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 the European aristocracy in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the music derived from it. Tonal theory is not, however, very useful for understanding the blues, or any of the music that derives from it.

The blues is based around a set of harmonic expectations that are quite different from the classical ones. Major and minor tonality are freely intermingled. Dominant seventh chords can function as tonics. Tritones may or may not resolve. The blues scale is as basic in this context as the major scale is in tonal harmony. We need some new and better vocabulary. In this post, I propose that we teach blues tonality as a distinct category from major or minor, combining elements of both with elements not found in either.

In tonal theory, the basis of all harmony is the major scale and its associated chords, which you modify in various ways to make all the other scales and chords. For example, in C major, you modify the “natural” seventh, B, to get the “flat” seventh, B♭. If you come into music through rock, hip-hop, R&B, country or any other musical form originating in the African diaspora (what the music academy calls “pop”,) you develop a quite different sense of what “natural” harmony is. When you’re enculturated by blues-based music, you’re likely to hear B♭ as more natural than B in C major. And you are likely to be closely familiar with the blues scale, which western tonal theory has no explanation for whatsoever.

Blues scale

When you absorb the blues rule set first, as I did, the classical one seems painfully obtuse. Many of my pop musician friends think they don’t “get” music theory because the rules of eighteenth century western European court music are frequently at odds with their intuition. Who can blame them for being confused, and why should we be surprised when so many give up? Most of the working musicians I know outside of classical and jazz are substantially self-taught. How can we design a harmony pedagogy that applies to the music that students actually know and care about? Continue reading

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.

Here’s the real video, which sadly I can’t embed. In its place, enjoy a fan video.

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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
C C7
D D7 Dm
E E7 Em
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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