Repetition defines music

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.’

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Toward a better music curriculum

I love music grad school and am finding it extremely valuable, except for one part: the music theory requirement. In order to get my degree, I have to attain mastery of Western tonal harmony of the common practice era. I am not happy about it. This requirement requires a lot mastery of a lot of skills that are irrelevant to my life as a working musician, and leaves out many skills that I consider essential. Something needs to change.

Don’t get me wrong: I love studying music theory. I spent years studying it for my own gratification before ever even considering grad school. I’ve written a ton of blog posts about it, taught it for money, and talked about it to anyone who would listen. But the way that music theory is taught at NYU, and in most schools, is counterproductive.

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How do I learn to improvise music?

Improvising music is like giving a speech off the cuff. Before you can do it, you need to know some vocabulary and grammar. In music, the vocabulary is riffs, phrases, scales, sequences and other melodic building blocks. The grammar is music theory. It’s not necessary to learn either one formally, you can figure them out on your own through trial and error. But a good teacher can make the process a lot easier.

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Open-source music

Sample-based music isn’t stealing. It’s valuable and important. It shows the way toward a future for recorded music that’s more in continuity with music’s past. Recordings are cool and everything, but they encourage passivity. If I buy a recording, I can listen to it or dance to it, both fine activities, but what if I want to go further? What if I want to engage with it, converse with it, customize it or adapt it to my own needs? According to the law, I can’t. This flies in the face of the uncountable centuries of music practice that predate the invention of recordings. Before recordings, if you wanted to hear music, someone needed to play or sing it. To learn how to play or sing, you have to learn and interpret a ton of music by other people. The normal method for passing music along for nearly all of human history was by oral tradition, and a lot of adaptation and reinterpretation was an inevitable part of this transmission process.

In the modern world, most of the music you encounter is in recorded form. Adapting or customizing music is going to continue as it has for uncountable centuries. To adapt or customize a recording usually requires sampling. As it stands, the law is in the way. We need open-source music like we need open-source software.

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