Dreaming of a masters thesis

Update: see a more formal draft of my thesis proposal.

For my NYU masters thesis in Music Technology, I’m designing a beginner-oriented music learning app for the iPad and similar devices. It will approach music the way I wish I had been taught it, and the way I’ve been teaching it to my private students.

I’m motivated in this project by a few axiomatic beliefs:

  • Everyone is born with the capacity to learn music. That capacity just needs to be activated in the right way.
  • Anyone can and should participate in music actively. Like cooking or sports, music need not be totally mastered to benefit the participant, and it should definitely not be the exclusive province of specialists.
  • Beginners should study music they’re familiar with, and that they like.
  • Music teaching for beginners should follow an Afrocentric paradigm that relates to pop, rock and hip-hop. That means starting with rhythm, and treating melodic instruments as percussion.

So here’s what this means for music teaching.

  • Beginners should learn pentatonics first, then mixolydian. Music education customarily begins with the major scale, but pentatonics and mixolydian are closer to pop, rock, hip-hop and dance common practice.
  • Beginners should work modally for a long time. Being constrained to a certain unvarying group of notes frees up mental bandwidth to think melodically and rhythmically. The best mode to work in is the ambiguous major/minor tonality of the blues. Again, this reflects the majority of the American mainstream.
  • Only after becoming familiar with blues should students embark on the major scale and diatonic harmony. Traditional music theory pedagogy is based on rules laid down in the eighteenth century. While these rules are of historical interest, their conflict with current music makes them tedious and alienating.

The app will start with drum programming, giving you templates for basic dance styles (hip-hop, techno, rock) and letting you customize them. Once you have some mastery of loop programming and rhythms, the app takes you into basic MIDI sequencing, first with single-note basslines, then simple pentatonics, and on to chords. For the visual aesthetic, I plan to avoid skeuomorphism entirely. The interface will consist entirely of geometric shapes in flat colors and large text. Here’s a concept image:

Minimalist sequencer

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User interface case study: iOS Garageband

Apple has long made a practice of giving away cool software with their computers. One of the coolest such freebies is Garageband. It’s a stripped down version of Logic aimed at beginners, and it’s a surprisingly robust tool. The software instruments and loops sound terrific, the interface is approachable, and it’s generally a great scratchpad. However, Garageband isn’t a good way to learn about music. It gives you a lot of nice sounds, but offers no indication whatsoever as to what you’re supposed to do with them. To get a decent-sounding track, you need to come pre-equipped with a fair bit of musical knowledge.

A young guitar student of mine is a good example. After only his third lesson, he jumped on Garageband and tried writing a song, mostly by throwing loops together. I admire his initiative, but the result was jagged and disjointed, lacking any kind of structural logic. It’s natural that a first effort would be a mess, but I felt a missed opportunity. At no point did the program ever suggest that the kid’s loops would sound best in groups of two, four, eight or sixteen. It didn’t suggest he organize his track into sections with symmetrical lengths. And it didn’t suggest any connection between one chord and another. Seeing enough other beginners struggle with Garageband makes me think that it isn’t really for novices after all. It seems to be pitched more toward dads in cover bands, who have some half-remembered knowledge of chord progressions and song forms and who just need a minimum of prodding to start putting together tracks on the computer.

The iPad version of Garageband is a much better experiential learning tool. Its new touch-specific interfaces encourage the playful exploration at the heart of music-making. The program isn’t trying to be particularly pedagogical, but its presets and defaults nevertheless implicitly give valuable guidance to the budding producer or songwrter. And while it’s quite a bit more limited than the desktop version, those limitations are strengths for beginner purposes.

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User interface case study: Propellerheads Figure

As I contemplate my masters thesis, I’m looking for good examples of beginner-centric musical user interface design. Propellerhead’s new Figure app has been a source of inspiration for me. It’s mostly wonderful, and even its design flaws are instructive.

Figure drum programming interface

I have a long history with Propellerhead’s software, beginning with Rebirth in 1998. I’ve made a lot of good music with their stuff, but have also experienced a lot of frustration, mostly due to their insistence on slathering everything with unhelpfully “realistic” design.

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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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Sampling and semiotic democracy

Thomas Wuil Joo. A Contrarian View of Copyright: Hip-Hop, Sampling, and Semiotic Democracy. 44 CONN. L. REV. — (2012)

As both a fan and a producer of sample-based music, I’m naturally sympathetic to Lawrence Lessig and the free-culture movement, a group of legal scholars advocating reforms to copyright law that would make it easier to sample, remix and mash up the works of others. The free-culture adherents believe that copyright law exceeded its original purpose to “foster the Useful Arts and Sciences,” and that now it mostly stifles less-powerful creators while benefiting more-powerful entities. A narrative has emerged in this movement implicating the high-profile sampling lawsuits of the 1990s like Grand Upright Music v. Warner Bros. Records and Bridgeport Music Inc. v. Dimension Films in suppressing sample-based hip-hop and related collage-like popular music.

