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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Music theory for the perplexed guitarist

I hear it all the time from my friends in the rock world, and see it all the time in internet discussions: guitarists are struggling with their music theory, or they’ve given up on it completely. This is not their fault! Music theory is taught pretty badly for the most part, and it rarely addresses the music that rock musicians are playing.

I’ve been working on rectifying that situation. If you play guitar, or any other rock-adjacent instrument, I hope that these posts are useful to you:
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Scale necklaces and symmetry

While I was doing some examination of rhythm necklaces and scale necklaces, I noticed a symmetry among the major scale modes: Lydian mode and Locrian mode are mirror images of each other, both on the chromatic circle and the circle of fifths. Here’s Lydian above and Locrian below:

C Lydian mode

C Locrian mode

Does this geometric relationship mean anything musically? Turns out that it does.

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Beats and scales

I don’t know a lot about Afro-Caribbean rhythms, beyond the fact that they cause me intense joy whenever I hear them. My formal music education has focused almost exclusively on harmony, and I’ve had to learn about rhythm mostly on my own. That’s why it was so exciting for me to discover the work of Godfried Toussaint. He introduced me to a startlingly useful pedagogical tool: the rhythm necklace.

Rhythm necklaces with their shadows

A rhythm necklace is a circular notation for rhythm. Let’s say your rhythm is in 12/8 time. That means that each cycle of the rhythm has twelve slots where sounds can go, and each slot is an eighth note long (which is not very long.) A 12/8 rhythm necklace is like a circular ice cube tray that holds twelve ice cubes.

What’s so great about writing rhythms this way? Rhythms are relationships between events that are non-adjacent in time. When you write your rhythms from left to right, as is conventional, it’s hard to make out the relationships. On the circle, the symmetries and patterns jump right out at you. I recommend the Toussaint-inspired Rhythm Necklace app to get these concepts under your fingers and into your ears.

You can’t look into Afro-Caribbean beats without coming across a bell pattern called Bembé, also known as “the standard pattern” or the “short bell pattern.” Here’s how it sounds:

I was probably first exposed to Bembé by Santana’s “Incident at Neshabur.”

Bembé’s meter is ambivalent. You can represent it as duple (4/4) or triple (6/8 or 12/8). Practitioners urge you not to think of the bell pattern as being in one meter or the other. Instead, you’re supposed to hold both of them in your head at the same time. The ambiguity is the point.

Two representations of Bembé

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How the heck do you know what scale you’re supposed to use for lead guitar?

There’s a broad diversity of harmonic practices being used out there in the world of blues-based popular music, rock in particular. While a given song may not use a lot of scales and chords, the relationships between those scales and chords is rarely simple or obvious. You really just need to learn all of them. It takes a lot of practice. Fortunately, there is a single scale that works in every situation, which I’ll get to at the end of this post.

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