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 cannot be explained by Western tonal theory. Nevertheless, the blues emerged in western culture and is now a central pillar of it. McClary (2001) observes that while twentieth-century music has no single main stream, it does have a “mighty river” that follows a channel cut the blues:
When LeRoi Jones published his powerful book Blues People in 1963, his title referred to the African American musicians who fashioned the blues out of their particular historical conditions and experiences. Yet a music scholar of a future time might well look back on the musical landscape of the 1900 s and label us all “blues people”: those who inhabited a period dominated by blues and its countless progeny (32-33).
It no longer makes sense to think of the blues, or any other music of the African diaspora, as non-Western. Therefore, Western music theory must grow to accommodate the blues, the same way that the music itself has.
In case you don’t pay attention to such things, there’s a miniature scandal swirling around the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ performance at the Super Bowl halftime show.
Close examination of the footage reveals that the bass and guitar weren’t plugged in.
Flea, the Peppers’ bassist, came forward and admitted that they used a pre-recorded track, and offered various excuses and explanations. I’m surprised to find myself writing about this, since if there’s anything I care about less than the Super Bowl, it’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But I was struck by Flea’s prevaricating; the whole thing points up the strangeness of live music in the age of technology.
The most fun Music Technology class I’m taking this semester is Advanced Audio Production with Paul Geluso. A major component of the class is learning how to listen analytically, and to that end, we were assigned to pick a song and do an exhaustive study of its sonic qualities. We used methods from William Moylan’s book The Art of Recording: Understanding and Crafting the Mix. I chose “Tightrope” by Janelle Monáe featuring Big Boi.
How do you write out a pop, rock or dance song? There’s no single standard method. Some musicians use standard western notation. Some do everything by ear. Many of us use methods that fall somewhere in between. One such compromise system in widespread use is the lead sheet:
Other systems for song documentation include chord charts and the Nashville numbering system. But plenty of musicians are unfamiliar with these systems, and may not have any method for writing down songs at all. This leads to a lot of confusion during rehearsals and recording sessions. Any given section of a rock or pop song is likely to be simple, a few chords in a particular pattern, but the difficulty comes in figuring out and remembering the bigger structure: whether the guitar solo comes after the second verse or the chorus, how many bars long the bridge is, what beat the ending falls on.
Jazz is easier to play than rock in a certain sense, because its song forms are more standardized. There are a few very widely used templates: the head-solos-head format, the thirty-two bar AABA standard, blues, rhythm changes and so on. Because of this formal standardization, you can put a bunch of jazz musicians who have never even met each other on a stage together with zero rehearsal, and they’ll be able to bang some tunes out. Rock and pop are a lot more idiosyncratic, so even though they tend to be technically simpler than jazz, getting the different parts sorted out can take a lot more work.
The world of computer recording and sequencing can be a big help with visualizing a song’s structure. Once a tune is in a digital audio editor, it’s automatically “notated” in terms of chunks of audio against a grid of bars and beats. It suddenly becomes easy to visualize song structures, even if you have no idea how music notation works. You can use markers, color-coding and named memory locations to create an interactive road map of the track. Here’s a recent composition I did for grad school using Ableton Live:
Learning to visualize a song on the computer screen doesn’t just make your life easier when you’re writing or recording. By looking at song structures, you can learn a lot about how music is put together, about the symmetries and asymmetries, the repetition and variation and recursion. You can learn these things through very attentive listening too, but getting your eyes involved really helps to drive the ideas home.
The first time I heard Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” was courtesy of Motorcycle Guy, a prominent Brooklyn eccentric who drives around on a tricked-out motorcycle bedecked with lights and equipped with a powerful sound system. I encounter him every so often and he’s always bumping some good funk, soul or R&B. One night, he was playing what I thought was an extreme remix of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” by Michael Jackson, with the end chant slowed down and pitch-shifted radically. As it turns out, I got the chronology reversed. Here’s Manu Dibango’s song:
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.
The defining musical experience of my lifetime is hearing familiar samples in unfamiliar contexts. For me, the experience is usually a thrill. For a lot of people, the experience makes them angry. Using recognizable samples necessarily means having an emotional conversation with everyone who already has an attachment to the original recording. Music is about connecting with other people. Sampling, like its predecessors quoting and referencing, is a powerful connection method.
This week I’ve been all about Kanye West’s “Lost In The World,” the most gripping track on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Kanye is one of the few commercial producers with a high enough profile to be able to license whatever samples he wants, so he carries the banner of memetastic collage-based music in the mainstream, and god bless him for it. Click through for the song on YouTube.
There’s nothing going on in contemporary music that interests me more than the vibe of this track. The blend of electronic and tribal drums and Auto-tuned singing draws on the same sonic palette as “Love Lockdown,” which continues to be my favorite song of the 21st century, but “Lost In The World” is much bigger and denser.
I’ve always been more of a Beatles guy than a Stones guy, but respect where respect is due, “Gimme Shelter” is a classic.
It’s on my mind because Dangerous Minds posted the isolated tracks, and they’re a lot of fun. It’s fascinating to hear the separated vocals, guitars, bass and drums. The Youtube videos containing the tracks were swiftly taken down by the Stones’ lawyers, of course, but as of this writing you can still download the stems in multitrack Ogg format. You can open and edit the Oggs in Audacity, and export pieces in other formats.
Whenever a guy like me hears “isolated tracks” I know it’s remix time. So here are some samples from “Gimme Shelter” along with various other sounds, enjoy.
Rock With Shelter
Me vs the Rolling Stones vs Michael Jackson
mp3 download, ipod format download
Me vs the Rolling Stones vs Michael Jackson vs Glen Velez vs Britney Spears vs Charles Mingus
mp3 download, ipod format download