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.

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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.

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.

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.

Compositional prompts

One of the challenges in creating Theory for Producers (or any online learning experience) is to build community. When you’re in a classroom with people, community emerges naturally, but on the web it’s harder. We’re using email to remind students to stay engaged over time, but we don’t want to end up in their spam folders. To make our emails welcome rather than intrusive, we decided to do Weekly Challenges, one-line prompts for music creation. Participants post their challenges in our SoundCloud group.

I’ve been doing something similar with guitar students for a long time, in person rather than via email, for example with the one-note groove. In coming up with more prompts, I’ve been drawing on my recent foray into prose scores, inspired by the example of Pauline Oliveros.

Pauline Oliveros

Really, you could think of my collection of prompts as very short and simple prose scores. Please feel free to use these, for yourself, for students, or for any other purpose. All I ask is that you drop me a line to tell me how you used them.

The Prompts

One Note Groove: Create a melody using only one pitch.

Two Note Groove: Create a melody using only two distinct pitches.

Three Note Groove: Create a melody using only three distinct pitches.

Four Note Groove: Create a melody using only four distinct pitches.

Arpeggio Groove: Create a melody using only a single column of the aQWERTYon.

Call And Response: Create a melody that includes a call phrase and response phrase.

Repeat Four Times: Create a melody consisting of a phrase that repeats identically four times.

Repeat Eight Times: Create a melody consisting of a phrase that repeats identically eight times.

Repeat Sixteen Times: Create a melody consisting of a phrase that repeats identically sixteen times.

Narrow Range: Create a melody that only uses the notes between C and E-flat.

Angular: Create a melody where no interval between one note and the next is smaller than a fifth.

Avoid The Root: Create a melody using any of the notes in a scale except the root.

Avoid The Triad: Create a melody using any of the notes in a scale except the root, third and fifth.

Dissonance: Create the “ugliest” melody you can.

Avoid The Tonic: Create a chord progression using any chords from a scale except for the tonic.

Fourths: Create a melody and/or chords using only the interval of a perfect fourth.

Universal Solvent: Create a blues scale melody over non-blues accompaniment.

Emotional Extremes I: Create the happiest melody you can.

Emotional Extremes II: Create the saddest melody you can.

Palindrome: Create a melody consisting of a sequence of notes, then that same sequence backwards.

Pattern Sequence: Create a melody by moving a “shape” to different locations on the aQWERTYon.

Minimalism: Create a melody that is mostly silence.

Maximalism: Create a melody containing no gaps or pauses.

Melodic Adaptation: Take an existing melody and adapt it into a new one by keeping the rhythms but changing the pitches.

Rhythmic Adaptation: Take an existing melody and adapt it into a new one by keeping the pitches but changing the rhythms.

Birdsong: Recreate a bird call as closely as you can.

Speech Melody: Recreate the pitches of a spoken phrase.

Musical simples – Teenage Dream

I’m working with Soundfly on the next installment of Theory For Producers, our ultra-futuristic online music theory course. The first unit covered the black keys of the piano and the pentatonic scales. The next one will talk about the white keys  and the diatonic modes. We were gathering examples, and we needed to find a well-known pop song that uses Lydian mode. My usual go-to example for Lydian is “Possibly Maybe” by Björk. But the course already uses a Björk tune for different example, and the Soundfly guys quite reasonably wanted something a little more millennial-friendly anyway. We decided to use Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” instead.

A couple of years ago, Slate ran an analysis of this tune by Owen Pallett. It’s an okay explanation, but it doesn’t delve too deep. We thought we could do better.

Here’s my transcription of the chorus:

When you look at the melody, this would seem to be a straightforward use of the B-flat major scale. However, the chord changes tell a different story. The tune doesn’t ever use a B-flat major chord. Instead, it oscillates back and forth between E-flat and F. In this harmonic context, the melody doesn’t belong to the plain vanilla B-flat major scale at all, but rather the dreamy and modernist E-flat Lydian mode. The graphic below shows the difference.

Teenage Dream Eb Lydian circles

Both scales use the same seven pitches: B-flat, C, D, E-flat, F, G, and A. The only difference between the two is which note you consider to be “home base.” Let’s consider B-flat major first.

To make chords from a scale, you pick any note, and then go clockwise around the scale, skipping every other degree. The chords are named for the note you start on. If you start on the fourth note, E-flat, you get the IV chord (the other two notes are G and B-flat.) If you start on the fifth note, F, you get the V chord (the other two notes are A and C.) In a major key, IV and V are very important chords. They’re called the subdominant and dominant chords, respectively, and they both create a feeling of suspense. You can resolve the suspense by following either one with the I chord. The weird thing about “Teenage Dream” is that if you think about it as being in B-flat, then it never lands on the I chord at all. It just oscillates back and fourth between IV and V. The suspense never gets resolved.

If we think of “Teenage Dream” as being in E-flat Lydian, then the E-flat chord is I, which makes more sense. The function of the F chord in this context isn’t clearly defined by music theory, but it does sound good. Lydian is very similar to the major scale, with only one difference: while the fourth note of E-flat major is A-flat, the fourth note of E-flat Lydian is A natural. That raised fourth gives Lydian mode its otherworldly sound. The F chord gets its airborne quality from that raised fourth.

Click here to play over “Teenage Dream” using the aQWERTYon. The two chords can be played on the letters Z-A-Q and X-S-W. For comparison, try playing it with B-flat major. Read more about the aQWERTYon here.

“Teenage Dream” is not the only well-known song to use the Lydian I-II progression. Other high profile examples include “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac and “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction. over the same chords. Try singing any of these songs over any of the others; they all fit seamlessly.

The chorus of “Teenage Dream” uses a striking rhythm on the phrases “you make me”, “teenage dream”, and “I can’t sleep”. The song is in 4/4 time, like nearly all contemporary pop tracks, but that chorus rhythm has a feeling of three about it. It’s no illusion. The words “you” and “make” in the first line are each three eighth notes long. It sounds like an attempt to divide the eight eighth notes into groups of three. This rhythm is called Tresillo, and it’s one of the building blocks of Afro-Cuban drumming.


Tresillo is the front half of son clave. It’s extraordinarily common in American vernacular music, especially in accompaniment patterns. You hear Tresillo in the bassline to “Hound Dog” and countless other fifties rock songs; in the generic acoustic guitar strumming pattern used by singer-songwriters everywhere; and in the kick and snare pattern characteristic of reggaetón. Tresillo is ubiquitous in jazz, and in the dance music of India and the Middle East.

“Teenage Dream” alternates the Tresillo with a funky syncopated rhythm pattern that skips the first beat of the measure. When you listen to the line “feel like I’m livin’ a”, there’s a hole right before the word “feel”. That hole is the downbeat, which is the usual place to start a phrase. When you avoid the obvious beat, you surprise the listener, which grabs their attention. The drums underneath this melody hammer relentlessly away on the strong beats, so it’s easy to parse out the rhythmic sophistication. Katy Perry songs have a lot of empty calories, but they taste as good as they do for a reason.

Ultralight Beam

The first song on Kanye West’s Life Of Pablo album, and my favorite so far, is the beautiful, gospel-saturated “Ultralight Beam.” See Kanye and company perform it live on SNL.

Ultralight Beam

The song uses only four chords, but they’re an interesting four: C minor, E-flat major, A-flat major, and G7. To find out why they sound so good together, let’s do a little music theory.

“Ultralight Beam” is in the key of C minor, and three of the four chords come from the C natural minor scale, shown below. Click the image to play the scale in the aQWERTYon (requires Chrome).

Ultralight Beam C natural minor

To make a chord, start on any scale degree, then skip two degrees clockwise, and then skip another two, and so on. To make C minor, you start on C, then jump to E-flat, and then to G. To make E-flat major, you start on E-flat, then jump to G, and then to B-flat. And to make A-flat major, you start on A-flat, then jump to C, and then to E-flat. Simple enough so far.

The C natural minor scale shares its seven notes with the E-flat major scale:

Ultralight Beam Eb major circles

All we’ve really done here is rotate the circle three slots counterclockwise. All the relationships stay the same, and you can form the same chords in the same way. The two scales are so closely related that if noodle around on C natural minor long enough, it starts just sounding like E-flat major. Try it!

The last of the four chords in “Ultralight Beam” is G7, and to make it, we need a note that isn’t in C natural minor (or E-flat major): the leading tone, B natural. If you take C natural minor and replace B-flat with B natural, you get a new scale: C harmonic minor.

Ultralight Beam C harmonic minor

If you make a chord starting on G from C natural minor, you get G minor (G, B-flat, D). The chord sounds fine, and you could use it with the other three above without offending anyone. But if you make the same chord using C harmonic minor, you get G major (G, B, D). This is a much more dramatic and exciting sound. If you add one more chord degree, you get G7 (G, B, D, F), known as the dominant chord in C minor. In the diagram below, the G7 chord is in blue, and C minor is in green.

Ultralight Beam C harmonic minor with V7 chord

Feel how much more intensely that B natural pulls to C than B-flat did? That’s what gives the song its drama, and what puts it unambivalently in C minor rather than E-flat major.

