I’m in Miami at the annual conference of ‘Network Performing Arts Production Workshops’ (that’s the current title of the organisation; they have stated in the introductory remarks that they’re looking for a more pithy name than ‘NPAPW’!). Our host organisation is the New World Symphony.
This morning, on the final day of my visit to Berklee Valencia, I attended a gig/masterclass with the remarkable Dutch jazz trio Tin Men And The Telephone. ‘Jazz Trio’ is really an inadequate term for this ensemble. It might better be described as ‘interactive iPhone jazz gaming with live humans’.
The setup is as follows: the trio is piano, upright bass and drums. The drummer has a MIDI drum pad and snare sensor. The bassist has an effects pedal. The piano has a MIDI converter attachment, feeding a MAX patch, with occasional effects processing of the piano signal.
Today I attended two presentations at the DIY Musician Conference. The first one, which I’ll get to in a later post (because it’s kinda techy and will take time to write up) was an open DJ session with Ableton Live. The second, which I’ll briefly summarise here, is a one-hour overview of contracts for independent musicians, presented by my estimable colleague Tonya Butler, Assistant Chair of the Music Business department at Berklee.
ABSTRACT: When it comes to getting signed as a musician, a bad deal can be much worse than no deal at all. In this session, Tonya Butler, a top negotiator, will be providing vital information on key music contract clauses while walking the group through the key negotiation points of each clause.
This week I’m at Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain. There will be some regular work-related meetings while I’m out here, talking about our study abroad options, and the four Masters programs. And this weekend, Berklee Valencia is hosting the DIY Musician conference, with speakers from the College itself, and from various parts of the music industry, including co-sponsors CDBaby (full list of speakers).
Yesterday I attended the inaugural Berklee XR summit, held on Feb 7th 2018 at the Berklee Media Center, here at Massachusetts Ave in Boston, part of the Stan Getz Library. The all-day event was envisaged by our estimable Berklee colleague and XR Professor Lori Landay. XR is a catch-all term (Cross Reality, or Extended Reality) and it refers to “technology-mediated experiences that combine digital and biological realities”. Augmented Reality (AR) is adding virtual objects to the real world, typically through a smartphone camera (Pokémon Go being a well-known example); Virtual Reality (VR) is creating an entire immersive world for the user to experience, usually via first-person headset technologies. VR is particularly used in games such as Doom VFR but also in non-gaming contexts, including medicine, education and law (not to mention dance).
As promised to the delegates on the day, I’ve listed below some of the urls we collected, from listening to the artists, colleagues, presentations and exhibitors. If you were there and you think I’ve missed any, please contact me here or @joebennettmusic and I’ll be glad to add to the list.
…may be nice, but does it have a live Mariachi band in the lobby? Does it?
Paper: Online Tools to Promote Music of the Midwest
Robert Willey (Ball State University)
ABSTRACT: An approach to teaching a music industry class involving the promotion of regional music is presented. A variety of tools are applied, including cell phones, lap tops, web browsers, iTunes, streaming Internet radio, and Google drive, forms, maps, and gmail. Many of the class meetings are flipped, with students watching lectures and studying at home and working in groups during classtime. The class is modified in the summer to be taught online with more individual than group projects, and office hours performed using WebEx online meetings.
Ninety percent of the students in the class take it as a general elective. There is an entrepreneurial emphasis in which students explore their interests and apply their portfolio of skills in whatever major they come from to develop a project that fills a community need. Electronic tools help us reach outside our small-town environment, get practical experience, and develop contacts.
Robert begins by talking about his ‘graphic curriculum maps’ – which are flowcharts that describe the learning journey. His pedagogy of ‘Specifications Grading‘ is partly influenced by the work of Linda B Nilson.
So farewell, Kassell, as day 5 of the IASPM2017 conference winds down. Our German hosts have been fantastic, and the overall atmosphere has been, as ever, one of courteous collegiality and mutual academic admiration. Almost all of the questions from the floor have been in the spirit of inquiry, peer support and knowledge sharing.
Below, as a public service, I’ve provided a list of some of the more ‘problematic’ questions that we hear from time to time at academic music conferences, with translation.
Thank you for a great presentation…
I’d like to tell you about my work.
Less of a question, more of a point, really…
I’d like to tell you about my work.
