The orchestra hit as a possible future for classical music

In my paper about whiteness in music education, I tried to make a point about sampling classical music that my professor was (rightly) confused about. So I’m going to use this post to unpack the idea some more. I was in arguing that, while we should definitely decanonize the curriculum, that doesn’t mean we need to stop teaching Western classical music entirely; we just need to teach it differently. Rather than seeing the canonical masterpieces as being carved in marble, we should use them as raw material for the creation of new music.

When I think about a happy future for classical music, I think of the orchestra hit in “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, a sample that came packaged with the Fairlight CMI.

Fairlight CMI

The orchestra hit is a sample of “The Firebird”by Igor Stravinsky.

This sample is the subject of an amazing musicology paper by Robert Fink: The story of ORCH5, or, the classical ghost in the hip-hop machine. If you don’t feel like reading the paper, there’s also this delightful video on the subject.

Why would Afrika Bambaataa (or any other hip-hop musician) want to appropriate the sound of the symphony orchestra? Maybe producers use it just because it sounds cool, but Fink sees a deeper meaning in the sound’s Afrofuturism.

A key aspect of the Afro-futurist imagination lies in a complex identification with the science-fiction Other, with alienness, on the part of an Afro-diasporic culture still dominated by the dark legacy of subjugation to more technologically advanced colonialism… [I]n the sound-world of electro-funk, it is European art music that is cast, consciously or not, in the role of ancient, alien power source (351-352).

Ancient alien power sources are a deathless science fiction trope. Think of the vibranium meteor in Black Panther, bugger technology in the Ender’s Game series, Spice in Dune, Endurium and the Crystal Planet in Starflight, and the fifth element in The Fifth Element (a movie that makes zero sense, but that does creatively combine classical music and techno.) The world that gave rise to the classical canon no longer exists, outside of music schools and similar institutions. But its remnants are everywhere. Why not repurpose them for the making of future music?

Jazz musicians have done plenty of creative repurposing of classical music. My favorite examples are Django Reinhardt’s take on a Bach concerto and the Ellington Nutcracker. Classical music’s biggest influence on jazz is mostly behind the scenes, in the training that many musicians received before jazz was taught formally, in Charlie Parker’s love of Stravinsky and Miles Davis’ admiration for Stockhausen, and in John Coltrane’s study of Nicolas Slonimsky. For creators of hip-hop and electronic dance music, the notes and the concepts aren’t as useful as the recordings. It’s all the lush and varied timbres of classical music that have the most to offer the world now.

“Planet Rock” was only the first of many hip-hop songs to sample classical music. “Blue Flowers” by Dr Octagon samples Bartok’s Violin Concerto #2.

I also love Kelis’ sample of The Magic Flute, and The Streets’ sample of the New World Symphony. Here’s a Spotify playlist with many more examples.

There are also a few performance ensembles attempting to bridge the rap-classical divide. For example, the daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra performs rap classics live.

The idea of reproducing sampled recordings with instruments would seem to me to miss the point of sampling–that sitar riff in “Bonita Applebaum” isn’t just a sequence of pitches, it’s a specific timbre from a specific recording. But I appreciate the spirit.

A much better idea is to bring the alien power source of the orchestra to bear on the  creation of new works. The producer Max Wheeler wrote Grown: a Grime Opera, which combines emcees and DJs with a large orchestral ensemble. I think it’s a fantastic idea, and it’s well executed. (Though I’m not totally objective here, I’ve met Max personally and like him.)

My own interest lies mostly in the possibilities of sampling and remixing. Joseph Schloss, in his must-read book Making Beats, says that producers listen to records “as if potential breaks have been unlooped and hidden randomly throughout the world’s music. It is the producer’s job to find them.” We have barely scratched the surface of the classical canon’s unlooped breaks and hooks. Vassily Kalinnikov’s Symphony number one includes a gorgeous four-chord progression that could well be the saddest chord progression ever. But it’s buried among a ton of other material, and Kalinnikov only repeats it once. This, to me, is a tragic waste. I want to hear that progression repeated many more times than that. Fortunately, thanks to the magic of Ableton Live, I can!

I have more classical music remixes here.

The Music Experience Design Lab has been creating called Variation Playgrounds, which let you playfully remix classical works in the browser.

MusEDLab Variation Playground

The Variation Playgrounds are visually beautiful and cool, but sonically they’re unsatisfying, because they use fake-sounding MIDI versions of the music. Like I said above, the real creative potential for classical remixing isn’t in the notes, it’s in the timbres and textures, all the sonic nuance that you can only get from humans playing instruments.

It would be nice if classical music institutions took a liberal attitude toward sampling. (Most of the canonical works are in the public domain, but the recordings are owned by the record label or organization that made them.) Even better, music organizations could start creating sample libraries. There’s an existing model to follow, the New World Symphony remix contest run by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. The DSO posted a bunch of pristinely recorded excerpts on SoundCloud and encouraged the internet to go to town. That is the world I want to live in.

So here’s my fantasy scenario: classical institutions create sample libraries for every canonical work. They categorize the samples by instrument, key, and tempo, along with scores, MIDI files, background information, video of the performances, and whatever other context might be of interest. They use a licensing scheme that automatically grants sample clearances in exchange for some reasonable fee or revenue-sharing scheme. They encourage transparency of sources: “Hey trap producers! Here are some suitably bleak sounds. Be sure to link back to us from your SoundCloud page.” Classical music might be a tough sell for casual music listeners, but producers listen to a lot of unusual things, and we listen closely. We might not be inclined to buy concert tickets, but we might eagerly comb through recordings with the right invitation.

I recognize that this idea is kind of a tough sell. My observation of classical institutions is that they aren’t particularly interested in fostering the production of more beat-driven electronic music; they want people to learn to appreciate the canon as it is. I don’t have much investment in that goal. My goal as a progressive music educator is to help young people find their own musical truths, through discovery or invention. Most music educators still see their goal as being the preservation of the canon, and are either indifferent or actively hostile toward the music that the kids like. I think the odds of keeping the canon alive are better if it maintains cultural relevance, if it isn’t just “musical spinach” that you eat because it’s somehow good for you. I don’t believe classical music to be any more intrinsically nutritious than anything else (it’s packed with melody and harmony, but deficient in other necessary musical vitamins, like groove.) But if preserving the canon is your goal, then sampling producers might be powerful allies.

Chord pizzas

The Groove Pizza uses geometry to help visualize rhythms. The MusEDLab is planning to create a similar tool for visualizing music theory by merging the aQWERTYon with the Scale Wheel. When you put the twelve pitch classes in a circle, you can connect the dots between different notes in a chord or scale to form shapes. My hypothesis is that seeing these shapes along with hearing the notes will help people learn music theory more easily. In this post, I’ll talk through some concept images.

First, let’s look at two different ways to represent the pitch classes on a circle. On the left is the chromatic circle, showing the notes in the order of pitch height (the way they are on a piano keyboard.) On the right is the circle of fifths. These two circles have an interesting relationship: the circle of fifths is the involute of the chromatic circle. Notice that C, D, E, G-flat, A-flat and B-flat are in the same places on both circles, while the other six notes trade places across the circle. Pretty cool!

The chromatic circle and the circle of fifths

The colors represent the harmonic function of each note relative to the root C. Purple notes are perfect (neither major nor minor.) Green notes are major or natural. Blue notes are minor or flatted. You could technically think of, say, B-flat as being the sharp sixth rather than the flat seventh, but that usage is rare in real life. G-flat is a special case–it’s equally likely to be the sharp fourth or flat fifth. I represented this ambiguity by making it blue-green. (We could make it blue if we knew it was flat fifth from Locrian mode, or green if it was the sharp fourth from Lydian mode.)

Once the Scale Wheel and aQWERTYon get combined, then whenever you play more than one note at a time, they will be connected on the circle. Here are some common chord progressions, and what their shapes can tell us about how they function. First, let’s look at the I-vi-ii-V jazz turnaround in C major.

Major scale chords

Seeing things on the circle really helps you understand the voice leading. You can see how the notes move very little from one chord to the next. To get from Cmaj7 to Am7, you just move the B to A while keeping the other three notes the same. To get from Am7 to Dm7, you move the G to F and the E to D while keeping the other two notes the same. To get from Dm7 to G7, you move the A to G and the C to B while keeping the other two notes the same. Finally, to get from G7 back to Cmaj7, you move the D to C and the F to E while keeping the other two notes the same. In general, any chord you can produce by moving the notes as little as possible from the current chord is likely to sound smooth and logical.

The pitch circle doesn’t represent musical “real life” perfectly–while pitch classes are circular, actual notes belong to specific octaves. That makes the voice leading harder to figure out, because you will need to introduce some jumps or additional chord voices to make it work. That said, thinking in terms of pitch class rather than pitch makes it easier to learn the concept; then you can work out the logistics of voice leading actual pitches from a place of understanding.

Next, let’s look at the Mixolydian mode I-bVII-IV-I turnaround that’s ubiquitous in rock, e.g. the “na na na” section in the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”

Mixoydian mode chords

The circle of fifths view is more clear here. Getting from the Bb to the F is just a matter of rotating the little triangle clockwise by one slot. If you voice the C7 chord like a jazz musician and leave out the G, then the voice leading in this progression becomes exquisitely clear and simple.

