Participant ethnography of a hip-hop cypher

In this paper, I discuss a rap cypher held during a session of NYU’s CORE Music Program on March 3, 2018. A cypher is a group performance where rappers take turns performing improvised verses. Freestyling is to rap what jam sessions are to jazz: an improvisational form that demands both technical proficiency and a relaxed, casual confidence. I chose the cypher as the subject of ethnographic study because it crystallizes so much of what I love about rap generally. Freestyle rap in particular is an underappreciated art. While hip-hop is the most popular genre of music in the United States (Nielsen 2018), and possibly in the world (Hooton 2015), the American music academy does not afford it much respect. I have heard a demoralizingly large number of musicians and educators opine that rap is not music at all. While I do not believe that rap needs academic validation, it is important to me that my fellow educators understand and appreciate the beauty of this music, so if they will not embrace it, they might at least do less to impede it.

Few rap haters will admit to being motivated by racial or class animus. Instead, they point to rap’s supposed lack of melody, or the programmed and sampled beats. Along with electronic dance music, rap in its instrumental aspect is the most repetitive popular form in American history, and schooled musicians are socialized to be contemptuous of repetition (McClary 2004). Improvisation likewise has a low status in academic settings, because spontaneous musical expression supposedly has less significance than composed works (Nettl 1974, 3). However, closer engagement with improvised rap quickly reveals its depth. For example, the predictability of the beats is a necessity to support the complex play of text, pitch, rhythm and timbre in the emcees’ flow. Only by evaluating the music by its own value system can we recognize its beauty.Like any culture, hip-hop can be viewed as “ordered, limiting, and pervasive”, or as “fertile, elaborative, and liberating” (MacDougall 1998, 62). The former view resembles social science or Marxist theory, while the latter is more like literary description of individual experience. I will argue that rap is ordered and limited by strict musical conventions, but that these conventions are optimized to promote elaborative and liberating expression. In the cypher discussed below, the emcees make their personalities and identities felt immediately and strongly. In so doing, they deploy impressive musical and verbal skill with seeming effortlessness. “Regardless of thematics, pleasure and mastery in toasting and rapping are matters of control over the language, the capacity to outdo competition, the craft of the story, mastery of rhythm, and the ability to rivet the crowd’s attention” (Rose 1994, 75). I was the only “audience” member present during the CORE cypher, and I was indeed riveted.

A note about terminology: I use the terms ”rap” and “hip-hop“ interchangeably throughout this paper, in keeping with the usual practice of practitioners and fans. Strictly speaking, rap and hip-hop are not the same thing. Rap is a style of music, while hip-hop is a culture or aesthetic, one component of which is rap music. There can be hip-hop music without rapping, for example, in turntablism or the instrumental albums of DJ Shadow. Conversely, many genres of music predating hip-hop have used rap, including blues, jazz, soul, country, and rock. Nevertheless, when referring to contemporary mainstream music, rap and hip-hop are effectively coextensive.

My musical life has taken place within the Afrodiasporic traditions that gave rise to hip-hop: jazz, rock, funk, and electronic dance music. I have produced a little hip-hop, too, and done a very small amount of rapping. I grew up in New York City, and do not remember a time when I was not at least passively hearing rap around me. However, I am very much an outsider in hip-hop settings, due to a combination of my race, class, age, and sensibilities. A first-time CORE participant introduced herself to me at a session by saying, “You look important.” I gave that impression because I was the oldest person there, and the most formally dressed, not to mention the fact that I was one of only two white people present.

There is a degree to which I am perfectly at home in CORE sessions. This is true in a literal sense—they happen in my workplace, sometimes in my shared office. I am less at home in the metaphorical sense. I am knowledgeable enough about rap to be able to have a conversation about it, and enthusiastic enough as a fan to be able to cross social divides. The participants are friendly toward me, and the regulars greet me warmly with handshakes, fist bumps, and hugs. But I am self-conscious about being a novice and a tourist, about being wack and corny. This is no false modesty on my part: I am a very good musician, but I am not a good rap musician, certainly not by CORE participants’ standards. 

I have more privilege than the CORE kids in every respect except in terms of coolness. Without exception, all of the kids are cooler than me, and at least outwardly are correspondingly more confident. For this reason, when I am present for a cypher, I am simultaneously thrilled and terrified by the prospect of getting up and spitting a verse. I did beatbox for a freestyle by one of the CORE mentors during a conference presentation, but I have otherwise kept my own musicality to myself among the participants.

I try to approach the rap musicians of CORE with “positive naïveness” (Madison 2012, 32). Some of this naïvety is genuine, and some is strategic. For an American studying American popular music, “there is no formal beginning or end to our research; our participant observation (i.e., experiencing popular music within the context of American society) covers roughly our entire lives, as do the relationships that we rely on to situate ourselves socially” (Schloss 2013, 8). I am not a naïve participant, but I try to keep my history and opinions to weigh too heavily on observation and interviews.

The CORE Music Program is, per its web site:

an artist mentorship lab, event series, and professional network for young creatives committed to self growth and community engagement hosted at the Music Experience Design Lab (MusEDLab) at New York University. CORE Music NYC is a creative network of support rooted in the shared valuing of freedom, innovation, community, honest expression and the music cultures that inspire us.

The program is run by Jamie Ehrenfeld, a graduate of NYU’s music education program and a teacher at Eagle Academy in Brownsville. The name, chosen by the participants, seems like it might be an acronym, but it does not stand for anything. Each Saturday afternoon, rappers, producers, mentors and friends coalesce in studios and office spaces in NYU Steinhardt’s Education building near Washington Square Park. They write, record, rehearse, listen, study, and socialize. Sometimes there are organized workshops on audio engineering or music business, but most sessions are ad hoc and informal. The program has an ethos of liberatory consciousness, so the participants’ music tends to be more woke than commercial rap, with more focus on social issues and less on partying, guns, or drugs.

CORE Music NYC

CORE participants are young men and women in their teens and early twenties, mostly low-SES people of color. Hip-hop is not the only style of music that they create. Some are singer-songwriters working in a pop, R&B, or rock style. However, hip-hop is the unifying thread. While there is an identifiable group of regulars, actual attendance from week to week is unpredictable. Instead, sessions have a clubhouse feel. Most of the time, no one is really “in charge.” Jamie’s role as director is to provide logistical support, and to be emotionally available and supportive—this sometimes means listening sympathetically, and sometimes means pushing or cajoling the participants.

The CORE working style is low-key, social, casual, and, at times, indistinguishable from simply hanging out. This is well in keeping with the broader norms of hip-hop. Despite the apparent lack of focus, this ad hoc working style is richly generative of original music. After extended socializing, rap artists tend to make their creative choices quickly and decisively.

NYU is a fascinating setting for observations of CORE because it brings racial and class disparities into stark relief. For all its political progressiveness, New York is one of the most racially segregated cities in America (Kucsera & Orfield 2014). NYU students and CORE participants are the same age and live within a few miles of each other, but they occupy very different social worlds. NYU is an expensive private institution, and while not all of its students are wealthy, a substantial percentage certainly are, giving the school a pervasive air of casual privilege. CORE participants, on the other hand, are predominately poor and working-class. The two groups strongly signal their class identity through their respective language, clothing and bodily affect. 

CORE meets and works in spaces belonging to NYU Steinhardt’s music technology and music education departments: offices, recording studios, classrooms, conference areas, and lounge areas. During the week, these spaces host academic work, classes, and presentations, where students and faculty work silently or socialize in low-key ways. While NYU’s culture is informal, it is still an academic institution, and the predominant feeling in the common spaces is businesslike. On the rare occasion when music is played in a room, it is almost always during a class or lecture.

The atmosphere during CORE sessions is very different. Music plays through open speakers, sometimes looped endlessly for long periods of time, and usually at high volumes. Socializing is mostly laid back, but can sometimes be loud and rowdy. Both NYU students and CORE participants are casual in their use of profanity, but there is one conspicuous difference: it would be shocking to hear an NYU student to use the word “nigga”, whereas CORE participants say it frequently. One NYU faculty member had brought his young children with him to his office during a session, and he berated me at length about their being exposed to the n-word. I do not like hearing it either, but I understand the difference between its in-group usage and its being spoken in anger. I am teaching my own children to appreciate that difference rather than trying to shield them from the word entirely. In New York, such a thing would be impossible anyway.

CORE periodically records in the James Dolan studio, named for the owner of Madison Square Garden, himself an enthusiastic amateur musician and at one time the parent of two NYU music technology students. The Dolan Studio is one of the best in New York, with top-of-the-line equipment and immaculate acoustics. The monitor speakers alone cost twenty thousand dollars, and the mixing desk costs on the order of a hundred thousand. The CORE participants like working there, because it makes them feel like “real” artists. For all its luxuriousness, though, the Dolan studio is not an optimal space for hip-hop creation. It was designed to capture live performances using Pro Tools, not for creative electronic production with Logic or FL Studio or Ableton Live. For rap purposes, all that is needed is a small soundproof room with a computer, an audio interface, and a microphone. The program has more regular access to such a space, as well as the computers in labs and offices.

CORE sessions ostensibly start at 2:00 pm, but some participants show up hours earlier, while others arrive hours later. On the day of the cypher I will be discussing, people are still arriving at 4:30, eating, chatting, and listening to music. The session does not really get going until 5:00. The group assembles in a nondescript conference room. There are about twenty people present, including a small camera crew, filming for what purpose I don’t know. No one seems particularly concerned by or even interested in their presence. Certainly no one is signing any release forms. There is a small PA system set up, with music playing a laptop belonging to Brandon Bennett, one of the regulars.

When I enter the room, the song playing is “Everything (Remix)” by G Herbo featuring Chance the Rapper and Lil Uzi Vert (2018). The CORE participants love and admire Chance, but his verse on this song is less woke than usual:

Knew the game, still you gave that bitch a wedding ring
I took her number, gave her NuvaRing and never rang
Never give ’em everything

When I hear this line, I simultaneously feel two strong and conflicting emotions: disapproval of the misogyny, and amusement at Chance’s wordplay. Rap shares many traits with standup comedy, including the use of deliberate offensiveness as a way to provoke laughs. I try to balance my moral indignation with an awareness that white observers of such jokes tend to see the aggression but miss the playfulness (Gates 1988, 68).

Profane and/or violent lyrics go back in black culture as far as the blues and the baaadman tales of the nineteenth century, if not much further.

Irreverence has been a central component of black expressive vernacular culture, which is why violence and sex have been as important as toasting and signifying as playfulness with language. Many of these narratives are about power. Both the baaadman and the trickster embody a challenge to embody a challenge to virtually all authority (which makes sense to people for whom justice is a rare thing), creates an imaginary upside-down world where the oppressed are the powerful, and it reveals to listeners the pleasures and price of reckless abandon (Kelley 1996, 187).

While we should not take irreverent language too literally, it is nevertheless hard on girls and women. Female rap fans and emcees are reclaiming the word “bitch” in empowering and creative ways, but nevertheless, rap’s gender politics are heavily patriarchal.

Black women and girls, who are increasingly “celebrated” in songs and videos as “bad bitches,” are simultaneously rendered irrelevant when it comes to hip hop authorship, video direction, and music production. The same can be said of hip hop’s lyrics and visual themes objectifying black female voices and bodies (Gaunt 2015, 213).

Toni Blackman, a CORE mentor, is deeply politically conscious, but also susceptible to the profane charms of current rap.

I was on a date with my friend [and] that song “All that good kush and alcohol” comes on. It’s one of those songs like [she pauses], I think the music is meditative and trance-like, and I think the melodies [Weezy and Future] use to rap in, they’re just… they’re addictive, you know? Like, literally for two weeks I was waking up singing this song [she chuckles] ya know??! Imagine an 11- or 12-year-old who is not that conscious of how to program their mind and their thoughts, [and] doesn’t have their critical thinking skills yet. And here I am with all of this seasoning and experience, and I can’t control it [she chuckles again] (quoted in Gaunt 2015, 220).

Rap’s gender dynamics will appear in several places in the cypher discussion below.

To begin the cypher, Brandon opens FL Studio and plays one of his original beats. It is a trap beat comprised of a sampled or simulated Roland TR-808 drum machine, a sampled tabla, and a sampled or synthesized bamboo flute. Brandon later tells me that he created the beat in fifteen minutes, beating his previous speed record of thirty minutes. The two-measure beat will repeat for the better part of an hour, with the only variation being the muting and then unmuting of the flute part. 

As is common to trap music, Brandon’s track is slow, with drums accenting fine subdivisions of the beat. Aside from the kick drum on each downbeat, the snare drum hits on the backbeats (beats two and four) are the most stable element in the pattern. The accented backbeat is a characteristic shared by every African-American vernacular music, including jazz, country, rock, funk, techno, and rap. Technically, the backbeat is a syncopation, the rhythmic equivalent of tension or dissonance. However, Biamonte (2014, [6.2]) argues that the backbeat has become a rhythmic consonance through sheer force of repetition. It certainly feels stable compared to the skittering hi-hats in Brandon’s beat.

The tempo of Brandon’s FL Studio session is 140 beats per minute rather than 70. The drum machine interface in FL Studio uses a sixteenth note grid, so to use thirty-second notes, it is more expedient to work in cut time.

Trap beats show the “exaggerated virtuosity of the machine” (Danielsen 2010, 2)–the uncannily fast and perfect drum hits advertise their artificiality. Rap has always been an electronic music, but in earlier eras, there was clear reference to human drumming, either because the beats were sampled from live funk and soul performances, or because drum machines were programmed to have a similar sound to those samples. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the Roots is the best exemplar of an acoustic drummer who plays in a classic hip-hop style. On the other hand, even if Questlove could play trap rhythms, he certainly could not replicate the unearthly timbre of a programmed 808 on a drum kit.

