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

Originality in Digital Music

This post is longer and more formal than usual because it was my term paper for a class in the NYU Music Technology Program.

Questions of authorship, ownership and originality surround all forms of music (and, indeed, all creative undertakings.) Nowhere are these questions more acute or more challenging than in digital music, where it is effortless and commonplace to exactly reproduce sonic elements generated by others. Sometimes this copying is relatively uncontroversial, as when a producer uses royalty-free factory sounds from Reason or Ableton Live. Sometimes the copying is legally permissible but artistically dubious, as when one downloads a public-domain Bach or Scott Joplin MIDI file and copies and pastes sections from them into a new composition. Sometimes one may have creative approval but no legal sanction; within the hip-hop community, creative repurposing of copyrighted commercial recordings is a cornerstone of the art form, and the best crate-diggers are revered figures.

Even in purely noncommercial settings untouched by copyright law, issues of authorship and originality continue to vex us. Some electronic musicians feel the need to generate all of their sounds from scratch, out of a sense that using samples is cheating or lazy. Others freely use samples, presets and factory sounds for reasons of expediency, but feel guilt and a weakened sense of authorship. Some electronic musicians view it as a necessity to create their tools from scratch, be they hardware or software. Others feel comfortable using off-the-shelf products but try to avoid common riffs, rhythmic patterns, chord progressions and timbres. Still others gleefully and willfully appropriate and put their “theft” of familiar recordings front and center.

Is a mashup of two pre-existing recordings original? Is a new song based on a sample of an old one original? What about a new song using factory sounds from Reason or Ableton Live? Is a DJ set consisting entirely of other people’s recordings original? Can a bright-line standard for originality or authenticity even exist in the digital realm?

I intend to parse out our varied and conflicting notions of originality, ownership and authorship as they pertain to electronic music. I will examine perspectives from musicians and fans, jurists and journalists, copyright holders and copyright violators. In so doing, I will advance the thesis that complete originality is neither possible nor desirable, in digital music or elsewhere, and that the spread of digital copying and manipulation has done us a service by bringing the issue into stark relief.

Continue reading

Round Midnight

Thelonious Monk’s beautiful ballad “Round Midnight” is said to be the most widely recorded and performed jazz tune — that is, a tune that was written specifically for jazz, not an adaptation of a showtune or pop song. It’s a testament to its popularity that it’s one of exactly two songs that Dave Chappelle knows how to play on the piano. There are a couple of scenes in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party that show him noodling around it. He talks in this clip about what Monk’s music means to him as a comedian — it’s all about timing.

Carmen McRae was a good friend of Monk’s, and for my tastes, she sings this song better than anyone. Her tart, unsentimental intellect matches Monk’s own approach to music perfectly. Here she is performing “Round Midnight” in 1962.

[iframe_loader width="480" height="360" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/nPzIh-Z4CuI" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen]

Continue reading

How does jazz work?

Related: my top 100 jazz tracks.

Rather than attempting the impossible task of explaining how everything in jazz works, I’m going to pick a specific, fairly mainstream tune and talk you through it: “Someday My Prince Will Come” by Miles Davis, off the 1961 album by the same name.

First of all, here’s the original version from Snow White.

Once you’ve got the tune in your head, listen to the Miles Davis recording.

Continue reading

The best jazz versions of classical pieces

For my tastes, you can’t beat the Ellington Nutcracker.

[iframe_loader width="480" height="360" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/ONknTGUckKc" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen]

Ellington’s Peer Gynt suite is also pretty wonderful.

[iframe_loader width="480" height="360" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/1mne1rQ0rcw" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen]

This one has inspired some remixing from me.

[iframe_loader width="100%" height="166" scrolling="no" frameborder="no" src="http://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=http%3A%2F%2Fapi.soundcloud.com%2Ftracks%2F12726693&auto_play=false&show_artwork=true&color=ff7700"]

Continue reading

What are the greatest basslines ever?

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.

John Coltrane – “My Favorite Things”

Simple, hypnotic, effective. Read more.

John Coltrane – “Equinox”

Another devastatingly simple groove.

Continue reading