The Vocoder, Auto-Tune, Pitch Standardization and Vocal Virtuosity

Writing assignment for History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See a more informal introduction to the vocoder here.

Casual music listeners know the vocoder best as the robotic voice effect popular in disco and early hip-hop. Anyone who has heard pop music of the last two decades has heard Auto-Tune. The two effects are frequently mistaken for one another, and for good reason—they share the same mathematical and technological basis. Auto-Tune has become ubiquitous in recording studios, in two very different incarnations. There is its intended use, as an expedient way to correct out-of-tune notes, replacing various tedious and labor-intensive manual methods. Pop, hip-hop and electronic dance music producers have also found an unintended use for Auto-Tune, as a special effect that quantizes pitches to a conspicuously excessive degree, giving the voice a synthetic, otherworldly quality. In this paper, I discuss the history of the vocoder and Auto-Tune, in the context of broader efforts to use science and technology to mathematically analyze and standardize music. I also explore how such technologies problematize our ideas of virtuosity.

Ableton vocoder

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Ethnomusicology and the body

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

It is such a strange artifact of Cartesian dualism that we have to specify experiences as being “bodily,” as if there were some other kind. It’s like specifying that a place is in the universe.

René Descartes

Blacking (1977) observes that we can understand the convention of the mind/body dichotomy as a cultural construct, a reflection of the way that capitalism divides manual and mental labor, and puts pressure on us to use our bodies in a lopsided way (see, for example, my being hunched over my computer right now.) Furthermore, the mind-body split symbolizes the left brain/right brain split. The arts require both sides of the brain, and this may be their biological function in humans: to activate both brain hemispheres and let us attain a more complete and unified consciousness.

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The aQWERTYon pitch wheels and the future of music theory visualization

The MusEDLab will soon be launching a revamped version of the aQWERTYon with some enhancements to its visual design, including a new scale picker. Beyond our desire to make our stuff look cooler, the scale picker represents a challenge that we’ve struggled with since the earliest days of aQW development. On the one hand, we want to offer users a wide variety of intriguing and exotic scales to play with. On the other hand, our audience of beginner and intermediate musicians is likely to be horrified by a list of terms like “Lydian dominant mode.” I recently had the idea to represent all the scales as colorful icons, like so:

Read more about the rationale and process behind this change here. In this post, I’ll explain what the icons mean, and how they can someday become the basis for a set of new interactive music theory visualizations.

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Toward a Methodological Stance

Final paper for Approaches To Qualitative Inquiry with Colleen Larson

Section 1: Reflections on Received View of Research

I was raised by two medical researchers and a former astrophysicist, surrounded by stacks of quantitative journals. I rarely questioned the assumption that quantitative empirical research is the gold standard of truth, and that while subjective accounts are interesting and illuminating, they are not ultimately reliable. From scientists I learned that stories belong to mythology, while facts do not necessarily organize themselves in ways that can be apprehended so easily. Creation myths tell the story of a human-scale world in which humans are the most important element. Astrophysicists tell us that the universe is unfathomably vast and incomprehensibly old, and that we are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, while evolution teaches that we are more like mushrooms or daisies than unlike them. It is axiomatic for scientists that reality is empirically knowable, and while social and emotional considerations are a fact of life, they are noise to be filtered out.

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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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Music education at the grownups’ table

I was asked by Alison Armstrong to comment on this Time magazine op-ed by Todd Stoll, the vice president of education at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Before I do, let me give some context: Todd Stoll is a friend and colleague of Wynton Marsalis, and he shares some of Wynton’s beliefs about music.

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis advocates for  jazz as “America’s classical music,” the highest achievement of our culture, and the sonic embodiment of our best democratic ideals. The man himself is a brilliant practitioner of the art form. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing him play live several times, and he’s always a riveting improvisor. However, Wynton’s definition of the word “jazz” is a narrow one. He thinks that jazz history ended in about 1965, right before Herbie Hancock traded in his grand piano for a Fender Rhodes. All the developments after that–the introduction of funk, rock, pop, electronic music, and hip-hop– have bastardizations of the music.

Wynton Marsalis’ public stature has given his philosophy enormous weight. His effect on jazz culture has thus been profound, but problematic. On the one hand, he’s been a key force in getting jazz the institutional recognition that it was denied for too many years. On the other hand, the form of jazz that Wynton advocates for is a museum piece, a time capsule of the middle part of the twentieth century. When jazz gained the legitimacy of “classical music,” it also got burdened with classical music’s stuffiness, pedantry, and disconnection from the broader culture. As the more innovative jazz artists try to keep pace with the rest of the culture, they can find themselves more hindered by Wynton than helped.

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