Why do people love music so much?

We’re attracted to music for the same reason we’re attracted to fire: it’s been a critical survival tool for us for hundreds of thousands of years.

Partying in the stone age

Music cognition is one of the first high-level brain functions to emerge in infants, coming long before walking and talking. It’s also one of the last to go in people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Music (and its twin sibling dance) are fundamental tools for soothing infants, for attracting mates, and for motivating and bonding groups ranging from kindergarten classes to infantry units. It enables us to both express our emotions and to actively modulate them, both within ourselves and among one another. Music is one of the very few known cultural universals. It’s incredibly ancient — there’s good reason to believe that it precedes language in human evolutionary history. There’s plausible speculation that it precedes bipedal walking as well. It’s no great mystery why people like it.

The real mystery is why we in modern western civilization developed the perverse idea that music is a frivolity. Steven Pinker, an otherwise very smart person who should know better, describes music as “auditory cheesecake.” Here in America, we relegate music-making to highly skilled experts, while most of us participate in it passively or not at all. We shouldn’t be surprised that depression, violence, drug abuse and suicide are epidemic in our country, even among our unprecedented levels of wealth, stability and safety. Lack of musical participation is both a cause and symptom of our unhappiness, and it demonstrates the failure of modern civilization to meet our emotional needs. In other human societies, probably in most of them throughout our deep history, music has always been a part of daily life, on a level with cooking or gossip. We would be wise to restore routine music-making to its proper place in the center of our lives.

Provoked by this Quora thread, which includes an answer by Hans Zimmer.

Toward a statement of purpose

I’m in the process of applying for a PhD in music education, and I have to come up with a statement of purpose. Here’s my most current draft.

I dream of a world where music education serves everyone, not just potential classical virtuosos, with a radically revised curriculum that erases the distinction between “school music” and “real music.” This curriculum would be accompanied by accessible, thoughtfully designed technology for meaningful individual and group music making. Educators would incubate communities of enthusiastic music makers across skill levels and styles. My goal as a PhD candidate is to work toward making this vision a reality, using three mutually informative approaches: 1) scholarship and advocacy for curriculum change; 2) the design of new technologies and user experiences; and 3) the direct teaching of future music teachers. As a prolific and influential music blogger whose writing has been included in college syllabi internationally, I have been working toward these goals for some years already; my hope is that continued work with Alex Ruthmann, John Gilbert and the rest of NYU Steinhardt’s Music Education and Music Technology faculty will greatly increase my knowledge, credibility and reach.

My primary avenue of intended research is to design learning experiences that lead to active creative music making, even at the beginner level. Specifically, I want to devise new curriculum materials centered on the digital studio. In so doing, I hope to stem the epidemic of abandonment of formal music study. Tools like Ableton Live and Apple’s Logic are invaluable for encouraging students to produce original, culturally authentic music of their own. Creating pop tracks is an exercise with a low floor and high ceilings; novices can participate meaningfully, and experts can explore large-scale structure and novel timbral combinations. This work can and should come before theory and notation; otherwise we risk alienating the majority of would-be student musicians.

A great many teachers would naturally prefer their classes to be engaging and socially relevant rather than dry and antiquated. However, most music teachers have no idea how pop music is made. This is not due to lack of technical skill, but rather to a disconnect in musical sensibilities. The study of harmonic movement at the quarter-note level is poor preparation for music that eschews harmony completely, and the study of classical form does not give much insight into the loop structures of dance and hip-hop. Formal music education generally omits songwriting, improvisation, beatmaking, synthesis, MIDI, audio engineering, critical listening to recordings, and much else of value both to casual students and would-be pop practitioners. It is especially crucial that music teachers recognize the digital studio as a new musical medium, one that erases the distinction between composition, improvisation, performance, recording and mixing. Digital audio editing makes it possible for young musicians to approach the artifacts of their culture as producers rather than consumers, and enables even complete beginners to engage with music at the intuitively approachable level of riffs, phrases, chord cycles, and drum patterns. Approaching music this way does not just give entry into pop; it also opens new inroads into the study of jazz and classical. One of my main goals as a scholar is to devise music education curriculum materials that will help teachers adapt to this new paradigm.

Montclair State student works with Logic

The design of music learning technology is as important as the design of curricula. Indeed, the education of most pop musicians takes place outside of a classroom, in large part through direct trial and error. In this context, the presets, default sounds and user interface affordances in music production software and hardware are de facto music teachers with enormous cultural reach and impact. As Dr. Adam Bell (NYU Steinhardt PhD 2013) memorably put it, “purchasers of computers are purchasers of an education.” I would like to find ways to make that educational experience a better one. My intimate expertise both with formal theory and informal pop practice makes me ideally suited to design music education technology. My Masters thesis was a prototype introductory-level rhythm learning app that uses an innovative radial visualization scheme combined with creative exercises drawn from genuine dance, pop and hip-hop repertoire. I have since been asked by engineers at iZotope and Ableton for design insights, and my blog posts on interface and experience design have a substantial and growing global following.

