Musical simples

The NYU Music Experience Design Lab is putting together a new online music theory resource, and I’m writing a lot of the materials. We want to keep everything grounded in real-life musical practice. To that end, we’ve been gathering musical simples: phrases, riffs, and earworms that beginners can learn easily. My criteria for a good musical simple: It should be a piece of music that can stand on its own, and that makes a satisfying loop. It should be catchy, attractive, and (ideally) already familiar. And it should be between one and four measures long. We’re developing a web-based interface that will make it easy to learn a musical simple, play it back, and mutate and adapt it. Each theory concept will come with at least one simple to give it authentic cultural context.

It’s an axiom of constructivism that you learn best when you’re enjoying yourself. This might seem obvious, but it represents a break with music education orthodoxy. Music students too often have to do a lot of tedious drilling before they get to try some real music. Even then, those tunes tend to be nursery rhymes or dorky educational pieces. It makes a certain amount of sense to structure lessons this way: real music is complicated and usually well out of reach of beginners. Unfortunately, too many beginners give up before they make it past the nursery rhyme stage.

Beginner-level music teaching nearly always starts at the atomic level: single pitches, note values, time signatures. It seems logical that the smallest units of music would be the simplest ones. But this is not actually true. Beginners conceive of music at a more intermediate level of abstraction: fragments of tunes, moments of tension and resolution, loops and grooves. Self-taught and informally taught musicians do most of their learning at this level. A three-chord song by Bob Marley or Neil Young is a better entry point than the single notes comprising those three chords and the relationship between them.

Here’s a diagram from my masters thesis, adapted from a paper by Jeanne Bamberger:

Moving up and down the structural ladder

For more discussion of these ideas, see also Bamberger’s “Developing Musical Structures: Going Beyond The Simples.”

It’s hard to resist the temptation to start at the bottom of the abstraction ladder. Even though I’m a self-taught pop musician, I still instinctively “start at the beginning” whenever I set out to explain something to a student, and have to consciously remind myself to find a mid-level explanation first. I try to think in terms of chemistry. Atoms and their component particles are “simpler” than molecules and complex substances. But most of us don’t have direct experience with atoms. We’re familiar with water and air and rocks and metals. We need to think about water before we can understand hydrogen and oxygen. So it is with music. The musical simples are our molecules and substances, mid-level entry points that scaffold learning of atoms and electrons.

I was unconsciously gathering musical simples long before I heard the term. I was looking for stuff that’s easy to learn, but that’s also substantive enough to work as real music. The good news is that there’s plenty of simple music that isn’t lame. The music of the African diaspora is built on riffs and loops, and jazz and rock and pop are full of easy yet richly satisfying musical ideas. By carefully curating a simples collection, we’re hoping to make life easier for anyone who wants to teach or learn music in an engaging and pleasurable way. Here’s an assortment, shown both in standard notation and MIDI piano roll format. Continue reading

Why is there so much Auto-Tune on everything?

When we talk about Auto-Tune, we’re talking about two different things. There’s the intended use, which is to subtly correct pitch problems (and not just with vocalists; it’s extremely useful for horns and strings.) The ubiquity of pitch correction in the studio should be no great mystery; it’s a tremendous time-saver.


But usually when we talk about Auto-Tune, we’re talking about the “Cher Effect,” the sound you get when you set the Retune Speed setting to zero. The Cher Effect is used so often in pop music because it’s richly expressive of our emotional experience of the world: technology-saturated, alienated, unreal. My experience with Auto-Tune as a musician has felt like stepping out the door of a spaceship to explore a whole new sonic planet. Auto-Tune turns the voice into a keyboard synth, and we are only just beginning to understand its creative possibilities. (Warning: explicit lyrics throughout.)

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The Blurred Lines lawsuit

Marvin Gaye is one of the great singers and songwriters of all time, with a status deservedly approaching secular sainthood. Robin Thicke is a sleazy dirtbag who made a giant pile of money by knocking off one of Marvin’s songs to produce a rapey earworm,  accompanied by a porn video. Naturally, I side with Team Marvin, and am delighted that Thicke and Pharrell lost the lawsuit.

