The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Note-taking for Learning of Culture with Lisa Stulberg

Our first reading was Ta-Nehisi Coates. The second one is Max Weber. The transition between their prose styles is like gliding downhill on a bike into a brick wall. Nick Seaver calls it “the 1-2 relatable-canonical punch.”

Max Weber

David Foster Wallace likes to tell this parable:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

In America, the water is capitalism. A capitalist enterprise has two necessary ingredients: a disciplined labor force, and an owner class that re-invests its capital. These things are so familiar to us in modern America that it’s startling to be reminded how culturally specific they are.

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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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Prepping my rap and rock class at Montclair State

This summer, I’m teaching Cultural Significance of Rap and Rock at Montclair State University. It’s my first time teaching it, and it’s also the first time anyone has taught it completely online. The course is cross-listed under music and African-American studies. Here’s a draft of my syllabus, omitting details of the grading and such. I welcome your questions, comments and criticism.

Rap and Rock

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Electronic music tasting menu

Right now I’m teaching music technology to a lot of classical musicians. I came up outside the classical pipeline, and am always surprised to be reminded how insulated these folks are from the rest of the culture. I was asked today for some electronic music recommendations by a guy who basically never listens to any of it, and I expect I’ll be asked that many more times in this job. So I put together this playlist. It’s not a complete, thorough, or representative sampling of anything; it mostly reflects my own tastes. In more or less chronological order:

Delia Derbyshire

This lady did cooler stuff with tape recorders than most of us are doing with computers. See her in action. Here’s a proto-techno beat she made in 1971.

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Blues tonality


The blues is a foundational element of America’s vernacular and art music. It is commonly described as a combination of African rhythms and European harmonies. This characterization is inaccurate. Blues follows harmonic conventions that are quite different from those of European common-practice tonality. Blues does not fit into major or minor tonality, and it makes heavy use of harmonic intervals considered by tonal theory to be dissonant. But blues listeners do not experienced the music as dissonant; rather, they hear an alternative system of consonance. In order to make sense of this system, we need to understand blues as belonging to its own tonality, distinct from major, minor and modal scales. The author argues that blues tonality should be taught as part of the basic music theory curriculum.
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There’s joy in repetition

Susan McClary “Rap, Minimalism and Structures of Time in Late Twentieth-Century Culture.” in Audio Culture, Daniel Warner, ed, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004, pp 289 – 298.

This essay is the best piece of music writing I’ve read in quite a while. McClary articulates my personal ideology of music perfectly. Also, she quotes Prince!

Here are some long excerpts.

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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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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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Blues for the Jews

December is always a complex month for half-Jewish mutts like me. When pressured to self-identify, I usually just go with “Jewish” for the sake of simplicity, but this is in spite of not having being bar mitzvahed, not knowing any Hebrew, having only the vaguest idea what all the holidays and rituals mean, and having no relationship whatsoever with God.

My mom is Jewish, so that’s enough for the tribe to have welcomed me as one of their own, but it’s a complex question as to what that membership means. Wikipedia has two separate articles for Judaism and Jews, to distinguish the religion from the ethnicity, and I definitely belong to the ethnicity more than the religion.

My most significant personal connection to the tribe, aside from family Passover seders and Seinfeld appreciation, has come through music, specifically klezmer music. I may not know my way around the Torah, but I know my harmonic minor modes inside and out.

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