Finally, here’s a more exotic-sounding progression from Phrygian dominant, the I-bvii you hear in Middle Eastern and Jewish music like “Hava Nagilah.”

Phrygian dominant mode chords

Seeing these chords on the circle of fifths is not very enlightening–while Western functional harmony keeps things close together on the circle of fifths, non-Western harmony jumps around a lot more. But on the chromatic circle, you can see exactly what’s happening: To get from C7 to Bb-7, B-flat stays the same, but all the other notes move one scale degree clockwise. To get from Bb-7 back to C7, B-flat stays the same while the other notes move one scale degree counterclockwise. This is very close to the way I conceptualize this progression in my head. It’s like the notes in Bb-7 are lifting or pulling away from their homes in C7, and when you release them, they snap back into place. You could also think of this progression as being iv-V7 in the key of F minor, in which case the Bb-7 is acting more like C7sus(b9 #5). Here the suspension metaphor makes even more sense.

Beyond the fact that it looks cool, seeing geometric representations of music gives you insight into why it works the way it does. The main insight you get from the circles is that perfect symmetry is boring. On the Groove Pizza, squares and equilateral triangles produce steady isochronous rhythms, like the four on the floor kick drum pattern. These rhythms are musical, but they’re boring, because they’re perfectly predictable. The more exciting rhythms come from shapes that don’t evenly fit the metrical grid. On a sixteen-step grid, pentagons produce clave patterns, while hexagons make habanera and tresillo.

The same concept applies to the pitch wheel. A square on the pitch wheel is a diminished seventh chord; an equilateral triangle is an augmented triad; and a hexagon is a whole tone scale. (Interestingly, this is true both on the chromatic circle and the circle of fifths.) These sounds are fine for occasional use or special effects, but they get tedious very quickly if you repeat them too much. By contrast, the harmonic devices we use most commonly, like major and minor triads and seventh chords, are uneven and asymmetrical. The same uneven seven-sided figure produces the major scale and its modes on the pitch wheel, and the “standard bell pattern” on the Groove Pizza. Food (ha) for thought.

Hip-hop teaches confidence lessons

I’m working on a paper about music education and hip-hop, and I’m going to use this post to work out some thoughts.

My wife and I spent our rare date night going to see Black Panther at BAM. It was uplifting. Many (most?) black audience members came dressed in full Afrofuturistic splendor. A group of women in our section were especially decked out:

Black Panther audience members at BAM

I was admiring their outfits and talking about how I wasn’t expecting such an emotional response to the movie. One of the women said it was as big a deal for them as the election of Barack Obama in 2008. I know representation is important, but this seems like it’s more than just seeing black faces on the movie screen. Black Twitter is talking about how this movie is different because it isn’t about overcoming historical pain or present-day hardship; it’s about showing black people as powerful, rich, technologically advanced, and above all, serenely confident.

Black Panther is heavily overdetermined, like all superhero movies. But I’m especially interested in the way we could read it as a metaphor for music, with the Wakandans as representing African musical traditions and Eric Killmonger as representing the global rise of hip-hop. I see Killmonger this way not only because he’s American, but because so many of his qualities and mannerisms remind me of the role of hip-hop in the public imagination. He’s stylish, effortlessly charismatic, and seemingly indifferent to anyone else’s approval. He’s funny, too, not in the warm and good-natured way that Shuri is, but in a more aggressive and sarcastic way. He’s both arrogant and vulnerable, using implacable cool to conceal deep hurt. And he wants to remake the world by fomenting black revolution, by any means necessary. The Wakandans, meanwhile, are uncomplicatedly strong, self-possessed, and at ease with their own power. But they are also withdrawn from the world, fearing that getting involving in other people’s struggles will destroy what makes their culture so unique and beautiful.

I want to emphasize that this reading is based solely on my watching the movie and reading Twitter. I have no special insight into the writers’ or actors’ intentions. But they do seem to be saying something about how the African diaspora in America has attained global reach and influence while also showing the malign influence of capitalism and imperialist violence. It’s significant that Killmonger isn’t just a criminal capitalist like Klaue; he honed his murder chops as a member of the US military. The American empire taught him how to kill mercilessly, and now he wants to use that same force to bring the empire down. I’m thinking here about the Public Enemy poster in his dad’s Oakland apartment, the one with the crosshairs. I was terrified of Public Enemy back in the late 80s, as I’m sure was the point of their imagery.

I am not a moralist about hip-hop’s violent content. I don’t believe that portraying something is the same thing as endorsing it, or that listening to music directly causes antisocial behavior. It’s too easy to blame rappers for being bad influences while giving a pass to The Sopranos or Breaking Bad. The only difference between Walter White and any gangsta rapper’s persona is whiteness. But just like I wouldn’t let my young children watch Breaking Bad, I’m not eager to have them listen to Lil Wayne either. And it’s going to be difficult to explain and contextualize all the harder rap songs in my iTunes library when the time comes (though I guess no harder than explaining why I love violent prestige cable dramas.)

I spend so much time defending hip-hop from its detractors that I haven’t given a lot of thought to why I think it’s so beautiful and great. Usually when I do, I point to formal aspects of the music–the grooves, the hypnotic quality of electronic beats, the intertextuality and timbral invention of sample-based production, and the spectacular verbal and vocal virtuosity of the best emcees. But there are more basic emotional reasons why I’m a hip-hop fan. When I listen to the music, I hear effortless cool, the power that comes from strong emotions held in reserve, and a defiant sense of pride.  I hear confidence, and that is a quality I have been severely deficient in for most of my life. As I get older, I have become more confident, but when I was younger I was desperately awkward and socially anxious, and that part of me is never far from the surface. I need swagger lessons, and hip-hop is an excellent teacher. I am not unusual among white rap fans for feeling this way.

It’s totally weird that the wealthiest and most powerful population of humans in history should be so uncertain in ourselves, and it’s equally surprising that we should be looking to the musical expression of our country’s most marginalized and oppressed minority group for help. All of America’s popular music has its origins in the African diaspora, but hip-hop is remarkable for the fact that most of its prominent and commercially successful artists are black. Imagine if the Roma utterly dominated Europe’s musical culture. There are plenty of Europeans who love Django Reinhardt, but not the way that Americans love Kanye West. I’m sure white Americans listen to rap for all kinds of reasons. But I believe that many of us are mostly drawn to it for confidence lessons.

I teach in a couple of music schools, and if I had to pick one adjective to describe the students, “confident” would not be it. Last spring, I was present for two recording sessions in NYU’s James Dolan Studio on two successive days. The Friday session was with NYU undergrads in my Music Education Technology Practicum class, a crash course in audio production for future music teachers. The Saturday session was with CORE (formerly known as Ed Sullivan Fellows), a community mentorship program for young rappers and producers. There were some stark socioeconomic differences between the two groups. NYU music education students are mostly white and Asian, and they tend to come from privileged backgrounds. They are mostly classical musicians, with a small minority playing jazz. The CORE members are nearly all black and Latinx, and are uniformly of low SES. They are almost all rappers or beatmakers, though some also work in the singer-songwriter or R&B idioms. Everyone in both sessions was recording material of their own choice, but while the NYU students all chose existing repertoire (classical pieces, jazz standards, musical theater songs), the rappers’ music was all original. I might naively have expected the NYU students to be confident and the rappers to be nervous, since the NYU students were “on their own turf,” while the rappers were in a new and unfamiliar environment. But the opposite turned out to be true.

During the NYU students’ session, the anxiety in the room was palpable. Recording can be stressful under the best of circumstances—the environment is daunting and clinical, like being under a microscope, and the clock is always ticking. But this was more than performance anxiety; one of the students was on the verge of panic just sitting and listening in the control room. The next day, then, I was surprised to find that the rap kids evinced little to no anxiety whatsoever. They were similarly new to the studio, and under the same pressures, but if anyone felt any nerves, they didn’t show it. The atmosphere was casual and relaxed, even to a fault. A greater sense of urgency might have made for a more productive session. But anxiety was no obstacle. This was all the more remarkable given that they were recording originals. Instead of being nervous about exposing their own feelings and ideas, apparently it added to their confidence.

The CORE kids are sometimes shy about opening up their material to scrutiny, especially if they consider it to be unfinished. But they will perform or play back finished work with remarkably little hesitation for their age. I wasn’t willing to play my original songs for people until deep into my twenties, and I wasn’t willing to sing them myself until my thirties. Meanwhile, the most proficient CORE emcees are sure enough of themselves to effortlessly freestyle in front of an audience. I have never in my life had the courage to do that.

