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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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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John Dewey on music education as experience

If I’m going to understand progressive philosophies of education, then I need to understand John Dewey. So here we go.

John Dewey

Dewey is a progressive hero. He was a supporter of women’s suffrage, a founding member of the NAACP, and was ahead of his time on the importance of multiculturalism. Contrary to what I had always assumed, he did not invent the Dewey Decimal System. Given that I’m reading about him in the context of music education, it was amusing to learn that he had congenital amusia. Finally, a fun autobiographical fact: I attended a very fancy school modeled on Dewey’s Laboratory School at the University of Chicago.

Before we get to Dewey’s thoughts on art and education, here are some of his key political stances, as explained by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Classical liberals think of the individual as an independent entity in competition with other individuals. Social and political life are the arena in which individuals engage in the competitive pursuit of self-interest, preferably with minimal interference from the government. Dewey preferred to think of individuals as parts of a bigger organism, dependent on our relationships with each other  for our survival and well-being. In Dewey’s model, freedom isn’t just the absence of constraints, but rather the positive fact of participation in an ethical social order.

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Goodbye SoundCloud?

I love SoundCloud. I love it for being an exceptionally easy way to share my music with people all over the world. I love the community aspect, especially the Disquiet Junto. I have all of my students host their portfolios there. But like a lot of the electronic musicians who form the heart of the SoundCloud userbase, I’m running into some problems with copyright.

Recently, I needed to unwind from a stressful morning, so I fired up Ableton, put in some Super Mario Bros mp3s and James Brown breaks, and went to town. I uploaded the results to my SoundCloud page, as usual, but got one of their increasingly frequent copyright notices.

SoundCloud copyright notice

I’ve uploaded a lot of material to SoundCloud that violates copyright law in various ways, and for the most part, no one has made any objection. I’ve occasionally used some long intact samples that triggered takedown notices, but my remixes and mashups are usually transformative enough to slip through the filter. Lately, however, I’m finding that SoundCloud has dramatically stepped up its copyright enforcement. A few months ago, I could have posted my Super Mario Bros/James Brown mashup without any trouble. Not any more.

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The Great Cut-Time Shift

I’ve been transcribing a lot of beats for the MusEDLab‘s forthcoming music theory learning tool. Many of those beats require swing, and that has been giving me a headache. In trying to figure out why, I stumbled on a pretty interesting shift in America’s grooves over the past sixty or so years. To understand what I’m talking about, you first need to know what swing is. Here’s a piece of music that does not use swing:

Here’s a piece of music that uses a lot of swing:

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Rhythmic simples

In the service of teaching theory using real music, I’ve been gathering musical simples: little phrases and loops that are small enough to be easily learned, and substantial enough to have expressive value. See some representative melodic simples, more melodic simples, and compound simples. This post showcases some representative rhythmic simples, more commonly known as beats, grooves, or drum patterns. They’re listed in increasing order of syncopation, also known as hipness. Click each image to hear the interactive Noteflight score.

Boots N Cats

Boots n Cats rhythmic simple

The basis of “Billie Jean” and many other great beats. Continue reading

Repetition defines music

Musical repetition has become a repeating theme of this blog. Seems appropriate, right? This post looks at a wonderful book by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, called On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind. It investigates the reasons why we love repetition in music. You can also read long excerpts at Aeon Magazine.

Here’s the nub of Margulis’ argument:

The simple act of repetition can serve as a quasi-magical agent of musicalisation. Instead of asking: ‘What is music?’ we might have an easier time asking: ‘What do we hear as music?’ And a remarkably large part of the answer appears to be: ‘I know it when I hear it again.’

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Teaching math with the Drum Loop

I’ve undergone some evolution in my thinking about the intended audience for my thesis app. My original idea was to aim it at the general public. But the general public is maybe not quite so obsessed with breakbeats as I am. Then I started working with Alex Ruthmann, and he got me thinking about the education market. There certainly a lot of kids in the schools with iPads, so that’s an attractive idea. But hip-hop and techno are a tough sell for traditionally-minded music teachers. I realized that I’d find a much more receptive audience in math teachers. I’ve been thinking about the relationship between music and math for a long time, and it would be cool to put some of those ideas into practice.

The design I’ve been using for the Drum Loop UI poses some problems for math usage. Since early on, I’ve had it so that the centers of the cells line up with the cardinal angles. However, if you’re going to measure angles and things, the grid lines really need to be on the cardinal angles instead. Here’s the math-friendly design:

math-friendly Funky Drummer lesson

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Why isn’t repetitive music boring to listen to?

A Quora user asks why we don’t get bored when listening to repetitive music. This is related to the equally interesting question of why we can play repetitive music without getting bored. Why is there so much joy in repetition?

"Chameleon" by Herbie Hancock

Humans are pattern recognizers. You’d think that once you’d learned the pattern of a repetitive piece of music, it would quickly get boring, and then annoying. Sometimes, that is in fact what happens. I don’t enjoy Philip Glass’ music; it makes me feel like I’m stuck in the mind of someone with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. But I adore James Brown and Fela Kuti, and my iTunes library is stuffed with loop-based hip-hop and electronica. So what’s going on? Why do I find Philip Glass annoying, but not James Brown?

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The backbeat: a literature review

This is part of a research project I’m doing for my Psychology of Music class at NYU, thus the formal tone.

Update: here’s the finished product.

The backbeat is a ubiquitous, almost defining feature of American popular and vernacular music. Clapping or snapping on the backbeats is generally considered by musicians to be more correct than doing so on the strong beats. However, audiences have a tendency to clap or snap on the wrong beats, to the irritation of the performers.

Friends don't let friends clap on one and three

On October 6th, 1993, the blues musician Taj Mahal gave a solo concert at the Modernes Club in Bremen, Germany. The concert was later released as the album An Evening of Acoustic Music. On the recording, Taj Mahal begins to play “Blues With A Feeling,” and the audience enthusiastically claps along. However, they do so on beats one and three, not two and four like they are supposed to. Taj immediately stops playing and says, “Wait, wait, wait. Wait wait. This is schvartze [black] music… zwei and fier, one TWO three FOUR, okay?” He resumes the song, and the audience continues to clap on the wrong beats. So he stops again. “No, no, no, no. Everybody’s like, ONE, two, THREE, no no no. Classical music, yes. Mozart, Chopin, okay? Tchaikovsky, right? Vladimir Horowitz. ONE two THREE. But schvartze music, one TWO three FOUR, okay?” He starts yet again, and finally the audience claps along correctly. To reinforce their rhythm, Taj Mahal continues to count “one TWO three FOUR” at various points during the song.

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