Some Notes on Rhythm

Our Winnipeg in home music lessons will teach you about rhythm – but what is rhythm? One definition I particularly like is “timed movement through space”, a quote from Charlotte Jirousek. We seem to be able to feel rhythm from very young, and some speculate that the ability to feel rhythm has existed in humans since our prehistoric days. That means rhythm has been around since before we could write; the systems that we have placed on rhythm are our way of describing in language something we feel naturally. I don’t need to describe to you what a danceable beat sounds like for you to want to dance to Daft Punk’s early work when you hear it. Your body is naturally inclined to move to the beat.

There are a lot of techniques musicians use to make you want to dance, and we’ll get into those on another post, but for now, let’s examine how we describe rhythm. The time signature is one of the most important descriptors; it tells us how many of a type of note is in a single measure. The bottom number is the type of note, while the top number is how many of them are in a single measure; thus, 4/4 is four quarter notes to a measure, while 3/4 is three quarter notes to a measure. 2/2, conversely, would be two half-notes per measure, while 3/8 would be three eighth-notes per measure.

But how does it all feel?

Well, 4/4 can be expressed pretty simply; just say “1, 2, 3, 4” out loud over and over, with each number evenly spaced, and you’ve got the rhythm! Now, in the same amount of time that it took you to say “1, 2, 3, 4”, say “1, 2” over and over, and you’ll be in 2/2 rhythm! This is an interesting property of rhythm, because it’s felt – it’s not like a traditional fraction. Though you could say “1, 2, 3, 4” or “1, 2” in the same amount of time, evenly spaced, it feels different – slower. Now, try saying “1, 2, 3” over and over in the same amount of time, and you’ll find a totally different feeling; the feeling of 3/4. The odd number of notes per measure in this time signature always makes me want to sway – and for good reason. It’s the signature we see for waltz, and it gives a sort of off-kilter, exciting feeling. The nice thing about feeling out these rhythms is that you can do it without an instrument; just snap your fingers or clap your hands to the beat!

Time signatures can get a lot stranger than this, and we may go more into depth on that in another post; in the meantime, here’s something to try. Play 5 quarter notes evenly spaced to a measure, and you get 5/4 time; try it by saying or snapping “1, 2, 3, 4, 5” evenly over and over. You might find this one a little harder to groove to, but put on what might be the most popular example of this, Dave Brubeck’s recording of “Take Five”, and you’ll feel the rhythm in no time. NPR has a list of other songs in 5/4, though it doesn’t include one of my favorites, Radiohead’s “15 Step”.

While we’ve talked a lot about time signatures here, there is still one thing to discuss; how do we know how fast or slow to play? After all, 4/4 just tells us how many notes there are to a measure, but if I decide every measure is going to last 12 seconds, those 4 quarter notes are going to go by really sloooooowly.

In light of this, you can often find beats per minute (BPM) associated with a song. The “beats” in BPM are the same as the bottom number of our time signature notation; that means that a song in 4/4 at 120 BPM has 120 quarter notes in a minute. A song in 3/8 at 240 BPM would, therefore, take the same amount of time, as eighth notes are half as long as quarter notes; the two tracks, however, would be felt quite differently.

Tuned Up

One of the nicest things about the guitar is how easy it is to tune. While our standard tuning is E-A-D-G-B-E, we can use those six tuning pegs to create an astonishing variety of different tunings. These tunings can have a variety of different uses; they might be used to create sounds and chords otherwise practically unavailable, or to help guitarists with weak fretting hands to make beautiful music that might otherwise be impossible for them to create. The ease with which you can shift tunings means you can try any of these tunings right away; play around with them, and see how they feel. When using an acoustic guitar, it’s good to remember that when you change the tuning, it can change the tension in the neck; that means you’ll often have to fiddle with the tuning three or four times before everything settles in the right place. Be careful not to put so much tension in your strings that they break!

Drop Tunings

A tuning is considered a “drop tuning” when the 6th string is lowered, generally so that it is one octave lower than the 4th string. Drop D is the simplest drop tuning; it involves lowering the 6th string down one full step so that the tuning becomes D-A-D-G-B-E. Drop tunings are particularly useful for quick transitions between power chords, and are thus commonly used by metal and hard rock bands, including System of a Down, Children of Bodom, and Rage Against the Machine. Drop tunings also make arpeggiated chords a bit easier, and bands like Radiohead and the Beatles have used drop tunings for this effect.

Open Tunings

Open tunings are any tuning that, when all the strings are played open (without fingers on any frets), creates a chord. These tunings are particularly useful for slide guitar, with an open tuning, you can slide from fret to fret and pretty much always have it sound good after doing a bit of experimentation. When you want to riff along with Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes, Open A tuning (E-A-C♯-E-A-E) is the tuning for you; when you play it, you get an A chord. You can basically create any chord using open tunings, even really odd ones; figure out what the constituent notes of the chord are, and tune your guitar so that every string, played open, creates the chord.

There’s a lot of other really weird ways of tuning your guitar. Ostrich tuning, pioneered in part by Lou Reed of The Velvet Underground, assigns one note to every string; E-E-e-e-e-e, for example. Playing with tunings is a fantastic way of creating new chord progressions and styles to play in; it’s a lot of fun, and I can’t recommend it enough. Don’t just take my word for it, though; Joni Mitchell famously used alternate tunings for many over her songs; over 50, by one count! For more great advice on varying and improving your playing, there are in-home Winnipeg guitar lessons.

Hurdles for Children Learning Music

Parenting is one of the most challenging and rewarding things you can do. There’s a funny link between challenging and rewarding; the more difficult something is, the more fulfilled we’ll often feel when we’ve accomplished what we set out to do. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint; pleasure is derived from accomplishments because those accomplishments might help us or the next generation survive. This is part of the reason it’s so incredibly rewarding to make music; not only do you get the amazing feeling that comes with having created something unique, you remember all of the struggles, the ups and downs that brought you to where you are. This challenge-reward dynamic can be thrown into stark relief when, as a parent, you watch your child struggle with a problem. You want to help them without being overbearing; here are some things to pay attention to when they’re struggling with music.

One of the major hurdles that come with learning music is learning to practice. Many children are attracted to the raw creativity of music; that’s one of the reasons so many 2-year-olds love to drum on pots and pans. The rigid, structured elements can be more difficult for a child to learn to love. When your child is complaining about having to practice, try giving them a sense of control. Ask them when they’d like to practice; before or after supper? Talk to them about their favorite music to play, and see if they want to incorporate it in their practice. Speak with their music teacher about their difficulty practising, and see if you can all work together to find a practice schedule that works for your child; feeling in control can do wonders for practice regimens.

Learning to read music can be another source of frustration. Reading music is like learning a language very fluently. You not only have to learn to read and speak the language, but you need to learn all of the intonations, the fluidity, the poetry of it all. A child who expects to learn all of this right away will be disappointed; they need to temper their expectations. Let them know that no one expects them to be able to read and play everything perfectly immediately; music is a gradual, slow and wonderful learning process. Some students might also have a hard time reading the notes because they’re experiencing problems with their vision; you can find an optometrist in Winnipeg to help with the problem. Your child struggling to read music might be your first sign that they are having problems seeing.

A lot of new students might have a problem that’s not visible on the surface; anxiety. When students have to go to a new location filled with strangers every week to learn music, they can find it incredibly challenging if they are introverted or anxious, and this can lead to negative associations with practice. Fortunately, there are in-home music lessons offered in Winnipeg that can help alleviate this anxiety; practice in the comfort of your home can make learning music a much more gratifying process.

When It Pops, It Pops

I love pop music. Longtime readers of the blog will probably appreciate that I love music generally; there’s really not a genre I’m not interested in, so life is pretty wonderful. I do have a special place in my heart for pop, though; I’ve been blaring the new Ariana Grande album pretty much since it came out. You can read about a billion different articles about how loving pop makes you basic, because it all sounds the same: this article from the Independant in 2012 to this article this 2015 article saying “science proves it” (a warning for all of my readers: don’t put too much faith into an article that says “science proves” any broad generalization).

There’s a lot of reasons why pop music does sound the same right not, and I’ll be the first to say that Ariana Grande’s new album isn’t exactly revolutionizing the genre. One of the reasons pop sounds very similar is the same core producers make a lot of music; Max Martin, Pharrell and Dr. Luke. One of the astonishing things about these producers is that they’ve been making pop bangers for decades; Martin’s produced Hit Me Baby One More Time in 1998 and I Can’t Feel My Face in 2015, while Pharrell and Dr. Luke achieved fame in the early 2000s. Another reason pop music might sound similar is that upbeat songs that are under 5 minutes long grab our attention, make us want to dance, and send dopamine shooting through our brains. From The Beatles to Lady Gaga, uptempo songs with harmonies in thirds and 4/4 time are hardwired to be catchy. For a great example of how this works, check out Pop 101 by Marianas Trench.

Part of the reason I love pop so much is that it makes me happy; you can listen to a pop song one time and by the end know the chorus by heart. The other reason I love it is that its familiarity gives pop music a lot of opportunities to subvert expectations. One of the song’s off of Grande’s new album is “bad idea”, and around the 3 minute mark, the song seems to end in a swell of strings, and the track’s chorus is then slowed down into what sounds like a menacing trap beat for the last minute of the song; the effect is absolutely disorienting, and very eerie. Had we not had the last 3 minutes of catchy pop, the dramatic contrast wouldn’t exist. Another great example of subversiveness in pop is OutKast’s “Hey Ya!”, where the lyrics have basically nothing to do with the song’s catchy pop structure; they’re Andre 3000’s contemplations on the challenges of marital fidelity. In the song, he acknowledges that most listeners just “wanna bop” without paying attention to the themes, with the line “Y’all don’t wanna hear me, you just want to dance”.

