Blues tonality

Most Americans who study music formally do so using common-practice era western tonal theory. Tonal theory is very useful in understanding the music of western Europe in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the music derived from it. However, tonal theory is inadequate to explain the blues and other musics of the African diaspora. Given the central role of this music in both popular culture and art music, music theory classes do their students a grave disservice by not discussing its harmonic content.

The blues cannot be explained by Western tonal theory. Nevertheless, the blues emerged in western culture and is now a central pillar of it. McClary (2001) observes that while twentieth-century music has no single main stream, it does have a “mighty river” that follows a channel cut the blues:

When LeRoi Jones published his powerful book Blues People in 1963, his title referred to the African American musicians who fashioned the blues out of their particular historical conditions and experiences. Yet a music scholar of a future time might well look back on the musical landscape of the 1900 s and label us all “blues people”: those who inhabited a period dominated by blues and its countless progeny (32-33).

It no longer makes sense to think of the blues, or any other music of the African diaspora, as non-Western. Therefore, Western music theory must grow to accommodate the blues, the same way that the music itself has.

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Toward a better music curriculum

I love music grad school and am finding it extremely valuable, except for one part: the music theory requirement. In order to get my degree, I have to attain mastery of Western tonal harmony of the common practice era. I am not happy about it. This requirement requires a lot mastery of a lot of skills that are irrelevant to my life as a working musician, and leaves out many skills that I consider essential. Something needs to change.

Don’t get me wrong: I love studying music theory. I spent years studying it for my own gratification before ever even considering grad school. I’ve written a ton of blog posts about it, taught it for money, and talked about it to anyone who would listen. But the way that music theory is taught at NYU, and in most schools, is counterproductive.

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Image schemas in music software

I’m doing a ton of writing for grad school, and will be posting the highlights here. First off, an abstract and discussion of this article:

Katie Wilkie, Simon Holland, and Paul Mulholland. Winter, 2010. What Can The Language Of Musicians Tell Us About Music Interaction Design? Computer Music Journal, Vol. 34, No. 4, Pages 34-48

The authors discuss the ways that user interface design for music production and teaching software is informed by embodied cognition, as articulated by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By. Lakoff and Johnson argue that all metaphors trace their roots to states of the human body, which are the only basis for abstract thought that we possess. The closer a metaphor is to a state of the body, the easier it is for us to understand.

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Secondary dominants

When I was a kid, I’d listen to music and wonder, why is this chord progression so much more satisfying than that one? Now I know the answer: secondary dominants, chords that temporarily change the key in a logical-sounding way. If you want to take your songwriting in a more sophisticated direction, you definitely want to get hip to secondary dominants.

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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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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

The blues scale

Expanding on a post about blues basics.

When you’re first learning to improvise, it’s daunting to be confronted with all the scales. Fortunately, there’s one scale that sounds good in any situation: the blues scale. It’s a universal harmonic solvent. I haven’t encountered a chord progression yet that didn’t fit with the blues scale. It works in blues, of course, but it also sounds terrific in rock, country, jazz, reggae, funk and much else.

How to play the blues scale

The blues scale is the minor pentatonic with a note added, the sharp fourth/flat fifth. The C blues scale is C, Eb, F, F#, G, Bb. Here it is in standard music notation:

And here’s how you program it into Auto-tune.

The blues scale is easy to play on guitar. Your index finger plays the root on the E string, so to play C blues, put your index on the eighth fret.

The Eb blues scale is exceptionally easy to play on piano — just play the black keys and add the note A.

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Busta Rhymes has got you all in check

Sampling has the power to bridge gaps between seemingly widely different musical styles. You can take something lame, sample it, place it in a new context and make it hot. Busta Rhymes’ classic “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” is a prime example.

The devastating beat, produced by Shamello and first-timer Buddha, is based on sped-up samples of “Sweet Green Fields” by Seals and Crofts. Listen at 0:17.

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Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough

This song represents a lot of firsts for Michael Jackson. It was the first single from Off The Wall, and the first recording MJ made that he had complete creative control over. Many of his hits were written by Quincy Jones or Rod Temperton or the guys from Toto, but Michael wrote this one himself. It was also his first solo song to get a music video.

I’ve loved this song for years while barely being able to make out any of the words. I finally had to look them up on Google. MJ isn’t exactly Cole Porter, but his lyrics have nice body logic, they sound good and are super pleasurable to sing. MJ had the same songwriting strategy as the Beatles: he started with a melody over a rhythmic groove, developed using nonsense syllables. Only later, once the whole song was in place and recorded as a demo, did he find words that fit the metrical scheme.

