The happiest chord progression ever

If you’re interested in learning more about chords and emotions, take my online course.

See also the saddest chord progression ever.

We think of descending melodies and chord progressions as being sad. But the happiest song of all time also has a descending progression: “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5.

This recording was made just after Michael’s eleventh birthday. I do not approve of child labor, and making a prepubescent boy sing all these songs about romantic love ended up having some grim long-term psychological consequences. But god, what a performance.

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In praise of the Reflex Re-Edit

The Reflex is a London-based French DJ and producer named Nicolas Laugier. He specializes in a particular kind of remix, the re-edit, in which you rework a song using only sounds found within the song itself, ideally using the multitrack stems. Some re-edits keep the original more or less intact, but with a punchier mix and a new breakdown section or whatever. Others (the ones I find more interesting) radically transform their source material by moving pieces around in unexpected ways. Read this Greg Wilson interview to learn more about Laugier’s process.

The Reflex

I really love Laugier’s tracks, on several levels. First, he has a fine ear for mixing, and his edits always have spectacular clarity and depth, often sounding better than the originals. There’s intellectual pleasure, too: it’s fun to hear a fresh take on these deeply familiar recordings, and the music educator in me adores the idea of using music itself as a medium for music criticism. Laugier implicitly critiques the music he edits, saying, “This song is cool, but wouldn’t it be cooler if the drums were more prominent, and we heard this keyboard part in isolation, and there was a longer groove in the intro?” I always prefer music analysis that I can dance to.  Continue reading

Music in a capitalist culture

Midterm paper for Learning of Culture with Lisa Stulberg

Max Weber locates the roots of capitalism in vestigial puritanical Protestantism. Émile Durkheim, in turn, gives a theory of how that Protestantism arose in the first place. In this paper, I ask two questions. First: can Weber’s and Durkheim’s theories of religion be extended to explain culture generally? Second, and more specifically: can their theories explain music?

Music is a valuable lens for examining cultures, because while every world culture includes it, the particular form and function varies considerably from one culture to another. Contemporary America contains a variety of musical subcultures and countercultures that overlap and conflict with one another. We might follow Weber’s example and say that America’s culture has capitalism as its single defining feature. And we might say that America’s commercial pop mainstream defines our musical culture. But those two generalizations conceal roiling masses of unresolved conflict.

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Between The World And Me

I’m taking a sociology class called Learning Of Culture with Lisa Stulberg. It could just as easily be called Culture Of Learning, since it views school as just one cultural setting among many. Our first assignment was to read Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I agree with Toni Morrison’s cover blurb.

Between The World And Me

After reading just the first few pages, I couldn’t help but adopt Coates’ prose style. It’s infectious.

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Prepping my rap and rock class at Montclair State

This summer, I’m teaching Cultural Significance of Rap and Rock at Montclair State University. It’s my first time teaching it, and it’s also the first time anyone has taught it completely online. The course is cross-listed under music and African-American studies. Here’s a draft of my syllabus, omitting details of the grading and such. I welcome your questions, comments and criticism.

Rap and Rock

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Compound musical simples

As I’ve been gathering musical simples, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to categorize them. There are melodic simples, otherwise known as riffs, hooks, and licks. There are rhythmic simples, otherwise known as beats, claves, and rhythm necklaces. And then there are the simples that combine a beat with a melody. Alex came up with the term “compound simples” for this last group. You might argue that all melodic simples are compound, because they all combine pitches and rhythms. But unless the rhythm stands on its own independent of the pitches, I don’t consider it to be a musical simple.

Here’s the first set of compound simples I’ve transcribed. Click each score to view the interactive Noteflight version.

Queen, “We Will Rock You

We Will Rock You compound simple - notation

The simplest simple of them all. If I needed to teach someone the difference between eighth notes and quarter notes, I’d use the stomp/clap pattern.

The melody is good for introducing the concept of rests, since you have to count your way through the gap between “rock you” and the next “we will.” Continue reading

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

A history of pop production in three tracks

Earlier this spring, I subbed for Adam Bell‘s Music Technology 101 class at Montclair State. His sections were populated more exclusively with classical conservatory kids than mine, so for my one-shot lesson, I figured I’d talk them through some items from my illicit collection of multitrack stems, and give them a sense of the history of the recorded art form.

First up was “A Day In The Life” by the Beatles.

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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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