How Musics Learn


IMG_8522 2

In music, change of one type or another is what we listen for, what we crave as information-seeking beings. Change is what keeps us listening and interested: we listen for the moments when something happens, dramatic or subtle, when one state of affairs transforms into another. Change can happen extremely fast—from one chord becoming another, from 3/4 to 4/4 in an instant, from a bass drop to an improvised melody that’s never the same in its winding journey from one pitch to the next. But musical change in the broader sense of how styles shape-shift and become or inspire new ones happens much more slowly. It can take years, decades, or even centuries for “new” musics to appear. Though it now looks inevitable as presented in music history textbooks, monophony flowered into polyphony, but that development took a very long time.

I’ve been pondering the question, How do musics learn? mainly because I like the way the phrase sounds. The phrase personifies Music, but it’s a helpful (and fun) trick which I’ve previously elaborated upon in a blog post about musical action in which I imagined melody as a dancer, harmony a bodyguard, rhythm a choreographer and stopwatch-holding referee, timbre a fashion expert, and form a sharp-eared marketer/promoter. Mix all of these personifications together and you have…Music walking down Time Street, coming from the past, in the present, and about to turn a corner into the future.

Imagine Music as this vibrant presence walking down Time Street, reacting to all the stimulations Sound City has to offer. Everywhere Music turns, people want a piece of it—trying to get its attention, use it for one reason or another, sell it stuff, emote, worship or meditate through it, show it off to their friends, etc. For some reason, everyone wants to bring Music into their lives because, in a chameleon-like way, Music has the power to be anything people want it to be. Music earned this power by being a careful and patient observer of human action, and in this imagined scenario Music has been learning continually by adapting to the activity around it—from the people who make and obsess over it (musicians and composers), from the instruments they use, from the sounds these instruments make, and from the reactions the sounds inspire in listeners. Through the maelstrom of its social, psychological, mathematical, and spiritual utilities, we could say that music’s learning is endless.

As much as I like the colorfulness of this scenario, it’s misleading because Music isn’t a person with agency and thus the capability to learn. It’s us—the musicians, composers, listeners and fans—who are doing the endless learning, and Music is only as learned as we are. A less colorful but perhaps more accurate characterization is that Music is like a mirror (in sound) that reflects back to us the present state of our thinking and our ongoing adaptations to being here, with these musical tools, this way and now.

Thinking about the question of how musics learn has me not only musing on far-flung musical personifications but also thinking about an article I wrote (for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies) about instructional videos by amateur hip hop producers. My three case studies looked at beat makers who make music in home studios using computer software and hardware. What I found interesting about their work—though I didn’t write about it—was how it shows hip hop learning. The producers work at some distance from mainstream commercial hip hop, sharing their work and building their fan base on YouTube. Each producer tries to replicate a different style of hip hop in their own way and astute viewers respond to these replications in the comments section, assessing the authenticity and power of the producers’ beats. There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of such videos on YouTube, pointing to a much larger community of amateur musicians around the world who make beats. These microscenes constitute a kind of convergence culture (a concept from the work of Henry Jenkins) that is in constant dialogue with the popular hip hop sounds of today (and yesterday), stretching those sounds’ edges by querying and challenging them. Back to my personification of Music as a vibrant presence walking down Time Street: we can imagine Hip Hop paying attention to this online production activity, absorbing it in bits and pieces while considering where to walk next. As it does so, it’s slowly learning over time. Who knows, maybe one day a big hit will come from YouTube rather than big label recordings?

If music learns through its adaptations, then we should more closely consider what adaptation entails. What is happening? In a biological sense, an adaptation is a process of change by which an organism or species becomes more suited to its environment. Now bio-personifications come to mind: if music is like a muscle, it learns by responding to systematic overloading by getting stronger, or if music is like a virus, it learns by spreading itself through populations, or if music is like our brains it learns by responding to information by creating more neural connections. In all of these imaginings, music learns by helping us become more suited to our environments—it literally helps us evolve. Finally, remember that music’s learning can’t be predicted ahead of time. Musical adaptations don’t move in a straight line; instead, they follow a nonlinear path towards uncertain outcomes. (Music has always been a flâneur.) While some musics have proven to be robust to time, sounding just as good today as they did back then, it’s hard to predict which of today’s musics will endure and which ones will fade. Sometimes musics learn by the luck of having hung around long enough.

Curating The Week: Autechre, Nyabinghi, CDs


A review of a set of new Autechre recordings.

“It’s the visceral sound of machines powering down then quickly lurching back into motion. It’s that sense of perpetual rhythmic collapse, the feeling that entire songs are slipping out from under your feet. It’s gorgeous and terrifying and awe-inspiring and incomprehensible and frequently even funky—but only if you let it unfold first. Booth and Brown have so completely mastered their aesthetic that it no longer seems rational to compare it to anything born outside of it.”

An article about Jamaican Nyabinghi drumming.

“Nyabinghi drumming takes its name from a form or “mansion” of Rastafari and created the rhythmic bedrock for ska, rocksteady and reggae, and therefore the myriad music that followed Jamaica’s golden era of dub. It’s a great example of how music with a devotional aspect can be enjoyable and meaningful even when divorced from an explicitly religious setting. The rhythms, pioneered and recorded on Wareika Hill by Count Ossie, and expanded on by artists like Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, have a comparable influence to gospel, which famously also moved from sacred to secular; they are a percussive counterpart to gospel’s voice-led divinations.”

