Chord pizzas

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

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

The chromatic circle and the circle of fifths

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

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

Major scale chords

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

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

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

Mixoydian mode chords

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

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

Phrygian dominant mode chords

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

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

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

The aQWERTYon pitch wheels and the future of music theory visualization

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

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

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

chromatic circle

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

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

C harmonic minor - monochrome

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

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

E-flat harmonic minor

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

C harmonic minor scale necklace

Here’s how the color scheme works:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or five notes at a time:

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

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

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

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

Update: Will Kuhn’s response to this post.

Deconstructing the bassline in Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon”

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

Chameleon - circular bass

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

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

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

B-flat Dorian

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

The chord progression

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

B-flat Dorian mode chords

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

B-flat Dorian mode chords on E-flat

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

Chord roots only

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

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

Simple arpeggios

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

The actual arpeggios

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

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

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

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

Adding the walkups

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

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

Putting it all together

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

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

              .          . .

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

B-flat blues

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

Freedom ’90

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

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

The beat

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

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

The intro and choruses

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

C Mixolydian chords

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

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

The verses

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

C major chords

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

The prechorus and bridge

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

C minor - descending chromatic bassline

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

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

Song structure

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

Freedom '90 structure

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

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

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

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

Careless Whisper

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

Play the riff yourself using your computer keyboard!

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

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

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

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

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

Careless Whisper D natural minor scale chords

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

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

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

Designing a more welcoming aQWERTYon experience

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

The best aQWERTYon screencap

Overview of the problem

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

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

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

The conjecture

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

aQWERTYon scale picker

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

aQW scale picker interactive wireframe

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

User characteristics and personas

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

Students and teachers

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

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


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

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

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

Tasks and Scenarios

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

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

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

Understanding the problem

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

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

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

Social and technical context

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

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

GarageBand musical typing

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

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

Ableton Push

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

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


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

Evaluation criteria

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

Proposed solution

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

aQWERTYon landing page interactive wireframe

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

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

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

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

User testing protocol

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

User testing results

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

User testing the aQWERTYon with fourth graders

Discovering melodies

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

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

Discovering chords

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

Other theory issues

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

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


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

Screen layout

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

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

Technical browser issues

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

Song choices

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

Recording functionality

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

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

New conjectures and future work

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

aQWERTYon app sequencer v1

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

Songs beyond the presets

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


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

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


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

Built-in theory pedagogy

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

Rhythmic assistance

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

Odds and ends

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

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

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

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

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.

Why hip-hop is interesting

The title of this post is also the title of a tutorial I’m giving at ISMIR 2016 with Jan Van Balen and Dan Brown. The conference is organized by the International Society for Music Information Retrieval, and it’s the fanciest of its kind. You may be wondering what Music Information Retrieval is. MIR is a specialized field in computer science devoted to teaching computers to understand music, so they can transcribe it, organize it, find connections and similarities, and, maybe, eventually, create it.

So why are we going to talk to the MIR community about hip-hop? So far, the field has mostly studied music using the tools of Western classical music theory, which emphasizes melody and harmony. Hip-hop songs don’t tend to have much going on in either of those areas, which makes the genre seem like it’s either too difficult to study, or just too boring. But the MIR community needs to find ways to engage this music, if for no other reason than the fact that hip-hop is the most-listened to genre in the world, at least among Spotify listeners.

Hip-hop has been getting plenty of scholarly attention lately, but most of it has been coming from cultural studies. Which is fine! Hip-hop is culturally interesting. When humanities people do engage with hip-hop as an art form, they tend to focus entirely on the lyrics, treating them as a subgenre of African-American literature that just happens to be performed over beats. And again, that’s cool! Hip-hop lyrics have literary interest. If you’re interested in the lyrical side, we recommend this video analyzing the rhyming techniques of several iconic emcees. But what we want to discuss is why hip-hop is musically interesting, a subject which academics have given approximately zero attention to.

Much of what I find exciting (and difficult) about hip-hop can be found in Kanye West’s song “Famous” from his album The Life Of Pablo.