Have you read…?
I’m going to cite an out-of-print book you’ve never heard of and watch you squirm politely.
What’s the relationship of your work to [e.g.] the Andean nose-flute?
I’ve written a book about the Andean nose-flute.
One of the things that seems, to me, to be the case, based on the way you set up the inherent affordances available to the agents of this paradigm, is that, how can I really say this, well, there’s a difference between… well, more of a dichotomy… between the primary sources as they state their position phenomenologically, and the secondary sources, filtered as they inevitably are through the lens of scholarship and the attendant limitations of the contemporaneous evidence base available, although I have to say you do a great job of pulling those sources together given the inherent paucity of reportage from the primary participants, which I suppose is an inevitability due to the kind of retrospective material we’re dealing with here, and we all would support, as I’m sure everyone here agrees, the requirement to preserve the authenticity of that, even if the researcher is sometimes pressured by the field into creating taxonomies not necessarily intended for academic consumption by the original practitioners being studied, and that’s important, but only important inasmuch as the research community needs to define it for this particular sub-field, given that there are so many other sub-fields within which different taxonomies have been established; what’s your view?
It’s time for the coffee break but I DON’T CARE.
How does the tabor syncopation example you played relate to Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital?
You musicologists know nothing about society.
In terms of the geopolitics you mention, what is the effect of the Dorian pivot-note key change halfway through bar 23?
You sociologists know nothing about music.
This week I’m at the biannual conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. Our hosts are the University of Kassel, Germany, and the conference features presenters from all over the world.
Our opening keynote speaker this morning is Robin James, whose academic work spans philosophy, pop music, sound studies, and feminism. One of the pleasing trends I’ve been seeing in academic conferences in recent years is the increased willingness of presenters (particularly younger scholars) to post their work online. Robin has generously shared not only her slides but the full text of the talk. The keynote goes into considerable depth, so I won’t attempt to summarise it here, other than to say how much I enjoyed Robin’s acrobatic thinking as she leapt gracefully from Pythagorean philosophy to big data, US neoliberalism, YOLO and Chill culture, and illustrated all of this with a brief musical analysis of Harry Styles’s Sign Of The Times (embedded below) and Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
MOOCs, online learning and the disruption of traditional education
Hans T. Zeiner Henriksen, University of Oslo
ABSTRACT: Many large global industries have the last decade experienced major challenges in their way of operating caused by various forms of digitalization. Uber, Instagram, YouTube, iTunes and Spotify are all distributors of products and services that provide easy and inexpensive access to products and services without really producing anything themselves. In higher education business as usual is the general tendency, but the concern of new developments is starting to spread. Coursera, Udacity, edX and many others provide courses of high quality that reaches many students across the globe.
Music production courses are popular and are provided by several of these distributors (ex.: Introduction to Music Production from Berklee at Coursera). The Department of Musicology, in cooperation with the Department of Educational Technology, launched the first self-made MOOC at the University of Oslo via the virtual learning platform at FutureLearn for the first time in Febraury-March this year. It will be launched again in September- October, then in connection with an on-campus Bachelor course. In this presentation the future of traditional education will be discussed on the basis of our experience from producing and running a MOOC.
Hans begins with a description of MOOCs and an overview of providers via Coursera and EDx, focussing on Berklee’s Music Production courses – we see Prince Charles Alexander’s course as an example.
Peter begins with some caveats; he comments that the report deals particularly with the recording industry (and does not cover other music industries – e.g. live music and music education). Second, he notes the support from Kobalt Music, whom he notes are a very particular type of publisher, with a particular interest in digital and many very large-scale song catalogues in their portfolios.
I’ve just watched a very inspiring presentation by UTRGV (Texas) faculty Art Brownlow about teaching music history with iPad.
It’s called Teaching Music History with iPad.
Rather than summarising it here, I’d suggest you just download his free ebook. Really interesting, especially for teachers of music history.
This week I’m in Santa Fe. I’ve never seen New Mexico before (except through the fictional eyes of Jesse, Walt, Hank, Skylar, Mike etc) and it’s quite beautiful – the view from the hotel is filled with sandstone fort-like buildings and distant mountains. The event is the College Music Society conference, an annual get-together of higher education music schools from across the US. Most of the major conservatories are represented, as are the music departments of many of the universities.
You know that feeling when a song’s intro seems to trip up your ear, so that when the band comes in it sounds like the timing’s out? There are a few rock classics that play with our rhythmic ears in this way. When I first heard Led Zeppelin’s Rock And Roll I thought the drum intro featured several time signature changes, until I realised that it’s just four bars of 4/4 with three eighth-notes before the downbeat (to hear it ‘properly’, start counting 4/4 on the fourth drum hit – the downbeat is the first accent).
I’m currently working on materials for a lecture about AABA song form for the Masters degree in songwriting. It’s a lecture I give every year and it starts from an historical perspective – contextualising AABA as the most common song form during first half of the 20th century. The 32-bar ‘standard’ is a remarkable formula – it was the dominant form of popular music (in the USA and UK) for around 50 years, and it follows some very simple rules – each section is 8 bars long, and form is verse-verse-bridge-verse . (Sometimes the ‘song’ is referred to as a ‘chorus’ because of an extended – usually slower – intro leading into it). In a standard, the title usually appears at the start or end of each verse, and almost never in the bridge. Verse 1 introduces the lyric idea; verse 2 develops its narrative; the bridge comments on the theme from a different viewpoint; the final verse summarises the narrator’s view or otherwise concludes the narrative.
For an overview of AABA form see my 2011 article from Total Guitar magazine.
Writing in 1941, the musicologist and sociologist Theodor Adorno described the ‘standardisation’ of popular music and deconstructed the 32 bar standard – which was, at the time, the song form used by almost every contemporary hit. Adorno held some rather extreme views about popular music, and it’s a fairly common sport among contemporary popular musicology to attack his arguments as prejudiced and elitist (although some have attempted a more nuanced approach). But here’s the thing – Adorno’s analysis is musically accurate.
Standardization extends from the most general features to the most specific ones. Best known is the rule that the chorus consists of thirty two bars and that the range is limited to one octave and one note. The general types of hits are also standardized: not only the dance types, the rigidity of whose pattern is understood, but also the “characters” such as mother songs, home songs, nonsense or “novelty” songs, pseudo-nursery rhymes, laments for a lost girl. Most important of all, the harmonic cornerstones of each hit — the beginning and the end of each part — must beat out the standard scheme. (Adorno, 1941).
Where Adorno’s argument falls down is in his inferences; he assumes that because a popular song’s content may be partly predictable for the listener, this is a reason to contrast it with ‘serious’ music where listener expectations may be more challenged. Actually, he argues that popular music’s ‘standardisation’ is not to be characterised by comparative simplicity. It’s hard to disagree with the following quotation on musical grounds;
The difference between the spheres cannot be adequately expressed in terms of complexity and simplicity. All works of the earlier Viennese classicism are, without exception, rhythmically simpler than stock arrangements of jazz. Melodically, the wide intervals of a good many hits such as “Deep Purple” or “Sunrise Serenade” are more difficult to follow per se than most melodies of, for example, Haydn, which consist mainly of circumscriptions of tonic triads and second steps. Harmonically, the supply of chords of the so-called classics is invariably more limited than that of any current Tin Pan Alley composer who draws from Debussy, Ravel, and even later sources. (Ibid).
Adorno had done his research about popular music, and it is inaccurate to say that he criticises it for its structural simplicity. The problem with his critique is that he wasn’t habituated in songs as a listener – or rather, [I infer that] he didn’t seem to derive personal emotional impact from them. Speaking personally, as a pop music consumer (and musicology geek), of course I recognise structural similarities between pop songs (here’s a brief analysis of 2012 hits). But as a listener I’m influenced by the differences between otherwise predictable musical content. These may well be, in Adorno’s terms, ‘conditioned reflexes’, but the skill of the songwriter, and the emotional power for the listener, is contained within the deviations from the predictable, not the predictable content itself. Standardisation in popular music is powerful and self-perpetuating, and here I agree with Adorno’s statement that ‘the standard patterns [of 1940s pop songs] have become invested with the immunity of bigness — “the King can do no wrong.”‘ – but this is just economic and cultural Darwinism in action (here’s a short article discussing the market forces that drive song standardisation; here’s a much longer academic one).
