Sampling, participatory culture, and semiotic democracy

A draft of my final paper for Philosophy of Music Education with David Elliott – thoughts welcome as I revise it.

Our world is saturated with recorded music. It is effortlessly accessible, and, at times, inescapable. This environment poses new challenges to anyone who aspires to create or perform music. When we come face to face with the ocean of recordings, we can feel helpless in the face of it. Does recorded music thus inevitably limit most people to passive appreciation? Or can recordings themselves become the impetus for new kinds of active participation and expression? And if so, how do we balance the right of copyright holders to control the use of their work with our right to make new creative use of that work?

Ableton Live

In this paper, I use a framework developed by Turino (2016, 2008) to distinguish between “presentational” and “participatory” music. I inquire into the nature of musical participation, and what (if anything) distinguishes interpretation from creation. I then give an overview of sampling as an artistic practice, paying particular attention to the challenges to this practice posed by copyright law and the status of recorded music as a commercial product. Finally, I ask what our ethical obligations are as musicians toward the copyright regime. Must we always operate within the law even if it conflicts with our creative needs, or should we engage in civil disobedience?

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Cultural hegemony in music education

Music education in American colleges and universities focuses almost entirely on the traditions of Western European aristocrats during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, known conventionally as “common practice music.” This focus implies that upper-class European-descended musical tastes are a fundamental truth rather than a set of arbitrary and contingent preferences, and that white cultural dominance is normative. In this paper, I discuss theoretical notions of pedagogical authority as a form of power. I then examine a music textbook catalog from a prestigious academic press in order to gain insight into the hegemonic culture of classical music, as well as the emerging challenges to that culture.

Biz

American musical culture is a riotous blend of styles and genres. However, there is a unifying core to nearly all of our popular music, and much “art” music as well: the loop-centric, improvisational, dance-oriented traditions of the African diaspora. Mcclary (2000) argues that the “various trickles” of the past hundred years of American music collect into “a mighty river” following a channel cut by the blues (32). Yet it is possible to complete a music degree at most American universities without ever coming into contact with the blues, or anything related to it. The music academy’s near-exclusive focus on Western classical tradition places it strikingly at odds with the broader culture. We need to ask what might be the ideological motivation for perpetuating the divide.

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Music Matters chapter seven

Public-facing note taking on Music Matters by David Elliott and Marissa Silverman for my Philosophy of Music Education class. 

This chapter addresses musical meaning and how it emerges out of context. More accurately, it addresses how every musical experience has many meanings that emerge from many contexts. Elliott and Silverman begin with the meanings of performance, before moving into the meanings of composition, listening and so on. They insist that performance is not an activity limited to an elite cadre of “talented” people, that it is within reach of anyone who has the proper support.

We propose that people’s capacities for and enactments of an intrinsic motivation to engage in different kinds of musicing and listening are extremely widespread phenomena, restricted only by lack of musical opportunities, or ineffective and indifferent music teaching. Indeed, developing a love for and devotion to musicing and listening is not unusual when students are fortunate enough to learn from musically and educationally excellent teachers and [community music] facilitators, and when they encounter inspiring models of musicing in contexts of welcoming, sustaining, and educative musical settings, including home and community contexts (240).

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Between The World And Me

I’m taking a sociology class called Learning Of Culture with Lisa Stulberg. It could just as easily be called Culture Of Learning, since it views school as just one cultural setting among many. Our first assignment was to read Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I agree with Toni Morrison’s cover blurb.

Between The World And Me

After reading just the first few pages, I couldn’t help but adopt Coates’ prose style. It’s infectious.

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Visualizing hip-hop melodies

I’m continuing to gather materials for my upcoming ISMIR 2016 presentation on Why Hip-Hop Is Interesting. One of my big themes is the melodic content of rap. Emcees are deliberate in their use of pitch, whether they’re singing or rapping or some combination of the two. In the post, I’ll analyze segments of three great emcees’ flow. I made the graphics by loading acapella tracks into Melodyne, and then added the lyric annotations by hand using Omnigraffle. The selection of these tracks represents the intersection of “songs that I like” and “acapellas that are available to me.”

Eric B and Rakim – “Follow The Leader”

Emcee: Rakim Allah

Rakim Allah stands out among eighties rappers for the complexity and subtlety of his flow. Here’s an excerpt from verse one:

I'm everlasting

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Why hip-hop is interesting

Update: I’ve turned this post into an academic article. Here’s a draft.

The title of this post is also the title of a tutorial I’m giving at ISMIR 2016 with Jan Van Balen and Dan Brown. Here are the slides:

The conference is organized by the International Society for Music Information Retrieval, and it’s the fanciest of its kind. You may well be wondering what Music Information Retrieval is. MIR is a specialized field in computer science devoted to teaching computers to understand music, so they can transcribe it, organize it, find connections and similarities, and, maybe, eventually, create it.

Spectrogram of "Famous" by Kanye West created with Chrome Music Lab

So why are we going to talk to the MIR community about hip-hop? So far, the field has mostly studied music using the tools of Western classical music theory, which emphasizes melody and harmony. Hip-hop songs don’t tend to have much going on in either of those areas, which makes the genre seem like it’s either too difficult to study, or just too boring. But the MIR community needs to find ways to engage this music, if for no other reason than the fact that hip-hop is the most-listened to genre in the world, at least among Spotify listeners.

Hip-hop has been getting plenty of scholarly attention lately, but most of it has been coming from cultural studies. Which is fine! Hip-hop is culturally interesting. When humanities people do engage with hip-hop as an art form, they tend to focus entirely on the lyrics, treating them as a subgenre of African-American literature that just happens to be performed over beats. And again, that’s cool! Hip-hop lyrics have significant literary interest. (If you’re interested in the lyrical side, we recommend this video analyzing the rhyming techniques of several iconic emcees.) But what we want to discuss is why hip-hop is musically interesting, a subject which academics have given approximately zero attention to.

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