Shamus Khan’s Privilege is a study of the ease taught by elite schools to their students. He argues that traditional markers of upper class status like tailored suits or a taste for classical music no longer function; in an era of (supposed) meritocracy, the elite must prove that they deserve their privilege because of their talents, abilities, and hard work. “Class” can be learned by anyone, but ease has to be carefully enculturated over time. I bring mention all of this because the third chapter of the book begins with an epigram by Jay-Z, from TI’s song “Swagga Like Us”:

But I can’t teach you my swag
You can pay for school but you can’t buy class

The whole point of Khan’s book is that the One Percent use exclusive institutions like St Paul’s to reproduce its privilege across generations. So what is Jay-Z doing in the book? He might be a member of the elite now, but he certainly wasn’t born to it. Khan talks about the way that white St Paul’s students treat POC as arbiters of cultural prestige, which is synonymous with authenticity. To be a real member of the elite, you can’t be a snob; now you have to an omnivore, in touch with “common people’s” music, and that means hip-hop. You have to both know Jay-Z’s music and be able to emulate his swagger if you want to grow up to run the country.

I’m planning to devote my dissertation research to hip-hop educators, to the ways that they think about preparing the next generation of artists, and to the ways that their approach differs from traditional music pedagogy. In particular, I’m interested in the improvisation-centered approach of Toni Blackman. Of all the mentors involved with the CORE program, Toni has the most unusual resume. She is the first Hip-Hop Cultural Envoy with the State Department, and has traveled to forty-six countries to give talks and perform. She has been a teaching artist for a variety of other institutions as well, ranging from the Soros Foundation to local community groups. Toni has a particular method based on the cypher, a circle of emcees in which everyone takes turns freestyling. Toni uses the cypher as a way to help her students develop not just their flow, but their emotional well-being. In person, she has the calm, attentive affect of a good therapist, which is effectively what she is. I was unsurprised to learn that Toni does public speaking coaching for politicians and businesspeople as her “day job”—she is a professional teacher of confidence, inside or outside the context of hip-hop.

Etymology Online tells me that word “confidence” comes from the Latin word confidentem, meaning ”firmly trusting” or “bold.” A confident person inspires “full trust or reliance.” This certainly describes Toni. At her keynote talk at last summer’s NYU IMPACT Conference, she wanted to do some freestyling, as she does in all of her presentations. She asked someone in the audience to come up and beatbox for her. It was 9:30 in the morning and no one was jumping to volunteer, so I finally raised my hand. I had never beatboxed in public before, but Toni knows how to empower people, even nerdy white dads. It felt great up there, effortless in fact, like all peak music experiences do. I was up there to earn Toni’s approval, while simultaneously feeling like I already had it, just for sticking my neck out and performing. If I ever have the courage to do a cypher, it will probably be under Toni’s leadership.

During the same conference, the CORE participants did a showcase concert. It was mostly the kids doing their own songs, along with appearances by a few mentors and pros. The concert began with a cypher–everyone in the concert came onstage and while the band put down a groove, they took turns freestyling verses. I struggle to imagine a group of conservatory students beginning a recital by all improvising a piece off the tops of their heads, but the CORE kids pulled it off with effortless cool. I still remember one of the entire verses verbatim. It was by Lady Logic, who is a bit older than most of the other CORE participants, but still very young. She rapped:

I’m begging your pardon, ain’t no snakes in my garden
I’m begging your pardon, ain’t no snakes in my garden
I’m begging your pardon, ain’t no snakes in my garden
I’m begging your pardon, ain’t no snakes in my garden

She didn’t come up with this line off the top of her head; I was told later that it’s something she has used in verses before. But she had the audacity to stand up there and just repeat it four times. It didn’t sound like she couldn’t think of anything else to say; it sounded like she knew the right line to use, and that it would only get better and more impactful with repetition. And she was right, it slayed.

Most music educators might believe themselves to be teaching confidence. But very often, they are trying to force kids to make particular kinds of music that are remote from the kids’ own interests and sensibilities. I recently had two white music teachers from a majority-black school visit my music technology class at Montclair State University. My lesson that day was on drum programming, on what makes a good beat. In a semi-joking tone, I warned the class that I was going to make a racist generalization, that Europeans like music that’s harmonically interesting and rhythmically boring, while Africans like music that’s rhythmically interesting and harmonically boring. After class, the older of the two visiting teachers wanted to talk to me about that comment. He leads his school’s chorus, and they sing Christmas carols around the school every year. While they were singing “Angels We Have Heard On High,” the girls in the chorus kept trying to add a beat by stomping and clapping. I was about to say what a great idea that was, when he said, “Of course I made them stop. I mean, “Angels We Have Heard On High” with a dubstep beat?” He meant to commiserate with me about how rhythm-obsessed black students are, and how hard it is to get them to focus on making music the “right” way. A version of this interaction plays out in music classrooms across America every day.

The CORE program is run by Jamie Ehrenfeld, a graduate of NYU’s music education program, who now teaches at Eagle Academy, an all-boys school in Brownsville. Like me, she had a left-wing Jewish upbringing with a strong social justice component. Most of the CORE participants are Eagle students who she recruited, or their friends. One is Keith (not his real name), a tall, quiet kid with a serious demeanor. He raps a little, but his main interest is beatmaking. Since finishing high school, he has been camped out in different studio spaces and computer labs at NYU, assiduously teaching himself Logic and making tracks. I’m interested in learning more about his creative process. One afternoon recently, Keith was hanging out in the Music Experience Design Lab office with Jamie, and I had a chance to talk to him at length.

I have a general idea how Keith learned his musical skills: informally, socially, along with his peers. However, I was curious if he has any more formal experience, in school or church or privately. At first he said no, but after some prompting, mentioned that he played in a steel pan ensemble with his dad, who is Trinidadian. I responded that steel pan counts. But Keith has that side of his musical life compartmentalized; it belongs to his dad, while beatmaking is all his own. I’d love to listen to Keith’s tracks in progress, and ask him about his creative choices at a granular level. But this is going to require building up more of a relationship with him. I figured I would start somewhere less sensitive, by asking about his favorite artists. He immediately mentioned Chance the Rapper, who is popular with other CORE participants too. Keith also likes Kendrick Lamar, but that’s like a rock fan saying they like the Beatles, it’s not a distinctive or interesting preference. Keith didn’t offer any more names until Jamie prodded him to bring up Mali Music (an American singer, not a national genre), and “Bust Your Windows” by Jazmine Sullivan. This is all music that Jamie described to me as being “for the cookout,” songs you play when your grandmother and little brother are present. Chance is perfect cookout music, what with his rhymes about “soil as soft as Mama’s hands.”

Keith and his friends also like a lot of music that’s not suitable for the cookout, that’s full of guns, drugs, and sex. After he left to go make beats, Jamie told me about some other rappers that he and his friends listen to, like 22 Gz and Nas Blixky. This is the most commercially successful kind of hip-hop at the moment, and it’s the kind that cultural conservatives blame for corrupting our nation’s youth. Some hip-hop heads are dismayed by it too. Tricia Rose blames commercial pressures for emphasizing the most destructive aspects of the music, and suppressing its consciousness-raising aspects.

By ignoring the extraordinary commercial penetration of hip-hop, and I use that word advisedly … what we’ve allowed to happen is to render meaningful criticism of the commercial takeover of a black cultural form designed not only to liberate, but to create critical consciousness and turned it into the cultural arm of predatory capitalism in the last thirty years.

Toni Blackman isn’t thrilled about misogynistic and violent lyrics, either, but she understands those songs’ appeal. She has described a particularly appalling Lil Wayne song as being “meditative”, “trance-like,” and “addictive.” I feel the contradiction too, feeling both attracted and repelled by the hardest edges of rap. For example, I feel equal amounts of awe and horror about “Got Your Money” by Ol Dirty Bastard, which includes this lyric:

I don’t have no trouble with you fucking me
But I have a little problem with you not fucking me

I choose to find that line funny, which helps me feel better about the fact that I walk around involuntarily repeating it to myself on a regular basis. Hip-hop has mostly been a youth music so far, and like all American youth musics, one of its purposes is to shock authority figures. As authority figures get harder to shock, musicians have to up their rhetorical firepower. It takes confidence to defy authority. There’s a ridiculous amount of cognitive involved in a privileged white person like me listening to music that was designed to help non-privileged non-white people cope with being oppressed by the likes of me. I’m hoping to use my dissertation to get out of my own head on these issues, and learn to see them more from rappers’ own perspectives.

The aQWERTYon pitch wheels and the future of music theory visualization

The MusEDLab will soon be launching a revamped version of the aQWERTYon with some enhancements to its visual design, including a new scale picker. Beyond our desire to make our stuff look cooler, the scale picker represents a challenge that we’ve struggled with since the earliest days of aQW development. On the one hand, we want to offer users a wide variety of intriguing and exotic scales to play with. On the other hand, our audience of beginner and intermediate musicians is likely to be horrified by a list of terms like “Lydian dominant mode.” I recently had the idea to represent all the scales as colorful icons, like so:

Read more about the rationale and process behind this change here. In this post, I’ll explain what the icons mean, and how they can someday become the basis for a set of new interactive music theory visualizations.

