This summer, I’m teaching Cultural Significance of Rap and Rock at Montclair State University. It’s my first time teaching it, and it’s also the first time anyone has taught it completely online. The course is cross-listed under music and African-American studies. Here’s a draft of my syllabus, omitting details of the grading and such. I welcome your questions, comments and criticism.
I’m currently working with the Ed Sullivan Fellows program, an initiative of the NYU MusEDLab where we mentor up and coming rappers and producers. Many of them are working with beats they got from YouTube or SoundCloud. That’s fine for working out ideas, but to get to the next level, the Fellows need to be making their own beats. Partially this is for intellectual property reasons, and partially it’s because the quality of mp3s you get from YouTube is not so good. Here’s a collection of resources and ideas I collected for them, and that you might find useful too.
Let’s just get Vanilla Ice out of the way first. White people and hip-hop, oy.
“Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie is a testament to the power of a great bass groove. The song itself is pretty weak sauce–it emerged out of studio jam sessions and it doesn’t sound like it was ever really finished. But what a bass groove!
I’m working with Soundfly on the next installment of Theory For Producers, our ultra-futuristic online music theory course. The first unit covered the black keys of the piano and the pentatonic scales. The next one will talk about the white keys and the diatonic modes. We were gathering examples, and we needed to find a well-known pop song that uses Lydian mode. My usual go-to example for Lydian is “Possibly Maybe” by Björk. But the course already uses a Björk tune for different example, and the Soundfly guys quite reasonably wanted something a little more millennial-friendly anyway. We decided to use Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” instead.
A couple of years ago, Slate ran an analysis of this tune by Owen Pallett. It’s an okay explanation, but it doesn’t delve too deep. We thought we could do better.
I’m delighted to announce the launch of a new interactive online music course called Theory for Producers. It’s a joint effort by Soundfly and the NYU MusEDLab, representing the culmination of several years worth of design and programming. We’re super proud of it.
The course makes the abstractions of music theory concrete by presenting them in the form of actual songs you’re likely to already know. You can play and improvise along with the examples right in the web browser using the aQWERTYon, which turns your computer keyboard into an easily playable instrument. You can also bring the examples into programs like Ableton Live or Logic for further hands-on experimentation. We’ve spiced up the content with videos and animations, along with some entertaining digressions into the Stone Age and the auditory processing abilities of frogs.
If you’ve ever wondered what it is that a music producer does exactly, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is a crystal clear example. To put it in a nutshell, a producer turns this:
Here’s what happened in my life as an educator this past semester, and what I have planned for the coming semester.
Montclair State University Intro To Music Technology
I wonder how much longer “music technology” is going to exist as a subject. They don’t teach “piano technology” or “violin technology.” It makes sense to teach specific areas like audio recording or synthesis or signal theory as separate classes. But “music technology” is such a broad term as to be meaningless. The unspoken assumption is that we’re teaching “musical practices involving a computer,” but even that is both too big and too small to structure a one-semester class around. On the one hand, every kind of music involves computers now. On the other hand, to focus just on the computer part is like teaching a word processing class that’s somehow separate from learning how to write.
The newness and vagueness of the field of study gives me and my fellow music tech educators wide latitude to define our subject matter. I see my job as providing an introduction to pop production and songwriting. The tools we use for the job at Montclair are mostly GarageBand and Logic, but I don’t spend a lot of time on the mechanics of the software itself. Instead, I teach music: How do you express yourself creatively using sample libraries, or MIDI, or field recordings, or pre-existing songs? What kinds of rhythms, harmonies, timbres and structures make sense aesthetically when you’re assembling these materials in the DAW? Where do you get ideas? How do you listen to recorded music analytically? Why does Thriller sound so much better than any other album recorded in the eighties? We cover technical concepts as they arise in the natural course of producing and listening. My hope is that they’ll be more relevant and memorable that way. Continue reading
I saw this meme posted to a music education group on Facebook. The caption was something like, “Typical middle school/high school student.” I’ll leave the poster anonymous, because I’m sure they meant well.
Let me offer a translation of the translation: “I, the maker of this meme, think that kids should enjoy music with tempo variation, triple meter, no groove, and long orchestral forms. I loathe pop music and can’t imagine why a person might enjoy it, so I condescendingly presume that the kids are being suckered in by marketing and image, and that they’re too lazy and dumb to pay attention. Furthermore, not only are the kids enjoying the wrong things, their listening preferences are performing sexual violence against the arts.” That’s a lot of anger for an internet meme! Let’s unpack.
John Williams’ Star Wars score owes a lot to the heroic symphonies of his favorite nineteenth century German composers, from Beethoven through Wagner. The main title theme is as Germanic as it gets, a straightforward military march on the B-flat major scale.
Like all great pop hooks, this one is simple, but it isn’t dumb. It’s a four-bar phrase, three of which are almost identical.
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.