Because he was writing in the 1940s, Adorno did not differentiate between ‘song’ and ‘track’ because, as in classical music, the ‘work’ in popular music of the time was defined in sheet music form. In the early 20th century, the song was usually more famous than the singer. If he were writing now there would be a whole new landscape for him to discuss because late 20th century popular music is defined as an audio product, not a musicological one – the song is the recording. Listeners are responding simultaneously to the song and the track (that is, the production), so the bandwidth of information we receive is so much greater. ‘Serious’ music (or at least a proportion of it) uses a known timbral palette – a piano, or an orchestra for example – but popular music production allows pretty much any sound to be incorporated into the mix.
So I agree with Adorno musically and, mostly, economically; his descriptions of the 32 bar standard and the market forces that perpetuate it are well reasoned and IMO evidence based. But he applies a structural and sociological analysis to popular music that he refuses to apply to ‘serious’ music, even though all music contains some constrained elements and some challenges to constraint. As listeners, we respond to the difference between constraint and freedom, repetition and contrast, form and content. All music is a balance between standardisation and innovation.
Church bells are ringing, mellow and clear
I feel so lonely, beneath stars above
Listening to one thing, the one thing I love
In the valley, ooh-hoo!
But it brings back sweet memories of you
Can you hear it, ooh-hoo!
Through the twilight, ooh-hoo!
When it answered I love you, I do
How I wish we were here
Just like we used to be
But since you have gone
There’s nothing left for me
Just an echo, ooh-hoo!
In the valley, ooh-hoo!
But it brings back sweet memories of you
Session 2a – Australia and New Zealand. Chair: Eric Hung
The Architects of Culture: Developing the Concept of a ‘Shared Listening History’. James Cox (Macquarie University, Australia)
As Schloss (2006) has suggested, Hip Hop practitioners are mindful of the culture’s history and traditions. This is true of Hip Hop artists in Australia and New Zealand, who are keen to promote their knowledge and respect of the culture’s history and traditions.
This paper will examine the ideas behind such a conservative selection of cultural works that form the basis for Hip Hop music. As Dimitriadis (2009) has suggested, a Hip Hop identity is often “worked through” by a complex positioning and re-positioning of texts between peoples. The selection of such texts forms a ‘Shared Listening History’ among Hip Hop artists in Australia and New Zealand. This allows for the construction of a Hip Hop identity worked out through interaction with these texts. A point reiterated by Australian Hip Hop artist Dialect, “[my music is] straight up Hip Hop music, concerned with preserving and respecting the culture’s traditions and origins [as] laid out by the architects” (Tang 2011, p.22).
Drawing on ethnographic research with Hip Hop artists in Australia and New Zealand, the paper exemplifies how a ‘Shared Listening History’ provides an important structure within the genre. Australian and New Zealand Hip Hop artists engagement with the “architects” of the culture has important implications on the ways in which these artists then construct their music and remain “authentic”.
Tin Pan Story, Keir Keightley (University of Western Ontario, Canada)
Between 1910 and 1919, a spate of stories set in Tin Pan Alley (the New York sheet-music publishing district) appeared in mass-circulation magazines, newspapers, and cinemas. These contributed to the growing popular knowledge about how popular music was manufactured and promoted; thus they can offer us useful views of the workings of the early music industry, from a perspective that differs somewhat from non-fictional accounts of this period. My paper will explore what these stories tell us in particular about the evaluation of popular music and its frequently fraudulent industrial practices. These largely “romantic” narratives are driven by a conception of Tin Pan Alley as a place where authentic love and authentic musical creation/production can become, against the odds, intertwined and interdependent. Here also we glimpse the rising prominence of “backstage” or insider accounts of cultural industries in the 1910s, prior to Hollywood’s mass of self-revelations and self-mystifications of the 1920s. Together, these insights can contribute to a broader historicisation of contemporary notions of authenticity in general, and of their mainstream, mediated roots in particular. This paper represents the next phase of my current work on a genealogy of “mainstream” authenticity, first presented at my Liverpool 2009 plenary, “Tin Pan Allegory”.
To anyone who is involved in the academic discussion of popular music, Professor Simon Frith is perhaps one of our megastars. I was delighted to hear that he was the keynote speaker for this conference, as he is one of the driving forces behind IASPM itself and our journal – Popular Music. That this is his final conference (he intends to retire within the year) made his speech all the more poignant.