The song comes with a video, a ten minute art film that shows Kanye in bed sleeping after a group sexual encounter with his wife, his former lover, his wife’s former lover, his father-in-law turned mother-in-law, various of his friends and collaborators, Bill Cosby, George Bush, Taylor Swift, and Donald Trump. There’s a lot to say about this, but it’s beyond the scope of our presentation, and my ability to verbalize thoughts. The song has some problematic lyrics. Kanye drops the n-word in the very first line and calls Taylor Swift a bitch in the second. He also speculates that he might have sex with her, and that he made her famous. I find his language difficult and objectionable, but that too is beyond the scope. Instead, I’m going to focus on the music itself.

“Famous” has a peculiar structure, shown in the graphic below.

The track begins with a six bar intro, Rihanna singing over a subtle gospel-flavored organ accompaniment in F-sharp major. She’s singing few lines from “Do What You Gotta Do” by Jimmy Webb. This song has been recorded many times, but for Kanye’s listeners, the most significant one is by Nina Simone.

Next comes a four-bar groove, a more aggressive organ part over a drum machine beat, with Swizz Beatz exclaiming on top. The beat is a minimal funk pattern on just kick and snare, treated with cavernous artificial reverb. The organ riff is in F-sharp minor, which is an abrupt mode change so early in the song. It’s sampled from the closing section of “Mi Sono Svegliato E…Ho Chiuso Gli Occhi” by Il Rovescio della Medaglia, an Italian prog-rock band I had never heard of until I looked the sample up just now. The song is itself built around quotes of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier–Kanye loves sampling material built from samples.

Verse one continues the same groove, with Kanye alternating between aggressive rap and loosely pitched singing. Rap is widely supposed not to be melodic, but this idea collapses immediately under scrutiny. The border between rapping and singing is fluid, and most emcees cross it effortlessly. Even in “straight” rapping, though, the pitch sequences are deliberate and meaningful. The pitches might not fall on the piano keys, but they are melodic nonetheless.

The verse is twelve bars long, which is unusual; hip-hop verses are almost always eight or sixteen bars. The hook (the hip-hop term for chorus) comes next, Rihanna singing the same Jimmy Webb/Nina Simone quote over the F-sharp major organ part from the intro. Swizz Beatz does more interjections, including a quote of “Wake Up Mr. West,” a short skit on Kanye’s album Late Registration in which DeRay Davis imitates Bernie Mac.

Verse two, like verse one, is twelve bars on the F-sharp minor loop. At the end, you think Rihanna is going to come back in for the hook, but she only delivers the pickup. The section abruptly shifts into an F-sharp major groove over fuller drums, including a snare that sounds like a socket wrench. The lead vocal is a sample of “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy, which is a familiar reference for hip-hop fans–I recognize it from “Lost Ones” by Lauryn Hill and “Just Hangin’ Out” by Main Source. The chorus means “What a bum deal.” Sister Nancy’s track is itself sample-based–like many reggae songs, it uses a pre-existing riddim or instrumental backing, and the chorus is a quote of the Maytals.

Kanye doesn’t just sample “Bam Bam”, he also reharmonizes it. Sister Nancy’s original is a I – bVII progression in C Mixolydian. Kanye pitch shifts the vocal to fit it over a I – V – IV – V progression in F-sharp major. He doesn’t just transpose the sample up or down a tritone; instead, he keeps the pitches close by changing their chord function. Here’s Sister Nancy’s original:

And here’s Kanye’s version:

The pitch shifting gives Sister Nancy the feel of a robot from the future, while the lo-fidelity recording places her in the past. It’s a virtuoso sample flip.

