Blues tonality

Most Americans who study music formally do so using common-practice era western tonal theory. Tonal theory is very useful in understanding the music of the European aristocracy in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the music derived from it. Tonal theory is not, however, very useful for understanding the blues, or any of the music that derives from it.

The blues is based around a set of harmonic expectations that are quite different from the classical ones. Major and minor tonality are freely intermingled. Dominant seventh chords can function as tonics. Tritones may or may not resolve. The blues scale is as basic in this context as the major scale is in tonal harmony. We need some new and better vocabulary. In this post, I propose that we teach blues tonality as a distinct category from major or minor, combining elements of both with elements not found in either.

In tonal theory, the basis of all harmony is the major scale and its associated chords, which you modify in various ways to make all the other scales and chords. For example, in C major, you modify the “natural” seventh, B, to get the “flat” seventh, B♭. If you come into music through rock, hip-hop, R&B, country or any other musical form originating in the African diaspora (what the music academy calls “pop”,) you develop a quite different sense of what “natural” harmony is. When you’re enculturated by blues-based music, you’re likely to hear B♭ as more natural than B in C major. And you are likely to be closely familiar with the blues scale, which western tonal theory has no explanation for whatsoever.

Blues scale

When you absorb the blues rule set first, as I did, the classical one seems painfully obtuse. Many of my pop musician friends think they don’t “get” music theory because the rules of eighteenth century western European court music are frequently at odds with their intuition. Who can blame them for being confused, and why should we be surprised when so many give up? Most of the working musicians I know outside of classical and jazz are substantially self-taught. How can we design a harmony pedagogy that applies to the music that students actually know and care about? Continue reading

Composing improvisationally with Ableton Live

I just completed a batch of new music, which was improvised freely in the studio and then later shaped into structured tracks.

I thought it would be helpful to document the process behind this music, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I expect to be teaching this kind of production a lot more in the future. Second, knowing how the tracks were made might be helpful to you in enjoying them. Third, composing the music during or after recording rather than before has become the dominant pop production method, and I want to help my fellow highbrow musicians to get hip to it. Continue reading

Tabla Breakbeat Science is dropping an album

My new studio band has an album nearing completion. It’s called Music Information Retrieval, because our studio time was sponsored by NYU’s Music and Audio Research Lab — we contributed to a database of multitracks that will be used for music informatics research.

We made our DJ debut over the weekend at the Rubin Museum, where our brand-new track “Rock Steady” was dropped by DJ Ripley.

Continue reading

The state of the lullaby

Anna wanted to know what my friends are singing to their kids for lullabies. I posted the question on Facebook and got about fifty times more responses than I was expecting. Since I now have all this (highly unscientific) data about lullaby trends in 2014, I figured I would write it all up. Here’s what I found.

The most interesting commonality is the song “Hush Little Baby.” Many people report singing it, and my mom sang it to me. But it’s more complicated than that. Jonathan C says:

I made up about 50 couplets of “Hush Little Baby” over many consecutive tortured hours in 2006, and somehow we’ve remembered them all and still use them. It was a good rhyming puzzle to keep me sane at night.

As soon as I read that, I tried it out on Milo, and it was super fun. I recommend it.

Rewriting the lyrics is an especially good idea because, as several people pointed out, the original song is quite depressing. “Hush little baby, don’t say a word, Mama’s gonna buy you a series of unsatisfying things that don’t address your basic emotional need.” A number of other traditional kids’ songs are similarly depressing. My mom sang me “You Are My Sunshine” and “My Bonny Lies Over The Ocean” as a kid, and while their melodies are beautiful, their lyrics are full of pain, loss, and disappointment. And don’t even get me started on “Rockabye Baby.” I sang it to Milo exactly once; never again.

Anyway, here are all the other tunes that my Facebook friends use for lullabies.

Continue reading

What is polyphony?

The word is from Greek, “poly” meaning many and “phony” meaning voice. This is as opposed to monophony — one voice. Originally, polyphony literally meant multiple people singing together. Over the course of musical history, the term has become more abstracted, referring to multiple “voices” played on any instrument. And usually, polyphony means that the different voices are all playing/singing independent lines.

Continue reading

Computer improvisation

Can the computer be an improvisation partner? Can it generate musical ideas of its own in real time that aren’t the product of random number generators or nonsensical Markov chains?

In Joel Chadabe‘s “Settings For Spirituals,” he uses pitch-tracking to perform various effects on a recording of a singer: pitch shifting, chorus, reverb. The result is effectively an avant-garde remix. It isn’t exactly my speed, but I like the spirit of the piece – remixing existing recordings is a central pillar of current interactive electronic music. I’m less taken with Chadabe’s 1978 “Solo” for Synclavier controlled by theremin. The idea of dynamically controlling a computer’s compositions is an intriguing one, and I like the science-fictional visual effect of using two giant theremin antennae to control note durations, and to fade instrumental sounds in and out. Chadabe set the Solo system up to intentionally produce unpredictable results, giving the feeling of an improvisational partner. He describes “Solo” as being “like a conversation with a clever friend.” Who wouldn’t want such an experience?

Joel Chadabe performs "Solo"

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Highbrow musicians need to bring the funk

Here are three stories about the relationship of funk to the avant-garde.

Meshell Ndegeocello at Tonic

In my twenties, I forced myself to experience a lot of very highbrow avant-garde music: free jazz, experimental electronica, and various combinations thereof. One such experience was a show at Tonic. I forget who was on the bill exactly, but it included Susie Ibarra and various other downtown luminaries. The group was ad hoc and clearly had never played together before. Their freeform improvisation was colorful and interesting, but tough to get an emotional hold on.

During the second set, Meshell Ndegeocello showed up, and the band invited her to sit in. She sat onstage with her bass for a minute or two, just listening to all the atonal noise swirling around her. Then she started playing a simple G minor funk groove, quietly but insistently. One by one, the other musicians locked into it, until the whole group was actually playing together, not just at the same time, but together. It was the best show I ever saw at Tonic. It also made me realize that the best musicians play stuff that makes sense.

Continue reading