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

The best jazz versions of classical pieces

For my tastes, you can’t beat the Ellington Nutcracker.

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Ellington’s Peer Gynt suite is also pretty wonderful.

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This one has inspired some remixing from me.

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What are the greatest basslines ever?

The bassline is neglected by most non-musicians. But if you want to write or produce music, you quickly find out how important it is. The bassline is the foundation of the whole musical structure, both rhythmically and harmonically. The best basslines interlock with the drums and other rhythm instruments to propel the groove, without you necessarily even noticing them. I like the complex walking lines in jazz and melodic lines in highbrow rock, but the ones that really hit me where I live are basic riffs that loop and loop until they lift you into an ecstatic trance.

Here are my favorite basslines of the last fifty years, across genres.

John Coltrane – “My Favorite Things”

Simple, hypnotic, effective. Read more.

John Coltrane – “Equinox”

Another devastatingly simple groove.

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What goes on neurologically when a song gets stuck in your head?

The phenomenon of annoyingly persistent earworms is a great introduction to the meme theory: the idea that songs (and all other forms of cultural expression) are self-replicating informational “viruses” that use the mind as their host, the way DNA viruses use living cells and software viruses use computers. The best overview of this theory is Susan Blackmore’s book The Meme Machine.

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How is it possible to compose jazz when improvisation is an essential component?

Typical jazz compositions are written expressly as vehicles for improvisation. Mainstream jazz tunes since the 1940s take the form head-solos-head. The head is a written melody, and the solos are improvised around the chord changes of the head. Scores for these kinds of tunes take the form of lead sheets, like the ones found in the Real Books.

The lead sheet writes out the head’s melody and chord progression. The specifics of accompaniment, interpretation and tempo are up to the performers.

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It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing

Today is the Fourth of July, and I can’t think of anything more patriotic than a post about our most significant contribution to world musical culture: swing. The title of this post refers to the classic Duke Ellington tune, sung here by Ray Nance. Check out the “yah yah” trombone by Tricky Sam Nanton.

The word “swing,” like the word “blues,” has multiple meanings, depending on context. Swing is both a genre and a technical music term describing a certain rhythm. The two are related, but the rhythm has long outlived the genre.

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Remixing Duke Ellington

There’s no music I love more in the world than Duke Ellington’s.

When I was a kid, the New York Transit Museum had a commercial in heavy rotation on local TV that used “Take The A Train” and I remember being riveted by it. I should point out that Billy Strayhorn wrote this tune, not Ellington, but it became the Ellington Orchestra’s theme song for decades.

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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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