I have a whole lot of explanatory writing about rhythm in the pipeline, and thought it would be good to have a place to link the word “syncopation” to every time it arises. So here we go. Syncopation is to rhythm what dissonance is to harmony. A syncopated rhythm has accents on unexpected beats. In Western classical music, syncopation is usually temporary and eventually “resolves” to simpler rhythms. In the music of the African diaspora, syncopation is a constant, in the same way that unresolved tritones are constant in the blues.

Syncopation is not just a subjective quality of music; you can mathematically define it. Before we do, it helps to visualization a measure of 4/4 time, the amount of time it takes to count “one, two, three, four.”

Beat subdivisions

The more times you have to subdivide the measure to get to a given beat, the weaker that beat is. When you accent weak beats, you get syncopation. Continue reading

What’s missing from music theory class?

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

Blues tonality


The blues is a foundational element of America’s vernacular and art music. It is commonly described as a combination of African rhythms and European harmonies. This characterization is inaccurate. Blues follows harmonic conventions that are quite different from those of European common-practice tonality. Blues does not fit into major or minor tonality, and it makes heavy use of harmonic intervals considered by tonal theory to be dissonant. But blues listeners do not experienced the music as dissonant; rather, they hear an alternative system of consonance. In order to make sense of this system, we need to understand blues as belonging to its own tonality, distinct from major, minor and modal scales. The author argues that blues tonality should be taught as part of the basic music theory curriculum.
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Why do suburban white kids like gangsta rap?

A followup post to White People And Hip-Hop

First, a little on my background. I’m not from the suburbs, I’m from New York City. My experience growing up was an odd blend of the city and the suburbs. I lived in a posh little corner of an otherwise pretty tough neighborhood. I attended a very fancy school, but traveled there by public bus and/or subway through other tough neighborhoods. My social circle included very suburban white kids and very urban nonwhite kids. As a younger kid, I loved hip-hop. As a teenager, I succumbed to rockism, probably due to social pressure from our racist society, and pretended not to like hip-hop anymore. As an adult, I’m more centered and confident, and have resumed loving it. So I think I have some pretty good insight into why white kids in the suburbs like hip-hop, especially of the gangsta variety. It boils down to the fact that the suburbs are lame, and hip-hop is cool.

Hip-hop is cool in general. So why is gangsta rap cooler than Will Smith or Drake? The big thing is that gangsta rap tends to be musically stronger and more creative. It has grittier beats, denser and more ambitious rhymes, more pointed political and social commentary, and darker humor. It’s also dramatically more offensive, but that’s part of the allure. If you’re a teenager wanting to annoy your parents, there’s no better method than to blast the Wu-Tang Clan, especially if your dad is a mountain climber who plays the electric guitar. I myself have been known to climb mountains and play the electric guitar, and the fact that GZA is directing his ire specifically at me makes listening to the Wu a complex experience. But listen I do, because why would I want to deprive myself of the music?

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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.

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The backbeat: a literature review

This is part of a research project I’m doing for my Psychology of Music class at NYU, thus the formal tone.

Update: here’s the finished product.

The backbeat is a ubiquitous, almost defining feature of American popular and vernacular music. Clapping or snapping on the backbeats is generally considered by musicians to be more correct than doing so on the strong beats. However, audiences have a tendency to clap or snap on the wrong beats, to the irritation of the performers.

Friends don't let friends clap on one and three

On October 6th, 1993, the blues musician Taj Mahal gave a solo concert at the Modernes Club in Bremen, Germany. The concert was later released as the album An Evening of Acoustic Music. On the recording, Taj Mahal begins to play “Blues With A Feeling,” and the audience enthusiastically claps along. However, they do so on beats one and three, not two and four like they are supposed to. Taj immediately stops playing and says, “Wait, wait, wait. Wait wait. This is schvartze [black] music… zwei and fier, one TWO three FOUR, okay?” He resumes the song, and the audience continues to clap on the wrong beats. So he stops again. “No, no, no, no. Everybody’s like, ONE, two, THREE, no no no. Classical music, yes. Mozart, Chopin, okay? Tchaikovsky, right? Vladimir Horowitz. ONE two THREE. But schvartze music, one TWO three FOUR, okay?” He starts yet again, and finally the audience claps along correctly. To reinforce their rhythm, Taj Mahal continues to count “one TWO three FOUR” at various points during the song.

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There’s joy in repetition

Susan McClary “Rap, Minimalism and Structures of Time in Late Twentieth-Century Culture.” in Audio Culture, Daniel Warner, ed, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004, pp 289 – 298.

This essay is the best piece of music writing I’ve read in quite a while. McClary articulates my personal ideology of music perfectly. Also, she quotes Prince!

Here are some long excerpts.

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I recently saw Under African Skies, the documentary about Paul Simon’s Graceland, and it was spellbinding. The music is so beautiful, the politics are so agonizing.

I watched it with my mom and sister, which is appropriate since Graceland was in heavy rotation through my childhood. Mom isn’t a big pop scholar and knew next to nothing about the album beyond the fact that she likes it. My sister had some dim awareness of the politics, but not much more. I’ve studied the music closely but only had a vague grasp of the human story. So the film was quite a revelation for all of us, a whole new dimension to an artifact that’s both utterly familiar and mysterious. I think it hits the art houses in a few weeks. Do not miss it.

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Who cares if you listen?

I pride myself on having big ears, on listening to everything I can and trying to find the beauty in it. I’ve learned to enjoy some aspect of just about every kind of music. Every kind except one: high modernist twentieth century classical music. I just can not deal with it, at all. But I’m in music school now, and am having to confront modernism, listen to it, write about it, and produce it. So I’m trying to figure out whether I’m missing something, or whether the whole musical academic elite is out of its collective mind. Spoiler alert: I lean toward the latter.

The title of this post refers to an infamous essay by Milton Babbitt. He says that modern classical will never have an audience beyond its practitioners, and that it shouldn’t even bother to try.

I am concerned with stating an attitude towards the indisputable facts of the status and condition of the composer of what we will, for the moment, designate as “serious,” “advanced,” contemporary music.

I do not like the terms “serious” and “advanced” when self-applied by classical composers.

The general public is largely unaware of and uninterested in [the contemporary composer’s] music. The majority of performers shun it and resent it. Consequently, the music is little performed, and then primarily at poorly attended concerts before an audience consisting in the main of fellow ‘professionals’. At best, the music would appear to be for, of, and by specialists.

My question is this. Are we all missing out on something important because we’re unwilling to do the work? Or are we rightly shunning the music because it’s unbearable?

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