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 western Europe in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the music derived from it. However, tonal theory is inadequate to explain the blues and other musics of the African diaspora. Given the central role of this music in both popular culture and art music, music theory classes do their students a grave disservice by not discussing its harmonic content.

The blues is based around a very different set of harmonic expectations than the ones underlying classical music. In the blues, 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 conventional tonal theory teaching, the major scale is taught as the most basic and fundamental theoretical building block. The very language of tonal theory proceeds from the assumption that the major scale is the most ‘natural’ one. For example, in the key of C major, we modify the ‘natural’ seventh B to produce the ‘flat’ seventh B♭. In the context of western Europeans music, this convention makes good musical sense. But western Europe is not the only salient influence on the musical culture of the United States. The music of the African diaspora is equally fundamental, and it has come to weigh increasingly heavily over time.

African diasporic musical culture expresses itself through all of America’s indigenous music: jazz, rock, hip-hop, R&B, country, and of course, the blues. The music academy gathers all of these genres together under the term ‘popular music’ (with the exception of jazz, which in recent decades has become a ‘legitimate’ art music.) Steven Feld goes so far as to describe American popular music as “a euphemism for Afro-American popular musics” (31). Growing up in America’s popular culture enculturates us with a quite different sense of what ‘natural’ harmony is. For example, DeClerq and Temperley (2011) show that the ♭VII chord is vastly more prevalent in rock than in common-practice classical music. To a lifelong rock listener, B♭ may well sound more ‘natural’ in the key of C than B does.

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. Furthermore, I propose that we present blues tonality as being as fundamental a tonal category as major or minor, rather than as a strange exception. Popular musicians, who tend to be self-taught, already effectively do treat blues this way (Green 2002, 43). The music academy should do the same.

Defining blues tonality

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The best jazz versions of classical pieces

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

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Ellington’s Peer Gynt suite is also pretty wonderful.

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This one has inspired some remixing from me.

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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.

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