Musical pitches rise and fall linearly, but pitch class is circular. When you go up or down the chromatic scale, the note names “wrap around” every twelve notes. This naming convention reflects the fact that we hear notes an octave apart as being “the same”, probably because they share so many overtones. (Non-human primates hear octaves as being equivalent too.)

chromatic circle

The note names and numbers are all based on the C major scale, which is Western music’s “default setting.” The scale notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B (the white keys on the piano) are the “normal” notes. (Why do they start on C and not A? I have no idea.) You get D-flat, E-flat, G-flat, A-flat and B-flat (the black keys on the piano) by lowering (flatting) their corresponding white key notes. Alternately, you can get the black key notes by raising or sharping the white key notes, in which case they’ll be called C-sharp, D-sharp, F-sharp, G-sharp, and A-sharp. (Let’s just briefly acknowledge that the imagery of the “normal” white and “deviant” black keys is just one of many ways that Western musical culture is super racist, and move on.)

You can represent any scale on the chromatic circle just by “switching” notes on and off. For example, if you activate the notes C, D, E-flat, F, G, A-flat and B, you get C harmonic minor. (Alternatively, you could just deactivate D-flat, E, G-flat, A, and B-flat.) Here’s how the scale looks when you write it this way:

C harmonic minor - monochrome

This is how I conceive scales in my head, as a pattern of activated and deactivated chromatic scale notes. As a guitarist, it’s the most intuitive way to think about them, because each box on the circular grid corresponds to a fret, so you can read the fingering pattern right off the circle. When I think “harmonic minor,” I don’t think of note names, I think “pattern of notes and gaps with one unusually wide gap.”

Another beauty of the circle view is that you can get the other eleven harmonic minor scales just by rotating the note names while keeping the pattern of activated/deactivated notes the same. If I want E-flat harmonic minor, I just have to grab the outer ring and rotate it counterclockwise a few notches:

E-flat harmonic minor

My next thought was to color-code the scale tones to give an indication of their sound and function:

C harmonic minor scale necklace

Here’s how the color scheme works:

  • Green – major, natural, sharp, augmented
  • Blue – minor, flat, diminished
  • Purple – perfect (neither major nor minor)
  • Grey – not in the scale

Scales with more green in them sound “happier” or brighter. Scales with more blue sound “sadder” or darker. Scales with a mixture of blue and green (like harmonic minor) will have a more complex and ambiguous feeling.

My ambition with the pitch wheels is not just to make the aQWERTYon’s scale menu more visually appealing. I’d eventually like to have it be an interactive way to visualize chords too. Followers of this blog will notice a strong similarity between the circular scale and the rhythm necklaces that inspired the Groove Pizza. Just like symmetries and patterns on the rhythm necklace can tell you a lot about how beats work, so too can symmetries and patterns on the scale necklace can tell you how harmony works. So here’s my dream for the aQWERTYon’s future theory visualization interface. If you load the app and set it to C harmonic minor, here’s how it would look. To the right is a staff notation view with the appropriate key signature.

When you play a note, it would change color on the keyboard and the wheel, and appear on the staff. The app would also tell you which scale degree it is (in this case, seven.)

If you play two notes simultaneously, in this case the third and seventh notes in C Mixolydian mode, the app would draw a line between the two notes on the circle:

If you play three notes at a time, like the first, fourth and fifth notes in C Lydian, you’d get a triangle.

If your three notes spell out a chord, like the second, fourth and sixth notes in C Phrygian mode, the app would recognize it and shows the chord symbol on the staff.

The pattern continues if you play four notes at a time:

Or five notes at a time:

By rotating the outer ring of the pitch wheel, you could change the root of the scale, like I showed above with C harmonic minor. And if you rotated the inner ring, showing the scale degrees, you could get different modes of the scale. Modes are one of the most difficult concepts in music theory. That is, they’re difficult until you learn to imagine them as rotations of the scale necklace, at which point they become nothing harder than a memorization exercise.

I’m designing this system to be used with the aQWERTYon, but there’s no reason it couldn’t take ordinary MIDI input as well. Wouldn’t it be nice to have this in a window in your DAW or notation program?

Music theory is hard. There’s a whole Twitter account devoted to retweeting students’ complaints about it. Some of this difficulty is due to the intrinsic complexity of modern harmony. But a lot of it is due to terminology and notation. Our naming system for notes and chords is a set of historically contingent kludges. No rational person would design it this way from the ground up. Thanks to path dependency, we’re stuck with it, much like we’re stuck with English grammar and the QWERTY keyboard layout. Fortunately, technology gives us a lot of new ways to make all the arcana more accessible, by showing multiple representations simultaneously and by making those representations discoverable through playful tinkering.

Do you find this idea exciting? Would you like it to be functioning software, and not just a bunch of flat images I laboriously made by hand? Help the MusEDLab find a partner to fund the developer and designer time. A grant or gift would work, and we’d also be open to exploring a commercial partnership. The aQW has been a labor of volunteer love for the lab so far, and it’s already one of the best music theory pedagogy tools on the internet. But development would go a lot faster if we could fund it properly. If you have ideas, please be in touch!

Update: Will Kuhn’s response to this post.

Groove challenges with the Groove Pizza

One of our key design principles at the NYU MusEDLab is not to confront beginners with a blank canvas. We want to introduce people to our tools by giving them specific, real-world music to play around with. That was the motivation behind creating presets for the aQWERTYon, and a similar impulse informs Ableton’s approach to their online music tutorials. The Groove Pizza comes with some preset patterns (specials), but there aren’t direct prompts for creative beatmaking. This post introduces some prototype prompts.

Groove Pizza logo

The Funky Drummer boom-bap challenge

The pattern below is the first quarter note of the kick and snare pattern in Clyde Stubblefield’s classic drum break. Fill in the missing kick and snare hits to make your own golden age breakbeat. Try removing some hi-hats as well.

Musical inspiration:

The Levee break asymmetrical kick challenge

The groove below uses the kick and snare pattern from “When The Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin. Add hi-hats and customize the kick and snare to best convey the Awesome Majesty of Rock.

Musical inspiration:

Four-on-the-floor squares challenge

These two squares make a classic dance beat, kicks on the quarter notes with hi-hats in between. Add snares and break up the symmetry to make a dance floor filler.

Musical inspiration:

So Fresh So Clean challenge

The pattern below is the basis for a sixteenth note hip-hop groove. Place more kicks and snares to make a crunk Dirty South beat in the spirit of OutKast.

Musical inspiration:

It’s A Trap challenge

The pattern below is the basis for a thirty-second note groove. Add kicks and snares and remove hi-hats to make a radio-friendly trap beat.

Musical inspiration: I would include a link to a Future song but can’t find one that whose lyrics aren’t extremely objectionable. Just turn on the radio.

Deconstructing the bassline in Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon”

If you have even a passing interest in funk, you will want to familiarize yourself with Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.” And if you are preoccupied and dedicated to the preservation of the movement of the hips, then the bassline needs to be a cornerstone of your practice.

Chameleon - circular bass

Here’s a transcription I did in Noteflight – huge props to them for recently introducing sixteenth note swing.

And here’s how it looks in the MIDI piano roll:

The “Chameleon” bassline packs an incredible amount of music into just two bars. To understand how it’s put together, it’s helpful to take a look at the scale that Herbie built the tune around, the B-flat Dorian mode. Click the image below to play it on the aQWERTYon. I recommend doing some jamming with it over the song before you move on.

B-flat Dorian

Fun fact: this scale contains the same pitches as A-flat major. If you find that fact confusing, then feel free to ignore it. You can learn more about scales and modes in my Soundfly course.

The chord progression

The opening section of “Chameleon” is an endless loop of two chords, B♭-7 and E♭7. You build both of them using the notes in B-flat Dorian. To make B♭-7, start on the root of the scale, B-flat. Skip over the second scale degree to land on the third, D-flat. Skip over the fourth scale degree to land on the fifth, F. Then skip over the sixth to land on the seventh, A-flat. If you want to add extensions to the chord, just keep skipping scale degrees, like so:

B-flat Dorian mode chords

To make E♭7, you’re going to use the same seven pitches in the same order, but you’re going to treat E-flat as home base rather than B-flat. You could think of this new scale as being E-flat Mixolydian, or B-flat Dorian starting on E-flat; they’re perfectly interchangeable. Click to play E-flat Mixolydian on the aQWERTYon. You build your E♭7 chord like so:

B-flat Dorian mode chords on E-flat

Once you’ve got the sound of B♭-7 and E♭7 in your head, let’s try an extremely simplified version of the bassline.

Chord roots only

At the most basic level, the “Chameleon” bassline exists to spell out the chord progression in a rhythmically interesting way. (This is what all basslines do.) Here’s a version of the bassline that removes all of the notes except the ones on the first beat of each bar. They play the roots of the chords, B-flat and E-flat.

That’s boring, but effective. You can never go wrong playing chord roots on the downbeat.

Simple arpeggios

Next, we’ll hear a bassline that plays all of the notes in B♭-7 and E♭7 one at a time. When you play chords in this way, they’re called arpeggios.

The actual arpeggios

The real “Chameleon” bassline plays partial arpeggios–they don’t have all of the notes from each chord. Also, the rhythm is a complicated and interesting one.

Below, you can explore the rhythm in the Groove Pizza. The orange triangle shows the rhythm of the arpeggio notes, played on the snare. The yellow quadrilateral shows the rhythm of the walkups, played on the kick–we’ll get to those below.