Lessig and company think that sampling and remixing of popular culture can empower us, enabling us to take ownership over the products of the dominant culture industry and enhancing “semiotic democracy.” Copyright law inhibits recoding and is grossly overbalanced in favor of large corporate entities and other powerful actors. In particular, so the narrative goes, marginalized hip-hop artists have suffered under the heavy hand of lawsuits and exorbitant licensing fees.

Is the free-culture movement right?

Thomas Joo challenges the free-culture movement’s assertions both theoretically and empirically. He analyzes the infamous lawsuits and finds only reinforcement of a longstanding status quo. He provides extensive evidence that commercial hip-hop artists of the “golden age” (the 1980s and early 1990s) were perfectly aware of the requirement that they license their samples, and that they were able to produce and profit from their music nonetheless.

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Improvisation in music games

Joshua Pablo Rosenstock. Free Play Meets Gameplay: iGotBand, a Video Game for Improvisers. Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 20, pp. 11–15, 2010.

Guitar Hero, Rock Band and games like them have done a wonderful service to non-musicians. The games give a good sense of what playing an instrument in a band is like. The interface is simplified, but the overall experience is qualitatively remarkably similar. The games also change their players’ listening habits. A non-musician friend told me that until he played through Beatles Rock Band as Paul McCartney, he had never paid attention to a song’s bassline. Now he hears all those familiar Beatles songs in a new and richer way, and generally has learned to listen like a musician.

There is one crucial difference between the games and real music-making, however, and that is the absence of improvisation. The player moves through the song like a train on a track, and the games penalize any variation from the prescribed notes. Not all real-life music is improvisational either, but there is usually some element of personal expressiveness. Not so in Guitar Hero. Mimicry is the only way to play.

The South Park kids get their Guitar Hero on

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Looping and stasis in Medúlla

Malawey, Victoria. Harmonic Stasis and Oscillation in Björk’s Medúlla. Music Theory Online, Volume 16, Number 1, January 2010.

The fundamental unit of electronic popular music is the loop. This puts it at odds with the Western art music tradition, which typically favors linear structures with a narrative arc. Repetition has mostly appeared in classical music at the macro level of phrases and sections. While shorter repetitive cells do appear in classical music, they are not always welcome. The term ostinato, from the Italian “obstinate,” does not connote approval. Popular music (and some minimalist classical) of the twentieth century has been significantly more repetitive, deriving its harmony from western Europe but its rhythms and circular loop-based structures from Africa and the Caribbean. The advent of synthesizers, drum machines and computers has strongly encouraged the trend toward cyclic repetition, since the default output of such devices is the endless loop.

Björk produced relatively conventional dance music early in her solo career, but her use of loops has become more sophisticated and complex over the course of her career. Her 2004 album Medúlla is comprised entirely from vocals, aside from the occasional synthesizer. Some of the songs are traditional songs and choral works, but most are built from vocals that have been heavily edited, sampled and looped in Pro Tools.

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The post-fidelity era

Guberman, Daniel. Post-Fidelity: A New Age of Music Consumption and Technological Innovation. Journal of Popular Music Studies, Volume 23, Issue 4, pp 431–454

Guberman divides the history of recorded music into two distinct sections: the fidelity era, stretching from Thomas Edison through the invention of the compact disk, and the post-fidelity era, beginning with the iPod. He argues that, since about 2001, the listening public has come to value convenience, variety, personalization and curation over sound quality.

An emblematic image of the late fidelity era: the Maxell advertisement showing a wealthy young man in his home, sitting deep in an easy chair with a martini, getting physically blown away by giant, powerful speakers.

The emblematic image of the post-fidelity era: silhoutted people of both genders and diverse backgrounds, dancing with iPods.

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Teaching music with looping

Saville, Kirt. Strategies for Using Repetition as a Powerful Teaching Tool. Music Educators Journal, 2011 98: 69

When a student brings a recorded song to me that they want to learn, the first thing I do is load it into Ableton and mark off the different sections with a simple color-coding scheme: blue for verses, green for choruses, orange for instrumental breaks and so on. This enables even non-readers to grasp the overall structure of the song. I then loop a short segment, usually significantly slowed, and have the student repeat it until they’ve attained some proficiency with it. As the student progresses, the loops get longer until they encompass entire sections. If a particular phrase is especially troublesome, I can send the student home with an mp3 of that phrase looped endlessly to practice over.

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