Algorithmic Blues

Music algorithms are a funny thing. Ostensibly, they exist to help us discover new music that’s suited to our tastes. The problem with the idea is that the algorithms curate based on tastes that you already have, using songs that already exist within defined parameters as a starting point to steer you towards other music that fits the mould of those parameters. The problem with this is clear: while you can discover a lot of new music in this way, it will probably exist inside your comfort zone. In light of this, a lot of people are looking for anti-algorithmic ways of finding new music.

I read a great article by Pitchfork about one of the ways you can break out of the algorithm trap: listen to online radio. Online radio is usually run by passionate musicians and music fans who plumb the depths of the record store to find rare, almost unheard of gems to play for you. They are often volunteers, so there’s no financial incentive for them to play a particular piece; online radio is a work of love, and it shows. I’ve discovered so much music from online radio, and sometimes, I’ll hear a piece that I recognize from a song that samples it. One of the most exciting elements of music is the recontextualization of old sounds, unravelling the mythos of the tracks you listen to. Hearing a melody that calls back to an old song I know, or a lyric that references another track; it appeals to the collector in me, and your collection can’t be complete if you don’t do a little digging.

This anti-algorithm, always-be-curious attitude will help you play better, too. One of the biggest mistakes new musicians make is trying to make their piece sound exactly like another player; it’s good to remember that everything you play is an interpretation, and it’s the variation between your style and another musician’s that will make your interpretation special, unique. You want to play the “right” notes, of course, at the right time, but the feel of it can be different. You might be using a piano that’s totally different from the piano a piece was recorded with. The weight of your keys, the acoustics of your room, your own personal style; all of these will affect the piece.

Getting out of boxed-in modes of thinking is something we must aspire to as musicians. Not just as musicians, either; as human beings, it is our duty to get out of our comfort zone to try and establish new ways of understanding things – and each other. By listening to new music, exposing yourself to new ideas, and coming up with fresh ways of interpreting a piece, you’re a part of a longstanding tradition of breaking the mould through art. You are the anti-algorithm. Algorithms are computerized, digital, cold; you are flesh and blood, human, and the works you make can be made by no one else. When you want to freshen up on the technical elements of your playing, Winnipeg piano lessons are available; we’ll help you discover what you can bring to the world.

The Power of Music Lessons, Part 1

I doubt anyone questions the benefits of learning music, but a lot of people probably aren’t aware of just how beneficial they are. Music schools vary greatly in how they approach teaching music, from the Suzuki method to the Kodàly method, but they all have the same wide array of end benefits. You can certainly learn music on your own, but an instructor will help you shore up the finer points of your technique, as well as give you a deeper appreciation of the music you are playing.

Want your child to learn to master their language? The best way might be to get them enrolled in music lessons. A study by MIT compared three groups; one continued normal scholarly activities (the control group), one received 45 minutes of supplementary reading lessons, and the last got supplementary piano lessons. The group that learned the piano ended up outperforming the other two groups in word recognition, beating out even the group that practiced reading. This is likely because differentiating sounds in words and sounds in music develop the same skill set.

Music will also help you develop your interpersonal skills. Studies have shown that learning to play an instrument helps to control anxiety; emotional control is also developed. Further to this, music also helps you develop more self-confidence and self-esteem. Less anxiety and more self-esteem mean compounding positive effects that you can carry with you throughout your life.

No surprise here: music makes you more dexterous. Your muscle memory will obviously improve, as you learn how to play chords, strummed, plucked or bowed. Learning music will also increase activity in your motor cortex, so learning music will actually help you in non-music related physical activities too.

Learning music will also help you age gracefully. Musicians who stopped playing after 10 years still feel the benefits as they age, performing better at feats of mental athletics and quick thinking, as well as visuospatial memory and recall. Learning to play music will also make you better at distinguishing sounds, much like the group of young children we talked about before; that can be handy to pick out specific voices at a party, which can become difficult and frustrating as you age.

Playing a song requires dexterity and memorization. Giving a song life requires a depth of empathy, emotional intelligence, and maturity that’s rare in the world. You need a sense of self, and the ability to put yourself into the song, to feel through it; with practice, you’ll eventually develop these traits.

Think about what we’ve discussed. Music helps your linguistic skills, your reasoning, your dexterity, your motor cortex, reduces your anxiety, increases your empathy; it helps you in every domain of your life. The earlier you get into music the better, and the better your instruction the more quickly all of these domains will develop. Haven’t started learning music yet? Today’s the day.