[with apologies to Simon for any inelegance or misrepresentation in the summative text below – I found the keynote extremely engaging, and have tried to balance my own interest in his points with the practical necessity of live blogging!].
Simon opened his keynote with a comment about his preference for the avoidance of nostalgia – and noted that Bruce Springsteen will be performing in Gijòn this week! He talked briefly about his influential book Performing Rites, written in the 1990s, and then discussed where popular music scholarship might be going today. His interest has always been partly located in the arguments of what constitutes ‘value’ in popular music, and notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ popular music. As an academic he takes what is still a very brave approach – of using academic tools to analyse highly contextual social considerations of aesthetic value in music.
I’m here at the 2013 IASPM (International Society for the Study of Popular Music) biennial conference. I’m one of about 20 British popular musicologists and there are several hundred of us from all around the world. We’re at the magnificent Laboral Ciudad de la Cultura in Gijòn, Spain. I’ve attempted to blog the sessions – including the abstracts and a brief summary – here. I do so with apologies to the presenters for any unintentional misrepresentation.
To many songwriters and music fans, the title above seems pretty self-evident. Most successful songwriters weren’t taught how to write songs, and besides, songwriting is a form of self-expression, so what’s to teach?
Perhaps surprisingly, speaking as someone who ‘teaches’ songwriting, I’d go a long way towards agreeing with this statement. There is no formula for writing a song, and although there are methods and techniques that are in common use, these are so varied that it’s impossible to identify one that works in every situation. But if we assume that most songwriters don’t write their best work on the first attempt, it follows that if songwriting can’t be taught, it can certainly be learnt.
How, exactly, do we learn? If popular song is a form of self-expression, it could be viewed as a kind of language, with its own grammar, structure and rules. We can learn a (second) language by buying a phrase book or working with a teacher, but it’s easier just to go and live in the relevant country – and of course we learned our first language just by growing up hearing it every day.
The first teaching method is to ensure that the student has heard lots of songs, and by ‘heard’ I mean really listened in detail. If you love a particular songwriter’s work, it’s worth putting the hours into working out exactly how their songs are constructed. How many bars are in the intro? How many times per bar do the chords change? What rhymes, images and syllable-counts are used in the lyric? Is the melody mainly scalic (consecutive notes), static (repeated notes) or intervallic (leaping between notes)? We don’t necessarily have to copy all of these characteristics all of the time, but a little bit of this sort of geeky analysis can help us to understand what we love about our musical influences. By analysing repertoire, we can build up an arsenal of songwriting weaponry from which to choose when we’re writing. Our song could begin with four bars of Pearl Jam-style half-bar chord changes, have an opening lyric with some Joni Mitchell-esque visual lyric imagery, using descending scalic melody sequences reminiscent of JS Bach. And because we’re only copying compositional characteristics (as opposed to the actual music or lyric) we’re still being creative. This method can help us to break existing musical habits: paradoxically, using someone else’s techniques can make our own songs sound more original.
The second teaching method is to apply all of the above to our own songs, and learn about our personal songwriting styles. We all have subconscious musical rat-runs in our songwriting. One of my own students recently discovered, through self-analysis, that he’d written an entire album where every melody phrase started on the second beat of the bar. Once he’d realised this he could choose to allow or avoid the tendency; in this way he developed new creative options in his songwriting, making his albums more interesting for the listener.
The final, and perhaps most important teaching method, is disappointingly obvious. In a word – practice. Songwriting is a musical (and literary) skill and it gets better the more you do it. A guaranteed way to make your songwriting ten times better is to write ten songs and trash your least favourite nine.
But this is all unnecessary, cry the naysayers. The Beatles were never taught songwriting – they just wrote from the heart. Well, not taught perhaps, but they certainly learned. Strumming along to Little Richard and Carl Perkins records in Liverpool living rooms – and six-hour covers band sets in Hamburg clubs? Repertoire analysis. Co-writer negotiations between Lennon and McCartney? Self-analysis. And the journey from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’? Practice.
So no, you probably can’t teach songwriting. But every time we listen to the radio, go to a gig or play a cover version, we’re learning to write better songs.