The snare rhythm has a hit every three sixteenth notes. It’s a figure known in Afro-Latin music as tresillo, which you hear absolutely everywhere in all styles of American popular and vernacular music. Tresillo also forms the front half of the equally ubiquitous son clave. (By the way, you can also use the Groove Pizza to experiment with the “Chameleon” drum pattern.)

As for the pitches: Instead of going root-third-fifth-seventh, the bassline plays partial arpeggios. The figure over B♭-7 is just the root, seventh and root again, while the one over E♭7 is the root, fifth and seventh.

Adding the walkups

Now let’s forget about the arpeggios for a minute and go back to just playing the chord roots on the downbeats. The bassline walks up to each of these notes via the chromatic scale, that is, every pitch on the piano keyboard.

Chromatic walkups are a great way to introduce some hip dissonance into your basslines, because they can include notes that aren’t in the underlying scale. In “Chameleon” the walkups include A natural and D natural. Both of these notes sound really weird if you sustain them over B-flat Dorian, but in the context of the walkup they sound perfectly fine.

Putting it all together

The full bassline consists of the broken arpeggios anticipated by the walkups.

If you’re a guitarist or bassist, you can play this without even shifting position. Use your index on the third fret, your middle on the fourth fret, your ring on the fifth fret, and your pinkie on the sixth fret.

              .          . .

If you’ve got this under your fingers, maybe you’d like to figure out the various keyboard and horn parts. They aren’t difficult, but you’ll need one more scale, the B-flat blues scale. Click the image to jam with it over the song and experience how great it sounds.

B-flat blues

There you have it, one of the cornerstones of funk. Good luck getting it out of your head!

Affordances and Constraints

Note-taking for User Experience Design with June Ahn

Don Norman discusses affordances and constraints in The Design of Everyday Things, Chapter Four: Knowing What To Do.

Don Norman - The Design of Everyday Things

User experience design is easy in situations where there’s only one thing that the user can possibly do. But as the possibilities multiply, so do the challenges. We can deal with new things using information from our prior experiences, or by being instructed. The best-designed things include the instructions for their own use, like video games whose first level act as tutorials, or doors with handles that communicate how you should operate them by their shape and placement.

We use affordances and constraints to learn how things work. Affordances suggest the range of possibilities, and constraints limit the alternatives. Constraints include:

  • Physical limitations. Door keys can only be inserted into keyholes vertically, but you can still insert the key upside down. Car keys work in both orientations.
  • Semantic constraints. We know that red lights mean stop and green lights mean go, so we infer that a red light means a device is off or inoperative, and a green light means it’s on or ready to function. We have a slow cooker that uses lights in the opposite way and it screws me up every time.
  • Cultural constraints. Otherwise known as conventions. (Not sure how these are different from semantic constraints.) Somehow we all know without being told that we’re supposed to face forward in the elevator. Google Glass was an epic failure because its early adopters ran into the cultural constraint of people not liking to be photographed without consent.
  • Logical constraints. The arrangement of knobs controlling your stove burners should match the arrangement of the burners themselves.

The absence of constraints makes things confusing. Norman gives examples of how much designers love rows of identical switches which give no clues as to their function. Distinguishing the switches by shape, size, or grouping might not look as elegant, but would make it easier to remember which one does what thing.

Helpful designs use visibility (making the relevant parts visible) and feedback (giving actions an immediate and obvious effect.) Everyone hates the power buttons on iMacs because they’re hidden on the back, flush with the case. Feedback is an important way to help us distinguish the functional parts from the decorative ones. Propellerheads Reason is an annoying program because its skeuomorphic design puts as many decorative elements on the screen as functional ones. Ableton Live is easier to use because everything on the screen is functional.

When you can’t make things visible, you can give feedback via sound. Pressing a Mac’s power button doesn’t immediately cause the screen to light up, but that’s okay, because it plays the famous startup sound. Norman’s examples of low-tech sound feedback include the “zzz” sound of a functioning zipper, a tea kettle’s whistle, and the various sounds that machines make when they have mechanical problems. The problem with sound as feedback is that it can be intrusive and annoying.

The term “affordance” is the source for a lot of confusion. Norman tries to clarify it in his article “Affordance, Conventions and Design.” He makes a distinction between real and perceived affordances. Anything that appears on a computer screen is a perceived affordance. The real affordances of a computer are its physical components: the screen itself, the keyboard, the trackpad. The MusEDLab was motivated to create the aQWERTYon by considering the computer’s real affordances for music making. Most software design ignores the real affordances and only considers the perceived ones.

Designers of graphical user interfaces rely entirely on conceptual models and cultural conventions. (Consider how many programs use a graphic of a floppy disk as a Save icon, and now compare to the last time you saw an actual floppy disk.) For Norman, graphics are perceived affordances by definition.

Joanna McGrenere and Wayne Ho try to nail the concept down harder in “Affordances: Clarifying and Evolving a Concept.” The term was coined by the perceptual psychologist James J. Gibson in his book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. For Gibson, affordances exist independent of the actor’s ability to perceive them, and don’t depend on the actor’s experiences and culture. For Norman, affordances can include both perceived and actual properties, which to me makes more sense. If you can’t figure out that an affordance exists, then what does it matter if it exists or not?

Norman collapses two distinct aspects of design: an object’s utility of an object and the way that users learn or discover that utility. But are designing affordances and designing the information about the affordances the same thing? McGrenere and Ho say no, that it’s the difference between usefulness versus usability. They complain that the HCI community has focused on usability at the expense of usefulness. Norman says that a scrollbar is a learned convention, not a real affordance. McGrenere and Ho disagree, because the scrollbar affords scrolling in a way that’s built into the software, making it every bit as much a real affordance as if it were a physical thing. The learned convention is the visual representation of the scrollbar, not the basic fact of it.

The best reason to distinguish affordances from their communication or representation is that sometimes the communication gets in the way of the affordance itself. For example, novice software users need graphical user interfaces, while advanced users prefer text commands and keyboard shortcuts. A beginner needs to see all the available commands, while a pro prefers to keep the screen free of unnecessary clutter. Ableton Live is a notoriously beginner-unfriendly program because it prioritizes visual economy and minimalism over user handholding. A number of basic functions are either invisible or so tiny as to be effectively invisible. Apple’s GarageBand welcomes beginners with photorealistic depictions of everything, but its lack of keyboard shortcuts makes it feel like wearing oven mitts for expert users. For McGrenere and Ho, the same feature of one of these programs can be an affordance or anti-affordance depending on the user.

Freedom ’90

Since George Michael died, I’ve been enjoying all of his hits, but none of them more than this one. Listening to it now, it’s painfully obvious how much it’s about George Michael’s struggles with his sexual orientation. I wonder whether he was being deliberately coy in the lyrics, or if he just wasn’t yet fully in touch with his identity. Being gay in the eighties must have been a nightmare.

This is the funkiest song that George Michael ever wrote, which is saying something. Was he the funkiest white British guy in history? Quite possibly. 

The beat

There are five layers to the drum pattern: a simple closed hi-hat from a drum machine, some programmed bongos and congas, a sampled tambourine playing lightly swung sixteenth notes, and finally, once the full groove kicks in, the good old Funky Drummer break. I include a Noteflight transcription of all that stuff below, but don’t listen to it, it sounds comically awful.

George Michael uses the Funky Drummer break on at least two of the songs on Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1. Hear him discuss the break and how it informed his writing process in this must-watch 1990 documentary.

The intro and choruses

Harmonically, this is a boilerplate C Mixolydian progression: the chords built on the first, seventh and fourth degrees of the scale. You can hear the same progression in uncountably many classic rock songs.

C Mixolydian chords

For a more detailed explanation of this scale and others like it, check out Theory For Producers.

The rhythm is what makes this groove so fresh. It’s an Afro-Cuban pattern full of syncopation and hemiola. Here’s an abstraction of it on the Groove Pizza. If you know the correct name of this rhythm, please tell me in the comments!

The verses

There’s a switch to plain vanilla C major, the chords built on the fifth, fourth and root of the scale.

C major chords

Like the chorus, this is standard issue pop/rock harmonically speaking, but it also gets its life from a funky Latin rhythm. It’s a kind of clave pattern, five hits spread more or less evenly across the sixteen sixteenth notes in the bar. Here it is on the Groove Pizza.

The prechorus and bridge

This section unexpectedly jumps over to C minor, and now things get harmonically interesting. The chords are built around a descending chromatic bassline: C, B, B-flat, A. It’s a simple idea but with complicated implications, because it implies four chords built on three different scales between them. First, we have the tonic triad in C natural minor, no big deal there. Next comes the V chord in C harmonic minor. Then we’re back to C natural minor, but with the seventh in the bass. Finally, we go to the IV chord in C Dorian mode. Really, all that we’re doing is stretching C natural minor to accommodate a couple of new notes, B natural in the second chord, and A natural in the fourth one.

C minor - descending chromatic bassline

The rhythm here is similar but not identical to the clave-like pattern in the verse–the final chord stab is a sixteenth note earlier. See and hear it on the Groove Pizza.

I don’t have the time to transcribe the whole bassline, but it’s absurdly tight and soulful. The album credits list bass played both by Deon Estus and by George Michael himself. Whichever one of them laid this down, they nailed it.