My thinking on the role of technology in music education has been shaped profoundly by the MusEDLab, with whom it has been my privilege to work as a researcher for the past year. The Groove Pizza, an outgrowth of my Master’s thesis, is an emblematic MusEDLab project: a circular drum machine that visualizes rhythm patterns in the arrangement of plastic mushrooms, pepperoni and sausages. Beyond the novelty of the form factor, we believe that there is deep value in circular rhythm visualization as an intuitive representation of the loops comprising all pop and dance music. Radial rhythm visualizations also have rich value outside the music classroom; for example, they can be used to teach mathematical subjects including ratios and proportional relationships, angles, polar coordinates, rotational and reflectional symmetry, and modular arithmetic. I expect that my doctoral studies will dovetail neatly with the MusEDLab’s work, and that the two will mutually inform each other. I look forward to sharing the findings of our research with advocates for change in music curricula at the university as well as the primary and secondary school levels.

My own teaching practice has been and will continue to be a proving ground for new approaches. As an adjunct at NYU and Montclair State University, I am introducing future music educators to the possibilities of technology in the classroom, as both a toolkit for teaching music fundamentals and for fostering creative expression even at beginner levels. This work has already informed my thinking about the potential for experience design to make musical practice more accessible. I eagerly look forward to using my doctoral studies to engage in evidence-based design of new music learning experiences, to advocate for the adoption of those experiences, and to help teachers bring culturally authentic music into the classroom. In so doing, I hope to widen access to the essential social vitamin of active musical practice, and to guide students toward the discovery of their own musical truths. Thank you for your consideration.


Panel on games in education

I contributed a chapter to a soon-to-be-released book, Learning, Education and Games (Volume One): Curricular and Design Considerations. I wrote about the potential value of video games  in music education. The book will be out in October 2014. Here’s the table of contents.

Learning, Education and Games (Volume One): Curricular and Design Considerations

We’re having a launch party on October 9th at the NYU Game Center, with a panel on games, featuring the contributors to the series. In addition to myself, the panelists will include Elena Bertozzi and Gabriela Richard. The book’s editor, Karen Schrier, will be moderating.

Update: here’s a drawing of Elena, Gabriela, Karen and myself by Jay Boucher.

Games in Education panel by Jay Boucher

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Repetition defines music

Musical repetition has become a repeating theme of this blog. Seems appropriate, right? This post looks at a wonderful book by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, called On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind. It investigates the reasons why we love repetition in music. You can also read long excerpts at Aeon Magazine.

Here’s the nub of Margulis’ argument:

The simple act of repetition can serve as a quasi-magical agent of musicalisation. Instead of asking: ‘What is music?’ we might have an easier time asking: ‘What do we hear as music?’ And a remarkably large part of the answer appears to be: ‘I know it when I hear it again.’

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Fractal music

Continuing my series of posts on the ways that science might explain why we like the music we like. See also my posts on the science of rock harmony, harmony generally, and Afro-Cuban rhythms.

Quora user Marc Ettlinger recently sent me a paper by Sherri Novis-Livengood, Richard White, and Patrick CM Wong entitled Fractal complexity (1/f power law) determines the stability of music perception, emotion, and memory in a repeated exposure paradigm. (The paper isn’t on the open web, but here’s a poster-length version.) The authors think that fractals explain our music preferences. Specifically, they find that note durations, pitch intervals, phrase lengths and other quantifiable musical parameters tend to follow a power law distribution. Power-law distributions have the nifty property of scale invariance, meaning that patterns in such entities resemble themselves at different scales. Music is full of fractals, and the more fractal-filled it is, the more we like it.

Mandelbrot zoom

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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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Constructivist learning and Scratch

Brennan, K. (2013). Best of Both Worlds: Issues of Structure and Agency in Computational Creation, In and Out of School. Doctoral Dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

I had the very good fortune to attend a fancy elementary school run on solid constructivist principles. In sixth grade I got to experience the “hard fun” of Sprite Logo. Similarly fortunate kids today are learning Logo’s great-grandchild, Scratch.

A Scratch block

Karen Brennan’s doctoral dissertation looks at the ways people teach and learn Scratch, and asks how the study of programming can help or hinder kids’ agency in their own learning. Agency, in this sense, refers to your ability to define and pursue learning goals, so you can play a part in your self-development, adaptation, and self-renewal. This is interesting to me, because every single argument Brennan makes about the teaching of programming applies equally well to the teaching of music.

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Against music theory

I am mercifully finished with music theory in grad school and couldn’t be happier about it. You may find this surprising. My blog is full of music theory. How could a guy who enjoys thinking about music in analytical terms as much as I do have such a wretched time in my graduate music theory classes? It wasn’t the work, I mostly breezed through that. No, it was the grinding Eurocentrism. Common-practice period classical music theory is fine and good, but in the hands of the music academy, it’s dry, tedious, and worst of all, largely useless. The strict rules of eighteenth-century European art music are distantly removed from the knowledge a person needs to do anything in the present-day music world (except, I guess, to be a professor of common-practice tonal theory.)

The title of this post is a reference to the Susan Sontag essay, “Against Interpretation.” She argues that by ignoring the subjective sensual pleasures of art and instead looking for rigorously logical theories of its inner workings, academics are missing the point. She calls scholarly interpretation “the intellect’s revenge upon art.” I’m with her. Music theory as practiced at NYU and elsewhere is the intellectual’s revenge on music. Sontag’s punchline is right on: “[I]n place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” Speak it, sister!

Susan Sontag

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