After 24 bars of the Sister Nancy groove, the track ends with the Jimmy Webb hook again. But this time it isn’t Rihanna singing. Instead, it’s a sample of Nina Simone herself.It reminds me of Kanye’s song “Gold Digger“, which includes Jamie Foxx imitating Ray Charles, followed by a sample of Ray Charles himself. Kanye is showing off here. It would be a major coup for most producers to get Rihanna to sing on a track, and it would be an equally major coup to be able to license a Nina Simone sample, not to mention requiring the chutzpah to even want to sample such a sacred and iconic figure. Few people besides Kanye could afford to use both Rihanna and Nina Simone singing the same hook, and no one else would dare. I don’t think it’s just a conspicuous show of industry clout, either; Kanye wants you to feel the contrast between Rihanna’s heavily processed purr and Nina Simone’s stark, preacherly tone.

Here’s a diagram of all the samples and samples of samples in “Famous.”

In this one track, we have a dense interplay of rhythms, harmonies, timbres, vocal styles, and intertextual meaning, not to mention the complexities of cultural context. This is why hip-hop is interesting.

You probably have a good intuitive idea of what hip-hop is, but there’s plenty of confusion around the boundaries. What are the elements necessary for music to be hip-hop? Does it need to include rapping over a beat? When blues, rock, or R&B singers rap, should we retroactively consider that to be hip-hop? What about spoken-word poetry? Does hip-hop need to include rapping at all? Do singers like Mary J. Blige and Aaliyah qualify as hip-hop? Is Run-DMC’s version of “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith hip-hop or rock? Is “Love Lockdown” by Kanye West hip-hop or electronic pop? Do the rap sections of “Rapture” by Blondie or “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift count as hip-hop?

If a single person can be said to have laid the groundwork for hip-hop, it’s James Brown. His black pride, sharp style, swagger, and blunt directness prefigure the rapper persona, and his records are a bottomless source of classic beats and samples. The HBO James Brown documentary is a must-watch.

Wikipedia lists hip-hop’s origins as including funk, disco,
electronic music, dub, R&B, reggae, dancehall, rock, jazz, toasting, performance poetry, spoken word, signifyin’, The Dozens, griots, scat singing, and talking blues. People use the terms hip-hop and rap interchangeably, but hip-hop and rap are not the same thing. The former is a genre; the latter is a technique. Rap long predates hip-hop–you can hear it in classicalrock, R&B, swingjazz fusion, soul, funkcountry, and especially blues, especially especially the subgenre of talking blues. Meanwhile, it’s possible to have hip-hop without rap. Nearly all current pop and R&B are outgrowths of hip-hop. Turntablists and controllerists have turned hip-hop into a virtuoso instrumental music.

It’s sometimes said that rock is European harmony combined with African rhythm. Rock began as dance music, and rhythm continues to be its most important component. This is even more true of hip-hop, where harmony is minimal and sometimes completely absent. More than any other music of the African diaspora, hip-hop is a delivery system for beats. These beats have undergone some evolution over time. Early hip-hop was built on funk, the product of what I call The Great Cut-Time Shift, as the underlying pulse of black music shifted from eighth notes to sixteenth notes. Current hip-hop is driving a Second Great Cut-Time Shift, as the average tempo slows and the pulse moves to thirty-second notes.

Like all other African-American vernacular music, hip-hop uses extensive syncopation, most commonly in the form of a backbeat. You can hear the blues musician Taj Mahal teach a German audience how to clap on the backbeat. (“Schvartze” is German for “black.”) Hip-hop has also absorbed a lot of Afro-Cuban rhythms, like the omnipresent son clave. This traditional Afro-Cuban rhythm is everywhere in hip-hop: in the drums, of course, but also in the rhythms of bass, keyboards, horns, vocals, and everywhere else. You can hear son clave in the snare drum part in “WTF” by Missy Elliott.

The NYU Music Experience Design Lab created the Groove Pizza app to help you visualize and interact with rhythms like the ones in hip-hop beats. You can use it to explore classic beats or more contemporary trap beats. Hip-hop beats come from three main sources: drum machines, samples, or (least commonly) live drummers.

Hip-hop was a DJ medium before emcees became the main focus. Party DJs in the disco era looped the funkiest, most rhythm-intensive sections of the records they were playing, and sometimes improvised toasts on top. Sampling and manipulating recordings has become effortless in the computer age, but doing it with vinyl records requires considerable technical skill. In the movie Wild Style, you can see Grandmaster Flash beat juggle and scratch “God Make Me Funky” by the Headhunters and “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” by Bob James (though the latter song had to be edited out of the movie for legal reasons.)