Verse one:

Lovely is the feeling now
Fever, temperatures rising now
Power (ah power) is the force, the vow
That makes it happen
It asks no questions why
So get closer
To my body now
Just love me
‘Til you don’t know how

The melodic nut meat of this tune is on the words “lovely,” “fever,” “power,” “happen” and so on. The first syllable of these words is sung on D#, the major third in the key of B. The second syllable is on the A below, the flat seventh in B. The interval between these two notes is a tritone. It’s a sound with a richly conflicted emotional resonance. If you’re willing to follow me through a little music theory, it’ll help you understand what makes this song so awesome.

Western music theory is based on the buildup and release of tension. One of the best ways to create tension is with dissonance. The tritone is considered by European tradition to be a very dissonant interval. Every major key has a tritone in it, between the fourth and seventh notes of the scale (fa and ti, for Sound Of Music fans.) If you’re a typical western listener and you hear a tritone, your ear wants it to resolve to a less dissonant interval. You want the fa to resolve down to mi, and the ti to resolve up to do.

African-American music treats the tritone very differently. The blues uses tons of unresolved tritones. In blues, chords with tritones can functionally feel stable and resolved, “dissonant” though they may be. (The music has lots of other intriguing harmonic grittiness, like microtones, and the simultaneous use of minor and major thirds.) The blues passed the unresolved tritone on to its many musical descendants: jazz, rock, funk and so on.

MJ is squarely within his musical tradition to be basing his melody on an unresolved tritone. Still, it’s startling to hear it featured so prominently and starkly in a pop song, on the very first two notes of the vocal melody no less. It gives a jolt of intensity to what might otherwise be a harmless piece of disco fluff.

Music is fundamentally all about math. Most of the musical intervals in the western tuning system are based on simple ratios, the kinds of numbers you can count on your fingers. The interval between A and the next A up is an octave, meaning that the ratio between the two notes’ frequencies is one to two. The interval between A and E is a fifth, a ratio of two to three. The interval between A and C# is a major third, a ratio of four to five. The tritone is different. The interval between A and D# is one to the square root of two. Your ear might not know which specific irrational number it’s hearing, but it knows that something weird and complex is at work, something you can’t count on your fingers.

“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” asserts further non-European quality in its extremely minimalist chord progression. It has just two chords, A major and B7. The A major has B as its bass note, which really makes it more of a B9sus4 chord. The music term for this kind of unvarying chord pattern is a modal groove. In this case the mode is B mixolydian.

Western music is mostly linear. The chord progression tells a story of dissonance leading to consonance, or vice versa. Modal tunes are more Eastern, trance-like and drone-oriented. They’re about creating a cyclical ambiance, a mood rather than a narrative. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” shares its modal quality with my other favorite Michael Jackson original, “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” which he wrote around the same time.

MJ’s chorus adds to the trance-inducing vibe by repeating the same line over and over:

Keep on with the force, don’t stop
Don’t stop ’til you get enough

It’s more of a mantra than a semantic idea. It helps keep the mind clear for the business at hand, the business of getting your groove on from the waist down.

The harmony and lyrics might be static, but there’s a lot of music packed into this track. Ben Wright’s string arrangement chases up and down the chromatic scale, adding another dash of unsettling dissonance. There are multiple layers of bells, handclaps and other percussion, and the bass and guitar mostly function as percussion too. Jerry Hey’s tight horn chart makes the brass into yet another percussion element, rather than a melodic one. Check out the stab at 1:37, the end of the first chorus. Hot!

As with all of MJ’s hits, “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” has been sampled many times. Some highlights, more or less in chronological order:

Purists might find it jarring, but I’m also enjoying this remix with Jay-Z.

The synth solo in this tune is an excellent example of blues tonality.

Music theory for beginner guitarists

Most beginner guitarists start by learning the same fifteen chords, usually called the “standard fifteen.” I’ve also heard them called the open chords because they make use of open strings and are thus easy to play:

A A7 Am
B7
C C7
D D7 Dm
E E7 Em
F
G G7

For fingerings, have a look at wikipedia or any book on beginner guitar. You can also see this handy web site, which plays audio of each chord along with the fingerings.

It’s not much good to just memorize the standard fifteen chords without musical context. It’s better to learn them grouped together into keys, so you can hear how they relate to each other. Family Guy explains how this works using the key of G. I apologize for the filthiness of the opening joke, but then it actually turns into a good music theory lesson.

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