Music theory on Hacker News

This fascinating thread about music theory on Hacker News showed up recently in my blog pingbacks.


Two posts in particular caught my eye. First, kev6168 had this eminently reasonable request:

I wish there is a lecture in the format of “One hundred songs for one hundred music concepts”. The songs should be stupidly simple (children’s songs, simple pops, short classical pieces, etc.). Each lesson concentrates on only _one_ concept appeared in the piece, explains what it is, how it is used, why it is used in that way, and how its application makes nice sound, etc. Basically, show me the _effect_ for each concept in a simple real world setting. Then more importantly, give me exercises to write a few bars of music using this concept, no matter how bad my writings are, as long as I am applying the new knowledge…

[A]rmed with only a few concepts, a newbie [coder] can start to write simple programs from the very beginning, in the forms of piecemeal topic-focused little exercises. The result of each exercise is a fully functioning program. I wish I can find a similarly structured music theory course that uses the same approach. Also, are there projects in music which are similar to or the likes, where you can do focused practice on specific topic? I would be happy to pay for those services.

This represents a pedagogical opportunity, not to mention a market opportunity. The NYU Music Experience Design Lab is hard at work on creating just such a resource. It’s going to be called Play With Your Music: Theory, and we hope to get it launched this summer. If you want to help us with it, get in touch.

Deeper in the thread, TheOtherHobbes has a broader philosophical point.

Pop has become a massive historical experiment in perceptual psychology. The most popular bands can literally fill a stadium – something common practice music has never done.

While that doesn’t mean pop is better in some absolute sense, it does suggest it’s doing something right for many listeners.

If your training is too rigidly classical it actively stops you being able to hear and understand what that right thing is, because you’re too busy concentrating on a small subset of the many details in the music.

This is a point that I spend a lot of energy pursuing, but I hadn’t explicitly framed it in terms of perceptual psychology. It gets at some bigger questions: Why do people like music at all? Even though pop can indeed draw huge crowds, it’s mostly a recorded art form. How does that work? What does it mean that we’re so attracted to roboticized voices? A lot to think about.

Prototyping Play With Your Music: Theory

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

aqw screengrab

We’re presenting the simples in a variety of formats, including YouTube videos, standard music notation, MIDI, data visualization, and our custom aQWERTYon notation.

Get Ur Freak On compound simple - notation



The goal is to teach theory through creative engagement with meaningful real-world music. We also want to put more emphasis on rhythm, which traditional music theory pedagogy tends to neglect. I’ve put some prototypes up, and I invite you to take a look and play around.

There’s a lot of work to do to make this vision a reality, and we’re looking for partners to help us do it. Specifically, here’s what we’d like to do in the coming year:

  • Create more musical simple modules, music theory
    concept pages, and instructional videos.
  • Implement a drum programming and rhythm pedagogy interface.
  • Add guitar tabs.
  • Create a database front end enabling us to offer multiple points
    of entry.
  • Build a community platform, including a system for
    crowdsourcing simples and concept pages.
  • Create course pathways for specific audiences: AP Music Theory students, lead guitarists, bedroom producers, and so on.
  • Design more interactive functionality.
  • Develop content and business partnerships.
  • Profit!

If you’d like to get involved, or you want to offer some feedback, please let me know.

Here’s what’s cooking with the NYU MusEDLab

I’m a proud member of the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, a research group that crosses the disciplines of music education, technology, and design. Here’s an overview of our many ongoing projects.

MusEDLab logo

Performance interfaces

My personal baby is the Groove Pizza, an outgrowth of my NYU masters thesis. It’s a prototype circular rhythm interface that we’re shaping into a powerful math teaching tool. Try it yourself:

Bembe pizza with lines

My other major personal involvement is in the aQWERTYon, which turns any computer keyboard into a futuristic MIDI controller.


You can choose from a variety of scale and chord mappings, and then jam or compose with the confidence that you can’t play a wrong note. You can use our built-in sound library, or you can  play software instruments from Logic, GarageBand, Ableton, and so on.

Music theory

The aQWERTYon and Groove Pizza are core components of a new learning tool called Play With Your Music: Theory, part of the Play With Your Music series. They were originally conceived as MOOCs, but have since evolved into online learning communities. All of the recording, mixing, editing and performance interfaces run in the web browser, so you don’t need any additional hardware or software to participate.

Conferences and workshops

The MusEDLab lab hosts regular meetups, hackathons, and the annual IMPACT conference. Here’s the sizzle reel for last summer’s conference, in which you can see me awkwardly breakdancing!

Hip-hop education

The lab has a close relationship with the Urban Arts Partnership. We’re creating web tools in support of Fresh Ed, an amazing initiative that teaches various humanities subjects using hip-hop. We’re talking to them about incorporating the Groove Pizza into their work as well. And we play host to Smartbomb Labs–last summer a kid designed a biology game starring a character named Homie O. Stasis.

Chamber music

Other folks in the lab are working with the Chamber Music Society of Detroit to create a set of chamber music engagement tools. I’m particularly fond of the extreme POV string quartet videos, giving you the chance to see and hear a Haydn performance from the players’ perspectives. There’s also a cool musical puzzle card game.

Finally, lab director Alex Ruthmann has been consulting on a new multitrack audio format called OOID, which lets you hear a song’s instruments and vocals in isolation or the mix of your choosing, and also layers in video, lyrics, and even guitar chords. It’s sadly not available in the US yet, but if you’re in Europe, you can download away.

How can I help?

If you are an educator, coder, or designer, and you want to get involved, be in touch. If you’re a philanthropist or grantmaker and you want to support us, definitely be in touch. Also, we’ll be spinning off a business arm this winter; if you’d like to become an investor, be in touch as well.