Song structure

“Freedom ’90” has an exceedingly peculiar structure for a mainstream pop song. The first chorus doesn’t hit until almost two minutes in, which is an eternity–most pop songs are practically over that that point. The graphic below shows the song segments as I marked them in Ableton.

Freedom '90 structure

The song begins with a four bar instrumental intro, nothing remarkable about that. But then it immediately moves into an eight bar section that I have trouble classifying. It’s the spot that would normally be occupied by verse one, but this part uses the chorus harmony and is different from the other verses. I labeled it “intro verse” for lack of a better term. (Update: upon listening again, I realized that this section is the backing vocals from the back half of the chorus. Clever, George Michael!) Then there’s an eight bar instrumental break, before the song has really even started. George Michael brings you on board with this unconventional sequence because it’s all so catchy, but it’s definitely strange.

Finally, twenty bars in, the song settles into a more traditional verse-prechorus-chorus loop. The verses are long, sixteen bars. The prechorus is eight bars, and the chorus is sixteen. You could think of the chorus as being two eight bar sections, the part that goes “All we have to do…” and the part that goes “Freedom…” but I hear it as all one big section.

After two verse-prechorus-chorus units, there’s a four bar breakdown on the prechorus chord progression. This leads into sixteen bar bridge, still following the prechorus form. Finally, the song ends with a climactic third chorus, which repeats and fades out as an outtro. All told, the song is over six minutes. That’s enough time (and musical information) for two songs by a lesser artist.

A word about dynamics: just from looking at the audio waveform, you can see that “Freedom ’90” has very little contrast in loudness and fullness over its duration. It starts sparse, but once the Funky Drummer loop kicks in at measure 13, the sound stays constantly big and full until the breakdown and bridge. These sections are a little emptier without the busy piano part. The final chorus is a little bigger than the rest of the song because there are more vocals layered in, but that still isn’t a lot of contrast. I guess George Michael decided that the groove was so hot, why mess with it by introducing contrast for the sake of contrast? He was right to feel that way.

Careless Whisper

 The infamous saxophone riff in “Careless Whisper” is one of the most infectious earworms in musical history. Love it or hate it, there is no getting it out of your head. In honor of the late George Michael, let’s take a look at what makes it work.

Play the riff yourself using your computer keyboard!

Press these keys to get the riff:Careless Whisper aQW score
So why is the riff so impossible to forget? Its melodic structure certainly jumps right out at you. The first three phrases are descending lines spelling out chords using similar rhythms. The fourth phrase is an ascending line running up a scale, using a very different rhythm.

First let’s take a closer look at those rhythms. The first three phrases are heavily syncopated. After the downbeats, every single note in each pattern falls on a weak beat. The fourth phrase is less syncopated; it’s a predictable pattern of eighth notes. But because your ear has become used to the pattern of the first three phrases, the straighter rhythm in the fourth one feels more “syncopated” because it defies your expectation.

Now let’s consider the harmonic content. The left diagram below shows the D natural minor scale on the chromatic circle. The right diagram shows it on the circle of fifths. Scale tones have a white background, while non-scale tones are greyed out.

Three of the four phrases in the “Careless Whisper” riff are arpeggios, the notes from a chord played one at a time. Here’s how you make the chords.

  • Take the D natural minor scale. Start on the root (D). Skip the second (E) and land on the third (F). Skip the fourth (G) and land on the fifth (A). Skip the sixth (B-flat) and land on the seventh (C). Finally, skip the root (D) and land on the ninth (E). These pitches – D, F, A, C, and E – make a D minor 9 (Dm9) chord. Now look at the first bar of the sax riff. All the pitches in D minor 9 are there except for C.
  • If you do the same process, but starting on G, you get the pitches G, B-flat, D, F, A, C, which make up a G minor 11 chord. The second phrase has most of those pitches.
  • Do the same process starting on B-flat, and you get B-flat, D, F, and A, making a B-flat major 7 (B♭maj7) chord. The third phrase has all of these pitches.

Careless Whisper D natural minor scale chords

The fourth phrase is different from the others. Rather than outlining an arpeggio, it runs up the D natural minor scale from A to A. This sequence of pitches (A, B-flat, C, D, E, F, G, A) is also known as the A Phrygian mode. The half-step interval between A and B-flat gives Phrygian its exotic quality.

This riff certainly is catchy. It’s also notoriously corny, and to many people’s ears, quite annoying. Why? Some of it is the timbre. The use of unrestrainedly passionate alto sax through heavy reverb was briefly in vogue in the 1980s, and then fell permanently out of style. To my ears, though, the real problem is the chord progression. In D minor, both Gm11 and B♭maj7 are subdominants, and functionally they’re interchangeable. Jazz musicians like me hear them as being essentially the same chord. It would be hipper to replace the Gm with G7, or the B♭maj7 with B♭7. The A minor in the last bar is weak too; it would be more satisfying to replace the C with C-sharp, to make D harmonic minor. But your mileage may vary.

Enjoy my mashup of this track with “Calabria 2007” by Enur featuring Natasja.

Designing a more welcoming aQWERTYon experience

This post documents my final project for User Experience Design with June Ahn

The best aQWERTYon screencap

Overview of the problem

The aQWERTYon is a web-based music performance and theory learning interface designed by the NYU Music Experience Design Lab. The name is a play on “QWERTY accordion.” The aQWERTYon invites novices to improvise and compose using a variety of scales and chords normally available only to advanced musicians. Notes map onto the computer keyboard such that the rows play scales and the columns play chords. The user can not play any wrong notes, which encourages free and playful exploration. The aQWERTYon has a variety of instrument sounds to choose from, and it can also act as a standard MIDI controller for digital audio workstations (DAWs) like GarageBand, Logic, and Ableton Live. As of this writing, there have been aQWERTYon 32,000 sessions.

One of our core design principles is to work within our users’ real-world technological limitations. We build tools in the browser so they will be platform-independent and accessible anywhere where there is internet access. Our aim with the aQWERTYon was to find the musical possibilities in a typical computer with no additional software or hardware. That question led us to investigate ways of turning the standard QWERTY keyboard into a beginner-friendly instrument.

While the aQWERTYon has been an effective tool in classrooms and online, it has some design deficiencies as well. It is difficult for unassisted users to figure out what the app is for. While its functionality is easily discovered through trial and error, its musical applications are less self-explanatory. Some of this is due to the intrinsic complexity of music theory and all the daunting terminology that comes with it. But some of it is the lack of context and guidance we provide to new users.

The conjecture

This assignment coincided with discussions already taking place in the lab around redesigning the aQW. Many of those focused on a particular element of the user interface, the scale picker.

aQWERTYon scale picker

The user has a variety of scales to choose from, ranging from the familiar to the exotic. However, these scales all have impenetrable names. How are music theory novices supposed to make sense of names like harmonic minor or Lydian mode? How would they know to choose one scale or another? We debated the least off-putting way of presenting these choices: should we represent them graphically? Associate each one with a well-known piece of music? Or just list them alphabetically? I proposed a system of graphical icons showing the notes comprising each scale. While novices will find them no more intelligible than the names, the hope is that they would be sufficiently visually appealing to invite users to explore them by ear.

aQW scale picker interactive wireframe

Conversations with June helped me understand that there are some broader and more profound user experience problems to solve before users ever get to the scale picker. What is the experience of simply landing on the app for the first time? How do people know what to do? From this conversation came the germ of a new idea, a landing page offering a tutorial or introduction. We want users to have a feeling of discovery, a musical “aha moment”, the chance to be a musical insider. The best way to do that seemed to be to give users a playlist of preset songs to jam with.

User characteristics and personas

There are three major user groups for the aQWERTYon, who I will describe as students, teachers, and explorers.

Students and teachers

Students use the aQW in a guided and structured setting: a classroom, a private lesson, or an online tutorial. There are several distinct user personas: elementary, middle and high school students, both mainstream and with special needs; college students; and online learners, mostly adults. Each student persona has its corresponding teacher persona. For example, I use the aQW with my music technology students at Montclair State University and NYU, and with some private students.

The aQW’s biggest fan is MusEDLab partner Matt McLean, who teaches at the Little Red Schoolhouse and runs a nonprofit organization called the Young Composers and Improvisors Workshop. Matt uses the aQW to teach composition in both settings, in person and online. He has documented his students’ use of the aQW extensively. Some examples:


I use the term explorers to describe people who use the aQW without any outside guidance. Explorers do not fit into specific demographic groups, but they center around two broad, overlapping personas: bedroom producers and music theory autodidacts. Explorers may find the aQW via a link, a social media posting, or a Google search. We know little about these users beyond what is captured by Google Analytics. However, we can make some assumptions based on our known referral sources. For example, this blog is a significant driver of traffic to the aQW. I have numerous posts on music theory and composition that link to the aQW so that readers can explore the concepts for themselves. My blog readership includes other music educators and some professional musicians, but the majority are amateur musicians and very enthusiastic listeners. These are exactly the users we are trying to serve: people who want to learn about music independently, either for creative purposes or to simply satisfy curiosity.

