What is groove?

You hear musicians talk all the time about groove. You might wonder what they mean by that. A lot of musicians couldn’t explain exactly, beyond “the thing that makes music sound good.” The etymology of the term comes from vinyl records. Musicians ride the groove the way a phonograph needle physically rides the groove in the vinyl.

The original groove

But what is groove, exactly? It isn’t just a matter of everyone playing with accurate rhythm. When a classical musician executes a passage flawlessly, you don’t usually talk about their groove. Meanwhile, it’s possible for loosely executed music to have a groove to it. Most of my musician friends talk about groove as a feeling, a vibe, an ineffable emotional quality, and they’re right. But groove is something tangible, too, and even quantifiable.

Using digital audio production software, you can learn to understand the most mystical aspects of music in concrete terms. I’ve written previously about how electronic music quantifies the elusive concept of swing. Music software can similarly help you understand the even more elusive concept of groove. In music software, “groove” means something specific and technical: the degree to which a rhythm deviates from the straight metronomic grid. Continue reading

Participatory music vs presentational music

In this post, I’ll be doing some public-facing note-taking on Music As Social Life: The Politics Of Participation by Thomas Turino. I’m especially interested in chapter two: Participatory and Presentational Performance. We in America tend to place a high value on presentational music created by professionals, and a low value on participatory music made by amateurs. It’s useful to know that there are people in the world who take a different view.

Turino divides music into four big categories:

  1. Participatory music. Everyone present is actively doing something: playing an instrument, singing or chanting, and/or dancing. For example: a bluegrass jam, campfire singing, a hip-hop cypher.
  2. Presentational music. There’s a clear divide between the performers and the audience. Audience members might dance or sing along, but they are not the focus. For example: a classical, rock or jazz concert.
  3. High-fidelity recording. A document of a live performance (or a convincing illusion of such.) For example: a classical or jazz album.
  4. Studio sound art. A recording that was constructed in the studio using techniques other than (or in addition to) people performing in real time. For example: a late Beatles album, or any pop song since 1980.

Turino devotes a lot of his attention to three examples of participatory music cultures:

Aymara ceremony

Shona witch doctor

Contra dancers in New Hampshire

This last group might strike you as the odd one out, but Turino sees more commonalities between the musical experience of American contra dancers and participants in Shona rituals than he does between the contra dancers and audiences at, say, a bluegrass concert.

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Repetition defines music

Musical repetition has become a repeating theme of this blog. Seems appropriate, right? This post looks at a wonderful book by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, called On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind, investigating the reasons why we love repetition in music. You can also read long excerpts at Aeon Magazine.

Here’s the nub of Margulis’ argument:

The simple act of repetition can serve as a quasi-magical agent of musicalisation. Instead of asking: ‘What is music?’ we might have an easier time asking: ‘What do we hear as music?’ And a remarkably large part of the answer appears to be: ‘I know it when I hear it again.’

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Everyone can and should be making music

I have a strongly held belief about musical talent: there is no such thing. Every neurotypical human is born with the ability to learn music, the same way the vast majority of us are born with the ability to learn to walk and talk. We still have to do the learning, though; otherwise the capacity doesn’t develop itself. When we talk about “musical talent,” we’re really talking about the means, motive and opportunity to activate innate musicality. When we talk about “non-musicians,” we’re rarely talking about the Oliver Sacks cases with congenital amusia; usually we mean people who for whatever reason never had the chance to develop musically.

The NYU Chorale

So what if almost everyone is a potential musician? Why should you care? Because participation in music, particularly in groups, is an essential emotional vitamin. We here in America are sorely deficient in this vitamin, and it shows in our stunted emotional growth. Steve Dillon calls music a “powerful weapon against depression.” We need to be nurturing musicality wherever it occurs as a matter of public health.

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Constructivist learning and Scratch

Brennan, K. (2013). Best of Both Worlds: Issues of Structure and Agency in Computational Creation, In and Out of School. Doctoral Dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

I had the very good fortune to attend a fancy elementary school run on solid constructivist principles. In sixth grade I got to experience the “hard fun” of Sprite Logo. Similarly fortunate kids today are learning Logo’s great-grandchild, Scratch.

A Scratch block

Karen Brennan’s doctoral dissertation looks at the ways people teach and learn Scratch, and asks how the study of programming can help or hinder kids’ agency in their own learning. Agency, in this sense, refers to your ability to define and pursue learning goals, so you can play a part in your self-development, adaptation, and self-renewal. This is interesting to me, because every single argument Brennan makes about the teaching of programming applies equally well to the teaching of music.

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Experience designers design experiences

Hassenzahl, M. (2010). Experience Design: Technology for All the Right Reasons. Morgan & Claypool.

For this week’s reading on experience design for music education, we moved up a level to think about experience design generally. A lot of design theory tends to boil down to “Design things better!” Marc Hassenzahl’s book falls into that trap a little, but he does have some useful specific ideas. His main thesis is that designers of technology aren’t just designing the technology itself. They’re designing the felt experience of using the technology (intentionally or not.) People care less about the technology itself and more about how they feel while using it.

Are You Experienced?

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Minsky on music

Music, Mind and Meaning by Marvin Minsky is a gold mine of inspired speculation about the origins and functions of music. I’ve assembled some choice quotes below.

Marvin Minsky

If visual art is our way of playing with and studying space, then music is our way of playing with and studying time.

Can one time fit inside another? Can two of them go side by side? In music, we find out!

Minsky is talking mostly about western classical music here, but his insight is equally pertinent to listening to and playing repetitive music from any tradition: hip-hop, dance, what have you.

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How to promote flow in music students

Continuing my research into the use of games in music education, I found this:

Custodero, L. (2002). Seeking challenge, finding skill: Flow experience in music education. Arts Education and Policy Review, 103(3), 3–9.

The best music education happens in states of flow, as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: the feeling of energized focus brought on by total absorption in an activity. Flow is more or less synonymous with happiness. So how do you bring about a state of flow? The key is to balance challenge and ability. Too much challenge for your abilities, and you’re anxious. Too little challenge and you’re bored. In between lies the delightful state of flow.

Flow

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A modern classical fan responds

I’ve talked a lot of smack about high modernist music on this blog recently. Yesterday I got an email from a composer named Evan Kearney with some thoughtful reactions. Here’s what he had to say:

[Y]ou wrote that you didn’t ‘get’ High Modernism (serialism, Webern, Pierre Boulez, Elliot Carter, etc.) and what it offered for the average listener. I can tell you that their music had an immediate impact on me. It is unlike any tonal or post tonal music though. It hits me hard in a very startling way.

It is as if your soul is being bared to the harshness of reality and you can gain some sort of epiphany through the almost psychedelic nature of the atonal soundscape. Granted, I prefer pre-atonal composers like Bartok more than true serialists, but nonetheless, that is my way of appreciating it.

One more thing — interestingly, I have converted two of my friends, who, like myself (before I started getting in to jazz and classical about six years ago) were big “prog” rock, electronic music, and “progressive” hip-hop fans.

They still are, of course, and with the current influx of amazing music via the internet that will probably just increase. My point however, is that after a few reviews of modern classical, I have gotten them to genuinely enjoy it. And they both cite the same reasons for liking it as me — the pseudo-altered-state of mind, high-alert, thrill-ride-esque journey that goes with it.

So there you have it, folks, as articulate an explanation of this music and its attractions as you’re likely to find. You may also want to check out Evan’s own works on his SoundCloud page.