Musical simples: Stir It Up

The I-IV-V chord progression is one of the cornerstones of Western music, uniting everything from Mozart to Missy Elliott. Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” is as clear and concise an introduction to I-IV-V as you could ask for.

The song uses three chords: A, D, and E. They’re shown in the diagram below as turquoise, blue, and pink lines respectively.


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Musical simples: Army Of Me

Björk did the music theory world a huge favor by writing a pop hit entirely in Locrian mode, since it’s really hard to find a good real-world example of it otherwise.

You don’t see too many melodies written entirely, or even partially, in Locrian mode. It’s not a friendly scale. That mostly has to do with its fifth degree. In a typical Western scale, the fifth note is seven semitones above the root (or five semitones below, same thing.) In the key of C, that note is G. Almost all scales starting on C will have a G in them somewhere. But not Locrian. It has the note on either side of G, but not G itself.


This is confusing to the Western listener. So confusing, in fact, that it’s hard to even hear C Locrian as having a C root at all. Depending on the phrasing, it quickly starts feeling like D-flat major, or A-flat Mixolydian, or B-flat natural minor, all of which are way more stable.

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Musical Simples: Once In A Lifetime

“Once In A Lifetime” is a simple but remarkable tune based on a simple but remarkable scale: the major pentatonic.

Like its cousin the minor pentatonic scale, major pentatonic is found in just about every world musical culture. It’s also incredibly ancient. In Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, a paleontologist plays an unmistakeable major pentatonic scale on a replica of a 35,000 year old flute made from a vulture bone.

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Defining harmonic relatedness

Linear music notation is good for reading, but it doesn’t tell you everything you want to know about underlying musical structure. Notes that are close to each vertically are not necessarily the most closely related. The concept of harmonic relatedness is a complex one, but there’s an excellent tool for beginning to get a handle on it: the circle of fifths.

The chromatic circle and the circle of fifths

The left circle above shows the chromatic circle, the pitch sequence you find on the piano. The right circle shows the circle of fifths. Each note is a fifth higher or a fourth lower than its counterclockwise neighbor, and each note is also a fourth higher or a fifth lower than its clockwise neighbor.

Unlike a lot of music theory you learn in school, the circle of fifths is not some arbitrary Western European cultural convention. There’s actual science behind it. If two notes are adjacent on the circle of fifths, it means they have a lot of overtones in common. If you know what overtones are, you can skip the next few paragraphs. Otherwise, read on.

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The Great Cut-Time Shift

I’ve been transcribing a lot of beats for the MusEDLab‘s forthcoming music theory learning tool. Many of those beats require swing, and that has been giving me a headache. In trying to figure out why, I stumbled on a pretty interesting shift in America’s grooves over the past sixty or so years. To understand what I’m talking about, you first need to know what swing is. Here’s a piece of music that does not use swing:

Here’s a piece of music that uses a lot of swing:

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Prototyping Play With Your Music: Theory

I’m part of a research group at NYU called the Music Experience Design Lab. One of our projects is called Play With Your Music, a series of online interactive music courses. We’re currently developing the latest iteration, called Play With Your Music: Theory. Each module presents a “musical simple,” a short and memorable loop of melody or rhythm. Each simple is a window into one or more music theory concepts. Users can learn and play with the simples using a new interface called the aQWERTYon, which maps scales and chords to the regular computer keyboard.

aqw screengrab

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I have a whole lot of explanatory writing about rhythm in the pipeline, and thought it would be good to have a place to link the word “syncopation” to every time it arises. So here we go. Syncopation is to rhythm what dissonance is to harmony. A syncopated rhythm has accents on unexpected beats. In Western classical music, syncopation is usually temporary and eventually “resolves” to simpler rhythms. In the music of the African diaspora, syncopation is a constant, in the same way that unresolved tritones are constant in the blues.

Syncopation is not just a subjective quality of music; you can mathematically define it. Before we do, it helps to visualization a measure of 4/4 time, the amount of time it takes to count “one, two, three, four.”

The more times you have to subdivide the measure to get to a given beat, the weaker that beat is. When you accent weak beats, you get syncopation. Continue reading

Making chords from scales

A chord and a scale are two different ways of looking at the same thing: a group of pitches that sound good together. If you organize the pitches sequentially and play them one at a time, you get a scale. If you stack them up and play them simultaneously, you get chords. Here’s a guide to the most commonly-used scales in Western music and their moods.

To make a chord, you start on the first note of a scale and then move up it in thirds, meaning that you skip every alternating note. To get more notes for your chord, just keep adding thirds on top.

  • If you start on the first scale degree, add the third scale degree, and then add the fifth scale degree, you get a simple three-note chord called a triad.
  • If you add the seventh scale degree on top, you get a seventh chord.
  • Next you come to the ninth note of the scale, which is really just the second note an octave up. Adding it gives you a ninth chord.
  • Then you come to the eleventh note of the scale, which is the fourth note an octave up. Adding it gives you an eleventh chord.
  • Finally, you arrive at the thirteenth note of the scale, which is the sixth note an octave up. Adding it gives you a thirteenth chord.
  • The next third after the thirteenth is just the root of the scale. You’ve now used every possible note in your chord.

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