While I am a music educator, I have spent most of my life as a self-taught bedroom producer, so I identify naturally with the explorers. I have created several original pieces of music with the aQW, both for user testing purposes and to show its creative potential. While I have an extensive music theory background, I am a rudimentary keyboard player at best. This has limited my electronic music creation to drawing in the MIDI piano roll with the mouse pointer, since I can not perform my ideas on a piano-style controller. The aQW suits my needs perfectly, since I can set it to any scale I want and shred fearlessly. Here is an unedited improvisation I performed using a synthesizer instrument I created in Ableton Live:

My hope is that more would-be explorers feel invited to use the aQW for similar creative purposes in their own performance and composition.

Tasks and Scenarios

It is possible to configure the aQWERTYon via URL parameters to set the key and scale, and to hide components of the user interface. When teachers create exercises or assignments, they can link or embed the aQW with its settings locked to keep students from getting lost or confused. However, this does not necessarily invite the user to explore or experiment. Here is an example of an aQW preset to accompany a Beyoncé song. This preset might be used for a variety of pedagogical tasks, including learning some or all of the melody, creating a new countermelody, or improvising a solo. The harmonic major scale is not one that is usually taught, but it a useful way to blend major and minor tonalities. Students might try using more standard scales like major or harmonic minor, and listen for ways that they clash with Beyoncé’s song.

Tasks and scenarios for explorers might include creating a melody, bassline or chords for an original piece of music. For example, a self-taught dance music producer might feel limited by the scales that are easiest to play on a piano-style keyboard (major, natural minor, pentatonics) and be in search of richer and more exotic sounds. This producer might play their track in progress and improvise on top using different scale settings.

One of the users I tested with suggested an alternative explorer use case. He is an enthusiastic amateur composer and arranger, who is trying to arrange choral versions of pop and rock songs. He is a guitarist who has little formal music theory knowledge. He might use the aQW to try out harmonic ideas by ear, write down note names that form pleasing combinations, and then transfer them to the guitar or piano-based MIDI controller.

Understanding the problem

In the age of the computer and the internet, many aspects of music performance, composition and production are easy to self-teach. However, music theory remains an obstacle for many bedroom producers and pop musicians (not to mention schooled musicians!) There are so many chords and scales and rules and technical vocabulary, all of which have to be applied in all twelve keys. To make matters worse, terminology hangs around long after its historical context has disappeared. We no longer know what the Greek modes sound like, but we use their names to describe modern scales. C-sharp and D-flat were different pitches in historical tuning systems, but now both names describe the same pitch. The harmonic and melodic minor scales are named after a stylistic rule for writing melodies that was abandoned hundreds of years ago. And so on.

Most existing theory resources draw on the Western classical tradition, using examples and conventions from a repertoire most contemporary musicians and listeners find unfamiliar. Furthermore, these resources presume the ability to read standard music notation. Web resources that do address popular music are usually confusing and riddled with errors. I have worked with Soundfly to fill this vacuum by creating high-quality online courses aimed at popular musicians. Even with the best teaching resources, though, theory remains daunting. Exploring different chords and scales on an instrument requires significant technical mastery, and many musicians give up before ever reaching that point.

The aQW is intended to ease music theory learning by making scales and chords easy to discover even by complete novices. Our expectation is that after explorers are able to try theory ideas out in a low-pressure and creative setting, they will be motivated to put them to work playing instruments, composing or producing. Alternatively, users can simply perform and compose directly with the aQW itself.

Social and technical context

Most computer-based melody input systems are modeled on the piano. This is most obvious for hardware, since nearly all MIDI controllers take the form of literal piano keyboards. It is also true for software, which takes the piano keyboard as the primary visualization scheme for pitch. For example, the MIDI editor in every DAW displays pitches on a “piano roll”.

Some DAWs include a “musical typing” feature that maps the piano layout to the QWERTY keyboard, as an expediency for users who either lack MIDI hardware controllers, or who do not have them on hand. Apple’s GarageBand uses the ASDFG row of the keyboard for the white keys and the QWERTY row for the black keys. They use the other rows for such useful controls as pitch bend, modulation, sustain, octave shifting and simple velocity control.

GarageBand musical typing

Useful and expedient though it is, Musical Typing has some grave shortcomings as a user interface. It presumes familiarity with the piano keyboard, but is not very playable for users do who possess that familiarity. The piano layout makes a poor fit for the grid of computer keys. For example, there is no black key on the piano between the notes E and F, but the QWERTY keyboard gives no visual reminder of that fact, so it is necessary to just remember it. Unfortunately, the “missing” black key between E and F happens to be the letter R, which is GarageBand’s keyboard shortcut for recording. While hunting for E-flat or F-sharp, users are prone to accidentally start recording over their work. I have been using GarageBand for seven years and still do this routinely.

Ableton’s Push controller represents an interesting break with MIDI controller orthodoxy. It is a grid of 64 touch pads surrounded by various buttons, knobs and sliders.

Ableton Push

The pads were designed to trigger samples and loops like a typical drum machine, but Ableton also includes a melody mode for the Push. By default, it maps notes to the grid in rows staggered by fourths, which makes the layout identical to the bottom four strings of the guitar. This is quite a gift for guitarists like me, since I can use my familiar chord and scale fingerings, rather than hunting and pecking for them on the piano. Furthermore, the Push can be set so that the pads play only the notes within a particular scale, giving a “no wrong notes” experience similar to the aQWERTYon. Delightful though this mode is, however, it is imperfect. Root notes of the scale are colored blue, and other notes are colored white. While this makes the roots easy to distinguish, it is not so easy to visually differentiate the other pitches.

Touchscreen devices like the iPhone and iPad open up additional new possibilities for melodic interfaces. Many mobile apps continue to use the piano keyboard for note input, but some take advantage of the touchscreen’s unique affordances. One such is Thumbjam, which enables the user to divide the screen into slices of arbitrary thickness that can map to any arbitrary combination of notes.


The app offers hundreds of preset scales to choose from. The user may have a small range of notes, each of which is large and easy to distinguish, or a huge range of notes, each of which occupies a narrow strip of screen area. Furthermore, the screen can be split to hold four different scales, played from four different instruments. While all of this configurability is liberating, it is also overwhelming. Also, the scales are one-dimensional lines; there is no easy way to play chords and arpeggios.

Evaluation criteria

Is the aQW’s potential obvious enough to draw in explorers and educators? Will it be adopted as a tool for self-teaching? Does it invite playful exploration and experimentation? Is it satisfying for real-world musical usage? Is the UI self-explanatory, or at least discoverable? Is the music theory content discoverable? Have we identified the right user persona(s)? Is the aQW really a tool for beginners? Or is it an intermediate music theory learning tool? Or an advanced composition tool? Is the approach of a “playlist” of example songs the right one? Which songs, artists and genres should we include on the landing page? How many presets should we include? Should we limit it to a few, or should we offer a large, searchable database? And how do we deal with the fact that many songs require multiple scales to play?

Proposed solution

I tested several interactive wireframes of this landing page concept. Click the image to try it yourself:

aQWERTYon landing page interactive wireframe

The first wireframe had nine preset songs. I wanted to offer reasonable musical diversity without overwhelming the user. The tenth slot linked to the “classic” aQW, where users are free to select their own video, scale, root, and so on. I chose songs that appealed to me (and presumably other adult explorers), along with some current pop songs familiar to younger users. I wanted to balance the choices by race, gender, era, and genre. I was also bound by a musical constraint: all songs need to be playable using a single scale in a single key. The initial preset list was:

  • Adele – “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)”
  • Mary J Blige – “Family Affair”
  • Miles Davis – “Sssh/Peaceful”
  • Missy Elliott – “Get Ur Freak On”
  • Björk – “All Is Full Of Love”
  • Michael Jackson – “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough”
  • Katy Perry – “Teenage Dream”
  • AC/DC – “Back In Black”
  • Daft Punk – “Get Lucky”

After a few test sessions, it became apparent that no one was clicking Mary J Blige. Also, the list did not include any current hip-hop. I therefore replaced her with Chance The Rapper. I initially offered a few sentences of instruction, but feedback from my MusEDLab colleagues encouraged me to reduce the prompt down to just a few words: “Pick a song, type, jam.”

Further testing showed that while adults are willing to try out any song, familiar or not, children and teens are much choosier. Therefore, I added two more presets, “Hotline Bling” by Drake and “Formation” by Beyoncé. The latter song proved problematic, however, because its instrumental backing is so sparse and minimal that it is difficult to hear how other notes might fit into it. I ultimately swapped it for “Single Ladies.” I had rejected this song initially, because it uses the idiosyncratic harmonic major scale. However, I came to see this quirk as a positive bonus–since one of our goals is to encourage users to explore new sounds and concepts, a well-known and well-loved song using an unusual scale is a rare gift.

User testing protocol

I used a think-aloud protocol, asking testers to narrate their thought processes as they explored the app. I recorded the one-on-one sessions using Screenflow. When testing with groups of kids, this was impractical, so instead I took notes during and after each session. For each user, I opened the interactive wireframe, and told them, “This is a web based application for playing music with your computer keyboard. I’m going to ask you to tell me what you see on the screen, what you think it does, and what you think will happen when you click things.” I did not offer any other explanation or context, because I wanted to see whether the landing page was self-explanatory and discoverable. I conducted informal interviews with users during and after the sessions as well.

