” because of its association with the dance hall. To dismiss jazz as an artistic musical form would be a rejection of a major element of North American music history.
Oh boy. Let’s unpack! Continue reading
In the Wall Street Journal, David Gelernter is very upset about Kids Today.
For most young people, music is a minor consumable, like toothpaste.
Okay. That’s debatable, by which I mean wrong, but moving along.
Here’s where it gets real. Emphases in original:
Musicians and music majors aside, my students at Yale—and there are no smarter, more eager, more open students anywhere—just barely know who Beethoven is. Beethoven. “He composed music”—that is the general consensus.
To know nothing about Beethoven? That is cultural bankruptcy. That is collapse. It goes far beyond incompetence, deep into betrayal and farce.
“Why should we know anything about Beethoven?” The question was asked in all seriousness by a sophomore just a few months ago. When I dredged up old, tired clichés, he listened carefully—and seemed convinced! What could be sadder? He was only waiting for the smallest bit of encouragement.
I told him (approximately), “You must know Beethoven’s music because no one has ever said anything deeper about what it means to be human, to look life and death in the eye, to know beauty at its purest and most intense—if you can take it. Because Beethoven asserts his own mere human self against the whole cosmos and makes it listen; he addresses God face-to-face, like Moses, whether God listens or not. And so people all over the world study and listen to and perform his music with reverence.” Clichés, but they were news to him.
No one has ever said anything deeper! NO ONE. Beethoven makes THE VERY COSMOS listen. He GETS UP IN GOD’S FACE. Can you take it? You can’t. You can’t even take it. This is you trying to take it: