Writing assignment for History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See a more informal introduction to the vocoder here.
Casual music listeners know the vocoder best as the robotic voice effect popular in disco and early hip-hop. Anyone who has heard pop music of the last two decades has heard Auto-Tune. The two effects are frequently mistaken for one another, and for good reason—they share the same mathematical and technological basis. Auto-Tune has become ubiquitous in recording studios, in two very different incarnations. There is its intended use, as an expedient way to correct out-of-tune notes, replacing various tedious and labor-intensive manual methods. Pop, hip-hop and electronic dance music producers have also found an unintended use for Auto-Tune, as a special effect that quantizes pitches to a conspicuously excessive degree, giving the voice a synthetic, otherworldly quality. In this paper, I discuss the history of the vocoder and Auto-Tune, in the context of broader efforts to use science and technology to mathematically analyze and standardize music. I also explore how such technologies problematize our ideas of virtuosity.
This post documents a presentation I’m giving in my History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See also a more formal history of the vocoder.
The vocoder is one of those mysterious technologies that’s far more widely used than understood. Here I explain what it is, how it works, and why you should care. A casual music listener knows the vocoder best as a way to make that robot voice effect that Daft Punk uses all the time.
Here’s Huston Singletary demonstrating the vocoder in Ableton Live.
This is a nifty effect, but why should you care? For one thing, you use this technology every time you talk on your cell phone. For another, this effect gave rise to Auto-Tune, which, love it or hate it, is the defining sound of contemporary popular music. Let’s dive in!
If you have even a passing interest in funk, you will want to familiarize yourself with Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.” And if you are preoccupied and dedicated to the preservation of the movement of the hips, then the bassline needs to be a cornerstone of your practice.
One of the high points of my musical career was playing in a cover band in college called Harsh Mouse, and one of the high points of our repertoire was this song.
As I’ve been gathering musical simples, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to categorize them. There are melodic simples, otherwise known as riffs, hooks, and licks. There are rhythmic simples, otherwise known as beats, claves, and rhythm necklaces. And then there are the simples that combine a beat with a melody. Alex came up with the term “compound simples” for this last group. You might argue that all melodic simples are compound, because they all combine pitches and rhythms. But unless the rhythm stands on its own independent of the pitches, I don’t consider it to be a musical simple.
Here’s the first set of compound simples I’ve transcribed. Click each score to view the interactive Noteflight version.
Queen, “We Will Rock You“
The simplest simple of them all. If I needed to teach someone the difference between eighth notes and quarter notes, I’d use the stomp/clap pattern.
The melody is good for introducing the concept of rests, since you have to count your way through the gap between “rock you” and the next “we will.” Continue reading
Here’s an explanation for why I’m gathering these things.
Wagner, “Ride of the Valkyries”
I’m no great fan of Wagner, but there’s no denying that this is a killer hook. You don’t have much occasion to play in 9/8 time these days, but this melody can be adapted to fit 4/4 pretty easily. Also, because I’m a lowbrow goofball:
A while ago I wrote a post explaining how jazz works. In response, someone asked me to name my favorite hundred jazz tracks. So here’s my list. It’s totally subjective and necessarily incomplete, but I can guarantee that any of these tunes will make your life better. Hear them on Spotify.
Charlie Christian – “Waiting For Benny”
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The bassline is neglected by most non-musicians. But if you want to write or produce music, you quickly find out how important it is. The bassline is the foundation of the whole musical structure, both rhythmically and harmonically. The best basslines interlock with the drums and other rhythm instruments to propel the groove, without you necessarily even noticing them. I like the complex walking lines in jazz and melodic lines in highbrow rock, but the ones that really hit me where I live are basic riffs that loop and loop until they lift you into an ecstatic trance.
Here are my favorite basslines of the last fifty years, across genres.
John Coltrane – “My Favorite Things”
Simple, hypnotic, effective. Read more.
John Coltrane – “Equinox”
Another devastatingly simple groove.
Since I’m teaching the twelve-bar blues to some guitar students, I figured I’d put the lessons in the form of a blog post. Blues is a big topic and this isn’t going to be anything like a definitive guide. Think of it more as a tasting menu.
Blues is a confusing term. You probably have some idea of what blues is, but it’s surprisingly hard to define it specifically. There are many songs with the word “blues” in the title that aren’t technically blues at all, like “Lovesick Blues” by Hank Williams. John Lee Hooker was the living embodiment of blues, but a lot of his best-known songs aren’t technically blues either.
Meanwhile, there are quite a few songs using the blues form that you might not think to identify as blues. Two examples: “Shuckin’ The Corn” by Flatt and Scruggs, and the theme from the sixties Batman TV show.
So what exactly is blues?