The saddest chord progression ever

My fellow NYU adjunct Rebecca Feynberg recently hipped me to Vasily Kalinnikov.

If you listen to this piece at 6:16, there’s a particularly lovely and tragic chord progression. It’s in the key of E♭, but I transposed it into C for ease of understanding:

||: Am | D7 | Fm | C :||

I mentally refer to this progression as the Willie Nelson turnaround, because he uses it extensively in his classic tune “I’d Have To Be Crazy.” I had the pleasure of performing this many times back in my country music days, and it makes a great lullaby for Milo.

Willie’s version uses a different harmonic rhythm, and starts on the I chord instead of vi, but the emotional effect is the same. Willie’s tune is in E, but again, I transposed into C for easier comparison.

|| C | % | % | % | D7 | Fm | C | % ||

At the top of the tune and in various other spots, he also uses this variant:

|| C | % | G7 | % | D7 | Fm | C | % ||

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Why do people love music so much?

We’re attracted to music for the same reason we’re attracted to fire: it’s been a critical survival tool for us for hundreds of thousands of years.

Partying in the stone age

Music cognition is one of the first high-level brain functions to emerge in infants, coming long before walking and talking. It’s also one of the last to go in people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Music (and its twin sibling dance) are fundamental tools for soothing infants, for attracting mates, and for motivating and bonding groups ranging from kindergarten classes to infantry units. It enables us to both express our emotions and to actively modulate them, both within ourselves and among one another. Music is one of the very few known cultural universals. It’s incredibly ancient — there’s good reason to believe that it precedes language in human evolutionary history. There’s plausible speculation that it precedes bipedal walking as well. It’s no great mystery why people like it.

The real mystery is why we in modern western civilization developed the perverse idea that music is a frivolity. Steven Pinker, an otherwise very smart person who should know better, describes music as “auditory cheesecake.” Here in America, we relegate music-making to highly skilled experts, while most of us participate in it passively or not at all. We shouldn’t be surprised that depression, violence, drug abuse and suicide are epidemic in our country, even among our unprecedented levels of wealth, stability and safety. Lack of musical participation is both a cause and symptom of our unhappiness, and it demonstrates the failure of modern civilization to meet our emotional needs. In other human societies, probably in most of them throughout our deep history, music has always been a part of daily life, on a level with cooking or gossip. We would be wise to restore routine music-making to its proper place in the center of our lives.

Provoked by this Quora thread, which includes an answer by Hans Zimmer.

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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