Saturday, July 31, 2010

Music theory exercise

I have a suggestion for an exercise for Michael beginning music theory students: transcribe a recording of a piece of music.

Choose something you haven't seen sheet music for. Select music with some meat to it (i.e. not just I, IV, V, V7 chords), but not overly dense (i.e. not full orchestra). Pick something that you like enough to listen to ad nauseum as you deconstruct it. Consider, though, that your relationship to this piece of music will never be the same. You will forever after hear its parts; listening to it will be a thinking, rather than a feeling, enterprise so don't pick music that you love because of its emotional impact.

Of course, you can write your transcription out on paper. You'll need a big eraser, though, for all the mistakes you'll make. There are software programs for transcribing music that are pretty cool. I haven't researched these fully, so I don't know what's best. I came across Finale which has a suite of programs of varying capability, available on a free trial basis for 30 days. These programs all allow you to enter notes into your score through dragging/dropping a note icon onto a staff, or by "playing" notes on your computer keyboard, or by using a midi keyboard. The software plays your score back to you, so you can hear if you've got it right.

Except for the least sophisticated of the suite (Notepad), the software can automatically provide chord symbols. I'd suggest that you use this capability just as a check on your own chord analysis, a useful part of this exercise.

Start with the melody; then select one instrument at a time and figure out its path through the song. For pop/rock/jazz, I'd suggest doing the bass line after the melody.

In the process of transcription, you'll have to figure out the time signature of your piece; its key; its melody; its harmonies; its phrasing; its tempo and tempo changes; its rhythms; its chord progressions; its organization; the way its lyrics fit; its dynamic changes; and on and on. You'll be forced to grapple with pretty much every concept in music theory.

You may not be able to deconstruct everything, but you'll be surprised at what you can do, once you start pulling the song apart. It's very much like doing a jigsaw puzzle; it's a big impenetrable task to begin, but one little puzzle piece at a time you get intimately familiar with the picture and attuned to the smallest changes of hue. When you're done, qualities of the image to which you were oblivious when you started are pronounced and obvious to you.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Joan Armatrading

We saw her last night at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. Holy coyote; she was amazingly great.

K was a fan from ages ago and introduced me to her music in 1996. I didn't love her then. I liked her music, but didn't like what she did with her voice.

As we were waiting for the show to start last night, we admitted to each other that we weren't very excited to see her. K was expecting her to have aged way past her prime and I was expecting to hear that voice-thing that I dislike. (I don't know if there's a word for it; it's that Anita-Baker swallowed-sound, cat-yowling thing.)

The Cedar is simultaneously a miserable and fabulous place to hear music. The sound system is outstanding. Tickets are general admission and it's not the kind of crowd that shows up hours in advance, so you can always count on getting a really close seat if it matters to you. It's a short bike ride from our house.

The physical environment at the Cedar is wanting, though. They pack waaaaay too many tiny folding chairs into a small space with too few exits. It's an effort to keep my claustrophobic panic at bay. Beer is necessary to take the vividness out of my imaginings of dying in a fire under the feet of a crowd futilely trying to get to the exits while tripping over downed folding chairs. You just know the electrical system is not sufficiently updated. Do we have no fire code in this city? To top it off, there's no discernible ventilation and tap beer is $5.50.

When Joan came on stage, she first thanked us for leaving our television sets behind for the evening. That seemed unnecessarily condescending and obnoxious. We're sweating, we're squashed in here like sardines, and now we're being insulted.

But then she started playing and blew us away. Her voice has aged like fine wine. Powerful, clear, soulful, interesting, expressive, perfectly on pitch, with zero Anita-Baker yowling. Her vocal prime is now. Her guitar-playing was even more impressive. And with a catalog of three decades to pick from, she had no trouble filling a solid two hours with nothing but great songs.

If you get a chance to see her during her current tour, you just have to do it. (Doesn't look like she's got any Texas stops on her schedule yet, but maybe they're yet to come.)

Update (moments later): One of Joan's old songs is Weakness in Me (1982), with lyrics that describe the pull of an affair. If you listen to her singing it as a much younger woman, it's fine. But her delivery of this today -- standing still on stage, no guitar, no microphone in her hand or stand in front of her, with enough years of maturity to sell the sentiments of the song -- was stunning. It's sort of like Ralph Stanley singing O Death or Johnny Cash singing Hurt; advancing age is a trememdous asset to the song.

Updated again (one more moment later): Video is worth a thousand words:

Using the power of the internet for good. This time: learning languages

Here's yet another way that social networking via the web can be harnessed for good. A person trying to learn a language can, through world-wide social networks, get access to native speakers. And, perhaps more importantly, one can get a motivational boost to learn:

Still, he finds it ultimately worthwhile to work with others on the Web and search for the better partners because that provides a real connection that cannot be found from a book or a simple computer program.

“When I have to do an exercise and submit it to the world, when I know that real people are going to look at it and comment on it, it really jacks up my brain,” he said.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

And another stunning vocal display from Adam

Starting at 3:30 is his acoustic Whole Lotta Love encore, performed tonight in San Francisco. I recommend watching all the way to the end.

I love the progression starting at 6:06. And 7:54 to the end is really something.

(Video by Suz526. H/t to Hooplamagnet.)

Update: Another video of the same performance with audio that is better in some respects.

Update 8/9/10:  Another video of the same performance.  This is cut together from several fan-taken videos.