Musical Simples: Once In A Lifetime

“Once In A Lifetime” is a simple but remarkable tune based on a simple but remarkable scale: the major pentatonic.

Like its cousin the minor pentatonic scale, major pentatonic is found in just about every world musical culture. It’s also incredibly ancient. In Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, a paleontologist plays an unmistakeable major pentatonic scale on a replica of a 35,000 year old flute made from a vulture bone.

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Listening, hearing, and the infinite loop

I was reading this super valuable post by Rob Walker listing different strategies for how to pay attention. Deep attention makes the difference between looking at something and actually seeing it. Rob is talking mostly to visual artists and designers, but his methods work well for musicians too–seeing is to looking as hearing is to listening. Paying attention is the most basic skill an artist needs in any medium, and one of the most basic skills a person needs in life. Not only does artistic practice require attention, but it also helps you learn it. When you look critically at a painting or listen critically to a song, you’re disciplining your attentional system.

Being able to focus deeply has its obvious practical benefits, but it’s also an invaluable tool for making your emotional life more manageable. It’s significant to me that the image below appears in two different Wikipedia articles: attention and flow.

Attention, and flow

When people ask why we should study the arts, the attention argument is the best answer. The variety of deep attention known as mindfulness is a powerful antidepressant. Teaching the arts isn’t just about cultural preservation and transmission; it’s also a cost-effective public health measure. Music isn’t the only method for practicing your attention, but it’s one of the best. This post will address my preferred method for focusing my musical attention: the infinite loop.

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How to write a pop song

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

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Some contemporary classical music that I actually like

I have been very vocal in my criticism of contemporary classical music on this blog. But there is some new music out there that I do like, very much. Most of it falls under the minimalist category, made by Steve Reich and his followers. The coolest new thing I’ve heard in this idiom is “Timber” by Michael Gordon.

The piece is played by six people on wooden planks, using mallets and fingertips. I thought at first it was a conceptual thing — “look what we can do with ordinary lumber” — but in fact this is an actual instrument called a simantra, used by Eastern Orthodox monks and, later, Iannis Xenakis. You can take a look at part of the score.

A performance of Michael Gordon's

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Repetition defines music

Musical repetition has become a repeating theme of this blog. Seems appropriate, right? This post looks at a wonderful book by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, called On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind. It investigates the reasons why we love repetition in music. You can also read long excerpts at Aeon Magazine.

Here’s the nub of Margulis’ argument:

The simple act of repetition can serve as a quasi-magical agent of musicalisation. Instead of asking: ‘What is music?’ we might have an easier time asking: ‘What do we hear as music?’ And a remarkably large part of the answer appears to be: ‘I know it when I hear it again.’

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Designing a music production MOOC

In my capacity as a research assistant to Alex Ruthmann, I’ve been getting to work on a bunch of cool projects. The first one to come to fruition is a MOOC (massively open online course) about music production. It’s called Play With Your Music, and it starts November 1st. The project is spearheaded by the idealistic edupunks at Peer to Peer University, with input from the MIT Media Lab. It’s free and open to anyone with an internet connection.

Play With Your Music

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Why isn’t repetitive music boring to listen to?

A Quora user asks why we don’t get bored when listening to repetitive music. This is related to the equally interesting question of why we can play repetitive music without getting bored. Why is there so much joy in repetition?

"Chameleon" by Herbie Hancock

Humans are pattern recognizers. You’d think that once you’d learned the pattern of a repetitive piece of music, it would quickly get boring, and then annoying. Sometimes, that is in fact what happens. I don’t enjoy Philip Glass’ music; it makes me feel like I’m stuck in the mind of someone with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. But I adore James Brown and Fela Kuti, and my iTunes library is stuffed with loop-based hip-hop and electronica. So what’s going on? Why do I find Philip Glass annoying, but not James Brown?

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