Visualizing music

Update: check out my masters thesis, a radial drum machine. Specifically, see the section on visualizing rhythm. See also a more scholarly review of the literature on visualization and music education. And here’s a post on the value of video games in music education.

Computer-based music production and composition involves the eyes as much as the ears. The representations in audio editors like Pro Tools and Ableton Live are purely informational, waveforms and grids and linear graphs. Some visualization systems are purely decorative, like the psychedelic semi-random graphics produced by iTunes. Some systems lie in between. I see rich potential in these graphical systems for better understanding of how music works, and for new compositional methods. Here’s a sampling of the most interesting music visualization systems I’ve come across.

Music notation

Western music notation is a venerable method of visualizing music. It’s a very neat and compact system, unambiguous and digital, and not too difficult to learn. Programs like Sibelius can effortlessly translate notation to and from MIDI data, too.

"Chameleon" by Herbie Hancock

But western notation has some limitations, especially for contemporary music. It doesn’t handle microtones well. It has limited ability to convey performative nuance — after a hundred years of jazz, there’s no good way to notate swing other than to just write the word “swing” at the top of the score. The key signature system works fine for major keys, but is less helpful for minor keys and modal music and is pretty much worthless for the blues.

Here’s a suggestion for how notation could improve in the future. It’s a visualization by Jon Snydal of John Coltrane’s solo in Miles Davis’ “All Blues”  (I edited it a little to be easier on the eyes.)

John Coltrane's solo on "All Blues"

Snydal’s visualization is more analog than digital — it shows the exact nuances of Coltrane’s performance, with subtle shadings of pitch, timing and dynamics.

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How to groove

When teaching guitar, I find that my students need the most help with groove. Students come to me expecting to learn chords, scales, riffs and ultimately entire tunes. I do teach those things, but after a little guidance, anyone can learn them on their own just as well from books, videos, web sites and so on. The harmonic and melodic aspects of guitar take time to master, but it’s just memorization. I devote most of my in-person time with students to rhythm.

Groove is harder to pin down in text and diagrams than chords and scales, so it doesn’t get as much written about it. That gives some folks the mistaken idea that rhythm isn’t as important as melody and harmony. The reverse is true. You can have a long, rich and satisfying guitar-playing life using nothing but the standard fifteen chords, as long as you can groove. If you can’t groove, you can learn all the chords and scales you want, but you won’t sound good.

Here’s an exercise that worked great for me when I was learning, and that I make all my students do. I call it the One Note Groove. It’s pretty simple, you just put on a repetitive beat and play one note over it. Since you don’t have to think about which notes to play, you’re free to devote your entire attention to your timekeeping, your attack, your whole sound — in other words, your groove.

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Drum machine programming

This post has been superseded by my giant collection of rhythm patterns, which you can see here.

I wrote a general post about what makes a hot beat hot. As a followup, here’s how to program some generic patterns and a few famous breakbeats. The basic unit of dance music is a sequence of sixteen eighth notes, two measures of four-four time. Drum machines like the Roland TR-808 represent the sixteen eighth notes as an ice cube tray with sixteen slots, with a row for each percussion sound. Software like Reason and Fruityloops have drum machine emulators that follow the look and feel of the 808. The loop cycles from slot number one across to the right. When it gets to slot sixteen it jumps back to one.

Here’s how you’d count the basic loop. Above is the standard music notation method of counting two bars of four-four time. Below is the drum machine representation, with the eighth notes numbered one through sixteen.

|  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  + |
| 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 |

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Resequencing the Funky Drummer’s DNA

The most sampled recording in history is (probably) the Funky Drummer loop from James Brown’s song “The Funky Drummer Parts One And Two.” Here I go deeper into how this sample can be reworked into new music. DJs call this practice chopping a sample. It’s much easier to chop samples with computers than with hardware samplers and turntables.

To take a sample, the first step is to extract it as a separate audio file. I like to use a program called Transcribe for this purpose. Once I have a sample, my preferred tools for remixing are Recycle, which slices a sample into individually-manipulable pieces, and Reason’s Dr Rex loop player, for reshuffling and resequencing the slices, changing the key, adding effects and doing further transformation.

