Play with your music theory

Last week I put together a new set of music theory videos.

These videos are aimed at participants in Play With Your Music, who may want to start producing their own music or remixes and have no idea where to start. I’m presuming that the viewer has no formal background, no piano skills and no reading ability. This would seem to be an unpromising place to start making music from, but there’s a surprising lot you can do just by fumbling around on a MIDI keyboard. Playing the white keys only gives you the seven modes of the C major scale, with seven very different emotional qualities. Playing the black keys only gives you the G♭ major and E♭ minor pentatonic scales. From there, you can effortlessly transpose your MIDI data into any key you want.

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Why is son clave so awesome?

One of the best discoveries I made while researching my thesis is the mathematician Godfried Toussaint. While the bookshelves groan with mathematical analyses of western harmony, Toussaint is the rare scholar who uses the same tools to understand Afro-Cuban rhythms. He’s especially interested in the rhythm known to Latin musicians as 3-2 son clave, to Ghanaians as the kpanlogo bell pattern, and to rock musicians as the Bo Diddley beat. Toussaint calls it “The Rhythm that Conquered the World” in his paper of the same name. Here are eight different representations of it as rendered by Toussaint:

Toussaint - visualizing son clave

And here it is in my preferred circular notation:

circular son clave

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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.

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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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Teaching math with the Drum Loop

I’ve undergone some evolution in my thinking about the intended audience for my thesis app. My original idea was to aim it at the general public. But the general public is maybe not quite so obsessed with breakbeats as I am. Then I started working with Alex Ruthmann, and he got me thinking about the education market. There certainly a lot of kids in the schools with iPads, so that’s an attractive idea. But hip-hop and techno are a tough sell for traditionally-minded music teachers. I realized that I’d find a much more receptive audience in math teachers. I’ve been thinking about the relationship between music and math for a long time, and it would be cool to put some of those ideas into practice.

The design I’ve been using for the Drum Loop UI poses some problems for math usage. Since early on, I’ve had it so that the centers of the cells line up with the cardinal angles. However, if you’re going to measure angles and things, the grid lines really need to be on the cardinal angles instead. Here’s the math-friendly design:

math-friendly Funky Drummer lesson

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Another radial drum machine

I’ve been working on my thesis app this whole time in the serene knowledge that there’s very little precedent for what I’m trying to do. However, I just learned that I’m wrong, that there’s an app out there with a lot of broad similarities to mine: Loopseque, made by Casual Underground. At first glance, I was alarmed; had I been scooped? Has all my work been in vain? The superficial similarities are hard to miss:

Loopseque

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Radial drum machine update

I’m planning to be done with my thesis by (gulp) December. My collaborator Chris and I got a basic prototype of the radial drum machine together over the summer using Max and Javascript. What we learned is that you don’t want to do an audio app in Max and Javascript, since it will be single-threaded and slower than molasses in January. Since then, we’ve been building the iOS version, which is going to include more features and be closer to the version I have in my head.

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Minsky on music

Music, Mind and Meaning by Marvin Minsky is a gold mine of inspired speculation about the origins and functions of music. I’ve assembled some choice quotes below.

Marvin Minsky

If visual art is our way of playing with and studying space, then music is our way of playing with and studying time.

Can one time fit inside another? Can two of them go side by side? In music, we find out!

Minsky is talking mostly about western classical music here, but his insight is equally pertinent to listening to and playing repetitive music from any tradition: hip-hop, dance, what have you.

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