Hearing identical repetitions of a sampled or programmed beat is uncanny to begin with, but hearing those identical repetitions over very long spans is a phenomenological experience with little precedent in music. During the cypher, we heard Brandon’s beat repeat hundreds of times. Tape loops might subtly wobble in pitch, but computer repetitions are perfect. While the experience of endless digital looping may be a futuristic one, it is continuous with the traditions of Afrodiasporic music. The beat is a stable and reliable presence, and “it is there for you to pick it up when you come back to get it… Without an organizing principle of repetition, true improvisation would be impossible, since an improviser relies upon the ongoing recurrence of the beat” (Snead 1984, 67-68). Robert Henke, a musician and co-creator of Ableton Live, points out that the computer is highly amenable to creating stable and reliable beats.

[I]n electronic music, there’s a lot of ways to create something that runs—that is static, but nevertheless, it’s creating something. Take a drum computer: you turn it on and it plays a pattern. And you cannot turn on a drummer. A drummer always has to do something in order to work. And the drum computer, you turn it on and the pattern is there (quoted in Butler 2014, 105).

In the analysis that follows, I juxtapose recordings of the cypher with my own sound writing, both prose and notation. There is some overlap between recording and writing—the word phonography literally means “sound writing.” I could simply let the recording speak for itself, but that would not adequately convey the full experience of being in the room. Weidenbaum (2017) observes that recording never sounds like what he heard—listening is a process of focusing and filtering, of selective attention and interpretation, an experience that is quite different from the microphone’s direct transcription. While Kapchan (2017) wants her sound writing to have the full sensual richness of sound itself, Weidenbaum prefers writing exactly because it does not have the rich texture of recorded sound. Recording playback is a new sensory experience unto itself, one that might be far removed from the one the recordist meant to capture or convey. It is more useful for me to think of the recording, writing and transcription as methods of “flat ethnography, where you slice into a world from different perspectives, scales, registers, and angles—all distinctively useful, valid, and worthy of consideration” (Jackson 2013, 16-17). Between these slices, I hope that the reader can triangulate a fuller sense of the experience of the cypher.

A note about my trascriptions: the pitches are very loose approximations, meant to show general melodic contour only. The actual pitches in rap vocals do not usually align with the piano-key notes, and are not stable even within individual syllables. Rhythmically, my notation is closer to being a literal representation. However, there are many nuances of rushed or dragged rhythm that I do not show, because that would make the notation unreadable. So the rhythms should be understood as somewhat approximate as well. One might well ask why it is worth transcribing rap at all. Anyone who wishes to study the cypher can simply listen to tbe recording. My transcriptions are meant in part as an ironic commentary, a way to represent rap in the language of “real” musicology as a way of commenting on that language. I want this paper to be legible to musicologists, but I do not wish to “go native” as a musicologist either.

[P]revious transcribers of hip-hop music, who were acting (implicitly or explicitly) as defenders of hip-hop’s musical value, have naturally tended to foreground the concerns of the audiences before whom they were arguing, which consisted primarily of academics trained in western musicology. This approach requires that one operate, to some degree, within the conceptual framework of European art music: pitches and rhythms should be transcribed, individual instruments are to be separated in score form, and linear development is implicit, even when explicitly rejected (Schloss 2013, 13-14).

As the cypher begins, participants go around the circle doing verses. There is some freestyling, but mostly people read verses out of their notebooks. The energy in the room is low until Jamie prompts everyone to get up out of their chairs. There are some instrumentalists present: a young woman named LeiOra jams on the viola, and a young man whose name I do not know plays jazzy chords on an acoustic guitar.

Eventually the camera crew and their friends leave the room. About twelve of us remain in the circle. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is when genuine freestyling begins in earnest. (This is also the point where my recording begins.) The tone is playful and jokey for the first few minutes. Then Brandon unmutes the meditative flute track on his beat, which changes the mood—a participant remarks, “Oh, time to get serious now.” The freestyle verses after this point get longer and more adventurous. They are still jokey, but a wider variety of emotions appear as well. For example, Brandon raps about his fear of doctors, heights, and needles. While everyone in the circle participates to some degree, there are three dominant performers: Brandon, Roman, and LeiOra. I profile each of them below.

Brandon is a nineteen year old Bronx native. He is tall and thin, with tidy waist-length dreadlocks and a beard that gives him a shamanistic look. He raps and performs as a DJ, but he considers himself to be primarily a producer, and is an extremely prolific one. His style spans trap, hip-hop, RnB, and house, and he favors a lo-fi sound, with thick reverb, vinyl noise, and a softened high end. Brandon produces using FL Studio, Pro Tools, Logic Pro, and an SP-404A sampler. He has been making beats since age 14, and has taught production workshops at a professional level. His SoundCloud and BandCamp accounts are mostly beats, but when he does appear as an emcee, he rhymes with seriousness and vulnerability. His main SoundCloud account has over a thousand followers, and he pays close attention to their feedback. However, since his followers reacted negatively to some his more experimental music, he started a second account to host that material.

In hip-hop and other electronic popular forms, the term “producer” has come to encompass songwriting, beatmaking, MIDI sequencing, instrumental and vocal performance, and audio manipulation (Moir and Medbøe, 2015). Danielsen (2010) asks what word we should use to describe a user of a program like FL Studio: producer, engineer, composer or performer? The answer is all of the above, or none of the above. There are no clear boundaries between such roles in the digital studio context.

Roman is a high school senior. He is baby-faced, and looks younger than he is. I have never seen him without his white Beats headphones on his ears. His given name is Maximus, and he draws his emcee name and iconography from ancient Rome. For example, his crew is called Vongola, the Italian word for clam. (Roman explains that vongolas clean dirty water.) Roman continues to be close to his crew, even though they no longer all attend the same school.

Identity in hip hop is deeply rooted in the specific, the local experience, and one’s attachment to and status in a local group or alternative family. These crews are new kinds of families forged with intercultural bonds that, like the social formation of gangs, provide insulation and support in a complex and unyielding environment and may serve as the basis for new social movements (Rose 1994, 55).

Roman is intensely committed to emceeing. He uses the same learning process as a jazz musician: continually memorizing other people’s verses by ear from recordings, a line at a time. He has even learned a few verses in foreign languages phonetically.

A few weeks after the cypher, Roman gives me an in-depth listening tour to some emcees he admires. He is particularly interested in Midwest Chop, a technically demanding style that crams as many syllables into the bar as possible without sacrificing clear articulation or wordplay. Roman plays me verses by Logic, Joyner Lucas, Tech N9ne, Eminem, and Busta Rhymes as examples. You can get a good sense of the style from Busta Rhymes’ extraordinary verse on “Worldwide Choppers” by Tech N9ne (2011). Roman’s favored rappers span generations—Logic is currently popular, but Busta Rhymes is from my era. The trait they share is dazzling virtuosity. If you think of Rakim Allah as corresponding to Charlie Parker, then Tech N9ne is more like John Coltrane in his “sheets of sound” phase.

Some scholars (e.g. Wilson 2001) compare rap to scat singing in jazz. Listening to Midwest Chop reminds me more of vocalese, where jazz vocalists write lyrics for recorded improvised solos. The best vocalese practitioners, like Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, sing intricate bebop lines packed with syllables. Roman is impressed by sheer syllable count, and is pushing himself on his speed, but he has not lost sight of wanting to be funny, and, sometimes, heartfelt. His favorite artist is Chance the Rapper, who has technical ability but is best known for being vulnerable and emotionally direct. Roman maintains a fan-curated SoundCloud playlist of Chance’s live performances. He particularly admires Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama (2016), a Christmas-themed mixtape Chance created with the R&B singer Jeremih. On these songs, Chance reminisces about his childhood and mourns dead family members, setting an emotional tone that is far removed from his verse about the NuvaRing.

I do not know LeiOra well; she is not a regular, and the day of the cypher is her first time at a session. She is 23 years old and Latina. She is in the building for a recording session in the Dolan Studio with Toni Williams, a singer-songwriter who graduated recently from NYU and is part of the CORE circle. After recording, LeiOra is invited to the cypher, and she joins spontaneously.

LeiOra has a gift for creating memorable hooks off the top of her head, several of which she repeats in chantlike fashion, both in her own verses and as background for others. She shows remarkable self-assurance in her willingness to freestyle among a group of complete strangers, nearly all of whom are male. Nevertheless, she is less assertive in the cypher than Brandon or Roman, as I will discuss below.

When emcees improvise, “they use words and expressions in the same way as jazz/rock musicians use scales and riffs in their improvisations” (Söderman & Folkestad 2004). The cypher is emblematic of what Turino (2008) describes as participatory performance. In such performances, the audience/artist distinction is blurry or nonexistent. The participants may have widely varying skill levels, so the music has a low floor for core participation (e.g. shaking a shaker steadily) and a high ceiling for elaboration (e.g. playing virtuoso lead percussion). The form of participatory music is open, cyclical and very repetitive. There might be extensive improvisation, but it takes place within predictable structures. Beginnings and endings of songs are “feathered”—unscripted, loose, and sometimes disorderly. The music is game-like, though usually without “winners” or “losers.” People in participatory cultures prefer skillful musicians over inept ones, but the social aspect of the music is the most important one, and it is good manners to keep critical judgment of the performance to oneself. CORE participants enact this participatory value when they are sharply critical of commercial recordings, but rarely criticize each other.

Rap cyphers have less structure than other participatory improvisational forms. Cyphers resemble improv comedy more than jazz or blues jams. In a jazz jam session, solos come in predefined units, e.g. thirty-two bar choruses. In a cypher, by contrast, each person begins and ends whenever they want. The rhymes are not completely unstructured, however; they follow a formal “model” (Nettl 1974, 12) that resembles written rap. For example, emcees almost always rap phrases whose lengths in bars are powers of two. Rhymes usually fall at the end of phrases, though more advanced emcees also use internal rhymes. Rose (1994) points out that for all of its technological innovations, rap music “has also remained critically linked to black poetic traditions and the oral forms that underwrite them. These oral traditions and practices clearly inform the prolific use of collage, intertextuality, boasting, toasting, and signifying in rap’s lyrical style and organization” (84). The subject matter in the cypher is wide open, but the tone is not. Rappers have a very particular affect, which I describe as “fresh.” The meaning of the word in a hip-hop context can refer to any of its conventional senses: new, refreshing, appetizing, attractive, or sassy (Hein 2015). Rappers must be irreverent, culturally attuned, and above all, cool.

In the sections below, I discuss three excerpts of the cypher in depth. The entire recording is available for download here.

Excerpt one: 0:14 – 0:40

The cypher participants form an approximate circle, with the three main emcees at the points of an equilateral triangle. Brandon stands, with his gaze directed at a point on the floor in front of him. He is inward-directed, though still responsive to the room. Roman stands too, with his gaze directed outward. A few members of his crew stand and sit nearby. LeiOra sits on a table, with her gaze also outward-directed. Amid the hubbub of the film crew leaving, Brandon begins warming up, getting into his flow. He lists foods and other things he likes, using a formulaic construction: an eighth rest, “I like” on sixteenth notes, then the object of the phrase:

I like shakes, I like tacos
I like tacos, I like burritos
I like Doritos and Cheetos
I don’t like Fritos cause they kinda too salty
So get up off me
I like, I like schools, I like Snickers
I like Twix and action figures

In many rap songs, “the meaning of the text is often secondary to its interaction with the music” (Adams 2008, 43), and that is certainly true here. Brandon is choosing words for their sound more than trying to convey any particular meaning. Some of his rhymes are direct (burritos/Doritos/Cheetos/Fritos), while others are slant rhymes (salty/off me, Snickers/figures). Throughout this excerpt, other people are shouting out foods they like and joking around, but Brandon gradually draws the focus of the room. He and the other emcees will keep returning to the theme of food throughout the cypher.

Adams (2009) recommends that we analyze rap by examining the metrical and articulative aspects of emcee flow. Metrical aspects include the placement of rhymes and syllabic stresses, the relationship between bar lines or hypermeasures and lyrical phrase boundaries, and the syllable count per beat. You can see the metrical aspects of Brandon’s flow in the way that he varies his simple formula, displacing the phrase forward and backward in the meter, placing it on stronger and weaker beats. Articulative aspects of rap include the use of staccato or legato, the articulation of consonants, and the placement of syllables ahead of or behind the beat. You can hear Brandon’s articulative technique in the way that he slightly drags the timing of “kinda too salty” and “get up off me,” and the way he indicates ironic exasperation by raising his pitch on “off me”.

Excerpt two: 3:11 to 3:40

Like most contemporary emcees, Roman and Brandon use what Krims (2000) calls a “speech-effusive style,” featuring the casual enunciation and loose rhythms of everyday spoken language. By contrast, LeiOra’s style is what Krims describes as “sung,” a schoolyard chant feel with on-beat accents and strict couplet groupings. In this excerpt, Roman also moves into a “percussion-effusive” style, a more rhythmically complex flow that is more free with metrical boundaries and rhyme schemes, but which still has crisp articulation and clearly discernable regular rhythm patterns. You can hear the influence of Midwest Chop in his doubletime phrasing:

Chicken and rice, sofrito with spice
Flip it on my plate, makin’ it nice

LeiOra replies with a parodic singsong, in an exaggerated Nuyorican accent:

Don’t forget Adobo, don’t forget Adobo, cause you already loco

Roman takes LeiOra’s cue, adopting the same accent and rapping in Spanglish:

Makin’ fine desayuno with that queso frito

LeiOra begins chanting “Que wepa! Wepa!” repeatedly. She brings a raucous harshness into her voice, an example of the way that black musics cultivate a wide range of vocal sounds connected to tonal speech patterns, ranging across different registers (Rose 1994, 86). Brandon jumps in over her chant–one of several instances where male emcees interrupt her–and extends the Nuyorican theme:

So when I get chicken, put Adobo and Sazón,
If you ain’t got Sazón, don’t allow me in your home!

The rest of the room yells in approval.

Excerpt three: 3:53 – 4:17

LeiOra’s best hook is this one: “Dab when you cough, dab when you sneeze,” repeated in her singsong cadence. It refers to an internet meme (SchoolMemes 2017). Roman and others do little interjections in between her lines, e.g. “Achoo!” Then, after twelve times through LeiOra’s chant, Roman jumps forward and interrupts with a punchline: “I’m so nice with it, I dab with my knees!” The entire room erupts with laughter. This is an example of signifying, an unexpected satirical twist on a familiar element.

It is as if a received structure of crucial elements provides a basis for poeisis, and the narrator’s technique, his or her craft, is to be gauged by the creative (re)placement of these expected or anticipated formulaic phrases and formulaic events, rendered anew in unexpected ways. Precisely because the concepts represented in the poem are shared, repeated, and familiar to the poet’s audience, meaning is devalued while the signifier is valorized (Gates 1988, 61).

We can look at freestyle rap through “the lenses of containment and possibility” (Hayes 2010, 31). The flows are contained by the unvarying beat and the demands of rhyme and musical structure. Their possibilities include community, humor, and cultural confidence. When a cultural conservative like Scruton (2014) dismisses “the tuneless aggression of rap” (n.p.), he does not just insult a rich musical tradition. He insults the young people around the world who use that tradition for validation, support, and representation. Furthermore, to dismiss rap is to dismiss a valuable set of tools for understanding other forms of music as well. It can be enlightening to listen to Western art music through a hip-hop frame, to hear how much it loses by eschewing repetition, to taste its lack of freshness, to examine its timbres with a producer’s ear, and to question its assumptions. “[O]nly when others are freed to pursue their own trajectories can Western music properly acknowledge the multiplicity of differences lying beneath its authoritarian binaries and become productively other to itself” (Middleton 2000).

Jamie Ehrenfeld once commented to me: “I got a music degree without ever writing a song” (personal communication, April 29 2017). She similarly had no opportunity in her schooling to engage with the creative processes behind popular music. Her experience is a typical one—composition and songwriting are rarities in American music education settings (Beckstead 2001). In an era when any laptop or smartphone can be used as a full-flight production studio, this is a grievous missed opportunity. It has never been easier in recent memory for young people to produce the music that is culturally relevant to them. The only remaining obstacle is institutional lack of respect for the music. 

References

Adams, K. (2015). The musical analysis of hip-hop. In J. Williams (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop (pp. 118–134). Cambridge University Press.

Adams, K. (2008). Aspects of the Music/Text Relationship in Rap. Music Theory Online, 14(2). Retrieved from http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.08.14.2/mto.08.14.2.adams.html

Adams, K. (2009). On the Metrical Techniques of Flow in Rap Music. Music Theory Online, 15(5), 1–12. Retrieved from http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.09.15.5/mto.09.15.5.adams.html

Beckstead, D. (2001). Will technology transform music education? Music Educators Journal, 87(6), 44–49.

Biamonte, N. (2014). Formal Functions of Metric Dissonance in Rock Music. Music Theory Online, 20(2). Retrieved from http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.14.20.2/mto.14.20.2.biamonte.php

Butler, M. (2014). Playing with Something That Runs: Technology, Improvisation, and Composition in DJ and Laptop Performance. Oxford University Press.

Danielsen, A. (2010). Musical Rhythm in the Age of Digital Reproduction. Ashgate. http://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004

Gates, H. L. (1989). Signifying Monkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gaunt, K. (2015). YouTube, Bad Bitches, and an M.I.C. (Mom-in-Chief) : On the Digital Seduction of Black Girls in Participatory Hip-Hop Spaces. In T. Gosa & E. Nielsen (Eds.), The Hip Hop & Obama Reader (pp. 207–226). New York: Oxford University Press.

Hayes, E. (2010). Songs in Black and Lavender : Race, Sexual Politics, and Women’s Music. University of Illinois Press.

Hein, E. (2015). Mad Fresh. Retrieved March 24, 2015, from http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/mad-fresh/

Hooton, C. (2015). Hip-hop is the most listened to genre in the world, according to Spotify analysis of 20 billion tracks. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/hip-hop-is-the-most-listened-to-genre-in-the-world-according-to-spotify-analysis-of-20-billion-10388091.html

Jackson, J. (2013). Thin description : ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. Harvard University Press.

Kapchan, D. (2017). Theorizing Sound Writing. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Krims, A. (2000). Rap music and the poetics of identity. Cambridge University Press. http://doi.org/10.2307/3595215

Kucsera, J., & Orfield, G. (2014). New York State’s Extreme School Segregation: Inequality, Inaction and a Damaged Future. Retrieved from http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/ny-norflet-report-placeholder

MacDougall, D. (1998). Transcultural Cinema. Princeton University Press.

Madison, D. S. (2012). Methods: “ Do I Really Need a Method ?” A Method … or Deep Hanging-Out. Critical Ethnography: Method, Ethics, and Performance. Sage Publications. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452233826.n2

McClary, S. (2004). Rap, minimalism, and structures of time in late twentieth-century culture. In D. Warner (Ed.), Audio Culture. Continuum International Publishing Group.

Middleton, R. (2000). Musical belongings: Western music and its low-other. In G. Born & D. Hesmondhalgh (Eds.), Western Music and Its Others : Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music (pp. 59–85). University of California Press.

Moir, Z., & Medbøe, H. (2015). Reframing popular music composition as performance-centred practice. Journal of Music, Technology & Education, 8(2), 147–161. http://doi.org/10.1386/jmte.8.2.147

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Rose, T. (1994). Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1st ed.). Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan.

Schloss, J. G. (2013). Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

SchoolMemes. (2017). Bad Acronyms – Don’t spread germs! DAB when you sneeze! Retrieved May 3, 2018, from http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1280450-bad-acronyms

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Wilson, O. (2001). “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” : the relationship between African and African American music. In S. Walker (Ed.), African roots/American cultures : Africa in the creation of the Americas (pp. 153–168). New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Discography

G Herbo featuring Chance the Rapper and Lil Uzi Vert (2018). Everything (Remix) [digital download]. New York: Machine/150 Dream Team/Cinematic/RED. (February 15, 2018)

Jeremih and Chance the Rapper (2016). Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama [digital download]. Self-released. (December 22, 2016)

Tech N9ne featuring Busta Rhymes, Ceza, D-Loc, JL B.Hood, Twista, Twisted Insane, U$O and Yelawolf (2011). Worldwide Choppers. On All 6’s and 7’s [digital download]. Lee’s Summit, MO: Strange Music. (May 1, 2011)

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.

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.

A participant ethnography of the Ed Sullivan Fellows program

Note: I refer to mentors by their real names, and to participants by pseudonyms

Ed Sullivan Fellows (ESF) is a mentorship and artist development program run by the NYU Steinhardt Music Experience Design Lab. It came about by a combination of happenstances. I had a private music production student named Rob Precht, who had found my blog via a Google search. He and I usually held our lessons in the lab’s office space. Over the course of a few months, Rob met people from the lab and heard about our projects. He found us sufficiently inspiring that he approached us with an idea. He wanted to give us a grant to start a program that would help young people from under-resourced communities get a start in the music industry. He asked us to name it after his grandfather, Ed Sullivan, whose show had been crucial to launching the careers of Elvis, the Beatles, and the Jackson 5. While Rob’s initial idea had been to work with refugees who had relocated to New York, we agreed to shift the focus to native New York City residents, since our connections and competencies were stronger there.

Ed Sullivan Fellows

The Ed Sullivan Fellows program is run by Jamie Ehrenfeld, a graduate of NYU’s music education program, a founding member of the Music Experience Design Lab, and a music teacher at Eagle Academy in Brownsville. Like many members of the lab, she straddles musical worlds, bringing her training in classical voice to her work mentoring rappers and R&B singers. Participants are young men and women between the ages of 15 and 20, mostly low-SES people of color. They meet on Saturday afternoons at NYU Steinhardt to write and record songs; to get mentorship on the music business, marketing and branding; and to socialize. We had originally conceived of ESF as a series of formally organized classes, but it became immediately obvious that such a structure was going to be impractical. While there is a regular core of attendees, their lives are complicated, and there is no way to predict who will show up week to week or when they will arrive and leave. Instead, sessions have taken on a clubhouse feel, a series of ad-hoc jam sessions, cyphers, informal talks, and open-ended creativity. Conversations are as likely to focus on participants’ emotions, politics, social life and identity as they are on anything pertaining to music.

There is a “core squad” of nineteen regular ESF participants, and an additional thirty occasional attendees. Many are students at Eagle Academy and members of their social networks. This group is mostly black and Latino. Another smaller group attends City-As-School. Only three Fellows total are white. The Fellows are mostly male, partially because many of them attend an all-male school, and partially because of hip-hop’s skewed gender dynamics generally. There are six core mentors (including myself) and another sixteen peripheral mentors. Some are young black men and women from the Fellows’ social networks, and the rest are NYU people, or are socially connected to the lab. All of the mentors are musicians, but otherwise come from a variety of backgrounds: education, business, software development, design.

The ethnomusicologist Thomas Turino draws a distinction between “participatory” and “presentational” cultures of music performance. Presentational performances include all of the music you would hear at a professional concert: classical, jazz, rock, and so on. Participatory performances include campfire singalongs, jam sessions, and drum circles, where there is little to no distinction between performers and audience. We tend to regard presentational performance as “real” music. Turino argues that we undervalue participatory music subcultures, because they are some of the few cultural spaces in America where monetary profit is not a primary value, and where our jobs and economic status are not our major identifying characteristics. While the ostensible goal of ESF is developing young artists professionally, the actual music-making that takes place is highly participatory in nature.

Hip-hop is not the only style of music that the Fellows create. Some are singer-songwriters in a pop, R&B or gospel style. Still, hip-hop is the default, the unifying thread, and the common vocabulary. Among the forty-six Fellows, there are twenty-three emcees, nineteen singers, eighteen producers, thirteen live instrumentalists, and twenty-nine improvisors who are comfortable participating in a live jam. (These categories are not mutually exclusive.) Among the nine more mentors, there are three emcees, four singers, four producers, six live instrumentalists, and eight improvisors. Of the twenty-three Fellows who self-identify as rappers, sixteen of them can freestyle, improvising lyrics on the spot, a formidably challenging musical practice. Participation in cyphers and jams is a core part of the ESF ethos.

The Fellows are familiar with the drug-influenced mumble rappers who currently dominate the charts, but their sensibilities are more clear-eyed, narrative, and direct. For example, Rashad cites Chance The Rapper as his major musical inspiration. Chance has a densely intellectual flow with an irrepressible sunniness, and raps about his life, his community, politics, and his relationship with God. Other Fellows express outspoken admiration for Kendrick Lamar, who is less cheerful and optimistic, but who also has a strong social and political conscience. Like most current hip-hop artists, ESF participants favor beats that are extremely slow and sparse, with electronic drums playing stuttering subdivisions of the beat accompanied by disjointed samples or soft textural ambience on top. I try to keep current with hip-hop, as much as a 41-year-old white dad can, but this music continues to surprise me with how futuristic it sounds. It has a science-fictional dystopian quality, but for all its iciness, the funk heartbeat remains.

ESF meets and works in spaces belonging to NYU Steinhardt’s music technology and music education departments: primarily a conference room and recording studio, spilling over into various labs and classrooms as needed. During the week, these spaces host classes and presentations, and are otherwise occupied by NYU students, who socialize in low-key ways or work on their laptops. While NYU’s culture is informal, it is still an academic institution, and the predominant feeling in the common space is quiet and productive. On the rare occasion when music is played on the conference area PA system during the week, it is part of a class or lecture. During ESF sessions, by contrast, the PA plays hip-hop beats, sometimes looped endlessly for long periods of time, and usually at party volumes. The Fellows have an unreserved social style, and the feeling when they occupy the space is more one of play than of work.

ESF periodically records in the James Dolan studio, named for the owner of Madison Square Garden, himself an enthusiastic amateur musician and at one time the parent of two NYU music technology students. He noticed that the school’s recording facilities were old and run-down, so he essentially gave Steinhardt a blank check to build a state-of-the-art studio. Ten million dollars later, NYU boasts one of the best studios in New York, with top-of-the-line equipment and immaculate acoustics. The monitor speakers alone cost twenty thousand dollars; the mixing desk costs on the order of a hundred thousand. When the Fellows record, they are assisted by well-trained and highly competent student engineers. I always feel like more of a “real musician” whenever I work in there, and clearly it has a similar effect on the Fellows. For all its luxuriousness, though, the Dolan studio was designed to capture live performances using Pro Tools, not for creative hip-hop production with Logic or FL Studio or Ableton Live. The Fellows would be better served by a group of smaller, less grandiose spaces equipped with the software and hardware designed specifically for their methods.

For all its progressiveness, New York is one of the most racially segregated cities in America. NYU students and ESF participants live within a few miles of each other, but occupy very different social worlds. Nearly all of the Fellows are black or Latino, and all are of low socioeconomic status. NYU students are ethnically diverse, but this is because of the prevalence of international students; the students of color are predominantly Asian. NYU is an extremely expensive private institution, and unlike Ivy League schools, it does not have a large endowment that it can use for financial aid and scholarships. While not all NYU students are wealthy, a substantial percentage certainly are, and an air of casual privilege pervades. NYU music technology students know hip-hop, and some are aficionados, but their tastes center more on indie rock, electronica, and experimental music. Music education students mostly inhabit the self-contained classical world, or the similarly insular subculture of musical theater.

The ESF working style, in or out of the studio, is low-key, social, casual, and, at times, indistinguishable from simply hanging out. This is well in keeping with the broader norms of hip-hop. For all its apparent lack of focus, this ad-hoc working style is richly generative of original music. After extended socializing, the Fellows tend to make their creative choices quickly and decisively, and for the most part are confident and relaxed performers. The same is broadly true of other hip-hop musicians I have worked with.

While the music emerges seamlessly out of playful fraternizing, this is not to say that it is always effortless. The Fellows are not all expert musicians, and they sometimes show dissatisfaction or frustration with their music. Also, they vary in their willingness to share their ideas, especially the unfinished or insufficiently polished ones. That said, I can not recall seeing anyone in ESF display anxiety. This is a conspicuous difference from NYU’s music students, for whom anxiety is a dominant emotion in their creative spaces, especially the recording studio. During one session I led for some of my NYU undergraduate students, one woman came close to a panic attack from simply sitting in the control room listening to her peers recording. Classical music students face continual and strict scrutiny, and the studio represents the harshest scrutiny of all—an error that might go unnoticed in a live performance is painfully obvious on a recording.

Due to family obligations, I am not able to be a regular participant in ESF. When I can attend sessions, I teach audio engineering, work with the Fellows on mixing and editing their tracks, give creative feedback, or most commonly, make myself available and see what happens. Today it will be the latter. I arrive at 2 pm, the session’s scheduled start time. Jamie is there, as is another mentor, Amber, an NYU music education student. There are only two Fellows present, Juan and Marcus, and no one is making any music yet. Most of the Fellows will arrive late, and while the session is supposed to end at 6, Jamie tells me that “they’ll still be kicking it at 6:30 or 7:00… You can’t fight their body clock.”

Juan and Marcus join me at the table where I am sitting with my computer. They talk about the new Kendrick Lamar album and other recent developments in the rap world. Then Juan mentions that he is presently homeless due to a fight with his mother. (He is not the only homeless ESF participant.) There was apparently some police involvement, and a restraining order was issued. As a result, Juan missed a performance, so now on top of everything else, he will not be able to get booked at the venue again. He tells us this with the same wry detachment he used to talk about the new Kendrick. Either this happens to him routinely, or he is putting a brave face on a very bad situation, or both. The subject changes to whether a mutual friend is gay. Then Juan sings something, and Marcus asks, “You know the guy who sings that song?” Juan replies, “Who, Chris Brown?” Marcus says, “Yeah, you should let him sing it.” This is just friendly trash talk; Juan sings beautifully.

Three more Fellows drift in at 3:00 and gather in a far corner of the room. They plug a laptop into the PA and play a beat they’re working on. It is a four bar loop, endlessly repeating, with jazzy major seventh chords on piano over a drum machine. The three guys let it run while they shoot the breeze. As other Fellows arrive, they make a point of greeting me, shaking my hand firmly or fist bumping me, whether they have met me before or not. They look at their phones, noodle on the piano, and talk. It appears that nothing whatsoever is happening here, but I know from experience that it is all part of the process. After spending 45 minutes just letting their loop run, the group in the corner begins scrolling through different drum sounds. Then they quickly lay down a synth bassline on the MIDI controller. A notebook is produced, and songwriting begins in earnest.

Jamie and I are the only white people present. She and Amber continue to hang out, since the Fellows presently do not need any guidance. Amber complains about NYU’s music curriculum, that she is forced to study serialist composition. “I take all these music classes and only one involves me writing songs.” Jamie responds, “I got a whole music degree here and have never written a song.” She is committed to making expression the center of ESF; she wants everyone to write songs, to manifest themselves as creative and empowered beings. Kigan, another mentor, listens to us critique the Eurocentrism of the music academy, and is appalled to learn that universities did not begin to consider jazz an acceptable subject of study until decades after its peak cultural relevance. Kigan says that trap music now is what jazz was in the 1930s, that it’s where all the creativity is happening. He is not even referring to rap when he says this; he means the instrumental component of the music. He recommends a producer named Flosstradamus to me, and I make a note to look him up on SoundCloud later.

At 4:30, there is another beat looping on the speaker system. This one is in a minor key, with a mysterious vocal sample that sounds like aliens chanting. The beat is trap style, an extremely slow tempo with hi-hats stuttering in doubletime. Juan begins freestyling effortlessly over it. Another Fellow plays a line on the upright piano. Amber begins writing out a song structure on the whiteboard. Kigan and Jamie eat pizza and continue chatting. The energy in the room has picked up undeniably, even if it still seems unfocused.

Jamie and I talk about a grant proposal she is working on. She tries to articulate the value of what is happening here. “Saturdays are not the program. The space is not the program. The interactions are the program.” She wants to give ESF a sense of “accountability,” though she knows that this goal will run up against the chaotic reality of the Fellows’ lives. Rather than imposing some kind of discipline, she wants to foster intrinsic motivation from the sense of community: “Oh man, I saw on Facebook Live that you guys had a great session.” She ponders doing a “reboot” after Labor Day. Until then, the periodic recording sessions in the Dolan studio will continue to be natural anchor points. Jamie has also been bringing the Fellows to hackathons at Spotify and Splice–she wants them to imagine themselves someday working at those kinds of companies.

Alex Ruthmann, the director of the Music Experience Design Lab, is on the Steinhardt music education faculty, and has already started thinking of ways to integrate ESF with the official curriculum. The worlds of ESF and NYU have much to offer each other. NYU has its facilities and equipment, its expert faculty, its glamorous central location, and the accumulated expertise of all those well-trained musicians and composers and engineers. ESF has none of the material wealth or the privilege. But the Fellows are part of hip-hop, the single most important driver of America’s musical culture. A recent study conducted by Spotify concluded that hip-hop is the most-listened to genre of music on their service, not just in the United States, but everywhere in the world. It is astonishing to me that our country’s most marginalized young people are producing its most valued music. I hope that the academy learns to value their ideas as much as mass culture does.

Design-Based Research

Note-taking for Research on Games and Simulations with Jan Plass

Barab, S. A. (2014). Design-based research: a methodological toolkit for engineering change. In K. Sawyer (ed.) Handbook of the Learning Sciences, Vol 2, (pp. 233-270), Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Design-based research

Design-based research (DBR) is a subject close to my heart, because it was the basis of my masters thesis, and informs the work of the NYU Music Experience Design Lab. All of our tools are designed and tested in the context of messy and complex natural learning and creating environments: classrooms, bedrooms, studios, and public events. We evaluate our tools continuously, but the only purely empirical and “experimental” methods we use involve Google analytics. We sometimes conduct user research in formal settings, but mostly observe practice “in the wild” between regular iterations.

DBR follows Dewey’s model of praxis, not so much a traditional positivist science or ethnographic tradition of inquiry, but rather a pragmatic form of inquiry “where theories are judged not by their claims to truth, but by their ability to do work in the world.” It entails the study of learning innovations inspired by theory, conducted in naturalistic contexts. The goal is to produce new tools and practices that can be generalized to other learning environments (typically schools, but not necessarily.) DBR also aims to produce new theories, viewing them as intertwined with practice rather than occurring prior to it.

DBR would appear to fail to meet tests of rigor, freedom from bias, and reproducibility. However, advocates respond that for a learning intervention to be studied with full empirical rigor, variables must be isolated to the point where they no longer resemble the reality we are supposed to be studying. We can draw an analogy from music psychology. A teacher of mine studies musical tension and release. She isolates the various musical parameters that might create a sense of tension and release – pitch, rhythm, timbre and so on – as synthesizer tones varying only along each parameter, and measures listener responses. While her results are rigorous, her test material bears almost no resemblance to actual music. It may well be that musical tension and release are emergent properties of parameters interacting in social/cultural context. Research in a more naturalistic context might hopelessly confound the variables, but might be the only way to access a valid explanation. As in music, the context of learning experiences is not simply a backdrop against which things occur, but “an integral part of the complex causal mechanisms that give rise to the phenomenon under study.”

DBR is to traditional empirical research what agile methodologies are to waterfall-style software development. Rather than thinking of a study as a hypothesis which is then tested and written up, DBR is an ongoing process of iteration, testing, and iterating further. This makes it difficult to point to a clear, unambiguous result. DBR findings are more likely to take the form of narratives, descriptions of the various iterations and tests. The challenge then becomes to present these narratives in ways that readers can generalize from them, rather than limiting their relevance to the specific situations being described. While DBR is not ethnography, its results may well take the form of ethnographic “thick description” in Clifford Geertz’s sense. As in qualitative social science research, rigor “comes from principled accounts that provide logical chains of reasoning and prove useful to others.”

In considering DBR, we need to draw a distinction between measuring outputs and outcomes. Outputs are directly measurable results of an intervention, while outcomes are larger-scale and longer-term consequences. For example, standardized test scores are an output of schooling, while learning is a consequence. Because outputs are so much more readily measured than outcomes, there is a danger that we will optimize around outputs rather than outcomes (as schools have around standardized tests.) To combat this danger, DBR must provide explanatory accounts of outcomes with the same persuasive power as quantitative measures of outputs. Research must combine “experience-near meanings” (the local story) with “experience-distance significance” (the more general implications and applications.) Good DBR will produce grounded “petite generalizations” that can be built up into broader generalizations. Researchers will also need to be explicit about the assumptions and theoretical bases that underlie the work, since these can not be controlled for.

Learning music from Ableton

Ableton recently launched a delightful web site that teaches the basics of beatmaking, production and music theory using elegant interactives. If you’re interested in music education, creation, or user experience design, you owe it to yourself to try it out.

Ableton - Learning Music site

One of the site’s co-creators is Dennis DeSantis, who wrote Live’s unusually lucid documentation, and also their first book, a highly-recommended collection of strategies for music creation (not just in the electronic idiom.)

Dennis DeSantis - Making Music

The other co-creator is Jack Schaedler, who also created this totally gorgeous interactive digital signal theory primer.

If you’ve been following the work of the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, you might notice some strong similarities between Ableton’s site and our tools. That’s no coincidence. Dennis and I have been having an informal back and forth on the role of technology in music education for a few years now. It’s a relationship that’s going to get a step more formal this fall at the 2017 Loop Conference – more details on that as it develops.

Meanwhile, Peter Kirn’s review of the Learning Music site raises some probing questions about why Ableton might be getting involved in education in the first place. But first, he makes some broad statements about the state of the musical world that are worth repeating in full.

I think there’s a common myth that music production tools somehow take away from the need to understand music theory. I’d say exactly the opposite: they’re more demanding.

Every musician is now in the position of composer. You have an opportunity to arrange new sounds in new ways without any clear frame from the past. You’re now part of a community of listeners who have more access to traditions across geography and essentially from the dawn of time. In other words, there’s almost no choice too obvious.

The music education world has been slow to react to these new realities. We still think of composition as an elite and esoteric skill, one reserved only for small class of highly trained specialists. Before computers, this was a reasonable enough attitude to have, because it was mostly true. Not many of us can learn an instrument well enough to compose with it, then learn to notate our ideas. Even fewer of us will be able to find musicians to perform those compositions. But anyone with an iPhone and twenty dollars worth of apps can make original music using an infinite variety of sounds, and share that music online to anyone willing to listen. My kids started playing with iOS music apps when they were one year old. With the technical barriers to musical creativity falling away, the remaining challenge is gaining an understanding of music itself, how it works, why some things sound good and others don’t. This is the challenge that we as music educators are suddenly free to take up.

There’s an important question to ask here, though: why Ableton?

To me, the answer to this is self-evident. Ableton has been in the music education business since its founding. Like Adam Bell says, every piece of music creation software is a de facto education experience. Designers of DAWs might even be the most culturally impactful music educators of our time. Most popular music is made by self-taught producers, and a lot of that self-teaching consists of exploring DAWs like Ableton Live. The presets, factory sounds and affordances of your DAW powerfully inform your understanding of musical possibility. If DAW makers are going to be teaching the world’s producers, I’d prefer if they do it intentionally.

So far, there has been a divide between “serious” music making tools like Ableton Live and the toy-like iOS and web apps that my kids use. If you’re sufficiently motivated, you can integrate them all together, but it takes some skill. One of the most interesting features of Ableton’s web site, then, is that each interactive tool includes a link that will open up your little creation in a Live session. Peter Kirn shares my excitement about this feature.

There are plenty of interactive learning examples online, but I think that “export” feature – the ability to integrate with serious desktop features – represents a kind of breakthrough.

Ableton Live is a superb creation tool, but I’ve been hesitant to recommend it to beginner producers. The web site could change my mind about that.

So, this is all wonderful. But Kirn points out a dark side.

The richness of music knowledge is something we’ve received because of healthy music communities and music institutions, because of a network of overlapping ecosystems. And it’s important that many of these are independent. I think it’s great that software companies are getting into the action, and I hope they continue to do so. In fact, I think that’s one healthy part of the present ecosystem.

It’s the rest of the ecosystem that’s worrying – the one outside individual brands and what they support. Public music education is getting squeezed in different ways all around the world. Independent content production is, too, even in advertising-supported publications like this one, but more so in other spheres. Worse, I think education around music technology hasn’t even begun to be reconciled with traditional music education – in the sense that people with specialties in one field tend not to have any understanding of the other. And right now, we need both – and both are getting their resources squeezed.

This might feel like I’m going on a tangent, but if your DAW has to teach you how harmony works, it’s worth asking the question – did some other part of the system break down?

Yes it did! Sure, you can learn the fundamentals of rhythm, harmony, and form from any of a thousand schools, courses, or books. But there aren’t many places you can go to learn about it in the context of Beyoncé, Daft Punk, or A Tribe Called Quest. Not many educators are hip enough to include the Sleng Teng riddim as one of the fundamentals. I’m doing my best to rectify this imbalance–that’s what my courses with Soundfly classes are for. But I join Peter Kirn in wondering why it’s left to private companies to do this work. Why isn’t school music more culturally relevant? Why do so many educators insist that you kids like the wrong music? Why is it so common to get a music degree without ever writing a song? Why is the chasm between the culture of school music and music generally so wide?

Like Kirn, I’m distressed that school music programs are getting their budgets cut. But there’s a reason that’s happening, and it isn’t that politicians and school boards are philistines. Enrollment in school music is declining in places where the budgets aren’t being cut, and even where schools are offering free instruments. We need to look at the content of school music itself to see why it’s driving kids away. Both the content of school music programs and the people teaching them are whiter than the student population. Even white kids are likely to be alienated from a Eurocentric curriculum that doesn’t reflect America’s increasingly Afrocentric musical culture. The large ensemble model that we imported from European conservatories is incompatible with the riot of polyglot individualism in the kids’ earbuds.

While music therapists have been teaching songwriting for years, it’s rare to find it in school music curricula. Production and beatmaking are even more rare. Not many adults can play oboe in an orchestra, but anyone with a guitar or keyboard or smartphone can write and perform songs. Music performance is a wonderful experience, one I wish were available to everyone, but music creation is on another level of emotional meaning entirely. It’s like the difference between watching basketball on TV and playing it yourself. It’s a way to understand your own innermost experiences and the innermost experiences of others. It changes the way you listen to music, and the way you approach any kind of art for that matter. It’s a tool that anyone should be able to have in their kit. Ableton is doing the music education world an invaluable service; I hope more of us follow their example.

Research proposal – Hip-Hop Pedagogy

Final paper for Principles of Empirical Research with Catherine Voulgarides

Research questions

Jamie Ehrenfeld is a colleague of mine in the NYU Music Experience Design Lab. She graduated from NYU’s music education program, and now teaches music at Eagle Academy in Brownsville. Like many members of the lab, she straddles musical worlds, bringing her training in classical voice to her work mentoring rappers and R&B singers. We often talk about our own music learning experiences. In one such discussion, Jamie remarked: “I got a music degree without ever writing a song” (personal communication, April 29 2017). Across her secondary and undergraduate training, she had no opportunity to engage with the creative processes behind popular music. Her experience is hardly unusual. There is a wide and growing divide behind the culture of school music and the culture of music generally. Music educators are steeped in the habitus of classical music, at a time when our culture is increasingly defined by the music of the African diaspora: hip-hop, R&B, electronic dance music, and rock. 

The music academy’s near-exclusive focus on Western classical tradition places it strikingly at odds with the world that our students inhabit. In this paper, I examine the ideological basis for this divide. Why does the music academy generally and the training of music educators in particular hold so closely to the traditions of Western European classical music? Why has the music academy been slow to embrace African diasporic vernacular musics? Why does it outspokenly reject hip-hop? What racial and class forces drive the divide between music educators and the culture of their students? How might we make music education more culturally responsive? How can music educators support students in developing their own musical creativity via songwriting and beatmaking? What assumptions about musical and educational values must we challenge in order to do so?

Framing of research topic

Music education scholars commonly use “non-Western” as a shorthand for music outside the European classical tradition. This might lead one to naively believe that hip-hop is non-Western music. But it arose in the United States, so how can that be? Are our racial and ethnic minorities part of our civilization, or are they not? While the American cultural mainstream has increasingly embraced black musical styles, the music education field has not followed suit. As an example, consider a meme posted to a group for music teachers on Facebook. The meme’s original author is unknown. The caption was something like, “Typical middle school/high school student.” I will leave the person who posted it to Facebook anonymous, because they no doubt meant well.

You kids like the wrong music

The meme-maker is dismayed that young people do not care how little their music adheres to the stylistic norms of the Western European classical tradition. The author dismisses contemporary popular music and can not imagine why anyone else might enjoy it. The condescending presumption is that young people do not “really” enjoy pop, that they are being tricked into it by marketing and image, and that they are too lazy and ignorant to make critical choices. The choice of the word “molester” is a remarkable one, with its connotation of sexual violence. Classically trained educators feel their culture to be under attack, with their own students leading the charge.

Eurocentrism in American music education

In examining educational practice, we must look for the “hidden curriculum” (Anyon, 1980), the ideological content that comes along with the ostensible curricular goals. For example, The Complete Musician by Steven Laitz (2015) is a widely used college-level theory text. (I used a similar book of Laitz’s to fulfill my own graduate music theory requirement.) The title asserts an all-encompassing scope, but the text only discusses Western classical harmony and counterpoint. Other elements of music, like rhythm or timbre, receive cursory treatment at most. African diasporic and non-Western musics are not mentioned. The hidden curriculum here is barely even hidden. Mcclary (2000) asks why the particular musical conventions that emerged in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries appealed so much to musicians and audiences, what needs they satisfied, and what cultural functions they performed. We might ask, since those conventions no longer appeal to most musicians or audiences, whose needs are being satisfied by school music? What cultural functions is it performing?

America has embraced every black musical form from ragtime through trap. But while our laws and culture have become less overtly racist over time, the oppression of people of color continues, African-Americans especially. For example, while they are no more likely to use drugs than white people, black people are many times more likely to be incarcerated for it. A white applicant with a felony drug conviction is more likely to get a callback for an entry-level job than a black applicant with no criminal record at all (Pager, 2007). Our large cities are extraordinarily segregated, with black neighborhoods isolated and concentrated (Denton & Massey, 1993). Perhaps this isolation has contributed to the evolution of hip-hop and its radical break with European-descended musical practices. Perry (2004) argues that, while hip-hop is a hybrid music, it is nevertheless a fundamentally black one due to four central characteristics:

(1) its primary language is African American Vernacular English (AAVE); (2) it has a political location in society distinctly ascribed to black people, music, and cultural forms; (3) it is derived from black American oral culture; and (4) it is derived from black American musical traditions (Perry 2004, 10).

The white mainstream adores the music while showering the people who created it with contempt (Perry 2004, 27).

Black music versus white educators

If the popular mainstream is dominated by innovations in black music, the field of musical education is unified by its extraordinary whiteness, both demographically and musically. Prospective teachers tend to be white, and come from suburban, low-poverty areas (Doyle, 2014). There is corresponding disproportionality among participants in formal music classes and ensembles—privileged groups are overrepresented, while less-privileged groups are underrepresented. This is true for white students versus students of color, high-SES students versus low-SES students, native English speakers versus English language learners, students whose parents have more versus less education, and so on (Elpus & Abril, 2011). Some of the disparity is due to the fact that schools in less privileged communities are less likely to offer music in the first place. But the disparities hold true among schools that do offer music, and persist even when schools supply free instruments. Lack of access alone can not explain the overwhelming whiteness and privilege of most participants in school music.

A great deal of research shows enrollment in school music declining precipitously for the past few decades. Budget cuts alone can not explain this decline, since enrollment in other arts courses has not declined as much (Kratus, 2007). As America’s student population becomes less white, its Eurocentric music education culture is evidently becoming steadily less appealing. Finney (2007) attributes the gap between music educators and their students to differing musical codes. “Teachers tend to use elaborated codes derived from Western European ‘elite’ culture, whereas students use vernacular codes… Students and teachers are therefore in danger of standing on opposite sides of a musical and linguistic chasm with few holding the key to unlock the other’s code” (18). Williams (2011) points to large ensemble model of school music that was imported to the United States from the European conservatory tradition in the early twentieth century, and which has barely changed since. Music educators teach what they learned, and what they learned is likely to have been the conservatory-style large ensemble.

Is the solution to expand the canon of “acceptable” music to include more artists of color? A typical undergraduate music history curriculum now tacks Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker onto the end of the succession of white European composers. But the canon is a political entity, not just an aesthetic one. If we try to expand the canon to include a greater diversity of musics, we will fail to challenge the basic fact of its existence and its role in academic culture. “[T]he canon is an epistemology; it is a way of understanding the world that privileges certain aesthetic criteria and that organizes a narrative about the history and development of music around such criteria and based on that understanding of the world. In other worlds, the canon is an ideology more than a specific repertory” (Madrid 2017, 125). Diversity is of no help if we simply use it to perpetuate privilege and power inequalities. “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable” (Lorde 1984, 110). Rather than making incremental changes to the canon, we must ask how we can re-orient the basic assumptions of music education, its mission, its values, and its goals.

Literature review

In this section, I examine the present state of music education scholarship addressing the racial and class dynamics of music education, as well as the rise of culturally responsive pedagogies, particularly surrounding hip-hop.

Who is school music for?

By excluding entire categories of music and musicianship from the official curriculum, music educators send powerful and lasting messages to students (and everyone else) about what our society values and what it does not (Bledsoe, 2015). I am living proof; my own experiences with school music left me bored and alienated, and I came to the conclusion that I was not a musician at all. It took me years of self-guided practice to disabuse myself of that notion. I have had endless conversations with non-classical musicians at every level about how they do not regard themselves as “real” or “legitimate” musicians, no matter how professionally or creatively accomplished they may be. Fortunately, school music is not the only vector for music education. Most popular musicians learn informally from peers or on their own, a method that has become easier thanks to the internet. Still, the stigma of “failure” is a heavy psychological burden to overcome.

School music is usually competitive. There is a competitive process to become part of an ensemble, and those ensembles compete intramurally in much the same way that sports teams do. Conservatories that produce professional musicians need to be competitive. But should we continue to model all school music on the conservatory? The similarity between school ensembles and sports teams should trouble us. Schools are not obligated to let everyone play varsity football, regardless of ability. However, we do believe that schools should teach everyone reading and math. Our efforts to support struggling readers and math learners may be inadequate or even counterproductive, but at least we try to meet all students’ needs, and we certainly do not exclude low performers from studying these subjects entirely.

Some music teachers appear to exhibit the attitude of a physician who complains that all the patients in the waiting room are sick! In other words, they prefer to work only with the talented, ‘musically healthy’ few, when it is those who are in the most need of intervention who deserve at least equal attention (Regelski 2009, 32).

What if we held music teachers to the standards of math teachers rather than football coaches? We might follow the model of physical education classes and public health initiatives, prioritizing lifetime wellness over the identification and training of elite athletes only (Dillon, 2007).

Music and identity

In traditional aesthetic approaches to the Eurocentric canon, the locus of musical expressivity and meaning of the music is embedded entirely within the music itself. Listeners’ subjective experiences are not considered to be significant; our job is to decipher the formal relationships that the composer has encoded into the score. By contrast, Elliott and Silverman (2015) argue that we should take an embodied approach to musical understanding, seeing music as an enactive process emerging from the performance and listeners’ experience of it in social/emotional context. In the embodied approach, we see music as a tool for listeners to make their own meaning, to build their identity, and to communicate and modulate their emotions, all by means of bodily and social lived experience (van der Schyff, Schiavio & Elliott, 2016). Music is “a device for ordering the self” (DeNora 2000, 73). The role of music in building individual and group identity and a sense of belonging is especially critical in adolescence, when its ability to release or control difficult emotions may be literally lifesaving (Campbell, Connell & Beegle, 2007).

Music can also be the organizing principle behind new cultures and subcultures, a locus for tribal self-identification. Turino (2016) proposes that participatory music cultures offer an alternative form of citizenship, with the potential to be fundamental to our sense of self and a cornerstone of our happiness.

Fostering creative expression

Ruthmann (2007) suggests that we teach music the way that English teachers teach writing: use creative prompts that encourage students to develop individual authentic voices capable of expressing their own ideas and thoughts. Like writing generally, songwriting is hardly an elite or specialized practice. All young children spontaneously make up songs, which can sometimes be strangely catchy. My son wrote his first song at age four without any prompting or assistance, inspired by an episode of Thomas The Tank Engine (Pomykala-Hein, 2017). For many young people, music is entirely comprised of songs (Kratus, 2016). But after elementary school, school music is more about “pieces” than songs, symptomatic of the broader gap between in-school and out-of-school music cultures.

While music therapists have long taught songwriting, it is a rare practice in school music curricula. Kratus advocates songwriting for its therapeutic benefits, and for its lifelong learning benefits as well. Few adults have the opportunity to play oboe in an orchestra, but anyone with a guitar or keyboard or smartphone can write and perform songs. Historically, the technology for writing English has been dramatically more accessible than the technology for writing music, but that is changing rapidly. The software and hardware for recording, producing and composing music becomes cheaper and more user-friendly with each passing year. The instrumental backing track for “Pride” by Kendrick Lamar (2017) was produced by the eighteen-year-old Steve Lacy entirely on his iPhone. What are the other creative possibilities inherent in the devices students carry in their pockets and backpacks?

The psychological benefits of songwriting extend beyond musical learning. Like other art media, songwriting is an opportunity to practice what Sennett (2008) calls “craftsmanship,” defined as “the desire to do a job well for its own sake.” Craftsmanship is a habit of mind that “serves the computer programmer, the doctor, and the artist; parenting improves when it is practiced as a skilled craft, as does citizenship” (Sennett 2008, 9). Musical performers exercise craftsmanship as well, but not along as many different dimensions as songwriters and producers do.

Music creation is also a potential site of ethical development. We treat our favorite songs as imaginary people who we feel loving toward and protective of. This kind of idealization is akin to what we do “when we constitute others as persons, or when we invest others with personhood” (Elliott & Silverman 2015, 190). We imagine a personhood for the music, and we try to make that personhood real. In so doing, we learn how to create personhood for each other, and for ourselves. The point of musical education should not just be training in music, but developing ethical people through music (Bowman 2007, 2016). We can consider musical sensitivity to be a particular form of emotional sensitivity, and musical intelligence to be a particular application of emotional intelligence. Musical problem solving is an excellent simulator for social problem solving generally. Both in music and in life, the challenges are ambiguous, contingent, and loaded with irreconcilable contradiction. Performance and interpretation entail some musical problem-solving, but in the classical ensemble model that is typically the purview of the conductor. Songwriting poses musical problem-solving challenges to all who attempt it.

Hip-hop pedagogies

Brian Eno (2004) observes that the recording studio is a creative medium unto itself, one with different requirements for musicality from composition or performance. Indeed, no “composing” or “performing” need ever take place in modern studio practice. Eno is a case in point—while he has produced a string of famous and revered recordings, he does not consider himself to be adept at any instrument, and can not read or write notation. The digital studio has collapsed the distinction between musicians, composers, and engineers (Bell, 2014). The word “producer” is a useful descriptor for creators working across such role boundaries. In the analog recording era, producers were figures like Quincy Jones, executive managers of a commercial process. However, the term “producer” has come to describe anyone creating recorded music in any capacity, including songwriting, beatmaking, MIDI sequencing, and audio manipulation. We might expand the word further to include anyone who actively creates music, be it recorded, notated or live. To be a producer is a category of behavior, not a category of person.

Contemporary popular music is produced more than it is performed. This is nowhere more true than in the case of hip-hop, which in its instrumental aspect is almost entirely “postperformance” (Thibeault, 2010). The processes of producers like J Dilla and Kanye West resemble those of Brian Eno far more than those of Quincy Jones. This dramatic break with traditional musical practice poses major challenges for educators trained in the classical idiom, but it also presents new opportunities for culturally relevant and critically engaged pedagogy. Hip-hop-based education is mostly discussed in the urban classroom context, aimed toward “at-risk” youth (Irby & Hall, 2011). However, as hip-hop has expanded from its black urban origins to define the rest of mainstream musical culture, so too can it move into the educational mainstream as well.

There are several ways to incorporate hip-hop into education. Pedagogies with hip-hop connect hip-hop cultures and school experiences, using hip-hop as a bridge. Pedagogies about hip-hop engage teachers and students with critical perspectives on issues within the music and its culture, using hip-hop as a lens. Pedagogies of hip-hop apply hip-hop worldviews and practices within education settings (Kruse, 2016). Music educators can use hip-hop to enhance cultural relevance and connect to the large and growing percentage of students who identify as part of hip-hop culture. However, it is the use of hip-hop practices that most interests me as a research direction.

We should avoid using hip-hop as bait to get kids interested in “legitimate” music. Instead, we can apply the hip-hop ethos of authentic, culturally engaged expression to music education generally. Kratus (2007) points out that large ensembles are some of the last remaining school settings where the teaching model maintains a top-down autocratic structure, untouched by the cognitive revolution. This method does not create independently functioning musicians. How might we find ways for students to engage in music on their own cultural and technological terms? One method might be to do sampling and remixing of familiar music as an entry point into creation. This is the approach taken by Will Kuhn (personal communication, 2017), who teaches high school students to build songs entirely out of pieces of existing songs. Students can then replace those appropriated samples with material of their own.

Hip-hop has many controversial aspects, but none provokes the ire of legacy musicians more than the practice of sampling. There is a widespread perception that sampling is nothing more than a way to avoid learning instruments or hiring musicians. This may be true in some instances, but it is easy to identify examples of artists who went to considerable expense and trouble to license samples when they did not need to do so. For example, while Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the Roots is a highly regarded drummer, he still uses sampled breakbeats in his productions. Why would he prefer a sample to his own playing? In hip-hop, “[e]xisting recordings are not randomly or instrumentally incorporated so much as they become the simultaneous subject and object of a creative work” (Culter 2004, 154). Samples have specific timbral qualities that evoke specific memories and associations, situating the music in webs of intertextual reference.

Rice (2003) encourages non-music educators to draw on the practice of sampling. Students might approach cultural artifacts and texts the way that producers approach recorded music, looking for fragments that might be appropriated and repurposed to form the basis of new works.

The pedagogical sampler, with a computer or without a computer, allows cultural criticism to save isolated moments and then juxtapose them as a final product. The student writer looks at the various distinct moments she has collected and figures out how these moments together produce knowledge. Just as DJs often search for breaks and cuts in the music that reveal patterns, so, too, does the student writer look for a pattern as a way to unite these moments into a new alternative argument and critique (465).

Rice advocates what he calls the “whatever” principle of sampling. In the hip-hop context, “whatever” can have two meanings. First, there is the conventional sense of the word, that everything is on the table, that anything goes. There is also the slang sense of “whatever” as a statement of defiance, indifference, and dismissal. In a pedagogical context, the “whatever” principle encourages us to be accepting of what is new and unexpected, and be dismissive of what is fake or irrelevant. As Missy Elliott (2002) puts it: “Whatever, let’s just have fun. It’s hip-hop, man, this is hip-hop.”

I asked Jamie Ehrenfeld, if she had written songs while getting her music degree, what kind of material might she have written? She responded:

I would think of bits of music in my head and then associate them with some other song I’d already heard and felt like nothing I could think of was really original, and I didn’t get that it’s okay that in writing a song having some elements of other songs can come together to make something new, and that actually being original is more of what existing pieces you weave together in addition to ‘original’ thought (personal communication, April 28 2017).

In other words, the sampling ethos might have validated the intuitive creative processes she was already spontaneously carrying out, whether she had realized those impulses in the form of digitally produced recordings or pencil-and-paper scores.

Can a work based on samples be wholly original? Perhaps not. But hip-hop slang offers a different standard of quality that may be more apposite: the idea of freshness. There are several different definitions of “fresh.” It can mean new or different; well-rested, energetic, and healthy-looking; or appealing food, water, or air. “Fresh” is also a dated slang term for impudence or impertinence. In hip-hop culture, “fresh” is one among many synonyms for “cool,” but it could be referencing any of the various original senses of the word: new, refreshing, appetizing, attractive, or sassy. Rather than evaluating music in terms of its originality, we might judge music by its freshness (Hein, 2015). A track that includes samples can not be wholly original by definition, but it can be fresh. It is this sense of making new meaning out of existing resources that animates the Fresh Ed curriculum (Miles et al, 2015), a culturally responsive teaching resource created by the Urban Arts Partnership. Rather than treating students as receptacles for information, Fresh Ed places new knowledge in familiar contexts, for example in the form of rap songs. When students are able to draw on their prior knowledge and cultural competencies, they are better equipped to engage and think critically.

Proposed methods

Luker (2008) describes the case that chooses you, or that you sample yourself into (131). My own trajectory as a musician and educator has made me an exemplar of the shortcomings of Eurocentric music pedagogy and the benefits of personal creativity through producing and songwriting; certainly it feels like this case chose me. Since my own motivations are borne out of subjective experience, and since my research questions were provoked by the experiences of others like me, my research into those questions must necessarily follow an interpretivist paradigm. In choosing methods aligning to that paradigm, I want to identify one that supports the use of music creation itself as a tool for inquiry into music pedagogy. One such method is Eisner’s (1997) model of educational inquiry by means of connoisseurship and criticism. Connoisseurship is the “ability to make fine-grained discriminations among complex and subtle qualities” (Eisner 1997, 63). Criticism is judgment that illuminates and interprets the qualities of a practice in order to transform it. As a subjective researcher, I am obliged to systematically identify my subjectivity  (Peshkin, 1988), and I view my role as connoisseur and critic in music as a source of clarity rather than bias.

Ethnography

An interpretivist paradigm is well supported by methods of ethnography, since participant observation and unstructured interviews dovetail exactly with a subjectivist epistemology. Ethnographers typically allow their methods to evolve over the course of the study, and can only define their procedures in retrospect, in the form of a narrative of what actually happened, rather than a detailed plan ahead of time. This form of research is iterative, like agile software development. Data comes in the form of interpretations of interpretations of interpretations, and in that sense is a “fiction”—not in the sense that it is counterfactual (we hope), but in the original sense of the word, a thing that is constructed. We must involve our imagination in constructing our interpretive fictions (Geertz, 1973).

Institutional ethnographers examine work settings and processes, combining observation with discourse analysis of texts, documents and procedures. The goal is to show how people in the workplace align their activities with structures that may originate elsewhere (Devault, 2006). This method asks us to seek out “ruling relations” (Smith 2005, 11), textually mediated connections and organizations shaping everyday life, especially those that are the most taken for granted. In so doing, we examine the ways that texts bind small social groups into institutions, and bind those together into larger power structures. This method is well suited to a profession like music teaching.

Taber (2010) combines autoethnography with institutional ethnography to tell the story of her own experience in the military, as an entry point into understanding the experience of other women. She questions whether researching the lives of others was a way to hide from her own problematic experience, and chooses instead to foreground her internal conflicts, using a “reflexivity of discomfort” (19). This is emblematic of the institutional ethnographic practice of examining aspects of organizations that their inhabitants find problematic, troubling or contradictory. Since the story of my own music education is one of internal conflict and discomfort, I expect a similar method to Taber’s to yield rich results.

Naturally, an inquiry into music education will involve some ethnomusicology. Given how technologically mediated hip-hop and other contemporary forms are, it will be useful to take on the lens of “technomusicology” (Marshall, 2017). Music educators who feel pressured to use computers in their practice quickly run up against the fact that digital audio tools are a poor fit for classical music. However, these tools are the most natural medium for hip-hop and other electronic dance musics. The technological and cultural issues are inseparable.

Hip-hop grows out orality and African-American Vernacular English. Therefore, it is prone to being dismissed by scholars working in a literate value system. Similarly, it is all too common to view AAVE through the lens of deprivationism, as a failure to learn “correct” English. To overcome this spurious attitude, we can employ an ethnopoetic approach. Speakers of AAVE are only linguistically “impoverished” because we institutionally deem them to be so, not because they have any difficulty communicating or expressing themselves (McDermott & Varenne, 1995). By the same token, classical music culture sees the lack of complex harmony and melody in African diasporic music like hip-hop as a shortcoming, a poverty of musical means. But the hip-hop aesthetic puts a premium on rhythm and timbre, and harmony functions mostly as a way to signpost locations within the cyclical metrical structure. In learning to value hip-hop on its own terms, we broaden our ability to understand other musical and cultural value systems as well.

Participatory research

Participatory research methods like cooperative inquiry and participatory action research treat research participants as collaborators, rather than as objects of study. The related method of constructivist instructional design puts these principles into action in the form of new technologies, experiences and curricula, the educational equivalent of critical theorists’ activism. When teachers and designers act as researchers, they function as participant observers. While I am an avid hip-hop fan and a dedicated student of it, I am ultimately a tourist. My research will therefore necessarily be incomplete unless it is a collaborative effort with members of hip-hop culture.

Instructional design as participatory research follows a Reflective and Recursive Design and Development (R2D2) model, based on the principles of recursion, nonlinearity and reflection (Willis, 2007). Designers test and prototype continually alongside users, and feed the results back into the next design iteration. This process for developing instructional material enables end users and experts to work jointly toward the end product. This loop of feedback and iteration is an example of reflective practice, made up of the “arts” of problem framing, implementation, and improvisation (Schön, 1987). These same arts are the ones used in musical problem-solving, both as a practitioner and educator. The Music Experience Design Lab follows a participatory design methodology in developing our technologies for music learning and expression, and the idea of using the same techniques to examine the broader social context of our work is quite appealing to me.

Narrative inquiry

There may be universal physical truths, but mental, emotional and social truths are contextual and particular. To examine these truths, then, we need verstehen, understanding of context, both historical and contemporary (Willis, 2007). To that end, we can draw on phenomenology, asking how humans view themselves and the world around them. This perspective attends to experience “from the neck down,” not just to cognition. We need to understand the bodily sensations of numbness, anxiety or anger that too many students feel in the music classroom, knowing that something is wrong but not knowing how to name it. For example, I spent my music graduate theory seminar in a continual low boil of rage, and it was only years later that I was able to point to the white supremacist ideology animating the curriculum as the source of this intense emotion. A number of my fellow musicians aligned with black music have described the same feelings. It is a primary research goal of mine to give those feelings a name and a clear target, so they can be put to work in the service of systemic change.

Bruner (1991) cites Vygotsky’s dictum that cultural products like language mediate our thought and shape our representations of reality. (This is certainly true of music.) Constructionists assume that we produce reality through the social exchange of meanings. We use language not as isolated individuals, but within social groups, organizations, institutions and cultures. Within our contexts, we speak as we understand it to be appropriate to speak (Galasinski & Ziólkowska, 2013). As narratives accrue into traditions, they take on a life of their own that can outlive their original context—this is a likely explanation for the persistence of classical music habitus far beyond the conservatory.