The creative process of making a modern pop recording is very different from composing on paper or performing live. Hip-hop is an art form about tracks, and the creativity is only partially in the songs and the performances. A major part of the art form is the creation of sound itself. It’s the timbre and space that makes the best tracks come alive as much as any of the “musical” components. The recording studio gives you control over the finest nuances of the music that live performers can only dream of. Most of the music consists of synths and samples that are far removed from a “live performance.” The digital studio erases the distinction between composition, improvisation, performance, recording and mixing. The best popular musicians are the ones most skilled at “playing the studio.”

Hip-hop has drawn much inspiration from the studio techniques of dub producers, who perform mixes of pre-existing multitrack tape recordings by literally playing the mixing desk. When you watch The Scientist mix Ted Sirota’s “Heavyweight Dub,” you can see him shaping the track by turning different instruments up and down and by turning the echo effect on and off. Like dub, hip-hop is usually created from scratch in the studio. Brian Eno describes the studio as a compositional tool, and hip-hop producers would agree.

Aside from the human voice, the most characteristic sounds in hip-hop are the synthesizer, the drum machine, the turntable, and the sampler. The skills needed by a hip-hop producer are quite different from the ones involved in playing traditional instruments or recording on tape. Rock musicians and fans are quick to judge electronic musicians like hip-hop producers for not being “real musicians” because sequencing electronic instruments appears to be easier to learn than guitar or drums. Is there something lazy or dishonest about hip-hop production techniques? Is the guitar more of a “real” instrument than the sampler or computer? Are the Roots “better” musicians because they incorporate instruments?

Maybe we discount the creative prowess of hip-hop producers because we’re unfamiliar with their workflow. Fortunately, there’s a growing body of YouTube videos that document various aspects of the process:

Before affordable digital samplers became available in the late 1980s, early hip-hop DJs and producers did most of their audio manipulation with turntables. Record scratching  demands considerable skill and practice, and it has evolved into a virtuoso form analogous to bebop saxophone or metal guitar shredding.

Hip-hop is built on a foundation of existing recordings, repurposed and recombined. Samples might be individual drum hits, or entire songs. Even hip-hop tracks without samples very often started with them; producers often replace copyrighted material with soundalike “original” beats and instrumental performances for legal reasons. Turntables and samplers make it possible to perform recordings like instruments.

The Amen break, a six-second drum solo, is one of the most important samples of all time. It’s been used in uncountably many hip-hop songs, and is the basis for entire subgenres of electronic music. Ali Jamieson gives an in-depth exploration of the Amen.

There are few artistic acts more controversial than sampling. Is it a way to enter into a conversation with other artists? An act of liberation against the forces of corporatized mass culture? A form of civil disobedience against a stifling copyright regime? Or is it a bunch of lazy hacks stealing ideas, profiting off other musicians’ hard work, and devaluing the concept of originality? Should artists be able to control what happens to their work? Is complete originality desirable, or even possible?

We look to hip-hop to tell us the truth, to be real, to speak to feelings that normally go unspoken. At the same time, we expect rappers to be larger than life, to sound impossibly good at all times, and to live out a fantasy life. And many of our favorite artists deliberately alter their appearance, race, gender, nationality, and even species. To make matters more complicated, we mostly experience hip-hop through recordings and videos, where artificiality is the nature of the medium. How important is authenticity in this music? To what extent is it even possible?

The “realness” debate in hip-hop reached its apogee with the controversy over Auto-Tune. Studio engineers have been using computer software to correct singers’ pitch since the early 1990s, but the practice only became widely known when T-Pain overtly used exaggerated Auto-Tune as a vocal effect rather than a corrective. The “T-Pain effect” makes it impossible to sing a wrong note, though at the expense of making the singer sound like a robot from the future. Is this the death of singing as an art form? Is it cheating to rely on software like this? Does it bother you that Kanye West can have hits as a singer when he can barely carry a tune? Does it make a difference to learn that T-Pain has flawless pitch when he turns off the Auto-Tune?

