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

Rhythm Necklace

I have a thing for circular rhythm visualizations. So I was naturally pretty excited to learn that Meara O’Reilly and Sam Tarakajian were making an app inspired by the circular drum pattern analyses of Godfried Toussaint, who helped me understand mathematically why son clave is so awesome. The app is called Rhythm Necklace, and I got to beta test it for a few weeks before it came out. As you can see from the screencaps below, it is super futuristic.

Rhythm Necklace

The app is delightful by itself, but it really gets to be miraculous when you use it as a wireless MIDI controller for Ableton. Here’s some music I’ve made that way.

I was expecting to use this thing as a way to sequence drums. Instead, its real value turns out to be that it’s a way to perform melodies in real time. Continue reading

Björk live at Kings Theater

While my son’s birth has been the most joyous event of my life, he has put a serious damper on my and Anna’s concert-going. I tell my musician friends: I’ll happily come to your gig, as long as it’s on a Sunday afternoon with walking distance of my apartment. Well, today, Björk obliged us by doing exactly that.

Björk at Kings Theater

Anna and I have been to two of her shows previously, and both were delightful experiences, but they were also in support of her two weakest albums (Volta and Biophilia.) This time, however, Björk is touring with Vulnicura, a beautiful set of songs, her best work since Medúlla and a welcome return to the sonic palette of Homogenic. Here’s my favorite track:

Much as I love it, I thought it would be improved by adding samples of Marvin Gaye, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the bassist on Paul Simon’s Graceland.

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Composing for controllerism

My first set of attempts at controllerism used samples of the Beatles and Michael Jackson. For the next round, I thought it would be good to try to create something completely from scratch. So this is my first piece of music created specifically with controllerism in mind.

The APC40 has forty trigger pads. You can use more than forty loops, but it’s a pain. I created eight loops that fit well together, and then made four additional variations of each one. That gave me a set of loops that fit tidily onto the APC40 grid. The instruments are 808 drum machine, latin percussion, wood blocks, blown tube, synth bass, bells, arpeggiated synth and an ambient pad.

40 loops

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Remix as compositional critique

This month I’ve been teaching music production and composition as part of NYU’s IMPACT program. A participant named Michelle asked me to critique some of her original compositions. I immediately said yes, and then immediately wondered how I was actually going to do it. I always want to evaluate music on its own terms, and to do that, I need to know what the terms are. I barely know Michelle. I’ve heard her play a little classical piano and know that she’s quite good, but beyond that, I don’t know her musical culture or intentions or style. Furthermore, she’s from China, and her English is limited.

I asked Michelle to email me audio files, and also MIDI files if she had them. Then I had an epiphany: I could just remix her MIDIs, and give my critique totally non-verbally.

Remix as compositional critique

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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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What is groove?

You hear musicians talk all the time about groove. You might wonder what they mean by that. A lot of musicians couldn’t explain exactly, beyond “the thing that makes music sound good.” The etymology of the term comes from vinyl records. Musicians ride the groove the way a phonograph needle physically rides the groove in the vinyl.

The original groove

But what is groove, exactly? It isn’t just a matter of everyone playing with accurate rhythm. When a classical musician executes a passage flawlessly, you don’t usually talk about their groove. Meanwhile, it’s possible for loosely executed music to have a groove to it. Most of my musician friends talk about groove as a feeling, a vibe, an ineffable emotional quality, and they’re right. But groove is something tangible, too, and even quantifiable.

Using digital audio production software, you can learn to understand the most mystical aspects of music in concrete terms. I’ve written previously about how electronic music quantifies the elusive concept of swing. Music software can similarly help you understand the even more elusive concept of groove. In music software, “groove” means something specific and technical: the degree to which a rhythm deviates from the straight metronomic grid. Continue reading

Teaching audio and MIDI editing in the MOOC

This is the fifth in a series of posts documenting the development of Play With Your Music, a music production MOOC jointly presented by P2PU, NYU and MIT. See also the first, second, third and fourth posts.

Soundation uses the same basic interface paradigm as other audio recording and editing programs like Pro Tools and Logic. Your song consists of a list of tracks, each of which can contain a particular sound. The tracks all play back at the same time, so you can use them to blend together sounds as you see fit. You can either record your own sounds, or use the loops included in Soundation, or both. The image below shows six tracks. The first two contain loops of audio; the other four contain MIDI, which I’ll explain later in the post.

Audio and MIDI tracks in Soundation

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The radial drum machine: background and inspiration

Update: I now have a functioning prototype of my app. If you’d like to try it, get in touch.

My NYU masters thesis is a drum programming tutorial system for beginner musicians. It uses a novel circular interface for displaying the drum patterns. This presentation explains the project’s goals, motivations and scholarly background.

If you prefer, see it on Slideshare.

User Interface Design for Music Learning Software

Computers have revolutionized the composition, production and recording of music. However, they have not yet revolutionized music education. While a great deal of educational software exists, it mostly follows traditional teaching paradigms, offering ear training, flash cards and the like. Meanwhile, nearly all popular music is produced in part or in whole with software, yet electronic music producers typically have little to no formal training with their tools. Somewhere between the ad-hoc learning methods of pop and dance producers and traditional music pedagogy lies a rich untapped vein of potential.

This paper will explore the problem of how software can best be designed to help novice musicians access their own musical imagination with a minimum of frustration. I will examine a variety of design paradigms and case studies. I will hope to discover software interface designs that present music in a visually intuitive way, that are discoverable, and that promote flow.

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