An article about the CD.

“Good discoveries remain available for pennies on the dollar; you just need to open your mind to an unfashionable, unsexy format.”

Working Knowledge: Performing, Tinkering, Composing


“Think dynamically.” – Nassim Taleb, Skin in the Game (2018)

Somewhere around 2002 I began making electronic music on a computer in a kind of old-fashioned way because I didn’t know any better: using a MIDI keyboard, my goal was to physically play every sound myself, one part at a time. There were a few reasons for this workflow. First, playing seemed the most efficient way to record: why program something if you can play it? This connected to a second reason, which is that my performance expertise—technically average though it is, but who says expertise necessarily involves virtuosity?—is based upon knowing how to play a few instruments. For many years, especially when I was a teenager and into college, I spent quite a lot of time practicing drum set and then percussion, inspired by our university’s music conservatory environment which fostered equal parts competition and fear. I practiced in the hopes of showing my teacher I understood his lessons and that someday I might have the control to play somewhat freely and hopefully, powerfully. (The control is still intact today, though some of the proficiency is not, which is perhaps a topic for another blog post.) A third reason for performing every electronic sound myself was that, back in 2002 I didn’t understand what digital technology could do for my music. I understood how a kick drum could be cut and pasted into a monotonous steady stream (and who wants to do that?), but the utility of other, much more subtle production moves such as effects processing, were unknown to me. If you want to hear an example of music I played all the way through, listen to This Would Be The Time, one of my now vintage Answering Machine Music pieces. This piece, along with a few others, features the voice of my friend Fred, who used to leave colossal messages on my answering machine.

These days I’ve adapted my old-fashioned goal of performing every sound myself. (You can read more about performance here.) I still begin pieces by playing something—by improvising, by flaneuring around the keyboard doing whatever strikes me as interesting right now. But after that stage—and I will sometimes wait a year or longer to revisit the file!— I set to work refining that playing through a kind of steady state tinkering. By tinkering I mean what essayist Nassim Taleb refers to as making small errors that are of little cost and can lead to discoveries. Digital music software is supremely suited to facilitating tinkering in search of discoveries. Consider, for example, what can be done with a brief solo piano improvisation. If my performance is decent (decent enough for me not to trash it), it can certainly be heightened in various ways: “wrong” notes can be replaced with more “right” ones, note velocities finely tuned (see my post on editing music for articulation), the tempo can be infinitesimally slowed down or sped up (or gradually accelerated or decelerated over time), spatial effects (e.g. reverb, delay, EQ) can be snuck in and out like a felt ambience, the ending can switch places with the beginning, the middle section can be inverted, transposed, and played at half speed, notes can be deleted (as per Taleb’s via negativa or “negative way”), and so on. I apply this kind of first-order tinkering to the solo piano in layers, over the course of many, many re-listenings. This in turn sets the stage for a second-order tinkering, whereby the initial tinkered-with solo piano improvisation becomes the basis for other possible parts, specifically: notes, phrases, bass lines, melodies, chords, and sections can be copied to generate new musical action, juxtaposed with the original performance to create unexpected rhythms and (my favorite discoveries) accidental counterpoints. Even effects can be saved and re-sampled and off we go again in yet another direction. It’s as endless as you want it to be. But remember too that tinkering is an option one doesn’t need to exercise. Sometimes you tinker just to learn that where you are isn’t in need of alteration, just like once in a great while you don’t even want to change a thing about your life.

What I’ve adapted is not only my workflow process, but also my understanding of where the composing is happening. Am I composing when I’m flaneuring among notes on the keyboard? Working out a theme? Making a mistake and correcting it? Am I composing when scrutinizing MIDI data in front of me on the screen, considering it from bird’s eye perspective and then trying this or that tinkering to alter it and make it sound better? The answer is that composing is all of these things that happen in the course of a dynamic and ongoing interacting with sound. The most significant felt fact I’m learning through my work is that there’s a fine line between a music that sounds just so-so and then, with the right tweak, suddenly becomes super expressive. I say felt fact as this happens to me over and over again: I’m trying out various small changes that don’t work until suddenly something does and the music is inexplicably singing. The music in its early iterations didn’t sing; it wasn’t doing much when I first played it through and began editing. But somehow and with delight I arrived at expressiveness despite myself and now the music is saying something.

Lessons From Composing Music Adapted To Writing


“So how did I learn to write? From listening to music.
And what’s the most important thing in writing?
It’s rhythm.”
– Haruki Murakami

Begin with something simple, even obvious,
then complexify it to turn it into something else.

From a single idea generate multiple parts and variations.

Build a form, gradually, by introducing one new idea at a time.

Articulate themes with clarity.

Introduce noise and dissonance into the equation.

Connect what’s happening now to what just transpired.

Devise continuous transformations.

Pay attention to transitions between sections.

Reference earlier works.

Consider counterpoint.

Keep a steady pace, but subdivide and multiply that tempo.

Play with repetition to create aura.

Remix as you go along.

Be guided by what is lively (Nassim Taleb).

Use dynamics as contrast to maintain interest.

The “argument” is in your way of telling.