A History of The Electric Guitar, Derailed

In writing and in music, it’s best to go into things with an open mind. You might set out to do one thing, and end up finding something completely different, something that shifts your way of thinking, your way of creating. Take this article, for example. I set out to write about the history of the electric guitar. You may know a little bit about it; at the very least, you’ve probably heard apocryphal tales of Bob Dylan bringing an electric guitar on stage at Newport and someone from the audience yelling “Judas!”. The chief audience for the instrument was jazz guitarists who wanted people to hear their instrument over the big band; they needed amplification.

Following this lead, I started looking into the original electric guitars. One of the biggest contenders for first electric is the Electro-Spanish Ken Roberts, made in 1935; one of the originals sold for 7.5 million dollars. There were electrics before the ES Ken Roberts, like the “Fry-Pan”, which was made for playing Hawaiian music; it was a lap steel guitar, somewhat unlike the Spanish style we see today. Continuing down the rabbit hole of “unusual early electric guitars”, I learned about a blues musician who played in the Skid Row region of L.A. in the 1960s. He was a street performer named Eddie “One String” Jones. There are almost no details about his early life, to the point where we don’t even know if his given name was, in fact, Eddie Jones. The “One String” part, though? That was true.

Eddie made a “unitar”, a one-stringed guitar crafted out of a piece of timber, a broom wire, and a tin can. He played the instrument with a half pint bottle as a slide, and he would strike the wire with a stick near the tin can, which acted as a resonator. He performed blues standards like “Baby Please Don’t Go”. While singing, he would strike the string in repetitive, rhythmic patterns, often on the quarter note. His voice was raw, sometimes even a bit off-key, but entrancing. His slide guitar is like nothing I’ve ever heard before; you can hear the harsh, shrill sound of the bottle scraping along the string while he plays, the melodic elements warping and bubbling around as he plays. The whole thing is surreal, truly weird and wonderful, and he’s doing it all with one string. I know I’m about to pick up my guitar and see what kind of music I can seek out of a single string; can I make a compelling song like Eddie, if that is his real name?

Inspiration can strike anywhere. Limitations are sometimes the precursor to great art. I encourage you to try this experiment; limit yourself, and see what kind of music you can make. Stay open to possibilities, and look for music everywhere you go. Don’t be so set on a destination that you can’t find something truly meaningful on the journey. This is especially true if you haven’t learned an instrument, or it’s been a while since you’ve picked one up. You might have some destination in mind, to be a hyper-technical player or to be able to play a certain song by a certain time. With these destinations in mind, don’t forget the journey; great Winnipeg guitar lessons are available to help you along your story.

Practice Every Day

I’ve been reading the book “Quiet” by Susan Cain. The book is about introverts living in an extroverted world, and how to use your introversion as a tool for good. One of the most striking ideas in the book is that of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is an act of mindfulness, in which you break apart a particular skill into small chunks, and then focus on improving the chunks, rather than focusing on improving the whole all at once. You may already be enrolled in Winnipeg violin lessons, and you may practice the violin every day, but what do you focus on? Are you simply trying to play through the songs, or are you focusing on the quality of your vibrato, the strength of your bowing technique? What would happen if you focused only of your left hand, or only on your right hand? What would happen if you spent an hour simply focusing on holding your violin properly?

This type of mindful practice is exhilarating, because it takes all of your mental efforts; you’re chopping the thing you’re trying to learn down into the smallest possible fragments and working on each one, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its part. What’s so wonderful about music is that it’s so universal, so all-encompassing; you can see the very world around you as music. That means that you should practice every day, even if you don’t have your instrument with you. How do you practice without an instrument? It might be easier than you think.

The next time you run your washing machine, or take a shower, listen to the rhythms it creates. Can you figure out how many beats per minute your shower is pouring at? Can you detect polyrhythms as your machine spins and whirs? Rhythm, beat and time are all around us, so whether you’re in a car or sitting at your office at work, there’s something you’ll be able to tap your foot to, something you’ll be able to measure. Rhythm is definitely a chunk of your overall playing ability, so focusing on it every day is a great way to expand musically.

Every time you hear a rhythm, there must be a sound, and that sound is within a listenable frequency, so it must be a note. Does your fridge hum in C#? How about your air conditioner? Can you find harmony in the appliances in your house? Can you sing in the same pitch as your school’s vending machine? This type of practice, hearing notes all around, music all around; it will make you a better musician. The best part is, you can deliberately practice anywhere; when you’re done reading this, stop what you’re doing, close your eyes, open your ears, and try to identify the music that’s swirling all around you. When you’re practiced at that, hearing the music your instrument can make will be second nature to you.  

