This post originally took the form of a couple of Twitter threads, which I’ve collected and edited here for easier reading.
Greg Sandow asks two very interesting and provocative questions of classical music:
When the Museum of Modern Art did its first retrospective of a seminal musical artist, no surprise it was Björk who reached past music into the larger cultural world. Some day, couldn’t somebody from classical music do that? When a major musical artist died and the New York Times did more than 20 stories tracing his influence on our culture and on people’s lives, well, of course it was David Bowie. Couldn’t it someday be someone from classical music?
My answer: Probably not.
I’m working on a new music theory course with the good folks at Soundfly, a continuation of Theory For Producers. We were looking for contemporary songs that use modal interchange, combinations of different scales to create complex blends of emotion. Soundfly producer Marty Fowler suggested a Frank Ocean song, which I was immediately on board with.
Frank is one of the freshest musicians and songwriters out there–his song “Super Rich Kids” is one of my favorite recent tracks by anyone. For the course, Marty picked “Pink And White,” a simple tune with a deceptively complex harmonic structure.
Public-facing note taking on Music Matters by David Elliott and Marissa Silverman for my Philosophy of Music Education class.
Research into music psychology (and simply attending to your own experience, and to common sense) shows that music arouses emotions. However, there is no conclusive way to explain why or how. To make things more complicated, it’s perfectly possible to perceive an emotion in a piece of music without feeling that emotion yourself–you can identify a happy song as being happy without it making you feel happy. Music and emotion are inextricably tied up with each other, but how does music arouse emotions, and how do emotions infuse music?
Elliott and Silverman summarize some major philosophical theories of musical emotion (or lack thereof). Continue reading
If I’m going to understand progressive philosophies of education, then I need to understand John Dewey. So here we go.
Dewey is a progressive hero. He was a supporter of women’s suffrage, a founding member of the NAACP, and was ahead of his time on the importance of multiculturalism. Contrary to what I had always assumed, he did not invent the Dewey Decimal System. Given that I’m reading about him in the context of music education, it was amusing to learn that he had congenital amusia. Finally, a fun autobiographical fact: I attended a very fancy school modeled on Dewey’s Laboratory School at the University of Chicago.
Before we get to Dewey’s thoughts on art and education, here are some of his key political stances, as explained by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Classical liberals think of the individual as an independent entity in competition with other individuals. Social and political life are the arena in which individuals engage in the competitive pursuit of self-interest, preferably with minimal interference from the government. Dewey preferred to think of individuals as parts of a bigger organism, dependent on our relationships with each other for our survival and well-being. In Dewey’s model, freedom isn’t just the absence of constraints, but rather the positive fact of participation in an ethical social order.
In the wake of David Bowie’s death, I went on iTunes and bought a couple of his tracks, including the majestic “Blackstar.” In economic terms, I “consumed” this song. I am a “music consumer.” I made an emotional connection to a dying man who has been a creative inspiration of mine for more than twenty years, via “consumption.” That does not feel like the right word, at all. When did we even start saying “music consumers”? Why did we start? It makes my skin crawl.
The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the verb “to consume” descends from Latin consumere, which means “to use up, eat, waste.” That last sense of the word speaks volumes about America, our values, and specifically, our pathological relationship with music.
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.
Click each image to play the scale on the aQWERTYon.
While I was doing some examination of rhythm necklaces and scale necklaces, I noticed a symmetry among the major scale modes: Lydian mode and Locrian mode are mirror images of each other, both on the chromatic circle and the circle of fifths. Here’s Lydian above and Locrian below:
Does this geometric relationship mean anything musically? Turns out that it does.
If you’re interested in learning more about chords and emotions, take my online course.
The short-lived Russian composer Vasily Kalinnikov wrote this particularly lovely piece of music:
If you listen to this piece at 6:16, there’s a particularly beautiful and tragic chord progression. It’s in the key of E-flat, but I transposed it into C for ease of understanding:
I mentally refer to this progression as the Willie Nelson turnaround, because I first heard it in his classic recording of “I’d Have To Be Crazy”, written not by Willie, but by Steven Fromholz. I had the pleasure of performing this tune many times back in my country music days, and it makes a great lullaby for my kids.
The version of the progression in “I’d Have To Be Crazy” 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.
Here’s a mashup of Kalinnikov and Willie:
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.
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.
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.
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