Rhythmic simples

In the service of teaching theory using real music, I’ve been gathering musical simples: little phrases and loops that are small enough to be easily learned, and substantial enough to have expressive value. See some representative melodic simples, more melodic simples, and compound simples. This post showcases some representative rhythmic simples, more commonly known as beats, grooves, or drum patterns. They’re listed in increasing order of syncopation, also known as hipness. Click each image to hear the interactive Noteflight score.

Boots N Cats

Boots n Cats rhythmic simple

The basis of “Billie Jean” and many other great beats. Continue reading


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.”

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

Compound musical simples

As I’ve been gathering musical simples, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to categorize them. There are melodic simples, otherwise known as riffs, hooks, and licks. There are rhythmic simples, otherwise known as beats, claves, and rhythm necklaces. And then there are the simples that combine a beat with a melody. Alex came up with the term “compound simples” for this last group. You might argue that all melodic simples are compound, because they all combine pitches and rhythms. But unless the rhythm stands on its own independent of the pitches, I don’t consider it to be a musical simple.

Here’s the first set of compound simples I’ve transcribed. Click each score to view the interactive Noteflight version.

Queen, “We Will Rock You

We Will Rock You compound simple - notation

The simplest simple of them all. If I needed to teach someone the difference between eighth notes and quarter notes, I’d use the stomp/clap pattern.

The melody is good for introducing the concept of rests, since you have to count your way through the gap between “rock you” and the next “we will.” Continue reading

Musical simples

The NYU Music Experience Design Lab is putting together a new online music theory resource, and I’m writing a lot of the materials. We want to keep everything grounded in real-life musical practice. To that end, we’ve been gathering musical simples: phrases, riffs, and earworms that beginners can learn easily. My criteria for a good musical simple: It should be a piece of music that can stand on its own, and that makes a satisfying loop. It should be catchy, attractive, and (ideally) already familiar. And it should be between one and four measures long. We’re developing a web-based interface that will make it easy to learn a musical simple, play it back, and mutate and adapt it. Each theory concept will come with at least one simple to give it authentic cultural context.

It’s an axiom of constructivism that you learn best when you’re enjoying yourself. This might seem obvious, but it represents a break with music education orthodoxy. Music students too often have to do a lot of tedious drilling before they get to try some real music. Even then, those tunes tend to be nursery rhymes or dorky educational pieces. It makes a certain amount of sense to structure lessons this way: real music is complicated and usually well out of reach of beginners. Unfortunately, too many beginners give up before they make it past the nursery rhyme stage.

Beginner-level music teaching nearly always starts at the atomic level: single pitches, note values, time signatures. It seems logical that the smallest units of music would be the simplest ones. But this is not actually true. Beginners conceive of music at a more intermediate level of abstraction: fragments of tunes, moments of tension and resolution, loops and grooves. Self-taught and informally taught musicians do most of their learning at this level. A three-chord song by Bob Marley or Neil Young is a better entry point than the single notes comprising those three chords and the relationship between them.

Here’s a diagram from my masters thesis, adapted from a paper by Jeanne Bamberger:

Moving up and down the structural ladder

For more discussion of these ideas, see also Bamberger’s “Developing Musical Structures: Going Beyond The Simples.”

It’s hard to resist the temptation to start at the bottom of the abstraction ladder. Even though I’m a self-taught pop musician, I still instinctively “start at the beginning” whenever I set out to explain something to a student, and have to consciously remind myself to find a mid-level explanation first. I try to think in terms of chemistry. Atoms and their component particles are “simpler” than molecules and complex substances. But most of us don’t have direct experience with atoms. We’re familiar with water and air and rocks and metals. We need to think about water before we can understand hydrogen and oxygen. So it is with music. The musical simples are our molecules and substances, mid-level entry points that scaffold learning of atoms and electrons.

I was unconsciously gathering musical simples long before I heard the term. I was looking for stuff that’s easy to learn, but that’s also substantive enough to work as real music. The good news is that there’s plenty of simple music that isn’t lame. The music of the African diaspora is built on riffs and loops, and jazz and rock and pop are full of easy yet richly satisfying musical ideas. By carefully curating a simples collection, we’re hoping to make life easier for anyone who wants to teach or learn music in an engaging and pleasurable way. Here’s an assortment, shown both in standard notation and MIDI piano roll format. Continue reading

Music in a world of noise pollution

One of the great privileges of working at NYU is having access to the state-of-the-art Dolan Studio. Listening to music on top-end Lipinskis through an SSL console in a control room designed by Philippe Starck is the most exquisite audio experience I’ve ever had, and likely will ever have. Unfortunately, it’s also very far removed from the circumstances in which I listen to music in my normal life. It isn’t even an issue of the speakers or amps, though of course mine are nowhere near as good as the ones in Dolan. It’s more about the listening environment.

Pete Campbell drowns it all out

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Music theory for the perplexed guitarist

I hear it all the time from my friends in the rock world, and see it all the time in internet discussions: guitarists are struggling with their music theory, or they’ve given up on it completely. This is not their fault! Music theory is taught pretty badly for the most part, and it rarely addresses the music that rock musicians are playing.

I’ve been working on rectifying that situation. If you play guitar, or any other rock-adjacent instrument, I hope that these posts are useful to you:
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A history of pop production in three tracks

Earlier this spring, I subbed for Adam Bell‘s Music Technology 101 class at Montclair State. His sections were populated more exclusively with classical conservatory kids than mine, so for my one-shot lesson, I figured I’d talk them through some items from my illicit collection of multitrack stems, and give them a sense of the history of the recorded art form.

First up was “A Day In The Life” by the Beatles.

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Were the Beatles great musicians?

Most of us agree that the Beatles made great music. But “real” musicians like to argue that the Beatles were not necessarily themselves great. They certainly weren’t exceptionally great guitarists, or drummers, or keyboard players, or even singers. They were pretty good at those things, and had flashes of greatness, but you could walk into any music school and quickly find yourself dozens of more proficient instrumentalists. At this point, a Beatles fan might come back and say, well, the Beatles were great songwriters, which is different from being a great musician. The Beatles did indeed write brilliant songs (though they wrote their share of clunkers too.) Is musicianship coextensive with the ability to play or sing or write? I’m going to say that it isn’t.

We’re right to regard the Beatles as great, but not because of their performances, or even their songwriting. The Beatles are great because of their ability to create studio recordings. Their albums from Revolver onwards are hugely greater than the sum of the material, arrangements, and performances. Those late albums are masterpieces of recording, editing, mixing, and effects, of hyperrealist timbral and spatial manipulation, and of surrealist tape editing.

The Beatles produce some electronica

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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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Killen and Marotta

Participants in Play With Your Music were recently treated to an in-depth interview with two Peter Gabriel collaborators, engineer Kevin Killen and drummer Jerry Marotta. Both are highly accomplished music pros with a staggering breadth of experience between them. You can watch the interview here:

Kevin Killen engineered So and several subsequent Peter Gabriel albums. His other engineering and mixing credits include Suzanne Vega, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Bobby McFerrin, Elvis Costello, Dar Williams, Sophie B. Hawkins, Ricky Martin, Madeleine Peyroux, U2, Allen Toussaint, Duncan Sheik, Bob Dylan, Ennio Morricone, Tori Amos, Rosanne Cash, Shakira, Talking Heads, John Scofield, Anoushka Shankar, Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Stevie Nicks, Los Lobos, Kate Bush, Roy Orbison and Bryan Ferry.

Kevin Killen

Jerry Marotta played drums on all of Peter Gabriel’s classic solo albums. He has also performed and recorded with a variety of other artists, including Hall & Oates, the Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, Sarah McLachlan, Marshall Crenshaw, Suzanne Vega, John Mayer, Iggy Pop, Tears for Fears, Elvis Costello, Cher, Paul McCartney, Carly Simon, and Ron Sexsmith.

Jerry Marotta

The interview was conducted by NYU professor and Play With Your Music lead designer Alex Ruthmann and UMass Lowell professor Alex Case. Here’s an edited summary. Continue reading