I’m teaching at Montclair State University because of Adam Bell, a fellow self-taught rock and pop musician turned academic. Adam loves to quote The Poetics of Rock by Albin Zak, and rightly so.
Zak’s major point is that rock is an art form about making records, and that the creativity in making records is only partially in the songs and the performances. A major part of the art form is the creation of sound itself. It’s the timbre and space that makes the best recordings come alive as much as any of the “musical” components. We need some better language to describe the different components that go into making a rock record, or any kind of recording.
Sound On Sound ran this highly detailed account of mixing the inescapable summer jam of 2012. It’s the most thorough explanation of how a contemporary pop song gets mixed that I’ve ever read.
I’m interested in this article not so much for the specifics of the gear and the plugins, but rather just out of sheer awe at the complexity and nuance of the track’s soundscape. My cadre of pop-oriented music academics likes to say that the creativity in recordings lies not in their melodies and the chords necessarily, but in their timbre and space. “Call Me Maybe” is an excellent case in point. Its melody and chords are fun, but not exactly groundbreaking. Yet the track leaps out of the speakers at you, demanding your attention, managing both to pound you with sonic force and intrigue you with quiet detail. Whether you want your attention grabbed in this way is a matter of taste. I happen to love the song, but even if it isn’t your cup of tea, the craft behind it bears some thinking about.
I recently began my second semester of teaching Music Technology 101 at Montclair State University. In a perfect world, I’d follow Mike Medvinsky’s lead and dive straight into creative music-making on day one. However, there are logistical reasons to save that for day two. Instead, I started the class with a listening party, a kind of electronic popular music tasting menu. I kicked things off with “Umbrella” by Rihanna.
I chose this song because of its main drum loop, which is a factory sound that comes with GarageBand called Vintage Funk Kit 03–slow it down to 90 bpm and you’ll hear it. The first several class projects use GarageBand, and I like the students to feel like they’re being empowered to create real music in the class, not just performing academic exercises.
Here’s a short excerpt from my blues tonality paper that I thought would stand alone well on its own.
How do we decide that a song is rock, or folk, or country, or country-rock, or folk-rock? Nearly all American popular and vernacular is informed by blues. We can use this fact to help delineate overlapping and vaguely defined genre boundaries. Just as we can explain genre in terms of characteristic rhythms and timbres, so too can we explain it in terms of the amount of blues harmony present. Good pop and jazz practitioners already do this implicitly. A guitarist or singer needs a sense of how much blues tonality to use in order to sound more characteristically ‘jazzy’ or ‘country’ or ‘rock.’
Let’s use the example of funk. Aficionados like me know when music is funky. But how do we know? The most obvious characteristic to point to is the beat. But you can also hear funk rhythms in disco, hip-hop, R&B, rock, and even country — Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is super funky. We can distinguish funk as a genre more specifically using its harmonic content. Funk is the most heavily blues-based genre aside from blues itself. While rock and country combine blues harmony with diatonicism, funk adds in jazz harmony instead.
DJ Earworm is the foremost practitioner of the art of the mashup. I don’t think there’s a more interesting musician in the world right now. I was on public radio with him once! His main claim to fame is the United State of Pop series, where he combines the top 25 US pop songs of a given year into a single, seamlessly coherent track. I’ve scattered several of them throughout this post. He has started doing more seasonal mashups as well; here’s one from this past summer:
It’s rare that an artist talks you through their production process in depth, so I was delighted to discover that DJ Earworm wrote an entire book about mashup production. He wrote it in 2007 and focused it on Sony Acid, so from a technical standpoint, it might not be super useful to you. But as with the KLF’s pop songwriting tutorial, the creative method he espouses transcends technology and time period, and it would be of value to any musician. Some choice passages follow.
In a recent comment, a reader posed a good question:
I’m classically trained (I do recognize a blues progression when i hear it though) so i would like to hear more of your insights into the forms, styles and methods of pop music — your observation that “most of the creativity in pop lies in the manipulation of timbre and space”, for example, was very interesting.To me the compositional technique of most pop and esp. rock/blues seems to based on noodling on a guitar and is directly the result of the tuning of the instrument and the ease with which a beginner can learn a few chords. The fact that many popular songs have been written by teams (mostly duos) of songwriters to me seems to corroborate my noodling theory — but I am very interested to learn if there are common practices, disciplines, methods, etc that have been used and transferred over time.
I have to add that I’m a little surprised to hear that pop musicians are baffled by the relevance of “academic” music theory to their music. If you wanted to teach a pop musician about the theory of his craft, what would you teach other than what is offered in any freshman theory course? (all right, you can skip the figured bass and species counterpoint).
