As the year comes to an end I have been reflecting about some of the new things I have learned since lockdown began in March. Before lockdown began, I remember in late February finding Google's Chrome Music Lab while at my teaching studio in Issaquah one night after my day of teaching. I sent an e-mail to myself so that I would remember to check it out later. Little did I know I would have the time to fully explore it and create a online tutorial series to educate other people how to use it. Since then I have dove into learning more about automated music using digital and mechanical tools. What started out as a interest using Chrome Music Lab as an educational tool, made me see how the exact same knowledge could be used to punch cards for a music box, and the sound reminded me of the mbira (another google video reminded me that I knew someone that made those!). I was lucky enough to find a teacher to show me a few traditional mbira songs via Skype.
While learning about automated music, I also started going deeper into using MIDI and learning how to sync up multiple different pieces of musical equipment. One of the coolest things I discovered how to do was how to hook up a loop pedal to a drum machine so that it is always in sync. This allows me to build up whole rhythm sections on one loop. Early on in quarantine I supported a kickstarter that made a video synthesizer that syncs also with musical equipment. When it arrived I could apply what I learned about midi to sync it with other musical hardware. In my arrangement of Silent Night I have synced all of my hardware to a master clock. This includes a loop pedal, drum machine and video synth. This allowed me to layer tracks while keeping in perfect time with a drum machine - this is one of the most difficult things about a loop pedal! Keeping it in time with everything else.
While it is been very difficult during the last year, I am so grateful for the opportunity to explore all these different aspects of music. It has brought me so much joy, and I feel like I have a wider and deeper way of understanding music because of these explorations. I really look forward to finding creative ways to share what I have learned with my students in the future. Thanks for joining me in this musical journey and happy holidays!
For a lot of great players, these musical concepts might not be understood on a technical level. Understanding how music works is not necessary to be able to play well. However, these ideas can serve the aspiring guitarist as a blue print of how to build a raft to get you to "cross over" to playing in a more intuitive and musical way. When you learn how music works, this understanding gives you a structure of what is important to focus on - it helps to narrow down the things that are important to explore with your hands and ears.
I choose the key of C# because there is an awesome version of “The Thrill is Gone” at the Crossroads festival in 2010 with a group of famous players. After watching this video lesson, you will have a better context to understand each player’s unique approach, as well as some tools to start developing your own style.
I got really inspired to create this type of song after finishing the short BBC doc series "How Music Works" by Howard Goodall (which I highly recommend!) There are four episodes: Melody, Rhythm, Harmony, and Bass. The first 3 subjects made sense, but why a separate episode on bass?
I've always loved bass, but this episode gave me a a fresh look at how bass is used, and the potential it holds in music creation. I think it is most common for composers and songwriters to start with a chord progression and/or melody, and bass is an afterthought to support the music. In contrast, there are a few songs that come to mind that fully explore the potential of the bass - the chords are harmonized to the movement of the bass instead of the other way around.
Bach - "Air on G String"
Procol Harum - "A Whiter Shade of Pale"
Tame Impala - "It's Not Meant to Be"
In order to write a song like these you really have to know how music works. Check out the doc and let me know what you think! Also, make sure to wear headphones while listening to these songs to get the full effect!
I’ve recently become entranced with the idea that rhythm is the movement between two points, and it creates a sine wave, as demonstrated in the tambourine video. A sine wave is a geometric waveform that oscillates from top to bottom. In music, a sine wave is most commonly observed when talking about sound synthesis. It is used to talk about tone, and is measured in Hz, which means oscillations (the amount of times that the wave goes from top to bottom) per second. The tone of A above middle C on the piano is 440 Hz (thats 440 vibrations per second!). When talking about rhythm, musicians say BPM, which means beats per minute, and is used to talk about tempo, or the pace of the pulse of music. What I have become particularly fascinated by is the relationship between rhythm (BPM) and tone (Hz). Why?
60 Beats per minute (BPM) means there is one beat per second, which is 1Hz
This sounds like a pulse, but if you start speeding it up, it starts to sound like a tone, though it will be barely audible to the human ear which is only capable of hearing 20 Hz - 20,000 Hz
How many times would we have to multiply 60 BPM (1 beat per second = 1Hz) to get to baseline audible tone of 20Hz?
60 BPM x 20 = 1,200
So that means if we had rhythm with a tempo of 1,200 BPM it would make a sound at the frequency of 20 Hz, which is so low you probably wouldn’t be able to hear it, though you might be able to feel it, or sense it. Earthquakes have a frequency of .01-10 Hz, which might be why some animals can sense them, maybe they are hearing something that we are not sensitive to. In contrast to earthquakes, a more familiar and audible sound is the human voice, which has a fundamental frequency of 120 Hz.
60BPM x 120 = 7200 BPM
That means, if we were capable of turning a metronome to 7,200 BPM it would start to sound like a human voice. A more musical sound that is in the middle of the piano, is A above middle C, and this has a frequency of 440Hz. Whats the BPM of A above middle C?
60 x 440 = 26,400 BPM
Whoa! That is pretty fast, I wonder if that is how fast a hummingbird’s heart beats, or maybe closer to how fast a hummingbird flaps their wings. Thanks to google, it turns out a hummingbirds heart rate is 1,260 BPM (just a moment ago we discovered that 1,200 BPM is 20Hz, so a humming birds heart rate is just a feather over 20Hz.)
They flap their wings 80 times per second, which is 80 Hz. If you have ever had a humming bird fly by your ear, you will notice it sounds more like a tone then a rhythm, this is because humming birds flap their wings at the insanely fast rate of 80 Hz. If we multiply 80 wing flaps per second, by how many seconds are in a minute (60), we get 4800 WFPM (wing flaps per minute).
The distinction between “tone” and “rhythm” is a property of frequency. We use the measurement of Hz to talk about really sped up rhythms, and the measurement of BPM to talk about really slowed down tones. It is common to think of rhythm on a spectrum of fast or slow, and to think of tone on the spectrum of high or low, but it is less common to think of rhythm and tone to exist on the same spectrum. On this spectrum, low frequencies are measured in minutes, and as the frequency speeds up it is measured in seconds. So, what is the relevance of this spectrum?
The study of harmony looks at the relationship between tones when played simultaneously. Traditionally, this is talking about bass notes, chords, and melody notes - and how they all jive together to create a harmonic effect. What makes different notes resonate as they vibrate together has to do with the mathematical ratio between notes. This is why some notes sound like a harmony, and others do not. To go any deeper into why and how harmony works is the subject of a book! In regards to the relationship between Hz and BPM, I am fascinated by the potential of rhythms measured by BPM being in “harmony” with the tones in a piece of music. When deciding the tempo of a song, it is often seen as arbitrary, but I think our sense of wanting to adjust to the tempo that feels right has to do with the way it synchronizes with the frequencies in the song. From this perspective, changing the key (fundamental frequency of the song) could also have an effect on whether a tempo feels right. It is the same idea as trying to find a harmony note, a note that resonates with the rest, but instead of trying to find the tone that resonates, it is about finding the rhythm that is “in tune” with the fundamental tone.
Now that we have taken the idea of harmony outside the idea of only being applied to musical tones measured in Hz (oscillations per second), and seeing how it could also relate to BPM (oscillations per minute), why should we stop at seconds and minutes? The relationship between seconds and minutes is analogous to the relationship between minutes and hours. There are 60 seconds in a minute, and 60 minutes in an hour. An hour is a subdivision of a day, which is an oscillation between day and night determined by the the physical spinning of the earth. To see the earth’s spinning as a sine wave that creates a rhythm is not a metaphor, it is just as physical as the sine wave frequencies measured in seconds (Hz) and minutes (BPM), we just traded the microscope for the telescope!
When we start looking towards the rhythms of celestial bodies such as the earth, moon, planets, the moons of other planets, the sun and beyond - you can start to get an idea of what the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras called the “music of the spheres”. He believed the same laws that governed harmony of musical tones are also governing the frequencies of celestial bodies on a much larger scale.