Close readers of narrative must study not only the syntactic content of the words themselves, but also their literary qualities, their tone (Riessman, 2008). There is a close parallel here with musicology. When we compare Julie Andrews’ performance of “My Favorite Things” in The Sound Of Music (1965) with the one recorded by John Coltrane (1961), it is like comparing the same text spoken by two very different speakers. We can perform a neat inverse of this process by examining the same musical performance across contexts; for example, comparing Tom Scott’s recording of Balin and Kantner’s “Today” (1967) with the sample of that recording that forms the centerpiece of Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” (1992). Here, the same performance gives rise to different musical meanings in different settings. We should be similarly attentive to the performative and contextual aspects of narrative.

Validity and reliability

If we are examining attitudes and interpretations rather than more easily observable “facts,” how do we ensure validity and reliability? In place of a search for straightforward logical explanations, we can instead build a case on Lyotardian paralogy, and “let contradictions remain in tension” (Lather 1993, 679), like the unresolved tritones enriching the blues and jazz. We should not expect to find tree-shaped hierarchies of explanation, but instead hold ourselves to a “rhizomatic” standard of validity. “Rather than a linear progress, rhizomatics is a journey among intersections, nodes, and regionalizations through a multi-centered complexity” (Lather 1993, 680). We can understand the complexities of music and schooling and race to have the topology of a network, not a tree. We should expect that when we pull on any part of the network, we will encounter a tangle.

In my research thus far, I have instinctively used reciprocity to treat my interviews more as two-way conversations. Such judicious use of self-disclosure can give rise to richer data. We can attain further reciprocity by showing participants field notes and drafts, building in “member checks” early on to ensure trustworthiness throughout the process. As feminist researchers, Harrison, MacGibbon and Morton (2001) hold attention to emotional aspects of the research and the relationships it entails as a key criterion of trustworthiness. This kind of emotionally aware collaborative/shared authorship aligns naturally with participatory research, and with hip-hop pedagogy. Larson (1997) argues that narrative inquiry gains greater validity by having the story-giver reflect on the transcript and analysis so they can revise or go deeper into their story. If a lived experience is an iceberg, then its initial retelling may just describe the tip. It takes reflection to bring more of the iceberg to the surface. We may therefore do better to examine a few icebergs thoroughly than to survey many tips.

Sample data and future research

Ed Sullivan Fellows (ESF) is a mentorship and artist development program run by the NYU Steinhardt Music Experience Design Lab. Participants are young men and women between the ages of 15 and 20, mostly low-SES people of color. They meet on Saturday afternoons at NYU to write and record songs; to get mentorship on the music business, marketing and branding; and to socialize. Sessions have a clubhouse feel, a series of ad-hoc jam sessions, cyphers, informal talks, and open-ended creativity. Conversations are as likely to focus on participants’ emotions, politics, social life and identity as they are on anything pertaining to music. I intend to conduct my research among hip-hop educators like Jamie and the other ESF mentors. They teach music concepts like song structure and harmony, but their project is much larger: to provide emotional support, to build resilience and confidence, to foster social connections across class and racial lines. Hein (2017) is a set of preliminary observations on ESF, showing the close connection between its musical and social values.

Conclusion

If music education is failing to address the needs of the substantial majority of students, it should be no wonder that enrollment and societal support are declining.

Every ‘failure’ to succeed in competition, every drop-out, and every student who is relieved to have compulsory music study behind them (including lessons enforced by parental fiat) represents not just a lack of ‘conversion’ to musical ‘virtue’ but gives such future members of the public compelling reason to doubt whether their music education has served any lasting purpose or value (Regelski 2009, 12).

Music educators’ advocacy efforts are mostly devoted to preserving existing methods and policies. However, these same methods and practices are driving music education’s irrelevance. At some point, advocacy starts to look less like a high-minded push for society’s interest, and more like an effort on behalf of music teachers’ self-interest.

Most (if not all) people have an inborn capacity and intrinsic motivation for engaging in music. However, that capacity and motivation need to be activated and nurtured by “musically and educationally excellent teachers and… inspiring models of musicing in contexts of welcoming, sustaining, and educative musical settings, including home and community contexts” (Elliott & Silverman 2015, 240). To restrict this opportunity to “talented” students is anti-democratic in Dewey’s sense. Good music serves particular human needs. One of those needs is aesthetic contemplation and appreciation of the Eurocentric canon. But there are many other legitimate ends that music education can pursue. In order to meet more students’ musical needs, we must embrace the musical culture of the present, and confront all the challenges of race and class that entails.

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Discography

Balin, M. and Kantner, P. (1967). Today [recorded by Tom Scott and The California Dreamers]. On The Honeysuckle Breeze [LP]. Santa Monica: Impulse! (1967)

Elliott, Missy (2002). Work It. On Under Construction [CD]. New York: Goldmind/Elektra. (November 12, 2002)

Lamar, Kendrick (2017). Pride. On DAMN. [CD/streaming]. Santa Monica, CA: Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope. (April 14, 2017)

Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth (1992). They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.). On Mecca and the Soul Brother [LP]. New York: Untouchables/Elektra. (April 2, 1992)

Rodgers, Richard and Hammerstein, Oscar (1959). My Favorite Things [recorded by John Coltrane]. On My Favorite Things [LP]. New York: Atlantic. (March, 1961)

Composing in the classroom

The hippest music teachers help their students create original music. But what exactly does that mean? What even is composition? In this post, I take a look at two innovators in music education and try to arrive at an answer.

Matt McLean is the founder of the amazing Young Composers and Improvisers Workshop. He teaches his students composition using a combination of Noteflight, an online notation editor, and the MusEDLab‘s own aQWERTYon, a web app that turns your regular computer keyboard into an intuitive musical interface.

http://www.yciw.net/1/the-interface-i-wish-noteflight-had-is-here-aqwertyon/

Matt explains:

Participating students in YCIW as well as my own students at LREI have been using Noteflight for over 6 years to compose music for chamber orchestras, symphony orchestras, jazz ensembles, movie soundtracks, video game music, school band and more – hundreds of compositions.

Before the advent of the aQWERTYon, students needed to enter music into Noteflight either by clicking with the mouse or by playing notes in with a MIDI keyboard. The former method is accessible but slow; the latter method is fast but requires some keyboard technique. The aQWERTYon combines the accessibility of the mouse with the immediacy of the piano keyboard.

For the first time there is a viable way for every student to generate and notate her ideas in a tactile manner with an instrument that can be played by all. We founded Young Composers & Improvisors Workshop so that every student can have the experience of composing original music. Much of my time has been spent exploring ways to emphasize the “experiencing” part of this endeavor. Students had previously learned parts of their composition on instruments after their piece was completed. Also, students with piano or guitar skills could work out their ideas prior to notating them. But efforts to incorporate MIDI keyboards or other interfaces with Noteflight in order to give students a way to perform their ideas into notation always fell short.

The aQWERTYon lets novices try out ideas the way that more experienced musicians do: by improvising with an instrument and reacting to the sounds intuitively. It’s possible to compose without using an instrument at all, using a kind of sudoku-solving method, but it’s not likely to yield good results. Your analytical consciousness, the part of your mind that can write notation, is also its slowest and dumbest part. You really need your emotions, your ear, and your motor cortex involved. Before computers, you needed considerable technical expertise to be able to improvise musical ideas, and remember them long enough to write them down. The advent of recording and MIDI removed a lot of the friction from the notation step, because you could preserve your ideas just by playing them. With the aQWERTYon and interfaces like it, you can do your improvisation before learning any instrumental technique at all.

Student feedback suggests that kids like being able to play along to previously notated parts as a way to find new parts to add to their composition. As a teacher I am curious to measure the effect of students being able to practice their ideas at home using aQWERTYon and then sharing their performances before using their idea in their composition. It is likely that this will create a stronger connection between the composer and her musical idea than if she had only notated it first.

Those of us who have been making original music in DAWs are familiar with the pleasures of creating ideas through playful jamming. It feels like a major advance to put that experience in the hands of elementary school students.

Matt uses progressive methods to teach a traditional kind of musical expression: writing notated scores that will then be performed live by instrumentalists. Matt’s kids are using futuristic tools, but the model for their compositional technique is the one established in the era of Beethoven.

Beethoven

(I just now noticed that the manuscript Beethoven is holding in this painting is in the key of D-sharp. That’s a tough key to read!)

Other models of composition exist. There’s the Lennon and McCartney method, which doesn’t involve any music notation. Like most untrained rock musicians, the Beatles worked from lyric sheets with chords written on them as a mnemonic. The “lyrics plus chords” method continues to be the standard for rock, folk and country musicians. It’s a notation system that’s only really useful if you already have a good idea of how the song is supposed to sound.

Lennon and McCartney writing

Lennon and McCartney originally wrote their songs to be performed live for an audience. They played in clubs for several years before ever entering a recording studio. As their career progressed, however, the Beatles stopped performing live, and began writing with the specific goal of creating studio recordings. Some of those later Beatles tunes would be difficult or impossible to perform live. Contemporary artists like Missy Elliott and Pharrell Williams have pushed the Beatles’ idea to its logical extreme: songs existing entirely within the computer as sequences of samples and software synths, with improvised vocals arranged into shape after being recorded. For Missy and Pharrell, creating the score and the finished recording are one and the same act.

Pharrell and Missy Elliott in the studio

Is it possible to teach the Missy and Pharrell method in the classroom? Alex Ruthmann, MusEDLab founder and my soon-to-be PhD advisor, documented his method for doing so in 2007.

As a middle school general music teacher, I’ve often wrestled with how to engage my students in meaningful composing experiences. Many of the approaches I’d read about seemed disconnected from the real-world musicality I saw daily in the music my students created at home and what they did in my classes. This disconnect prompted me to look for ways of bridging the gap’ between the students’ musical world outside music class and their in-class composing experiences.

It’s an axiom of constructivist music education that students will be most motivated to learn music that’s personally meaningful to them. There are kids out there for whom notated music performed on instruments is personally meaningful. But the musical world outside music class usually follows the Missy and Pharrell method.

[T]he majority of approaches to teaching music with technology center around notating musical ideas and are often rooted in European classical notions of composing (for example, creating ABA pieces, or restricting composing tasks to predetermined rhythmic values). These approaches require students to have a fairly sophisticated knowledge of standard music notation and a fluency working with rhythms and pitches before being able to explore and express their musical ideas through broader musical dimensions like form, texture, mood, and style.

Noteflight imposes some limitations on these musical dimensions. Some forms, textures, moods and styles are difficult to capture in standard notation. Some are impossible. If you want to specify a particular drum machine sound combined with a sampled breakbeat, or an ambient synth pad, or a particular stereo image, standard notation is not the right tool for the job.

Common approaches to organizing composing experiences with synthesizers and software often focus on simplified classical forms without regard to whether these forms are authentic to the genre or to technologies chosen as a medium for creation.

There is nothing wrong with teaching classical forms. But when making music with computers, the best results come from making the music that’s idiomatic to computers. Matt McLean goes to extraordinary lengths to have student compositions performed by professional musicians, but most kids will be confined to the sounds made by the computer itself. Classical forms and idioms sound awkward at best when played by the computer, but electronic music sounds terrific.

The middle school students enrolled in these classes came without much interest in performing, working with notation, or studying the classical music canon. Many saw themselves as “failed” musicians, placed in a general music class because they had not succeeded in or desired to continue with traditional performance-based music classes. Though they no longer had the desire to perform in traditional school ensembles, they were excited about having the opportunity to create music that might be personally meaningful to them.

Here it is, the story of my life as a music student. Too bad I didn’t go to Alex’s school.

How could I teach so that composing for personal expression could be a transformative experience for students? How could I let the voices and needs of the students guide lessons for the composition process? How could I draw on the deep, complex musical understandings that these students brought to class to help them develop as musicians and composers? What tools could I use to quickly engage them in organizing sound in musical and meaningful ways?

Alex draws parallels between writing music and writing English. Both are usually done alone at a computer, and both pose a combination of technical and creative challenges.

Musical thinking (thinking in sound) and linguistic thinking (thinking using language phrases and ideas) are personal creative processes, yet both occur within social and cultural contexts. Noting these parallels, I began to think about connections between the whole-language approach to writing used by language arts teachers in my school and approaches I might take in my music classroom.

In the whole-language approach to writing, students work individually as they learn to write, yet are supported through collaborative scaffolding-support from their peers and the teacher. At the earliest stages, students tell their stories and attempt to write them down using pictures, drawings, and invented notation. Students write about topics that are personally meaningful to them, learning from their own writing and from the writing of their peers, their teacher, and their families. They also study literature of published authors. Classes that take this approach to teaching writing are often referred to as “writers’ workshops”… The teacher facilitates [students’] growth as writers through minilessons, share sessions, and conferring sessions tailored to meet the needs that emerge as the writers progress in their work. Students’ original ideas and writings often become an important component of the curriculum. However, students in these settings do not spend their entire class time “freewriting.” There are also opportunities for students to share writing in progress and get feedback and support from teacher and peers. Revision and extension of students’ writing occur throughout the process. Lessons are not organized by uniform, prescriptive assignments, but rather are tailored to the students’ interests and needs. In this way, the direction of the curriculum and successive projects are informed by the students’ needs as developing writers.

Alex set about creating an equivalent “composers’ workshop,” combining composition, improvisation, and performing with analytical listening and genre studies.