Hip-hop is inseparable from its social, racial and political environment. For example, you can’t understand eighties hip-hop without understanding New York City in the pre-Giuliani era. Eric B and Rakim capture it perfectly in the video for “I Ain’t No Joke.”

Given that hip-hop is the voice of the most marginalized people in America and the world, why is it so compelling to everyone else? Timothy Brennan argues that the musical African diaspora of which hip-hop is a part helps us resist imperialism through secular devotion. Brennan thinks that America’s love of African musical practice is related to an interest in African spiritual practice. We’re unconsciously drawn to the musical expression of African spirituality as a way of resisting oppressive industrial capitalism and Western hegemony. It isn’t just the defiant stance of the lyrics that’s doing the resisting. The beats and sounds themselves are doing the major emotional work, restructuring our sense of time, imposing a different grid system onto our experience. I would say that makes for some pretty interesting music.

Visualizing trap beats with the Groove Pizza

In a previous post, I used the Groove Pizza to visualize some classic hip-hop beats. But the kids are all about trap beats right now, which work differently from the funk-based boom-bap of my era.


From the dawn of jazz until about 1960, African-American popular music was based on an eighth note pulse. The advent of funk brought with it a shift to the sixteenth note pulse. Now we’re undergoing another shift, as Southern hip-hop is moving the rest of popular music over to a 32nd note pulse. The tempos have been slowing down as the beat subdivisions get finer. This may all seem like meaningless abstraction, but the consequences become real if you want to program beats of your own.

Back in the 90s, the template for a hip-hop beat looked like a planet of 16th notes orbited by kicks and snares. Click the image below to hear a simple “planet funk” pattern in the Groove Pizza. Each slice of the pizza is a sixteenth note, and the whole pizza is one bar long.

Planet Funk - 16th notes

(Music readers can also view it in Noteflight.)

You can hear the sixteenth note hi-hat pulse clearly in “So Fresh So Clean” by OutKast.

So Fresh So Clean

View in Noteflight

Trap beats have the same basic skeleton as older hip-hop styles: a kick on beat one, snares on beats two and four, and hi-hats on some or all of the beats making up the underlying pulse. However, in trap, that pulse is twice as fast as in 90s hip-hop, 32nd notes rather than sixteenths. This poses an immediate practical problem: a lot of drum machines don’t support such a fine grid resolution. For example, the interface of the ubiquitous TR-808 is sixteen buttons, one for each sixteenth note. On the computer, it’s less of an issue because you can set the grid resolution to be whatever you want, but even so, 32nd notes are a hassle. So what do you do?

The trap producer’s workaround is to double the song tempo, thereby turning sixteenths into effective 32nds. To get a trap beat at 70 beats per minute, you set the tempo to 140. Your 808 grid becomes half a bar of 32nd notes, rather than a full bar of sixteenths. And instead of putting your snares on beats two and four, you put them on beat three.

Here’s a generic trap beat I made. Each pizza slice is a 32nd note, and the whole pizza is half a bar.

View in Noteflight

Trap beats don’t use swing. Instead, they create rhythmic interest through syncopation, accenting unexpected weak beats. On the Groove Pizza, the weak beats are the ones in between the north, south, east and west. Afro-Cuban music is a good source of syncopated patterns. The snare pattern in the last quarter of my beat is a rotation of son clave, and the kick pattern is somewhat clave-like as well.

It's A Trap - last bar

Now let’s take a look at two real-life trap beats. First, there’s the inescapable “Trap Queen” by Fetty Wap.

Here’s a simplified version of the beat. (“Trap Queen” uses a few 64th notes on the hi-hat, which you can’t yet do on the Groove Pizza.)