Here’s the Funky Drummer loop as seen in Recycle. Click through to see it bigger.

Here’s a graphic I made showing how you hear the loop as it’s played repetitively.

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DJ on the one and two

Turntablists use record players to play records in ways they weren’t meant to be played. By speeding up, slowing down and reversing the record under the needle, a whole universe of new sounds becomes possible. The record player as musical instrument is still in its early stages of development. DJs already invented the instrumental sound of hip-hop. I wonder what else they have coming.

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Clap your hands, stomp your feet

The most-sampled album in history is probably James Brown’s compilation In The Jungle Groove.

In The Jungle Groove

It includes the original recording of “Funky Drummer Parts One And Two” along with a sampling-friendly remix. It also includes some other much-loved funk tracks. None of them have been sampled as heavily as “Funky Drummer”, but there are some contenders.

The compilation is named for a breakdown section that appears in “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose.” James Brown quiets the band down to handclaps, footstomps and congas played by Johnny Griggs. After he raps a little, James Brown cues drummer Clyde Stubblefield back in, followed by bassist Bootsy Collins and the rest of the band.

James Brown wasn’t intentionally trying to create a perfect batch of hip-hop samples in the late sixties and early seventies, but he couldn’t have succeeded any better if he had been. “Give It Up” has been sampled by everybody from Public Enemy to Everlast to Duran Duran to Miles Davis. It takes a powerful piece of music to inspire so much new work in such a variety of styles.

There’s an ugly history of racial slurs for African-Americans around jungles. James Brown made it a point to reclaim jungle imagery in a context of joyful pride. He has several songs that include a break where it’s just the congas and his chanting about being in the jungle, brother, swing on the vine, check out your mind. The history of agriculture and high tech societies is short. The stone age was long. We’ll never know exactly what music sounded like in the Stone Age, but I’d bet that James Brown’s jungle breakdowns give us a good idea.

It’s wrong of white racists to degrade black people by comparing them to monkeys because it denies the fundamental similarities that we all share with our primate cousins. As I try to imagine how our more monkey-like ancestors first started inventing music, I think it’s reasonable to assume they started with rhythm, with clapping their hands and stomping their feet. I’m convinced by Steven Mithen’s theory in The Singing Neanderthals that dance was the precursor to walking on two feet.

Rhythm is the most fundamental component of music. Every other aspect emerges from it. Pitches are very fast rhythms. If you play a series of clicks faster and faster, eventually they appear to fuse into a whir, then a thrum, then a low-pitched tone. The faster the clicks, the higher the pitch. Combining different pitches gives you melodies and harmonies.

Clapping your hands, stomping your feet and chanting are the easiest entry points to music making, and they never get old. With all of our technology, we still aren’t tired of that Stone Age sound. I’m thinking about Queen and “We Will Rock You”, about Lil Mama and “Lip Gloss”, Michael Jackson and the end of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.”

A few years ago I went hear Questlove do a DJ set. He devoted the entire last third of it to the “clap your hands” break, looping it, processing it, chopping it up. It was mesmerizing. Swing on the vine, check out your mind!

The natural history of the Funky Drummer break

The Funky Drummer Parts One And Two” by James Brown and the JBs is one of the most-sampled recordings in history.

But even though the track is a cornerstone of hip-hop and other sample-based electronic music, for the first decade after its release, it was an obscurity. It’s a nice groove, but as a song, it’s not as catchy as James Brown’s big hits like “Sex Machine” or “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.” It doesn’t have verses or choruses; instead, it’s just an open-ended groove, with extended solos traded back and forth between James Brown on organ and Maceo Parker on tenor sax.

It’s a mother

Four and a half minutes into the recording, James Brown tells the band: “Fellas, one more time I want to give the drummer some of this funky soul we got going here.” He tells drummer Clyde Stubblefield, “You don’t have to do no soloing, brother, just keep what you got… Don’t turn it loose, ’cause it’s a mother.” That last word will turn out to be prophetic.

Here’s a loop of Clyde Stubblefield’s drum solo:

[audio:http://ethanhein.com/music/Funky_Drummer_loop.mp3]

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