Since the time of Pythagoras there have been many philosophers, mathematicians, physicists, astronomers, composers, musicians, metaphysicists, poets and mystics to try and make sense of this concept of “music of the spheres”. In my own pursuit of trying to understand what Pythagoras was referring to, I have found the more people try to fit it into a conceptual box the less interested I become. For instance, I don’t believe that the universe is a reflection of western music theory. In my quest to make sense of how all the pieces fit together, I have found it is the poets and mystics who leave a deeper impact on my understanding, the ones who approach these concepts with feeling, intuition and direct experience. I think it is for the same reason that we cannot hear an earthquake, but we can feel the ground shake beneath our feet. As with most bigger curiosities, the questions that surround them carve out a place within for an understanding to develop. I would like to end this exploration with the song lyrics of my 2 of my favorite hippies:
“You know the day destroys the night
Night divides the day
tried to run, tried to hide
break on through to the other side”
“And all that is now, and all that is gone
And all that’s to come and everything under the sun is in tune
But the sun is eclipsed by the moon”
Shared Piano is the newest Chrome Music Lab web browser based application. It is the quarantine piano teacher's dream. It is like a "chat room" for the piano, allowing 10 participants to play, see and hear the same piano. It is a great tool for teachers and students of the piano. One way I like to use it is to have a face time app (skype, zoom, etc.) on a laptop or similar device, then use the "shared piano" on a phone or similar device. This enables the teacher and student to converse, as well as share the same piano. Check out the link below to try it, and watch the short video below to learn more:
I have no idea how July 31st became "Uncommon Musical Instrument Day". However, I am happy it did because it gives me an excuse to talk about a few of my favorite things...
This year I shared some info and gave some musical examples of the music box and mbira. I've also included last years video which focuses on the tenori-on and harp. Both videos have one automated instrument and one non-automated instrument. Over the last few years I have become fascinated with automating/sequencing/programming music as a way to learn and better understand musical concepts, as well as organize, compose, and communicate your own musical ideas. Check out 2020 and 2019 below:
New episode alert! A lot of thought and work over the last few weeks has gone into writing, planning, filming and editing this video. If you are interested in learning about what a melody is, or want to refresh your understanding I recommend checking it out. (Hint: this video will take you beyond the dictionary definition)
Chrome Music Lab is a FREE website that allows you to write music and easily save and share your creations. It is available to ANYONE with a web browser. No fancy apps or things to download. Because of its accessibility and ability to understand and explore fundamental musical concepts I have decided to focus my energy to develop a comprehensive tutorial series.
What is a melody? This video will compare and contrast important musical concepts, bringing the definition of melody into focus. It will also give a practical understanding the basic elements that make up a melody, as well as how to write a melody over a chord progression. Whether you are a musician or not, this video will give you a new appreciation for what a melody is, and it is my hope that it not only teaches you something new, but inspires you to create something new.
Rhythm is about bringing music to life, the technical side is important, the math side, but it is the human element that brings meaning to rhythm, and is an important part to animating the music, bringing it to life so that you don't have to tell people to tap their foot, they do it on their own because you have struck a chord within them. Rhythm is intrinsic to life, we all have a pulse, a tempo, started by the downbeat of the heart. This brings blood to all our cells, and synchronizes all of our internal systems within ourselves and the outside world. We live by the rhythm of night and day, activity and rest. I'm always fascinated by how the principles of music are similar to the physical laws that govern life and the world we share. This video gives a short lesson on many different percussion instruments (tambourine, shaker, guitar, etc.) and relates the insights I have learned from playing them to how I think about and compose rhythms on Chrome Music Lab. Get on google, type in 'chrome music lab' and try this out for yourself. If you feel inspired, get a salt shaker or a put some dried rice or beans in an old can and tape it shut. Did you know I've been playing drums since I was a teenager, that it was my first instrument? People always ask me how I learned to play so many different instruments, the answer is that I start out treating each instrument like a rhythm instrument, no matter how complicated that instrument was, I just played one note at a time in rhythm. Over time, I add two notes, then 3, then with a little bit of understanding of how a chords work, I can start to make chords and so on. This is how I have learned every instrument, starting with just playing a simple rhythm on it.
A few weeks ago I sat down with Daniel Dovinh at my teaching studio in Ballard. He interviewed me about being an active musician and music educator. When I first started teaching in 2008, I had an idea of how music worked, and I knew how to play it, but I definitely did not know how to teach it. This podcast talks about how I became a teacher and some of the things I've learnt over the past 10 years.
Daniel has done a whole series with 10 other musicians over at intervalmusicpodcast.com/, I highly recommend it. He is on a mission to inspire people to believe a career in music is possible. Follow the link below to check out my interview:
Why do certain notes played in a certain way create a certain feeling, and how is it different when those same notes are played together by a machine versus an artist? Is it still music if performed by a machine? Some would say it is not music unless it is made by a human. At the same time, I’ve heard music programmed by a computer that makes me feel really deeply, whereas a person can play an instrument and be extremely talented, but lack any real emotional expression. So what is that intangible thing that makes it “music”? I believe this question should be at the core of every student’s musical quest.
Here is one musician's creative answer to some of the questions raised above: