Ultralight Beam

The first song on Kanye West’s Life Of Pablo album, and my favorite so far, is the beautiful, gospel-saturated “Ultralight Beam.” Say what you want about Kanye as a public figure, but as a musician, he is in complete control of his craft. See a live performance on SNL.

Ultralight Beam

The song uses only four chords, but they’re an interesting four: C minor, E-flat major, A-flat major, and G7. To find out why they sound so good together, let’s do a little music theory.

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Defining harmonic relatedness

Linear music notation is good for reading, but it doesn’t tell you everything you want to know about underlying musical structure. Notes that are close to each vertically are not necessarily the most closely related. The concept of harmonic relatedness is a complex one, but there’s an excellent tool for beginning to get a handle on it: the circle of fifths.

The chromatic circle and the circle of fifths

The left circle above shows the chromatic circle, the pitch sequence you find on the piano. The right circle shows the circle of fifths. Each note is a fifth higher or a fourth lower than its counterclockwise neighbor, and each note is also a fourth higher or a fifth lower than its clockwise neighbor.

Unlike a lot of music theory you learn in school, the circle of fifths is not some arbitrary Western European cultural convention. There’s actual science behind it. If two notes are adjacent on the circle of fifths, it means they have a lot of overtones in common. If you know what overtones are, you can skip the next few paragraphs. Otherwise, read on.

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User interface case study: Patterning

The folks at Olympia Noise Co recently came out with a new circular drum machine for iOS called Patterning, and it’s pretty fabulous.


The app’s futuristic look jumps right out at you: flat-colored geometric shapes with zero adornment, in the spirit of Propellerhead Figure. There’s nothing on the screen that doesn’t function in some way. It’s a little dense at first glance, but a complex tool is bound to have a complex interface, and Patterning reveals itself easily through exploration.

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Prototyping Play With Your Music: Theory

I’m part of a research group at NYU called the Music Experience Design Lab. One of our projects is called Play With Your Music, a series of online interactive music courses. We’re currently developing the latest iteration, called Play With Your Music: Theory. Each module presents a “musical simple,” a short and memorable loop of melody or rhythm. Each simple is a window into one or more music theory concepts. Users can learn and play with the simples using a new interface called the aQWERTYon, which maps scales and chords to the regular computer keyboard.

aqw screengrab

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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