Trap Queen simplified

View in Noteflight

The beat has an appealing symmetry. In each half bar, both the kick and snare each play a strong beat and a weak beat. The hi-hat pattern is mostly sixteenth notes, with just a few thirty-second notes as embellishments. The location of those embellishments changes from one half-bar to the next. It’s a simple technique, and it’s effective.

My other real-world example is “Panda” by Desiigner.

Here’s the beat on the GP, once again simplified a bit.

View in Noteflight

Unlike my generic trap beat, “Panda” doesn’t have any hi-hats on the 32nd notes at all. It feels more like an old-school sixteenth note pulse at a very slow tempo. The really “trappy” part comes at the very end, with a quick pair of kick drums on the last two 32nd notes. While the lawn-sprinkler effect of doubletime hi-hats has become a cliche, doubletime kick rolls are still startlingly fresh (at least to my ears.)

To make authentic trap beats, you’ll need a more full-featured tool than the Groove Pizza. For one thing, you need 64th notes and triplets. Also, trap isn’t just about the placement of the drum hits, it’s about specific sounds. In addition to closed hi-hats, you  need open hi-hats and crash cymbals. You want more than one snare or handclap, and maybe multiple kicks too. And you’d want to be able to alter the pitch of your drums too. The best resource to learn more, as always, is the music itself.

Theory for Producers: the White Keys

I’m pleased to announce the second installment of Theory For Producers, jointly produced by Soundfly and the MusEDLab. The first part discussed the scales you can play on the black keys of the piano. This one talks about three of the scales you get from the white keys. The next segment will deal with four additional white-key scales. Go try it!

Theory for Producers: the White Keys

If you’re a music educator or theory nerd, and would like to read more about the motivation behind the course design, read on.

Some of my colleagues in the music teaching world are puzzled by the order in which we’re presenting concepts. Theory resources almost always start with the C major scale, but we start with E-flat minor pentatonic. While it’s harder to represent in notation, E-flat minor pentatonic is easier to play and learn by ear, and for our target audience, that’s the most important consideration.

Okay, fine, the pentatonics are simple, it makes sense to start with them. But surely we would begin the white key part on the major scale, right? Nope! We start with Mixolydian mode. In electronica, hip-hop, rock, and pop, Mixolydian is more “basic” than major is. The sound of the flat seventh is more native to this music than the leading tone, and V-I cadences are rare or absent. I once had a student complain that the major scale makes everything sound like “Happy Birthday.” Our Mixolydian example, a Michael Jackson tune, was chosen to make our audience of producers feel culturally at home, to make them feel like we value the dance music of the African diaspora over the folk and classical of Western Europe.

After Mixolydian, we discuss Lydian mode. While it’s a pretty exotic scale, we chose to address it before major because it’s more forgiving to improvise with–Lydian doesn’t have any “wrong” notes. In major, you have to be careful about the fourth, because it has strong functional connotations, and because it conflicts hard with the third. In Lydian, you can play notes in any order and any combination without fear of hitting a clunker. Also, exotic though it may be, Lydian does pop up in a few well-known songs, like in a recent Katy Perry hit.

Finally, we do get to major, using David Bowie, and Queen. Even here, though, we downplay functional harmony, treating major as just another mode. Our song example uses a I-IV-V chord progression, but it runs over a static riff bassline, which makes it float rather than resolve.

This class only deals with the three major diatonic modes. We’ll get to the minor ones (natural minor, Dorian, Phrygian and Locrian) in the third class. We debated doing minor first, but there are more of the minor modes, and they’re more complicated.

We also debated whether or not to talk about chords. The chord changes in our examples are minimal, but they’re present. We ultimately decided to stick to horizontal scales only for the time being, and to treat chords separately. We plan to go back through all of the modes and talk about the chord progressions characteristic of each one. For example, with Mixolydian, we’ll talk about I-bVII-IV; with Lydian we’ll do I-II; and with major we’ll do all the permutations of I, IV, V and vi.

Once again, we know it’s unconventional to deal with modes so thoroughly before even touching any chords, but for our audience, we think this approach will make more sense. Electronic music is not big on complex harmony, but it is big on modes.