Pop songwriting in the age of the DAW

Bennett, J. (2011). Collaborative songwriting – the ontology of negotiated creativity in popular music studio practice. Journal on the Art of Record Production, (5), online.

My professional life at the moment mostly consists of teaching classical and jazz musicians how to write pop songs. While every American is intuitively familiar with the norms of pop music, few of us think about them explicitly, even trained musicians. It’s worth considering them, though. While individual pop songs might be musically uninteresting, in the aggregate they’re a rich source of information about the way our culture evolves. Bennett describes popular song as an “unsubsidized populist art form,” like Hollywood movies and video games. The marketplace exerts strong Darwinian pressures on songwriters and producers, polishing pop conventions like pebbles being tumbled in a river.

Tin Pan Alley

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The poetics of rock

I’m teaching at Montclair State University because of Adam Bell, a fellow self-taught rock and pop musician turned academic. Adam loves to quote The Poetics of Rock by Albin Zak, and rightly so.

The Poetics of Rock

Zak’s major point is that rock is an art form about making records, and that the creativity in making records is only partially in the songs and the performances. A major part of the art form is the creation of sound itself. It’s the timbre and space that makes the best recordings come alive as much as any of the “musical” components. We need some better language to describe the different components that go into making a rock record, or any kind of recording.

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Composing improvisationally with Ableton Live

I just completed a batch of new music, which was improvised freely in the studio and then later shaped into structured tracks.

I thought it would be helpful to document the process behind this music, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I expect to be teaching this kind of production a lot more in the future. Second, knowing how the tracks were made might be helpful to you in enjoying them. Third, composing the music during or after recording rather than before has become the dominant pop production method, and I want to help my fellow highbrow musicians to get hip to it. Continue reading

User Interface Design for Music Learning Software

Computers have revolutionized the composition, production and recording of music. However, they have not yet revolutionized music education. While a great deal of educational software exists, it mostly follows traditional teaching paradigms, offering ear training, flash cards and the like. Meanwhile, nearly all popular music is produced in part or in whole with software, yet electronic music producers typically have little to no formal training with their tools. Somewhere between the ad-hoc learning methods of pop and dance producers and traditional music pedagogy lies a rich untapped vein of potential.

This paper will explore the problem of how software can best be designed to help novice musicians access their own musical imagination with a minimum of frustration. I will examine a variety of design paradigms and case studies. I will hope to discover software interface designs that present music in a visually intuitive way, that are discoverable, and that promote flow.

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User interface case study: iOS Garageband

Apple has long made a practice of giving away cool software with their computers. One of the coolest such freebies is Garageband. It’s a stripped down version of Logic aimed at beginners, and it’s a surprisingly robust tool. The software instruments and loops sound terrific, the interface is approachable, and it’s generally a great scratchpad. However, Garageband isn’t a good way to learn about music. It gives you a lot of nice sounds, but offers no indication whatsoever as to what you’re supposed to do with them. To get a decent-sounding track, you need to come pre-equipped with a fair bit of musical knowledge.

A young guitar student of mine is a good example. After only his third lesson, he jumped on Garageband and tried writing a song, mostly by throwing loops together. I admire his initiative, but the result was jagged and disjointed, lacking any kind of structural logic. It’s natural that a first effort would be a mess, but I felt a missed opportunity. At no point did the program ever suggest that the kid’s loops would sound best in groups of two, four, eight or sixteen. It didn’t suggest he organize his track into sections with symmetrical lengths. And it didn’t suggest any connection between one chord and another. Seeing enough other beginners struggle with Garageband makes me think that it isn’t really for novices after all. It seems to be pitched more toward dads in cover bands, who have some half-remembered knowledge of chord progressions and song forms and who just need a minimum of prodding to start putting together tracks on the computer.

The iPad version of Garageband is a much better experiential learning tool. Its new touch-specific interfaces encourage the playful exploration at the heart of music-making. The program isn’t trying to be particularly pedagogical, but its presets and defaults nevertheless implicitly give valuable guidance to the budding producer or songwrter. And while it’s quite a bit more limited than the desktop version, those limitations are strengths for beginner purposes.

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I recently saw Under African Skies, the documentary about Paul Simon’s Graceland, and it was spellbinding. The music is so beautiful, the politics are so agonizing.

I watched it with my mom and sister, which is appropriate since Graceland was in heavy rotation through my childhood. Mom isn’t a big pop scholar and knew next to nothing about the album beyond the fact that she likes it. My sister had some dim awareness of the politics, but not much more. I’ve studied the music closely but only had a vague grasp of the human story. So the film was quite a revelation for all of us, a whole new dimension to an artifact that’s both utterly familiar and mysterious. I think it hits the art houses in a few weeks. Do not miss it.

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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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Tuning system geekery

If you’re a guitarist, you may have noticed that it’s hard to get your instrument perfectly in tune. This is not your imagination. If you tune each string perfectly to the one next to it, the low E string will end up out of tune with the high E string. If you use an electronic tuner to make sure the individual strings are tuned to the correct pitch, they won’t sound fully in tune with each other. It has nothing to do with the quality of your instrument or your skill at tuning: it’s a fundamental fact of western music theory. This post attempts to explain why. It’s very geeky stuff, but if you like math (and who doesn’t?) then read on.

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The freakiness of melodic minor

My last post on minor keys covered the three scales you need for most situations in rock, pop and so on: natural minor, harmonic minor and dorian. There’s also the blues scale, which sounds good in any key, major or minor. For musical Jedi masters, there’s one more valuable minor scale. It’s called the melodic minor scale, also known as the jazz scale. If you want to push your playing or writing in a more adventurous, exotic and challenging direction, melodic minor is a good tool to have in your musical toolbox.

A melodic minor scale clockface

Here’s how to program the scale into Auto-tune. And here’s a new composition of mine using two melodic minor scales, C and G.

Melodic Minor

mp3 download

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Meet the major scale

The C major scale is the foundation that the rest of western music theory sits on. If you master it, you get a bunch of cool chords and scales for free, along with a window into a huge swath of our musical culture.

How to form the scale

Imagine an ice cube tray with twelve slots, one for each note in the western tuning system, labeled like so:

C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B

To make the C major scale, you just remove all the ice cubes with # in their names, like so:

C [ ] D [ ] E F [ ] G [ ] A [ ] B

Here’s a graphic representation of the C major scale. Scale tones are in red, the notes you skip are gray. Continue reading