Noteflight as a DAW

The good people at Noteflight have started doing weekly challenges. I love constraint-based music prompts, like the ones in the Disquiet Junto, so I thought I would try this one: compose a piece of music using only four notes.

Noteflight weekly challenge

The music side of this wasn’t hard. My material tends not to use that many pitches anyway. If you really want to challenge me, tell me I can’t use any rhythmic subdivisions finer than a quarter note. Before you listen to my piece, though, let’s talk about this word, “compose.” When you write using notation, the presumption is that you’re creating a set of instructions for a human performer. However, actually getting your composition performed is a challenge, unless you have a band or ensemble at your disposal. I work in two music schools, and I would have a hard time making it happen. (When I have had my music performed, the musicians either used a prose score, learned by ear from a recording, or just improvised.) Noteflight’s target audience of kids in school are vanishingly unlikely to ever hear their work performed, or at least, performed well. Matt Mclean formed the Young Composers and Improvisers Workshop to address this problem, and he’s doing amazing work, but most Noteflight compositions will only ever exist within the computer.

Given this fact, I wanted to create a piece of music that would actually sound good when played back within Noteflight. This constraint turned out to be a significantly greater challenge than using four notes. I started with the Recycled Percussion instrument, and chose the notes B, E, F, and G, because they produce the coolest sounds. Then I layered in other sounds, chosen because they sound reasonably good. Here’s what I came up with: Continue reading

Music education at the grownups’ table

I was asked by Alison Armstrong to comment on this Time magazine op-ed by Todd Stoll, the vice president of education at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Before I do, let me give some context: Todd Stoll is a friend and colleague of Wynton Marsalis, and he shares some of Wynton’s beliefs about music.

Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis advocates for  jazz as “America’s classical music,” the highest achievement of our culture, and the sonic embodiment of our best democratic ideals. The man himself is a brilliant practitioner of the art form. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing him play live several times, and he’s always a riveting improvisor. However, Wynton’s definition of the word “jazz” is a narrow one. He thinks that jazz history ended in about 1965, right before Herbie Hancock traded in his grand piano for a Fender Rhodes. All the developments after that–the introduction of funk, rock, pop, electronic music, and hip-hop– have bastardizations of the music.

Wynton Marsalis’ public stature has given his philosophy enormous weight. His effect on jazz culture has thus been profound, but problematic. On the one hand, he’s been a key force in getting jazz the institutional recognition that it was denied for too many years. On the other hand, the form of jazz that Wynton advocates for is a museum piece, a time capsule of the middle part of the twentieth century. When jazz gained the legitimacy of “classical music,” it also got burdened with classical music’s stuffiness, pedantry, and disconnection from the broader culture. As the more innovative jazz artists try to keep pace with the rest of the culture, they can find themselves more hindered by Wynton than helped.

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Rhythmic simples

In the service of teaching theory using real music, I’ve been gathering musical simples: little phrases and loops that are small enough to be easily learned, and substantial enough to have expressive value. See some representative melodic simples, more melodic simples, and compound simples. This post showcases some representative rhythmic simples, more commonly known as beats, grooves, or drum patterns. They’re listed in increasing order of syncopation, also known as hipness. Click each image to hear the interactive Noteflight score.

Boots N Cats

Boots n Cats rhythmic simple

The basis of “Billie Jean” and many other great beats. Continue reading

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

Hip-hop transcriptions

There’s a great Tumblr called Hip-Hop Transcriptions. It consists solely meticulous transcriptions of classic beats and rhymes by Charlie Hely. The mere fact of these transcriptions is fairly wonderful, but even better is the way that Hely lays out his charts. He uses graph paper, with each box representing a sixteenth note. This makes the complex rhythms a lot more readable than they normally would be, essentially turning standard notation into a time-unit box system. Music should always be typeset that way. Below are my favorite transcriptions.

MC Shan in “The Bridge” and KRS-One’s diss track response in “South Bronx” by Boogie Down Productions.

MC Shan and KRS-One -- “The Bridge”

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Visualizing music

Update: check out my masters thesis, a radial drum machine. Specifically, see the section on visualizing rhythm. See also a more scholarly review of the literature on visualization and music education. And here’s a post on the value of video games in music education.

Computer-based music production and composition involves the eyes as much as the ears. The representations in audio editors like Pro Tools and Ableton Live are purely informational, waveforms and grids and linear graphs. Some visualization systems are purely decorative, like the psychedelic semi-random graphics produced by iTunes. Some systems lie in between. I see rich potential in these graphical systems for better understanding of how music works, and for new compositional methods. Here’s a sampling of the most interesting music visualization systems I’ve come across.

Music notation

Western music notation is a venerable method of visualizing music. It’s a very neat and compact system, unambiguous and digital, and not too difficult to learn. Programs like Sibelius can effortlessly translate notation to and from MIDI data, too.

"Chameleon" by Herbie Hancock

But western notation has some limitations, especially for contemporary music. It doesn’t handle microtones well. It has limited ability to convey performative nuance — after a hundred years of jazz, there’s no good way to notate swing other than to just write the word “swing” at the top of the score. The key signature system works fine for major keys, but is less helpful for minor keys and modal music and is pretty much worthless for the blues.

Here’s a suggestion for how notation could improve in the future. It’s a visualization by Jon Snydal of John Coltrane’s solo in Miles Davis’ “All Blues”  (I edited it a little to be easier on the eyes.)

John Coltrane's solo on "All Blues"

Snydal’s visualization is more analog than digital — it shows the exact nuances of Coltrane’s performance, with subtle shadings of pitch, timing and dynamics.

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In the sequencer, the notation is the performance

In my laptop band Revival Revival, we use Reason for all of our instrumental sounds and sample playback. The newest version has a handy color-coding feature in the sequencer, which makes it easy for me to be able to keep track of which part of which song happens in which order. Having all the tunes under my eyes all the time has revealed new wisdom to my ears about symmetry and asymmetry, and isn’t that what music is all about?

The color-coding system started as a simple information-management technique, but it ended up improving my ears. Spending so much time looking at these colorfully abstracted representations of so many songs, I couldn’t help but notice some patterns. I’ve done enough tracks now that I can lay something out in the sequencer and know that it’ll basically work without having to listen to it first. Classical and jazz musicians get to the point where by glancing over a score, they can hear it quite clearly in the mind’s ear. The Reason sequencer has a much shorter path into the brain’s deep sense-data processing centers because it’s dynamic, animated, and responsive to my thoughts in real time.

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