User testing results

I tested with ten adults and around forty kids. The adults ranged in age from early twenties to fifties. All were musicians, at varying levels of ability and training, mostly enthusiastic amateurs. Sessions lasted for twenty or thirty minutes. There were two groups of kids: a small group of eighth graders at the Little Red Schoolhouse, and a large group of fourth graders from PS 3 who were visiting NYU. These testing sessions were shorter, ten to fifteen minutes each.

User testing the aQWERTYon with fourth graders

Discovering melodies

It is possible to play the aQW by clicking the notes onscreen using the mouse, though this method is slow and difficult. Nevertheless, a number of the younger testers did this, even after I suggested that it would be easier on the keyboard.

An adult tester with some keyboard and guitar experience told me, “This is great, it’s making me play patterns that I normally don’t play.” He was playing on top of the Miles Davis track, and he was quickly able to figure out a few riffs from Miles’ trumpet solo.

Discovering chords

Several testers systematically identified chords by playing alternating notes within a row, while others discovered them by holding down random groups of keys. None of the testers discovered that they could easily play chords using columns of keys until I prompted them to do so. One even asked, “Is there a relationship between keys if I play them vertically? I don’t know enough about music to know that.” After I suggested he try the columns, he said, “If I didn’t know [by ear] how chords worked, I’d miss the beauty of this.” He compared the aQW to GarageBand’s musical typing: “This is not that. This is a whole new thing. This is chord oriented. As a guitarist, I appreciate that.” The message is clear: we need to make the chords more obvious, or more actively assist users in finding them.

Other theory issues

For the most part, testers were content to play the scales they were given, though some of the more expert musicians changed the scales before even listening to the presets. However, not everyone realized that the presets were set to match the song. A few asked me: “How do I know what key this song is in?” We could probably state explicitly that the presets line up automatically.

In general, adult testers found the value of the aQW as a theory learning tool to be immediately apparent. One told me: “If I had this when I was a kid, I would have studied music a lot. I used to hate music theory. I learned a lot of stuff, but the learning process was awful… Your kids’ generation will learn music like this (snaps fingers).”


The aQW comes with a large collection of SoundFonts, and users of all ages enjoyed auditioning them, sometimes for long periods of time. Sometimes they apologized for how fascinating they found the sounds to be. But it is remarkable to have access to so many instrument timbres so effortlessly. Computers turn us all into potential orchestrators, arrangers, and sound designers.

Screen layout

The more design-oriented testers appreciated the sparseness and minimalism of the graphics, finding them calming and easy to understand.

Several testers complained that the video window takes up too much screen real estate, and is placed too prominently. Two commented that videos showing live performers, like “Back In Back,” were valuable because that helped with timekeeping and inspiration. Otherwise, however, testers found the videos to either be of little value or actively distracting. One suggested having the videos hidden or minimized by default, with the option to click to expand them. Others requested that the video be below the keyboard and other crucial controls. Also, the eighth graders reported that some of the video content was distracting because of its content, for example the partying shown in “Teenage Dream.” Unsuitable content will be an ongoing issue using many of the pop songs that kids like.

Technical browser issues

Having the aQWERTYon run in the browser has significant benefits, but a few limitations as well. Because the URL updates every time the parameters change, clicking the browser’s Back button does not produce the expected behavior–it might take ten or fifteen clicks to actually return to a previous page. I changed the links in later versions so each one opens the aQW in a new tab so the landing page would always be available. However, web audio is very memory-intensive, and the aQW will function slowly or not at all if it is open in more than one tab simultaneously.

Song choices

The best mix of presets is always going to depend on the specific demographics of any given group of users. However, the assortment I arrived at was satisfying enough for the groups I tested with. Miles Davis and Björk do not have the wide appeal of Daft Punk or Michael Jackson, but their presence was very gratifying for the more hipster-ish testers. I was extremely impressed that an eighth grader selected the Miles song, though this kid turns out to be the son of a Very Famous Musician and is not typical.

Recording functionality

Testers repeatedly requested the ability to record their playing. The aQW did start out with a very primitive recording feature, but it will require some development to make it usable. The question is always, how much functionality is enough? Should users be able to overdub? If so, how many tracks? Is simple recording enough, or would users need to able to mix, edit, and select takes?

One reason that recording has been a low development priority is that users can easily record their performances via MIDI into any DAW or notation program. The aQW behaves as if it were a standard MIDI controller plugged into the computer. With so many excellent DAWs in the world, it seems less urgent for us to replicate their functionality. However, there is one major limitation of recording this way: it captures the notes being played, but not the sounds. Instead, the DAW plays back the MIDI using whatever software instruments it has available. Users who are attached to a specific SoundFont cannot record them unless they use a workaround like Soundflower. This issue will require more discussion and design work.

New conjectures and future work

One of my most significant user testers for the landing page wireframe was Kevin Irlen, the MusEDLab’s chief software architect and main developer of the aQW itself. He found the landing page concept sufficiently inspiring that he created a more sophisticated version of it, the app sequencer:

aQWERTYon app sequencer v1

We can add presets to the app sequencer using a simple web form, which is a significant improvement over the tedious process of creating my wireframes by hand. The sequencer pulls images automatically from YouTube, another major labor-saver. Kevin also added a comment field, which gives additional opportunity to give prompts and instructions. Each sequencer preset generates a unique URL, making it possible to generate any number of different landing pages. We will be able to create custom landing pages focusing on different artists, genres or themes.

Songs beyond the presets

Testing with the fourth graders showed that we will need to design a better system for users who want to play over songs that we do not include among the presets. That tutorial needs to instruct users how to locate YouTube URLs, and more dauntingly, how to identify keys and scales. I propose an overlay or popup:


Testing with fourth graders also showed that helping novice users with keyfinding may not be as challenging as I had feared. The aQW defaults to the D minor pentatonic scale, and that scale turns out to fit fairly well over most current pop songs. If it doesn’t, some other minor pentatonic scale is very likely to work. This is due to a music-theoretical quirk of the pentatonic scale: it happens to share pitches with many other commonly-used scales and chords. As long as the root is somewhere within the key, the minor pentatonic will sound fine. For example, in C major:

  • C minor pentatonic sounds like C blues
  • D minor pentatonic sounds like Csus4
  • E minor pentatonic sounds like Cmaj7
  • F minor pentatonic sounds like C natural minor
  • G minor pentatonic sounds like C7sus4
  • A minor pentatonic is the same as C major pentatonic
  • B minor pentatonic sounds like C Lydian mode


We are planning to revamp the root picker to show both a larger piano keyboard and a pitch wheel. We also plan to add more dynamic visualization options for notes as they are played, including a staff notation view, the chromatic circle, and the circle of fifths. The aQW leaves several keys on the keyboard unused, and we could use them for additional controls. For example, we might use the Control key to make note velocities louder, and Option to make them quieter. The arrow keys might be used to cycle through the scale menu and to shift the root.

Built-in theory pedagogy

There is a great deal of opportunity to build more theory pedagogy on top of the aQW, and to include more of it within the app itself. We might encourage chord playing by automatically showing chord labels at the top of each column. We might include popups or links next to each scale giving some explanation of why they sound the way they do, and to give some suggested musical uses. One user proposes a game mode for more advanced users, where the scale is set to chromatic and players must identify the “wrong” or outside notes. Another proposes a mode similar to Hooktheory, where users could sequence chord progressions to play on top of.

Rhythmic assistance

A few testers requested some kind of help or guidance with timekeeping. One suggested a graphical score in the style of Guitar Hero, or a “follow the bouncing ball” rhythm visualization. Another pointed out that an obvious solution would be to incorporate the Groove Pizza, perhaps in miniature form in a corner of the screen. Synchronizing all of this to YouTube videos would need to be done by hand, so far as I know, but perhaps an automated solution exists. Beat detection is certainly an easier MIR challenge than key or chord detection. If we were able to automatically sync to the tempo of a song, we could add the DJ functionality requested by one tester, letting users add cue points, loop certain sections, and slow them down.

Odds and ends

One eighth grader suggested that we make aQW accounts with “musical passwords.”

An adult tester referred to the landing page as the “Choose Your Own Adventure screen.” The idea of musical adventure is exactly the feeling I was hoping for.

In addition to notes on the staff, one tester requested a spectrum visualizer. This is perhaps an esoteric request, but real-time spectrograms are quite intuitive and might be useful.

Finally, one tester made a comment that was striking in its broader implications for music education: “I’m not very musical, I don’t really play an instrument, so these kinds of tricks are helpful for me. It didn’t take me long to figure out how the notes are arranged.” This person is a highly expert producer, beatmaker and live performer using Ableton Live. I asked how he came to this expertise, and he said he felt compelled to learn it to compensate for his lack of “musicianship”. It makes me sad that such a sophisticated musician does not realize that his skills “count”. In empowering music learners with the aQW, I also hope we are able to help computer musicians value themselves.