The broad curricular goal of the composers’ workshop is to engage students collaboratively in:

  • Organizing and expressing musical ideas and feelings through sound with real-world, authentic reasons for and means of composing
  • Listening to and analyzing musical works appropriate to students’ interests and experiences, drawn from a broad spectrum of sources
  • Studying processes of experienced music creators through listening to, performing, and analyzing their music, as well as being informed by accounts of the composition process written by these creators.

Alex recommends production software with strong loop libraries so students can make high-level musical decisions with “real” sounds immediately.

While students do not initially work directly with rhythms and pitch, working with loops enables students to begin composing through working with several broad musical dimensions, including texture, form, mood, and affect. As our semester progresses, students begin to add their own original melodies and musical ideas to their loop-based compositions through work with synthesizers and voices.

As they listen to musical exemplars, I try to have students listen for the musical decisions and understand the processes that artists, sound engineers, and producers make when crafting their pieces. These listening experiences often open the door to further dialogue on and study of the multiplicity of musical roles’ that are a part of creating today’s popular music. Having students read accounts of the steps that audio engineers, producers, songwriters, film-score composers, and studio musicians go through when creating music has proven to be informative and has helped students learn the skills for more accurately expressing the musical ideas they have in their heads.

Alex shares my belief in project-based music technology teaching. Rather than walking through the software feature-by-feature, he plunges students directly into a creative challenge, trusting them to pick up the necessary software functionality as they go. Rather than tightly prescribe creative approaches, Alex observes the students’ explorations and uses them as opportunities to ask questions.

I often ask students about their composing and their musical intentions to better understand how they create and what meanings they’re constructing and expressing through their compositions. Insights drawn from these initial dialogues help me identify strategies I can use to guide their future composing and also help me identify listening experiences that might support their work or techniques they might use to achieve their musical ideas.

Some musical challenges are more structured–Alex does “genre studies” where students have to pick out the qualities that define techno or rock or film scores, and then create using those idioms. This is especially useful for younger students who may not have a lot of experience listening closely to a wide range of music.

Rather than devoting entire classes to demonstrations or lectures, Alex prefers to devote the bulk of classroom time to working on the projects, offering “minilessons” to smaller groups or individuals as the need arises.

Teaching through minilessons targeted to individuals or small groups of students has helped to maintain the musical flow of students’ compositional work. As a result, I can provide more individual feedback and support to students as they compose. The students themselves also offer their own minilessons to peers when they have designed to teach more about advanced features of the software, such as how to record a vocal track, add a fade-in or fade-out, or copy their musical material. These technology skills are taught directly to a few students, who then become the experts in that skill, responsible for teaching other students in the class who need the skill.

Not only does the peer-to-peer learning help with cultural authenticity, but it also gives students invaluable experience with the role of teacher.

One of my first questions is usually, “Is there anything that you would like me to listen for or know about before I listen?” This provides an opportunity for students to seek my help with particular aspects of their composing process. After listening to their compositions, I share my impressions of what I hear and offer my perspective on how to solve their musical problems. If students choose not to accept my ideas, that’s fine; after all, it’s their composition and personal expression… Use of conferring by both teacher and students fosters a culture of collaboration and helps students develop skills in peer scaffolding.

Alex recommends creating an online gallery of class compositions. This has become easier to implement since 2007 with the explosion of blog platforms like Tumblr, audio hosting tools like SoundCloud, and video hosts like YouTube. There are always going to be privacy considerations with such platforms, but there is no shortage of options to choose from.

Once a work is online, students can listen to and comment on these compositions at home outside of class time. Sometimes students post pieces in progress, but for the most part, works are posted when deemed “finished” by the composer. The online gallery can also be set up so students can hear works written by participants in other classes. Students are encouraged to listen to pieces published online for ideas to further their own work, to make comments, and to share these works with their friends and family. The realworld publishing of students’ music on the Internet seems to contribute to their motivation.

Assessing creative work is always going to be a challenge, since there’s no objective basis to assess it on. Alex looks at how well a student composer has met the goal of the assignment, and how well they have achieved their own compositional intent.

The word “composition” is problematic in the context of contemporary computer-based production. It carries the cultural baggage of Western Europe, the idea of music as having a sole identifiable author (or authors.) The sampling and remixing ethos of hip-hop and electronica are closer to the traditions of non-European cultures where music may be owned by everyone and no one. I’ve had good results bringing remixing into the classroom, having students rework each others’ tracks, or beginning with a shared pool of audio samples, or doing more complex collaborative activities like musical shares. Remixes are a way of talking about music via the medium of music, and remixes of remixes can make for some rich and deep conversation. The word “composition” makes less sense in this context. I prefer the broader term “production”, which includes both the creation of new musical ideas and the realization of those ideas in sound.

So far in this post, I’ve presented notation-based composition and loop-based production as if they’re diametrical opposites. In reality, the two overlap, and can be easily combined. A student can create a part as a MIDI sequence and then convert it to notation, or vice versa. The school band or choir can perform alongside recorded or sequenced tracks. Instrumental or vocal performances can be recorded, sampled, and turned into new works. Electronic productions can be arranged for live instruments, and acoustic pieces can be reconceived as electronica. If a hip-hop track can incorporate a sample of Duke Ellington, there’s no reason that sample couldn’t be performed by a high school jazz band. The possibilities are endless.

Ilan meets the Fugees

My youngest private music production student is a kid named Ilan. He makes moody trip-hop and deep house using Ableton Live. For our session today, Ilan came in with a downtempo, jazzy hip-hop instrumental. I helped him refine and polish it, and then we talked about his ideas for what kind of vocal might work on top. He wanted an emcee to flow over it, so I gave him my folder of hip-hop acapellas I’ve collected. The first one he tried was “Fu-Gee-La [Refugee Camp Remix]” by the Fugees.

I had it all warped out already, so all he had to do was drag and drop it into his session and press play. It sounded great, so he ran with it. Here’s what he ended up with:

At this point, let me clarify something. To his knowledge, Ilan had never heard “Fu-Gee-La” before using it in his track. His first exposure was the acapella over his own instrumental. His track is quite a bit faster than the original (well, technically, it’s slower, but the kids these days like their rapping doubletime.) Also, we needed to pitch the acapella down a minor third to match the key of Ilan’s instrumental. As of this writing, he has heard his remix about a thousand more times than the original.

And now, let’s consider the Fugees’ “original” song. Ilan used the acapella from a remix, not from the original original, which makes a difference since the remix has some different lyrics. The Fugees’ original original is not itself totally original. It contains several samples, including liberal interpolations of Teena Marie, and a quote from “Shakiyla (JRH)” by Poor Righteous Teachers, which itself contains several samples.

Hip-hop’s sampling culture was still radical back in the 90s when “Fu-Gee-La” was released, but has since become absorbed into mainstream sensibilities. Ilan is ambitious and talented, but his sensibilities are well in keeping with most of his millennial peers. So it’s worth looking into his norms and values around authorship and ownership. During our session, he was interested in the Fugees song simply as raw material for his own creativity, not as a self-contained work that needed to be “appreciated” first (or ever.) Ilan’s concerns about where he sources his sounds comes down one hundred percent to expediency. He buys sounds from the Ableton web site because that’s easy. The same goes for buying tracks from iTunes, if they surface with a quick search. Otherwise Ilan just does YouTube to mp3 conversion. I’ve never heard him voice any concern about the idea of intellectual property, or any desire to seek anyone’s permission.

So here we have a young musician who created an original track, and then after the fact layered in a commercially released hip-hop vocal track on a whim. If that one hadn’t worked, he would have just dropped in another one chosen more or less at random. This kind of effortless drag-and-drop remixing requires some facility with Ableton Live, which is expensive and has a learning curve. But this practice is easier than it was five years ago, and is only going to get easer. Music educators: are we ready for a world where this kind of creativity is so accessible? Rights holders: do you know just how little the kids know or care about the concept of musical intellectual property? And musicians: have you experienced the pleasure and inspiration of freely mixing your ideas with everyone else’s? This is a crazy time we live in.

Project-based music technology teaching

I use a project-based approach to teaching music technology. Technical concepts stick with you better if you learn them in the course of making actual music. Here’s the list of projects I assign to my college classes and private students. I’ve arranged them from easiest to hardest. The first five projects are suitable for a beginner-level class using any DAW–my beginners use GarageBand. The last two projects are more advanced and require a DAW with sophisticated editing tools and effects, like Ableton Live. If you’re a teacher, feel free to use these (and let me know if you do). Same goes for all you bedroom producers and self-teachers.

The projects are agnostic as to musical content, style or genre. However, the computer is best suited to making electronic music, and most of these projects work best in the pop/hip-hop/techno sphere. Experimental, ambient or film music approaches also work well. Many of them draw on the Disquiet Junto. Enjoy.

Tristan gets his FFT on

Loops

Assignment: Create a song using only existing loops. You can use these or these, or restrict yourself to the loops included with your DAW. Do not use any additional sounds or instruments.

For beginners, I like to separate this into two separate assignments. First, create a short (two or four bar) phrase using four to six instrument loops and beats. Then use that set of loops as the basis of a full length track, by repeating, and by having sounds enter and exit.

Concepts:

  • Basic DAW functions
  • Listening like a producer
  • Musical form and song structures
  • Intellectual property, copyright and authorship

Hints:

  • MIDI loops are easier to edit and customize than audio loops.
  • Try slicing audio loops into smaller segments. Use only the front or back half of the loop. Or rearrange segments into a different order.

final song

MIDI

Assignment: Create a piece of music using MIDI and software instruments. Do not record or import any audio. You can use MIDI from any source, including: playing keyboards, drum pads or other interfaces; drawing in the piano roll; importing scores from notation programs; downloading MIDI files from the internet (for example, from here); or using the Audio To MIDI function in your DAW. 

I don’t treat this as a composition exercise (unless students want to make it one.) Feel free to use an existing piece of music. The only requirement is that the end result has to sound good. Simply dragging a classical or pop MIDI into the DAW is likely to sound terrible unless you put some thought into your instrument choices. If you do want to create something original, try these compositional prompts.

Concepts:

  • MIDI recording and editing
  • Quantization, swing, and grooves
  • “Real” vs “fake” instruments
  • Synthesized vs sampled sounds
  • Drum programming
  • Interfaces and controllers

Hints:

  • For beginners, see this post on beatmaking fundamentals.
  • Realism is unattainable. Embrace the fakeness.
  • Find a small segment of a classical piece and loop it.
  • Rather than playing back a Bach keyboard piece on piano or harpsichord, set your instrument to drums or percussion, and get ready for joy.

Montclair State Music Tech 101

Found sound

Assignment: Record a short environmental sound and incorporate it into a piece of music. You can edit and process your found sound as you see fit. Variation: use existing sounds from Freesound.

Concepts:

  • Audio recording, editing, and effects
  • The musical potential of “non-musical” sounds

Hints:

  • Students usually record their sounds with their phones, and the resulting recording quality is usually bad. Try using EQ, compression, delay, reverb, distortion, and other effects to mitigate or enhance poor sound quality and background noise.

pyt stems

Peer remix

Assignment: Remix a track by one of your classmates (or friends, or a stranger on the internet.) Feel free to incorporate other pieces of music as well. Follow your personal definition of the word “remix.” That might mean small edits and adjustments to the mix and effects, or a radical reworking leading to complete transformation of the source material.

There are endless variations on the peer remix. Try the “metaremix,” where students remix each others’ remixes, to the nth degree as time permits. Also, do group remix activities like Musical Shares or FX Roulette.

Concepts:

  • Collaboration and authorship
  • Sampling
  • Mashups
  • Evolution of musical ideas
  • Musical critique using musical language

Hints:

  • A change in tempo can have dramatic effects on the mood and feel of a track.
  • Adding sounds is the obvious move, but don’t be afraid to remove things too.

Self remix

Assignment: Remix one of your own projects, using the same guidelines as the peer remix. This is a good project for the end of the semester/term.

Song transformation

Assignment: Take an existing song and turn it into a new song. Don’t use any additional sounds or MIDI.

Concepts:

  • Advanced audio editing and effects
  • Musical form and structure
  • The nature of originality

Hints:

  • You can transform short segments simply by repeating them out of context. For example, try taking single chords or lyrical phrases and looping them.

Serato

Shared sample

Assignment: Take a short audio sample (five seconds or less) and build a complete piece of music out of it. Do not use any other sounds. This is the most difficult assignment here, and the most rewarding one if you can pull it off successfully.

Concepts:

  • Advanced audio editing and effects
  • Musical form and structure
  • The nature of originality

Hints:

  • Pitch shifting and timestretching are your friends.
  • Short bursts of noise can be tuned up and down to make drums.
  • Extreme timestretching produces great ambient textures.

Mobile music at IMPACT

Writing assignments

I like to have students document their process in blog posts. I ask: What sounds and techniques did you use? Why did you use them? Are you happy with the end result? Given unlimited time and expertise, what changes would you make? Do you consider this to be a valid form of musical creativity?

This semester I also asked students to write reviews of each others’ work in the style of their preferred music publication. In the future, I plan to have students write a review of an imaginary track, and then assign other students to try to create the track being described.

The best way to learn how to produce good recordings is to do critical listening exercises. I assign students to create musical structure and space graphs in the spirit of William Moylan.

Further challenges

The projects above were intended to be used for a one-semester college class. If I were teaching over a longer time span or I needed more assignments, I would draw from the Disquiet JuntoMaking Music by Dennis DeSantis, or the Oblique Strategies cards. Let me know in the comments if you have additional recommendations.