New online music theory course with Soundfly!

I’m delighted to announce that my new online music theory collaboration with Soundfly is live. It’s called Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords, and it gives you a practical guide to harmony for creators of contemporary pop, R&B, hip-hop, and EDM. We tie all the abstract music theory concepts to real-world musical usages, showing how you can use particular chord combinations to evoke particular feelings. I worked hard with the team at Soundfly on this over the past few months, and we are super jazzed about it.

Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords

Like my previous Soundfly courses, the Theory for Producers series, the chords class is a blend of videos, online interactives and composition/production challenges. The musical examples are songs by people like Adele, Chance the Rapper, and Frank Ocean. You can download the MIDI files for each example, stick them in your DAW, and dive right into hands-on music making.

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Frank Ocean – Pink and White

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 Ocean - Blond

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.

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TufAmerica suing Frank Ocean is ridiculous

Maybe, like me, you’re a fan of “Super Rich Kids” by Frank Ocean featuring Earl Sweatshirt.

Maybe, like me, you were especially delighted by the part at 1:59, when Frank unexpectedly quotes “Real Love” by Mary J. Blige.

A “record label” (really a group of lawyers) called TufAmerica heard that quote too, and now they’re suing Frank Ocean for sampling their property without permission. TufAmerica owns 3.15% of “Real Love.” They acquired this stake by suing Mary J. Blige, whose song samples “Top Billin'” by Audio Two.

Wait, except TufAmerica doesn’t own “Top Billin'” either. They own “Impeach the President” by the Honey Drippers, the opening bars of which have been sampled in thousands of songs, “Top Billin'” among them.

At this point, you may be getting confused. Isn’t that a rather long and convoluted chain of musical borrowings to be suing over? Audio Two didn’t do a straight sample of “Impeach the President,” they flipped it — they sliced the sample into individual drum hits and reshuffled them into a very different rhythm. Still, they made use of someone else’s recording, so, fine. But what does that have to do with Mary J. Blige? It’s distinctly possible that neither she nor her produces had never even heard of the Honey Drippers when they sampled Audio Two.

But that isn’t the dumbest part of TufAmerica’s case. The dumbest part is that Frank Ocean’s quote (not sample) of Mary J. Blige makes no reference to the beat at all. He quotes the lyrics and the rhythmic contour of her melody, with different pitches and underlying harmony. Really, if anybody deserves to be making copyright claims over a groove here, it’s Elton John. The first time I heard “Super Rich Kids,” I thought, oh cool, Frank sampled the beat from “Benny and the Jets.”

A quick Google search reveals dozens of lawsuits that TufAmerica is involved in. The company is a notorious “sample troll,” like the equally odious Bridgeport Music. Their sole purpose as corporate entities is to buy up copyrights of old songs and then sue people who have sampled them. Sometimes they do this against the wishes of the original creators — George Clinton is delighted that the rappers have embraced P-Funk, but Bridgeport Music owns his copyrights.

Please do not feed the trolls

Even if you don’t care about hip-hop, or sample-based music in general, the practice of sample trolling should concern you. According to the US Constitution, the point of copyright law is “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” TufAmerica is not promoting the Progress of anything. If anything, they’re creating pressures that stifle the useful Arts. I’m hardly a wild-eyed radical for believing this — here are some think pieces on the harmful effects of sample trolling by the New York Times, Slate, and The Atlantic.

There is so much wrong with this lawsuit. Why should TufAmerica go after Frank Ocean in particular? According to, the opening of “Impeach the President” is the most-sampled breakbeat in history. Pieces of it appear in at least one commercial recording every year since 1987. Is it because Frank Ocean happens to be really popular right now, rather than his being the most egregious transgression against TufAmerica’s rights?

It gets worse. TufAmerica has a music imprint, Tuff City, which sells vinyl copies of “Impeach the President” on their online store. The page copy touts the track’s significance in hip-hop history:

Roy C and the Honeydrippers’ “Impeach The President” is widely considered to be the most sampled track in the history of hip hop. Artists such as 2Pac, Slick Rick, Nas, N.W.A, Ice Cube, Eric B & Rakim, Audio Two, Common and, many, many more.

The break at “Impeach the President” is virtually a blueprint for hip hop… the kind of track that broke big in the old school scene of the late 70s, and which is still bumping speakers today!

I guess no one in their marketing department has heard of irony.

CMU points out a further irony: “Real Love” was originally released on Uptown Records, which was later absorbed by Frank Ocean’s label, Universal, in the late 1990s. This means that Universal probably owns the majority rights of the track it’s currently accused of illegally sampling.

I know that we need to have rules about intellectual property. But shouldn’t those rules make sense? Unless the drummers who played the classic breakbeats happen to be listed as songwriters, they don’t get any money when people license samples of them. Clyde Stubblefield isn’t entitled to a dime when people license the Funky Drummer break. Why should a bunch of lawyers who have never played or recorded a note in their lives be able to extract money in situations like this? Why do we tolerate this kind of parasitism in our creative economy? Sample trolls are destroying America.

Frank Ocean’s Real Love

Frank Ocean is the R&B singer of the moment. Does he merit all they hype? There’s no doubt but that the man can sing. I first heard him in Jay-Z and Kanye West’s tremendous “No Church In The Wild,” which owes a lot of its intensity to Ocean’s vocals. He’s been releasing some good mixtapes too. Some of his sudden fame is also due to his implicit coming-out moment, a remarkable Tumblr post talking openly about his feelings for another man. In a world where Jay-Z’s voicing ambiguous support for gay marriage is headline news, Ocean’s open love letter is bold indeed.

The online Frank Ocean buzz reached such a pitch that I finally took the plunge on his first major-label release, Channel Orange. It’s the first full album of new music I’ve bought since The Archandroid by Janelle Monáe. Does it merit the hype? I don’t know yet. I think so. It’s strange and idiosyncratic. Some of it is boilerplate R&B, some of it is wildly experimental. Most falls somewhere in between. One song that jumps out at me is “Super Rich Kids,” featuring the utterly affectless rapping of Earl Sweatshirt.

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What we talk about when we talk about Kanye West

Here’s an email conversation I’ve been having with my friend Greg Brown about Kanye West’s recent albums. Greg is a classical composer and performer with a much more avant-garde sensibility than mine. The exchange is lightly edited for clarity.

Greg: I’ve been listening to 808s and Heartbreak and Twisted Fantasy. I’m really enjoying them. Far more than I thought I would. I think Auto-tune here is somehow protective for Kanye when he is expressing emotion in a genre where that is not really smiled on. I haven’t quite put my finger on it, but I think the dehumanizing of the human voice is somehow a foil for the expression of inner turmoil. It’s haunting.

Ethan: Yes! Absolutely. The Auto-tune gives Ye a way to be the sensitive, vulnerable singer, as opposed to the swaggering rapper. And I like the similar sonic palettes between 808s and Fantasy, except 808s is sparse and Fantasy is full. And the thing of using tuned 808 kick drums to play the basslines is so hip.

Greg: The hard part for me to wrap my head around is the fact that Auto-tune is a filter, a dehumanizer, and it manages to make Kanye both closer and more human.

Ethan: I have a broader philosophical idea brewing about the concepts of “dehumanizing” and “posthuman” and how they’re really kind of meaningless, at least as applied to music. How can things that humans create be dehumanizing? Everyone involved in the production of Kanye’s albums is human. Auto-tune is a novel way of sounding human, but it’s still human, just like the sound of reverb or EQ or compression.

Greg: Yes — I have similar issues with natural vs. unnatural in general. Humans are natural, therefore everything we do is also natural.

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