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, investigating 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.’
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:
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?
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.
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.
Musicians: How do you deal with playing songs that have very monotonous parts?
I’m going to use James Brown’s Sex Machine as an example. Don’t get me wrong, I love the song. However, the rhythm guitar seems to be nothing but 2 chords played over and over and over with no variation (except for the bridge). What is it like to have to play songs like that? Even if you like the song, do you dread it, or do you just have fun as long as you are playing music? If you are bored, how do you deal with it? Does your mind wander while you play, or do you have to concentrate?
This is actually quite a profound question. It gets to the heart of the major conflict playing out in western music right now between linearity and circularity.
Steven R. Livingstone, Ralf Muhlberger, Andrew R. Brown, and William F. Thompson. Changing Musical Emotion: A Computational Rule System for Modifying Score and Performance. Computer Music Journal, 34:1, pp. 41–64, Spring 2010.
The authors present CMERS, “a Computational Music Emotion Rule System for the real-time control of musical emotion that modifies features at both the score level and the performance level.” The paper compares CMERS to other computer-based musical expressiveness algorithms, as part of a larger effort to find a complete systematic categorization of all of the emotions that can be expressed and evoked through music.
The authors first conducted a survey of past efforts to categorize emotions, and after meta-analysis of the results, devised a two-dimensional graph. The vertical axis runs from Active to Passive. The horizontal axis runs from Negative to Positive. The Negative/Active quadrant includes such emotions as anger and agitation. The Passive/Positive quadrant includes serenity and tenderness. The authors then paired particular musical devices with each emotion, both compositional and performative. For example, sadness is correlated with slow tempo, minor mode, low pitch height, complex harmony, legato articulation, soft dynamics, slow note onset, and so on.
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.
This week I’ve been all about Kanye West’s “Lost In The World,” the most gripping track on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Kanye is one of the few commercial producers with a high enough profile to be able to license whatever samples he wants, so he carries the banner of memetastic collage-based music in the mainstream, and god bless him for it. Click through for the song on YouTube.
There’s nothing going on in contemporary music that interests me more than the vibe of this track. The blend of electronic and tribal drums and Auto-tuned singing draws on the same sonic palette as “Love Lockdown,” which continues to be my favorite song of the 21st century, but “Lost In The World” is much bigger and denser.
I’ve read that Quincy Jones carries around copies of Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue in his briefcase, and that he hands them out to kids whenever he meets them. Q-Tip compares Kind Of Blue to the Bible — you’re just expected to have a copy around the house. If you’ve never heard jazz before, Kind Of Blue is a great place to start. If you’re an obsessive jazz nerd like me, it never gets old. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, the heart of the album is its first track, “So What.”
Gil Evans wrote the abstract intro section, partially inspired by “Voiles” by Debussy. The tune proper begins at 0:34. If you want to learn how to improvise jazz, you should definitely learn Miles’ solo. A guy named Steve Khan posted this nice transcription of it, but you’re better off figuring it by ear. Learn to sing it first, and then work it out on your instrument. Miles’ solo isn’t too challenging technically, and it can teach you a ton about melody, phrasing and build.
Here’s a live television performance of “So What.”
The internet is home to a lot of questionably legal breakbeat collections like Drumaddikt and Cyberworm’s Sample Blog. “Cold Sweat” by James Brown is always included in these collections. It’s beloved equally by hip-hop and drum n bass producers. The break is at 4:30.
There’s probably a whole generation of producers who have sliced and diced this beat without having heard the actual song. I’m sure the same is true of “The Funky Drummer” and “Apache.” Beyond the break, “Cold Sweat” is a remarkable piece of music, way out ahead of its time. On James Brown’s album of the same name, it’s sitting alongside jazz standards like “Nature Boy” and some boilerplate blues and R&B. Compared to those more traditional songs, “Cold Sweat” sounds like it belongs in another era entirely. It has a radically simple two-chord structure and an African-influenced intricacy to its rhythmic groove, and it still sounds pretty fresh more than thirty years later.