Composing in the classroom

The hippest music teachers help their students create original music. But what exactly does that mean? What even is composition? In this post, I take a look at two innovators in music education and try to arrive at an answer.

Matt McLean is the founder of the amazing Young Composers and Improvisers Workshop. He teaches his students composition using a combination of Noteflight, an online notation editor, and the MusEDLab‘s own aQWERTYon, a web app that turns your regular computer keyboard into an intuitive musical interface.

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Milo meets Beethoven

For his birthday, Milo got a book called Welcome to the Symphony by Carolyn Sloan. We finally got around to showing it to him recently, and now he’s totally obsessed.

Welcome To The Symphony by Carolyn Sloan

The book has buttons along the side which you can press to hear little audio samples. They include each orchestra instrument playing a short Beethoven riff. All of the string instruments play the same “bum-bum-bum-BUMMM” so you can compare the sounds easily. All the winds play a different little phrase, and the brass another. The book itself is fine and all, but the thing that really hooked Milo is triggering the riffs one after another, Ableton-style, and singing merrily along.

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Music education at the grownups’ table

I was asked by Alison Armstrong to comment on this Time magazine op-ed by Todd Stoll, the vice president of education at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Before I do, let me give some context: Todd Stoll is a friend and colleague of Wynton Marsalis, and he shares some of Wynton’s beliefs about music.

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis advocates for  jazz as “America’s classical music,” the highest achievement of our culture, and the sonic embodiment of our best democratic ideals. The man himself is a brilliant practitioner of the art form. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing him play live several times, and he’s always a riveting improvisor. However, Wynton’s definition of the word “jazz” is a narrow one. He thinks that jazz history ended in about 1965, right before Herbie Hancock traded in his grand piano for a Fender Rhodes. All the developments after that–the introduction of funk, rock, pop, electronic music, and hip-hop– have bastardizations of the music.

Wynton Marsalis’ public stature has given his philosophy enormous weight. His effect on jazz culture has thus been profound, but problematic. On the one hand, he’s been a key force in getting jazz the institutional recognition that it was denied for too many years. On the other hand, the form of jazz that Wynton advocates for is a museum piece, a time capsule of the middle part of the twentieth century. When jazz gained the legitimacy of “classical music,” it also got burdened with classical music’s stuffiness, pedantry, and disconnection from the broader culture. As the more innovative jazz artists try to keep pace with the rest of the culture, they can find themselves more hindered by Wynton than helped.

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What should we call classical music?

Everyone can agree that the term “classical music” is silly, unless we’re specifically talking about European music of the Classical period.

The Mozart family played actual Classical music

It’s incorrect to call Baroque or Romantic or modernist music “classical,” even though we all colloquially do, to the annoyance of the classical tribe. It makes even less sense to call the music of Steve Reich or Julia Wolfe “classical.” So what should we call it?

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Musical simples – Star Wars

John Williams’ Star Wars score owes a lot to the heroic symphonies of his favorite nineteenth century German composers, from Beethoven through Wagner. The main title theme is as Germanic as it gets, a straightforward military march on the B-flat major scale.

star-wars-circles

Like all great pop hooks, this one is simple, but it isn’t dumb. It’s a four-bar phrase, three of which are almost identical.

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Musical simples

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.

Here’s a diagram from my masters thesis, adapted from a paper by Jeanne Bamberger:

Moving up and down the structural ladder

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

Making chords from scales

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.

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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.

Harmonicas

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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