Cross-Cultural Feeling

Looking for some incredible insights about music theory and composition? I cannot recommend Adam Neely’s YouTube Channel enough. For the deliberate practice we discussed in the last blog post, he recommends imagining your forearm is your instrument in order to practice fingerings. Another fascinating video of his that I watched recently breaks down the 9/8 time signature. There’s a lot to unpack; one of the things he goes into is how you can entrain people to the beat with a variety of techniques. Entrainment is when your body synchronizes itself to the beat; in short, it’s what makes us want to dance. Humans seem to be the only animals who experience entrainment as a whole species, barring some exceptions, and the cognitive processes involved in entrainment seem to be present from infancy.

This is remarkable. I’m not a neuroscientist, but to me this seems to suggest that there is something essential about music to human development and experience. We’ve seen this on a cultural level; most cultures I’m aware of have some form of music, and most of it is complex, nuanced and diverse. All of it, though, can be understood as music by humans of any other culture; perhaps that’s because music is so baked into our very brains. Music is the universal language because we all want to dance to it.

Dancing isn’t always easy, though. I’ve never met anyone who can’t at least nod their head to 4/4, but this 9/8 business is a little odd. North American dance music is almost never in this time signature, but according to Neely’s video, many other cultures, including Balkan culture, dance quite easily to 9/8. That’s because they feel the time in quicks and slows; usually in a pattern of quick, quick, quick, slow. Were the pattern four quicks in a row, we would be in 4/4 time, but because the slow is held just a bit longer, we end up in 9/8. Dances often involve 3 steps forward and a slower step back; apparently, this is to symbolize the 4 seasons, with winter being represented by the slow at the end of the cycle.

What’s remarkable about this is that while your body might not immediately entrain to the 9/8 beat, when you learn to do it with another culture’s music, you’ve learned a whole new way of feeling music. More importantly, you’ve learned that culture’s way of feeling music, a way that informs everything from their music’s composition to how they dance. Dancing alongside people is a group is almost always a gesture of love, friendship, and understanding – maybe that’s why we know how to dance from infancy. It connects us.

You might not be ready to go onto the dancefloor and play something yet, but with practice you will be, and that practice will help you connect with people across cultures. Quality and affordable in home music lessons are available, so you can practice feeling the rhythm before playing live.

Renewal

There’s an excellent pop-rock album by the French band Phoenix, titled “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”. In the song Countdown, lead vocalist Thomas Mars sings “Do you remember when 21 years was old?”. At the time I heard it, I did not, in fact, remember when 21 years was old. That’s because I was not 21 years old at the time, so while 21 years wasn’t necessarily super old to me, it was still older than I was. 10 years later, listening to the album again, I do remember when 21 years was old. Specifically, I remember listening to the album, thinking 21 years was old, and feeling like the lyric didn’t apply to me. I appreciate the lyric now on a meta-level, because it brings me back to a specific time and place, and I’m flooded with memories of preparing for finals and working on papers.

I love Thomas’ vocal delivery on this entire album. He has a strange way of ending his phrases, where on the last syllable of each line, his voice lilts upwards, and the last note is just a little higher than the rest. It builds a sense of anticipation, a longing for the next line. It’s perfect for an album trying to build a bridge between pop-accessibility and tuneful musicianship; you’re always waiting with baited breath for the next phrase. Over the years, I’ve come back to the album again and again, in large part because of how stunning but weird the vocals are.

Vocals are one of the main reasons we go back to music again and again. In folk culture, music is often focused on the vocals, because it’s easy to teach a call-and-response or a simple chorus. Simple songs like “This Little Light of Mine” can become anthems because of their universal themes and adaptability. Singing is by its very nature participatory; you can join in the chorus, you can find harmonies, you can blast a song and sing it with friends while driving down the highway on a hot summer night. As we sing, the song is recontextualized and adapted; we might change the lyrics, we might play around with the melody, we might elongate or shorten syllables to change how the song feels. Over time, this leads to whole new renditions of songs; see how different artists interpret “Can the Circle Be Unbroken”, from mournful to hopeful.

Learning to improve your voice with Winnipeg voice lessons can help you become a part of the tradition of musical renewal. Like me listening to Phoenix again after 10 years, you’ll hear new songs and, with your training, be able to appreciate more of the nuances in the vocals, the difficulty of what these artists are doing. You can become a part of the tradition of reinterpreting music, inspiring whole new generations of artists to contextualize old songs to modern times. You can use your voice to send a message to anyone who listens, and even create new songs to be reinterpreted, years down the road. Your voice is a powerful tool; we can help you hone it.