While my fellow musicians are gleefully crowing, other observers are worried that this case sets a bad precedent. Michaelangelo Matos is among them.

I encourage vocal fans of this verdict to demonstrate their solidarity by deleting and/or destroying every piece of music they own featuring an unlicensed sample or bearing a notable resemblance to an earlier piece of music. But they won’t, and they shouldn’t, because that would entail deleting just about everything. Even if you loathe Thicke, this is no cause for celebration, because the size of the Gaye estate’s bounty is only going to encourage more lawsuits like this one.

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Listening, hearing, and the infinite loop

I was reading this super valuable post by Rob Walker listing different strategies for how to pay attention. Deep attention makes the difference between looking at something and actually seeing it. Rob is talking mostly to visual artists and designers, but his methods work well for musicians too–seeing is to looking as hearing is to listening. Paying attention is the most basic skill an artist needs in any medium, and one of the most basic skills a person needs in life. Not only does artistic practice require attention, but it also helps you learn it. When you look critically at a painting or listen critically to a song, you’re disciplining your attentional system.

Being able to focus deeply has its obvious practical benefits, but it’s also an invaluable tool for making your emotional life more manageable. It’s significant to me that the image below appears in two different Wikipedia articles: attention and flow.

Attention, and flow

When people ask why we should study the arts, the attention argument is the best answer. The variety of deep attention known as mindfulness is a powerful antidepressant. Teaching the arts isn’t just about cultural preservation and transmission; it’s also a cost-effective public health measure. Music isn’t the only method for practicing your attention, but it’s one of the best. This post will address my preferred method for focusing my musical attention: the infinite loop.

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DJ Earworm on the art of the mashup

DJ Earworm is the foremost practitioner of the art of the mashup. I don’t think there’s a more interesting musician in the world right now. I was on public radio with him once! His main claim to fame is the United State of Pop series, where he combines the top 25 US pop songs of a given year into a single, seamlessly coherent track. I’ve scattered several of them throughout this post. He has started doing more seasonal mashups as well; here’s one from this past summer:

It’s rare that an artist talks you through their production process in depth, so I was delighted to discover that DJ Earworm wrote an entire book about mashup production. He wrote it in 2007 and focused it on Sony Acid, so from a technical standpoint, it might not be super useful to you. But as with the KLF’s pop songwriting tutorial, the creative method he espouses transcends technology and time period, and it would be of value to any musician. Some choice passages follow.

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Will musicians ever be replaced by robots?

A Quora user asks whether artificial intelligence will ever replace human musicians. TL;DR No.

David Cope and Emily

If music composition and improvisation could be expressed as algorithmic rule sets, then human musicians would have reason for concern. Fortunately, music can’t be completely systematized, much as some music theorists would like to believe it can be. Music is not an internally consistent logical system like math or physics. It’s an evolved set of mostly arbitrary patterns of memes. This should be no surprise; music emerges from our consciousness, and our consciousness is an evolved system, not an algorithmic one. We can do algorithmic reasoning if we work really hard at it, but our minds are pretty chaotic and unpredictable, and it isn’t our strong suit. It’s a good thing, too; we may not be so hot at performing algorithms, but we’re good at inventing new possible ones. Computers are great at performing algorithms, but are lousy at inventing new ones. Continue reading

Internet blues

Recently, WNYC’s great music show Soundcheck held a contest to see who could do the best version of the 100 year old song “Yellow Dog Blues” by WC Handy.

Marc Weidenbaum had the members of the Disquiet Junto enter the contest en masse. I did my track, put it on SoundCloud, and promptly forgot all about it.

A month later, I was surprised and delighted to learn from Marc’s blog that the contest winner was Junto stalwart Westy Reflector.

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Why is “Let It Go” such a big deal?

Anna posed this question, and I think it’s an excellent one: What is up with “Let It Go” and little girls? Why is this song such a blockbuster among the pre-K set? How did it jump the gap from presentational to participatory music? Is it the movie, or the song itself? In case you never interact with pop culture or little kids, this is the tune in question:

I posted the question on Facebook, and my friends have so many good responses that I’m going to just paste them all in more or less verbatim below.

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