“Ultralight Beam” has a nice chord progression, but that isn’t its most distinctive feature. The thing that jumps out most immediately is the unusual beat. Nearly all hip-hop is in 4/4 time, where each measure is subdivided into four beats, and each of those four beats is subdivided into four sixteenth notes. “Ultralight Beam” uses 12/8 time, which was prevalent in the first half of the twentieth century, but is a rarity now. Each measure still has four beats in it, but these beats are subdivided into three beats rather than four.

four-four vs twelve-eight

The track states this rhythm very obliquely. The drum track is comprised almost entirely of silence. The vocals and other instruments skip lightly around the beat. Chance The Rapper’s verse in particular pulls against the meter in all kinds of complex ways.

The song’s structure is unusual too, a wide departure from the standard “verse-hook-verse-hook”.

Ultralight Beam song structure

The intro is six bars long, two bars of ambient voices, four bars over the chord progression. The song proper begins with just the first half of the chorus (known in hip-hop circles as the hook.) Kanye has an eight bar verse, followed by the first full chorus. Kelly Price gets the next eight bar verse. So far, so typical. But then, where you expect the next chorus, The-Dream gets his four-bar verse, followed by Chance The Rapper’s ecstatic sixteen-bar verse. Next is what feels like the last chorus, but that’s followed by Kirk Franklin’s four bar verse, and then a four-bar outtro with just the choir singing haunting single words. It’s strange, but it works. Say what you want about Kanye as a public figure, but as a musician, he is in complete control of his craft.

Inside the aQWERTYon

The MusEDLab and Soundfly just launched Theory For Producers, an interactive music theory course. The centerpiece of the interactive component is a MusEDLab tool called the aQWERTYon. You can try it by clicking the image below.

aQWERTYon screencap

In this post, I’ll talk about why and how we developed the aQWERTYon.

One of our core design principles is to work within our users’ real-world technological limitations. We build tools in the browser so they’ll be platform-independent and accessible anywhere there’s internet access (and where there isn’t internet access, we’ve developed the “MusEDLab in a box.”) We want to find out what musical possibilities there are 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. We were inspired in part by GarageBand’s Musical Typing feature.

GarageBand musical typing

If you don’t have a MIDI controller, Apple thoughtfully made it possible for you to use your computer keyboard to play GarageBand’s many software instruments. You get an octave and a half of piano, plus other useful controls: pitch bend, modulation, sustain, octave shifting and simple velocity control. Many DAWs offer something similar, but Apple’s system is the most sophisticated I’ve seen.

Handy though it is, Musical Typing has some problems as a user interface. The biggest one is the poor fit between the piano keyboard layout and the grid of computer keys. Typing the letter A plays the note C. The rest of that row is the white keys, and the one above it is the black keys. You can play the chromatic scale by alternating A row, Q row, A row, Q row. That basic pattern is easy enough to figure out. However, you quickly get into trouble, because there’s no black key between E and F. The QWERTY keyboard gives no visual reminder of that fact, so you just have to remember it. Unfortunately, the “missing” black key happens to be the letter R, which is GarageBand’s keyboard shortcut for recording. So what inevitably happens is that you’re hunting for E-flat or F-sharp and you accidentally start recording over whatever you were doing. I’ve been using the program for years and still do this routinely.

Rather than recreating the piano keyboard on the computer, we drew on a different metaphor: the accordion.

The accordion: the user interface metaphor of the future!

We wanted to have chords and scales arranged in an easily discoverable way, like the way you can easily figure out the chord buttons on the accordion’s left hand. The QWERTY keyboard is really a staggered grid four keys tall and between ten and thirteen keys wide, plus assorted modifier and function keys. We decided to use the columns for chords and the rows for scales.

For the diatonic scales and modes, the layout is simple. The bottom row gives the notes in the scale starting on 1^. The second row has the same scale shifted over to start on 3^. The third row starts the scale on 5^, and the top row starts on 1^ an octave up. If this sounds confusing when you read it, try playing it, your ears will immediately pick up the pattern. Notes in the same column form the diatonic chords, with their roman numerals conveniently matching the number keys. There are no wrong notes, so even just mashing keys at random will sound at least okay. Typing your name usually sounds pretty cool, and picking out melodies is a piece of cake. Playing diagonal columns, like Z-S-E-4, gives you chords voiced in fourths. The same layout approach works great for any seven-note scale: all of the diatonic modes, plus the modes of harmonic and melodic minor.

Pentatonics work pretty much the same way as seven-note scales, except that the columns stack in fourths rather than fifths. The octatonic and diminished scales lay out easily as well. The real layout challenge lay in one strange but crucial exception: the blues scale. Unlike other scales, you can’t just stagger the blues scale pitches in thirds to get meaningful chords. The melodic and harmonic components of blues are more or less unrelated to each other. Our original idea was to put the blues scale on the bottom row of keys, and then use the others to spell out satisfying chords on top. That made it extremely awkward to play melodies, however, since the keys don’t form an intelligible pattern of intervals. Our compromise was to create two different blues modes: one with the chords, for harmony exploration, and one just repeating the blues scale in octaves for melodic purposes. Maybe a better solution exists, but we haven’t figured it out yet.

When you select a different root, all the pitches in the chords and scales are automatically changed as well. Even if the aQWERTYon had no other features or interactivity, this would still make it an invaluable music theory tool. But root selection raises a bigger question: what do you do about all the real-world music that uses more than one scale or mode? Totally uniform modality is unusual, even in simple pop songs. You can access notes outside the currently selected scale by pressing the shift keys, which transposes the entire keyboard up or down a half step. But what would be really great is if we could get the scale settings to change dynamically. Wouldn’t it be great if you were listening to a jazz tune, and the scale was always set to match whatever chord was going by at that moment? You could blow over complex changes effortlessly. We’ve discussed manually placing markers in YouTube videos that tell the aQWERTYon when to change its settings, but that would be labor-intensive. We’re hoping to discover an algorithmic method for placing markers automatically.

The other big design challenge we face is how to present all the different scale choices in a way that doesn’t overwhelm our core audience of non-expert users. One solution would just be to limit the scale choices. We already do that in the Soundfly course, in effect; when you land on a lesson, the embedded aQWERTYon is preset to the appropriate scale and key, and the user doesn’t even see the menus. But we’d like people to be able to explore the rich sonic diversity of the various scales without confronting them with technical Greek terms like “Lydian dominant”. Right now, the scales are categorized as Major, Minor and Other, but those terms aren’t meaningful to beginners. We’ve been discussing how we could organize the scales by mood or feeling, maybe from “brightest” to “darkest.” But how do you assign a mood to a scale? Do we just do it arbitrarily ourselves? Crowdsource mood tags? Find some objective sorting method that maps onto most listeners’ subjective associations? Some combination of the above? It’s an active area of research for us.

This issue of categorizing scales by mood has relevance for the original use case we imagined for the aQWERTYon: teaching film scoring. The idea behind the integrated video window was that you would load a video clip, set a mode, and then improvise some music that fit the emotional vibe of that clip. The idea of playing along with YouTube videos of songs came later. One could teach more general open-ended composition with the aQWERTYon, and in fact our friend Matt McLean is doing exactly that. But we’re attracted to film scoring as a gateway because it’s a more narrowly defined problem. Instead of just “write some music”, the challenge is “write some music with a particular feeling to it that fits into a scene of a particular length.

Would you like to help us test and improve the aQWERTYon, or to design curricula around it? Would you like to help fund our programmers and designers? Please get in touch.

Theory for Producers

I’m delighted to announce the launch of a new interactive online music course called Theory for Producers: The Black Keys. It’s a joint effort by Soundfly and the NYU MusEDLab, representing the culmination of several years worth of design and programming. We’re super proud of it.

Theory for Producers: The Black Keys

The course makes the abstractions of music theory concrete by presenting them in the form of actual songs you’re likely to already know. You can play and improvise along with the examples right in the web browser using the aQWERTYon, which turns your computer keyboard into an easily playable instrument. You can also bring the examples into programs like Ableton Live or Logic for further hands-on experimentation. We’ve spiced up the content with videos and animations, along with some entertaining digressions into the Stone Age and the auditory processing abilities of frogs.

So what does it mean that this is music theory for producers? We’re organizing the material in a way that’s easiest and most relevant to people using computers to create the dance music of the African diaspora: techno, hip-hop, and their various pop derivatives. This music carries most of its creative content outside of harmony: in rhythm, timbre, and repetitive structure. The harmony is usually static, sitting on a loop of a few chords or just a single mode. Alongside the standard (Western) major and minor scales, you’re just as likely to encounter more “exotic” (non-Western) sounds.

Music theory classes and textbooks typically begin with the C major scale, because it’s the easiest scale to represent and read in music notation. However, C major is not necessarily the most “basic” or fundamental scale for our intended audience. Instead, we start with E-flat minor pentatonic, otherwise known as the black keys on the piano. The piano metaphor is ubiquitous both in electronic music hardware and software, and pentatonics are even easier to play on piano than diatonic scales. E-flat minor pentatonic is more daunting in notated form than C major, but since dance and hip-hop producers tend not to be able to read music anyway, that’s no obstacle. And if producers want to use keys other than E-flat minor (or G-flat major), they can keep playing the black keys and then transpose the MIDI later.

The Black Keys is just the first installment in Theory For Producers. Next, we’ll do The White Keys, otherwise known as the modes of C major. We’re planning to start that course not with C major itself, but with G Mixolydian mode, because it’s a more familiar sound in Afrodiasporic music than straight major. After that, we’ll do a course about chords, and one about rhythm. We hope you sign up!

Update: oh hey, we’re on Lifehacker