Fiddle and Violin

Words have a strange way of losing their meaning over time, or of having their meanings blur together. “Thou” is now evocative of olden times, and pretty much only used to convey period; the only time you’d ask someone “How art thou doing” is if you’re making a joke or hanging out at a Renaissance Fair. Thou has a very practical use, though; it can be used to denote the second person singular, which differentiated it from “you”, which was used for the second person plural. I bring this up because some people will call a violin a fiddle, and while that’s not technically inaccurate, it might do a great service to distinguish between the two.

The violin-fiddle scenario is akin to the square-rectangle one; a violin is a fiddle, but a fiddle is not always a violin. Fiddling in some form has been around since at least the 10th century CE, while the first violin was created in the 16th century. That’s because any stringed instrument played with a bow might be referred to as a fiddle, whereas only instruments of a specific construction are called violins. With that distinction made, it’s worth noting that in practice, a non-violin instrument would rarely be called a fiddle; most folks aren’t going to call cellists fiddlers.

Let’s say you see someone playing violin; should you call their instrument a violin or a fiddle, and should you call them a violinist or a fiddler? The distinction these days is mostly found in the type of music that they’re playing; if they’re playing classical music or jazz, it’s likely best to refer to them as a violinist, whereas if they’re playing folk or blues music it’s probably best to call them a fiddler. Most fiddling is used to make people want to get up and dance, a mainstay of folk tunes; that means fiddlers will concentrate on learning rapid note changes and high tempo music. Violinists, conversely, will have more of a focus on sustained notes, using vibrato and other textural flourishes to change the quality of a note held for a long period of time.

Canada has a deep history of fiddling, and Manitoba is no exception. French Canadian and Métis fiddling are an important part of our heritage; if you want to experience the high-energy, toe-tapping, makes-you-want-to-dance style, head to the Festival du Voyageur in February on any given day and you’re likely to find a fiddler playing it hot.

At Academy of Music, we love the violin, whether it’s used for classical music or fiddling, and we’ll be more than happy to teach you all kinds of techniques, so you can get people dancing one day, while having them hold their breaths in awe another. You’ll be a violinist on some days and a fiddler on others, if that’s what you want! Our in home Winnipeg violin lessons will have you feeling comfortable, practiced and prepared.

New Year, New Music

I recently stumbled upon a YouTube channel called “My Analog Journal”. The channel is run by a person living in the UK who has a wide variety of world music. The focus is on Turkish funk and rock music from the 70s, with a special love for the Anatolian region. He also spins records from Japan, Africa, and Brazil. I’m mentioning his channel in part because I absolutely love his mixes, and in part because of the focus of this blog: discovery.

Discovering new music isn’t just about hearing new sounds, beats, and instruments. It’s not just about discovering an incredible new style to learn or groove to. It’s about discovering a culture; you can learn a lot about people and an era by learning about their food, their architecture and their music. Music exists in two seemingly contradictory states at once; it is both universal and hyperspecific. You can listen to a song from anywhere and dance to it, or cry to it, even without being able to understand the language it’s sung in, or without knowing the instruments used to play it.

Finding new music is always inspiring to a musician; it gives us a larger palette to work with, new ways of thinking about composition, new songs to practice and perfect. The digital age has made discovering new music seem easy, but in some ways, it’s trickier than it ever has been. Back in the day, you would walk into a record shop and pick something with a cool cover, or maybe you would ask the clerk what they’ve enjoyed recently. Now, there’s so much choice it can be difficult to even know how to begin your search! There are the ever-prominent playlists curated by streaming services, so you can always start there. These services are data-driven, comparing your tastes to others with similar tastes and making recommendations. That can be a great thing, but it can also keep you cemented in your comfort zone. To combat this, speak to people with different musical tastes than you, read up on the popular music of a different country, or try going back into that record shop; you’ll still be able to find great recommendations.

Discovering new music means discovering new ways to play, so enjoy the experience. Listen to how the new songs you hear play with rhythm and melody. Try to figure out the scales and keys the musicians are playing in. Try replicating the songs you’ve heard by ear on your own instrument. There’s hundreds of ways you can immerse yourself into what you’ve listened to; read up on the history of the songs, find other artists who play music in the same genre or who hung out in the same scene. See if you can find other music from a different part of the world, and compare the tracks. What’s similar, what’s different, and why? Having done some or all of this will give you a lot to talk about during your in home music lessons; your instructor will probably be thrilled to hear some new music themselves!

Lullaby and Goodnight: Music and Sleep

One of my favorite albums of 2018 is DJ Koze’s Knock Knock. On one of the most memorable cuts, Music on My Teeth, you hear a man talking about music with a passion so obvious he could be speaking for legions of musicians everywhere. He speaks music, breaths music, lives music; music is so ingrained in him, there’s music on his teeth. This should be the goal for any aspiring musician; music becomes a way of life, a way of being, a part of your physical body. It shapes you. Listen to music while you’re awake, find it all around you, and listen to it while you sleep.

There’s research that shows listening to music can help you fall asleep. A wide variety of genres can be used for this, and the most suitable for many seems to be classical, according to a study on music and sleep; that may be because classical music doesn’t have any lyrics, but it strikes me as an odd choice. There are so many exciting moments in classical music, so much build up, that the anticipation might bring me out of a sleepy state, a sudden flurry of loud notes punctuating the stillness of the night. Pop and metal music are often used too; I’m sure pop music would have me dancing in my sheets, and metal would evoke images of demons in my dreams if I somehow managed to fall asleep. For me, ambient music is the music to drift off to, so I was glad to see Brian Eno up there in the list, but to each their own.

The creators of the study found four common threads in why people used music to fall asleep. When music surrounds you day in and day out, you may simply make a habit of falling asleep to music; queueing up a particular track might signal to your mind that it’s time for rest. Others find that music distracts them from other noises that might keep them awake; this seems particularly useful for anyone in a noisy apartment. Others find that the music itself has sleep-inducing qualities, or that listening to music changes their physical state to allow them to fall asleep more easily.

Dreaming and music are linked too, and in a way that’s none too surprising; when you eat, breathe and sleep music, you dream about it too. Dreams that have music in them are generally regarded more positively than those that don’t, but don’t worry if you haven’t had one; keep playing and you’ll get there eventually!

With our Winnipeg guitar lessons, soon you’ll have music in your dreams and on your teeth, too. Playing the guitar is so fun, so gratifying that you’ll have a hard time putting the instrument down, even in your sleep. Your musical dreams are within your reach with our at home learning system; get in touch with us, and together, we’ll make it happen.

A Brief History of the Piano

There’s a lot that goes into understanding a piece of music. First, you listen to it; you let the melody take you away, you move your feet to the beat. Deeper yet, your second and third listens; you begin to notice subtle nuances, flourishes that had passed you by on the first listen. This continues each listen; some pieces you can listen to hundreds of times and continue to unlock secrets, it’s meaning changing as you age. You can learn even more about a piece by learning the instruments that make the music; you can then appreciate how much effort and practice went into perfecting the technique the musician has used. Another layer of depth is found when you learn about the history of music; where the piece finds itself in the Grand Canon of Music, and the story behind the instruments that made it. So it is with the piano.

Now ubiquitous, the piano was revolutionary even when it was made. There was a problem with other stringed instruments that could be hammered; it was difficult to create a system where the hammer would pull off of the strings, and when it remained on the strings, they were muted. Bartolomeo Cristofori, the inventor of the piano, solved this problem. The instrument he created was originally called the pianoforte, because it could play soft (piano) and loud (forte). The dynamic sonics such an instrument allows are what keep it in use today; musical pieces that could never have been composed otherwise can be played on the piano, with its incredible range of notes and volumes.

What makes a piano a piano isn’t exactly clear, as the instrument itself has changed several times over the years. At one time, the pedals were at knee height, instead of being manipulated by the player’s feet; why they thought this was a good idea may be lost to time. The way pianos are built has changed as well; different materials for the body and keys, different string thicknesses and more have been adapted. At one time, pianos were incredibly breakable, and a player playing forcefully would destroy their instrument; they have seen begun to be reinforced.

Now, there are a plethora of different instruments that might be called a piano. Take a keyboard, for example; you can have one with weighted keys and pedals that feels almost exactly like a piano, except the instrument is electronic; no strings and hammers. Is that a piano? Look at a device like the Seaboard, a “piano” sensitive to all kinds of different touches; is that a piano? It’s somewhat difficult to say, because instruments evolve over time; the piano today looks quite different than the one from the early 1700s.

While instruments may evolve, the benefits of learning one for students young and old have remained. Playing music is good for your body and mind. Winnipeg piano lessons are available, and what’s better, you can have them in the comfort of your own home; that’s a benefit that will stand the test of time.