Pop’s ability to use formula to subvert tropes is one of its strong points, but to assume all pop is formulaic is reductive. Check out Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Sides, by producer SOPHIE to hear some of the off-the-wall, strange sounds and beats that can be used in a wonderful pop song. The music theory behind great pop is trickier to grasp than most people realize, or we’d all be famous pop stars; to train your voice to do the incredible, there are music schools with vocal training programs.

Music in Media

One of my favorite composers of the last few decades is David Wise. Mr. Wise worked for game developer Rare, and created soundtracks for some of the iconic games of my youth, most notably Donkey Kong Country 2, though his work spans all of the Donkey Kong Country games. His ambient tracks, made despite the extraordinary hardware limitations of the console they were released on, the SNES, are incredible pieces of music; for a taste, listen to the Stickerbush Symphony. I might delve deeper into how limitations enhance creativity in a future post, but for today I’d like to talk about how we consume music, namely how we consume it in non-music media.

Music is an interesting art form, because it exists within other art forms, namely movies, video games and podcasts. On occasion, music is the focus of these mediums; there are podcasts about music that are hosted by famous musicians, rhythm based video games where inputs must be pressed in time with the music, and musicals where the narrative is told primarily through song. These are the exceptions, though; most of the time music in these mediums is used to set the tone, to create audience expectations for what’s to come. The theme music to Halloween is a great example of this, a repeating motif in 5/4 that’s sure to send chills down your spine. The dramatic tension by the two repeated notes in Jaws, speeding up as the shark comes nearer still have an effect on me to this day. The epic, orchestral soundtrack of Star Wars gives the viewer a sense of the scope of the movie before it even begins, the majestic sounds seemingly to fill the whole galaxy, not just the theatre. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for The Dollars trilogy, with its sparse instrumentation, galloping beat, harmonica, guitar, whistles and vocal sounds set us up perfectly for the adventures we’re about to embark on with The Man with No Name.

In other media, music is part of the environment; this is known as source music, or diegetic music. In these circumstances, the music isn’t just a tool to change the audiences’ feelings; rather, it’s a part of the overall storytelling, and the characters in the movie can interact with the music. This can be found in scenes where music is playing in the car, or when a vinyl record is put on; it can also be found in some musical numbers, when the cast is actually singing to one another (rather than using the music as a narrative device). This can be seen in some of Hitchcock’s films, as well as in the television series The Wire, famed for its realism.

Music, then, is used for all kinds of things in other artistic media. This is because music is so omnipresent in our everyday lives that a universe without music seems off; little conveys emotion as succinctly as a song. There are songs near and dear to everyone’s heart, and that’s why we offer in-home Winnipeg voice lessons to make sure you can sing yours.

Music and Spirituality

To ponder music’s link with spirituality means to think on the entire notion of spirituality itself. You see music in every major religion I’m aware of; in Islam, the call to prayer, adhan, is a key ritual followed several times a day, every day. There are chants abound in religion; Gregorian, Vedic and Buddhist chants are well known. Religious albums are not at all uncommon; the motivating factor for writing this text is my listening to an Alice Coltrane album, Journey in Satchidananda. Alice began delving more deeply into her own spirituality after the sudden and untimely passing of her husband, John. For her, it may be that there is no spirituality without music, and no music without spirituality. The two are inextricably linked.

What is spirituality? The answer seems to me both murky and crystal clear. Spirituality seeks answers and meanings that can’t be found in simple rational analysis; I don’t believe there to be a spiritual computer, because raw data is insufficient. Spirituality seeks to elevate, to increase your capacity for love, and humility, and creativity, and all of the other things we find so essential to being human. By this definition, spirituality doesn’t have to come from religion; it can come from experiences that take you away from the analytic, and put you into the emotional, the ethereal, the places that lie in the corner of the mind beyond linguistic description.

I think that’s why words so often fail us when describing music; every word we use is a metaphor, an approximation of what we experienced. I often say learning music is like learning a language, but there is one key difference; with language, we often attempt to quantify and describe an experience, while music is the experience. Music can, wordlessly, make you laugh or cry; describe why to a friend, and they won’t understand it until they hear the music itself. Even then, it might allude them. Everyone’s spirituality is different; everyone’s music is different.

That may be why playing music is so cathartic; you’re playing your soul, exposing your spirit to the light. Others will hear the music that you play, music that is unique to your own experience, and they’ll affirm it; through their enjoyment of it, you have made this ethereal, indescribable think concrete, real. The more real your spirituality seems, the more tangible, and the more tangible, the better you’ll be able to express it. This, I think, is part of why music is found so often in religion; it creates concrete, shared spiritual reality. As we’ve discussed in the past, music is tied into our biology, and we get a sense for it in our early infancy. A neuroscientist from Princeton, who is an atheist, describes the ways in which he thinks spirituality, music and biology are tied together.

These are mostly my own musings, so I’d like to hear your thoughts on the ways in which music and spirituality are tied in your own experiences. We know the home is a sanctuary, a place where you might feel freer to express yourself emotionally, through music; that’s why we offer in home music lessons, to ensure your comfort and reduce the number of barriers between you and musical expression.

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.