My response: Continue reading
This semester, I had the pleasure of leading an independent study for two music students at Montclair State University. One was Matt Skouras, a grad student who wants to become the music tech teacher in a high school. First of all, let me just say that if you’re hiring for such a position in New Jersey, you should go right ahead and hire Matt, he’s an exceptionally serious and well-versed musician and technologist. But the reason for this post is a question that Matt asked me after our last meeting yesterday: What should he be studying in order to teach music tech?
Matt is an good example of a would-be music tech teacher. He’s a classical trumpet player by training who has found little opportunity to use that skill after college. Wanting to keep his life as a musician moving forward, he started learning guitar, and, in his independent study with me, has been producing adventurous laptop music with Ableton Live. Matt is a broad-minded listener, and a skilled audio engineer, but his exposure to non-classical music is limited in the way typical of people who came up through the classical pipeline. It was at Matt’s request that I put together this electronic music tasting menu.
So. How to answer Matt’s question? How does one go about learning to teach music technology? My first impulse was to say, I don’t know, but if you find out, please tell me. The answer I gave him was less flip: that the field is still taking shape, and it evolves rapidly as the technology does. Music tech is a broad and sprawling subject, and you could approach it from any number of different philosophical and technical angles. I’ll list a few of them here. Continue reading
Together with Adam Bell, I’m planning some in-depth writing about the phenomenon of pop musicians (like me) teaching in formal, classically-oriented institutional settings. This post is a loosely organized collection of relevant thoughts.
What even is “pop music?”
As far as the music academy is concerned, all music except classical or folk is “popular.” People who make bluegrass or death metal or underground hip-hop might be surprised to learn that their wildly unpopular music is referred to this way. In the past few decades, jazz has moved out of the “popular” column and into the “art” column. I myself have made a small amount of actual pop music, but for the past few years have mostly been involved in the production of artsy electronica.
How classical musicians learn: an absurd oversimplification
Classical musicians learn The Western Canon by performing and analyzing scores. The defining instrument of this music is the piano. All vocalists and instrumentalists are expected to be able to think in pianistic terms. Students are part of a pyramid-shaped hierarchical structure with long-dead composers at the top, followed by long-dead music theorists, followed by living music theorists and conductors and academics, and so on down to the individual section player. There is a contingent of living composers whose role in the hierarchy is confused at the moment. Most student composers are expected to operate within a tightly bounded tradition, whether that’s common-practice tonality or one of the various schools of modernism. The analysis of large-scale structure happens only at the very advanced level, if ever. Recordings are something of an afterthought.
Adam Bell is a fellow pop musician turned academic, and he hired me to teach at Montclair State University. He recently offered to observe my teaching; here’s what he found.
Teaching Observation of Ethan Hein – MUTC-101: Introduction to Music Technology
As the students began to trickle into the music technology lab and power up their iMacs, discussions immediately hatched about an upcoming assignment. A young woman turned on her speakers and played a work in progress made with the program Logic. “That’s cool!” responded one of her classmates as he listened intently. The piece commenced with a heavy guitar riff and shared sonic similarities with the “nu-metal” style of the early 2000s, comprised by the traditional trio of rock instruments: guitar, bass, and drumset. “Can we all listen to your song again? All the way through and more loudly?” asked Professor Hein. If there was a distinct moment when class had officially begun, this was it, and this was the first of many indications that the education occurring in this room under the guidance of Professor Hein is a continuing conversation that his students are engaged in and enjoying.
My students are currently hard at work writing pop songs, many of them for the first time. For their benefit, and for yours, I thought I’d write out a beginner’s guide to contemporary songwriting. First, some points of clarification:
- This post only talks about the instrumental portion of the song, known as the track. I don’t deal with vocal parts or lyric writing here.
- This is not a guide to writing a great pop song. It’s a guide to writing an adequate one. Your sense of what makes a song good will probably differ from mine, whereas most of us can agree on what makes a song adequate. To make a good song, you’ll probably need to pump out a bunch of bad ones first to get the hang of the process.
- This is not a guide to writing a hit pop song. I have no idea how to do that. If you’re aiming for the charts, I refer you to the wise words of the KLF.
- You’ll notice that I seem to be talking a lot here about production, and that I never mention actual writing. This is because in 2014, songwriting and production are the same creative act. There is no such thing as a “demo” anymore. The world expects your song to sound finished. Also, most of the creativity in contemporary pop styles lies in rhythm, timbre and arrangement. Complex chord progressions and intricate melodies are neither necessary nor even desirable. It’s all in the beats and grooves.
To make a track, you’ll need a digital audio workstation (DAW) and a loop library. I’ll be using GarageBand, but you can use the same methods in Ableton Live, Logic, Reason, Pro Tools, etc. I produced this track for illustration purposes, and will be referring to it throughout the post: