Recording Peter Gabriel’s Security

This post was originally written for the Play With Your Music blog.

Peter Gabriel’s songwriting and recording process in the early 1980s was unusual in its technological sophistication, playfulness and reliance on improvisation. But now that the technology is a lot cheaper and more accessible, most pop, dance and hip-hop music is produced using similar methods.

Peter Gabriel's Security

The South Bank Show’s long 1983 documentary on the making of Peter Gabriel’s fourth solo album Security follows the production of the album from its earliest conception to its release and critical reception, giving fascinating insight into the creative process along the way.

Continue reading

Everyone can and should be making music

I have a strongly held belief about musical talent: there is no such thing. Every neurotypical human is born with the ability to learn music, the same way the vast majority of us are born with the ability to learn to walk and talk. We still have to do the learning, though; otherwise the capacity doesn’t develop itself. When we talk about “musical talent,” we’re really talking about the means, motive and opportunity to activate innate musicality. When we talk about “non-musicians,” we’re rarely talking about the Oliver Sacks cases with congenital amusia; usually we mean people who for whatever reason never had the chance to develop musically.

The NYU Chorale

So what if almost everyone is a potential musician? Why should you care? Because participation in music, particularly in groups, is an essential emotional vitamin. We here in America are sorely deficient in this vitamin, and it shows in our stunted emotional growth. Steve Dillon calls music a “powerful weapon against depression.” We need to be nurturing musicality wherever it occurs as a matter of public health.

Continue reading

The Red Hot Chili Peppers unplugged

In case you don’t pay attention to such things, there’s a miniature scandal swirling around the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ performance at the Super Bowl halftime show.

Close examination of the footage reveals that the bass and guitar weren’t plugged in.

Red Hot Chili Peppers unplugged

Flea, the Peppers’ bassist, came forward and admitted that they used a pre-recorded track, and offered various excuses and explanations. I’m surprised to find myself writing about this, since if there’s anything I care about less than the Super Bowl, it’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But I was struck by Flea’s prevaricating; the whole thing points up the strangeness of live music in the age of technology.

Continue reading

Analyzing the musical structure of “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel

We’re asking participants in Play With Your Music to create musical structure graphs of their favorite songs. These are diagrams showing the different sections of the song and where its component sounds enter and exit. In order to create these graphs, you have to listen to the song deeply and analytically, probably many times. It’s excellent ear training for the aspiring producer or songwriter. This post will talk you through a structure graph of “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel. Co-produced by Peter and Daniel Lanois, this is an emblematic eighties pop tune.

Here are the video versions of my analysis:

Below is the musical structure graph. Click the image below to see it bigger, and with popup comments.

"Sledgehammer" structure graph

Here’s the perceived space graph:

"Sledgehammer" perceived space

And here’s a chart of the chord progression.

Continue reading

Teaching mixing in a MOOC

This is the third 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 and second posts.

So, you’ve learned how to listen closely and analytically. The next step is to get your hands on some multitrack stems and do mixes of your own. Participants in PWYM do a “convergent mix” — you’re given a set of separated instrumental and vocal tracks, and you need to mix them so they match the given finished product. PWYM folks work with stems of “Air Traffic Control” by Clara Berry, using our cool in-browser mixing board. The beauty of the browser mixer is that the fader settings get automatically inserted into the URL, so once you’re done, anyone else can hear your mix by opening that URL in their own browser.

Mixing desk Continue reading

Miley vs Sinéad

I don’t know whether you’ve been following the feud between Miley Cyrus and Sinéad O’Connor, and if you haven’t, congratulations on using your free time more constructively than I use mine. But so anyway, the most infamous pop star of the moment (Miley) publically cited a well-respected elder stateswoman (Sinéad) as an influence. In response, Sinéad wrote Miley an open letter about how she should stop letting her unscrupulous management treat her like a prostitute. Miley sassed back on Twitter, Sinéad wrote an angrier open letter in response, the whole internet got involved, and around and around the whole thing continues to go.

Then this wiseacre did a mashup of Miley’s current hit, “Wrecking Ball,” with Sinéad’s signature tune, a cover of “Nothing Compares 2U” by Prince.

The thing about this is that I know it was meant as a joke, but it works extremely well musically, almost better than either of the originals. Miley wasn’t kidding when she cited Sinéad as an influence. Their sexual politics may differ, but their singing styles are uncannily similar, right down to the vocal fry. Sometimes a good mashup illuminates more than all the prose ever will.

The Nirvana effect

I’m currently working on a book chapter about the use of video games in music education. While doing my research, I came across a paper by Kylie Peppler, Michael Downton, Eric Lindsay, and Kenneth Hay, “The Nirvana Effect: Tapping Video Games to Mediate Music Learning and Interest.” It’s a study of the effectiveness of Rock Band in teaching traditional music skills. The most interesting part of the paper comes in its enthusiastic endorsement of Rock Band’s notation system.

Rock Band 3 notation

The authors think that Rock Band and games like it do indeed have significant educational value, that there’s a “Nirvana effect” analogous to the so-called Mozart effect:

We argue that rhythmic videogames like Rock Band bear a good deal of resemblance to the ‘real thing’ and may even be more well-suited for encouraging novices to practice difficult passages, as well as learn musical material that is challenging to comprehend using more traditional means of instruction.

Continue reading

Rockism

As a kid, I liked everything: rock, hip-hop, classical, jazz, pop, dance, country, whatever. In my teenage years, however, I succumbed to the pressures of a racist society and turned into a devout rockist. I dutifully renounced pop, disco, techno, even hip-hop, anything that was “inauthentic.” I swallowed the rockist dogma that grants legitimacy to Delta blues and classic Motown but not contemporary R&B; to bluegrass but not commercial country; to acoustic jazz but not fusion. I felt earnestly moved by the rockist national anthem:

It took me until my twenties to shake this atavistic silliness and re-embrace the whole universe of Afrocentric music not made by white guys with guitars. Wherever I go, however, I continue to encounter resistance to such musical practices as sampling, synths, rapping, dancing and fun. This resistance is epidemic among my friends, fellow musicians and students, and the music world at large. Consider this post my contribution to the fight against rockism.

Continue reading

Visualizing song structures

How do you write out a pop, rock or dance song? There’s no single standard method. Some musicians use standard western notation. Some do everything by ear. Many of us use methods that fall somewhere in between. One such compromise system in widespread use is the lead sheet:

Other systems for song documentation include chord charts and the Nashville numbering system. But plenty of musicians are unfamiliar with these systems, and may not have any method for writing down songs at all. This leads to a lot of confusion during rehearsals and recording sessions. Any given section of a rock or pop song is likely to be simple, a few chords in a particular pattern, but the difficulty comes in figuring out and remembering the bigger structure: whether the guitar solo comes after the second verse or the chorus, how many bars long the bridge is, what beat the ending falls on.

Jazz is easier to play than rock in a certain sense, because its song forms are more standardized. There are a few very widely used templates: the head-solos-head format, the thirty-two bar AABA standard, blues, rhythm changes and so on. Because of this formal standardization, you can put a bunch of jazz musicians who have never even met each other on a stage together with zero rehearsal, and they’ll be able to bang some tunes out. Rock and pop are a lot more idiosyncratic, so even though they tend to be technically simpler than jazz, getting the different parts sorted out can take a lot more work.

The world of computer recording and sequencing can be a big help with visualizing a song’s structure. Once a tune is in a digital audio editor, it’s automatically “notated” in terms of chunks of audio against a grid of bars and beats. It suddenly becomes easy to visualize song structures, even if you have no idea how music notation works. You can use markers, color-coding and named memory locations to create an interactive road map of the track. Here’s a recent composition I did for grad school using Ableton Live:

Learning to visualize a song on the computer screen doesn’t just make your life easier when you’re writing or recording. By looking at song structures, you can learn a lot about how music is put together, about the symmetries and asymmetries, the repetition and variation and recursion. You can learn these things through very attentive listening too, but getting your eyes involved really helps to drive the ideas home.

Continue reading