05/27/14

WWHWWWH


WWHWWWHWWHWWWH is one of two formulae I need to keep in mind when working through my scales on the ukulele and guitar. The other is 2122122.

I see the musicians among you already recognize what these mean. I still need to have these written on a sticky note so I will remember when I practice.

WWHWWWH means: Whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – whole step – half step. It’s how you calculate notes in any major scale, (or diatonic scale as it is also known, and just to confuse things, it is also the Ionian mode… but the seven notes are also called the  heptatonic scale…) counting from the root or tonic note.

This is stuff I’m learning about scales as I study music theory. It’s sometimes a bit like wading through intellectual molasses. Confusing, but I persevere. And I hope I get it correct, because I’m designing the chord-construction wheel I wrote about in a previous post.

Steps are also known as tones (T) and half-steps as semitones (S). Sometimes the formula shown in the headline is written as: TTSTTTS.

You may know these as the notes in Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do, something you probably learned in elementary school. That’s all the notes in one scale in a single octave, going from the root or tonic (Do) all the way to the next time that note appears (the second Do, an octave higher – technically defined as at twice the frequency of the lower note of the same name.)*

An octave contains eight notes – the entire Do-Re-Mi… Do series noted above.

For players of stringed instruments like guitar and ukulele, this WWHWWWH formula means: starting from the root, play the next note 2 frets higher, then 2 frets more, 1 fret, 2 frets, 2 frets, 2 frets, then 1 fret.

Pianists know a half-step as a single key. For these instruments there are 12 half steps (frets or piano keys) in an octave. These 12 notes or pitches are also called a chromatic scale, but only eight of those notes are in a major scale.

In the key of C, this formula translates to seven notes: C-D-E-F-G-A-B numbered one through seven. The next note – the eighth – would be, of course, C one octave higher. Counting the frets on the third (C) ukulele string, a major scale in C would be frets 0-2-4-5-7-9-11-12.

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05/13/14

Practice makes perfect


Ukulele practiceWhenever I’m asked for advice from new ukulele players on how to get better, or what secret they need to know to play better, I tell them it’s simple:

Practice.

Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice.

That’s really all these is to it, whether you believe in the 10,000 or 20,000-hour path to accomplishment hypothesis. You gotta practice.

Only when you have practiced enough will your fingers be loose enough, your callouses build sufficiently, and your wrist be flexible enough to play without strain. When you’ve practiced enough you will be able to make chord shapes without having to look them up. You’ll know where to find Bb and D# on the fretboard without stopping to count frets.

Practice. Easy to say, but what with all the distractions – the dog, the TV, the phone calls, the internet, Facebook, the phone again, the neighbour’s kids, the sunny day, the grumbling tummy, the empty coffee cup begging for a refill, the unfinished blog post you’re writing… it’s hard. I find it easiest to go somewhere alone and quiet, and just sit down with some music and work away at it. Close the door and keep the world out for a little while.

I also find it useful to walk around the house with a ukulele, just noodling, fingering the strings, trying chords, maybe even playing a song or two while upright and walking. Sometimes you come up with something interesting when you start out with unstructured time.

I also find just walking around while playing something without really focusing on practice is meditative. It helps me think; clears my mind and makes issues clear. And it helps my motor skills.*

But practice isn’t just noodling around for an hour or so every day. It takes focus, concentration and effort: you have to pay attention to what you’re doing. However, it also needs to be varied and fun. It shouldn’t be a chore you begrudge putting time into. Set tasks, change songs or try to explore different rhythms and strumming patterns. Pick a song you don’t know and learn it: make it a challenge to yourself.

As Dr. Christine Harper tells us:

Constant repetition is boring and our boredom is telling us that our brains are not engaged. But instead of listening to this instinctive voice of reason, we blame ourselves for our lack of attention and yell at ourselves to “focus!”… In a random practice schedule, the performer must keep restarting different tasks. Because beginnings are always the hardest part, it will not feel as comfortable as practicing the same thing over and over again. But this challenge lies at the heart of why random practice schedules are more effective. When we come back to a task after an intervening task, our brain must reconstruct the action plan for what we are about to do. And it is at this moment of reconstruction that our brains are the most active. More mental activity leads to greater long-term learning.

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05/8/14

How many chords?


Chord builder wheelHow many chords does a musician need to know? How many does an amateur musician who plays mostly popular, folk and blues music, need to know?

My first answer has always been, “all of them” because you never know when you need them. But that’s not realistic. After all, there are thousands of chords you can play on a guitar or piano and you simply can’t memorize every one. Well, at least I can’t.

I know a lot of the basic forms: majors, sevenths, minors and so on – but I sometimes have to take a moment and think out something like a B#m7 or a Gsus4. I rely partly on the memory of the basic shapes, and partly on my understanding of how the fretboard works (so I can move a known shape up or down the neck as necessary).

But what about on ukulele, with its four strings – as opposed to the guitar’s six strings (and the piano limited only by the number of keys two human hands can press simultaneously – ten). Surely that must be easier? Well, not much, it turns out. What happens when a chord has five notes and you only have four strings?

Sure, if you stick to a few basic songs and a handful of major keys, you can probably get by with memorizing a couple of dozen  shapes and be able to play a lot of contemporary music. But I am also playing some old songs from the 20s and 30s; songs that have jazz chords. Ninths, sixths. Suspended. Chords you don’t find a lot in modern pop music.

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05/4/14

Reading music and music theory


reading musicI write about reading a lot, because I read a lot of books. There are other kinds of reading – other languages, too – that I don’t write much about. Reading music is one of them. It’s a different language; a symbolic language with its own grammar, punctuation and rules. As far as reading music goes, I’m semi-illiterate.

I’ve been playing music – guitar mostly – since the Beatles had Ticket To Ride on the hit parade, back in the days of AM radio and 45 RPM singles. But I’m self-taught: no classes or schooling, just a lot of practice and playing. And as a result, my knowledge of musical theory is weak. I know more about the technical structures of a Shakespearean play than I do of a sonata or a pop song. I can read HTML and CSS code with consummate ease, but struggle with a musical score.

What I do know has been cobbled together over the years from playing, listening, asking and some reading. Mostly absorbed by osmosis rather than dedicated effort.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand music reasonably well, but more on a visceral level than an academic one. And I understand some musical theory – well, bits and bats of it – partly because you get to know about it – even if you don’t always have the technical vocabulary – by playing and jamming. Like playing 12-bar blues. You soon learn the rhythms, the patterns, the chord changes – even if you can’t confidently talk about I-IV-V patterns.

I play a lot of chords and can finger them on several stringed instruments – but while I can hear one and tell if it’s a major, minor or seventh, maybe a diminished or augmented, I can’t really tell you the theory behind why that is. My passion for making music far outruns either my talent to do so or my technical understanding of it.

So, what with organizing and running a local ukulele group, and focusing more on music than ever before, I think it’s time to buckle down and learn more about music in a scholarly way. I need to be able to speak about it confidently in front of the group.

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04/26/14

Just Six Songs?


The World in Six SongsAuthor, musician and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says all music can be classified into a mere six types of song. That’s part of the premise in his 2009 book, The World in Six Songs. I recently started reading it and it has opened some interesting areas of thought for me.*

A mere six fundamental themes in song, Levitin writes: friendship, joy, comfort, religion, knowledge and love. And he provides a chapter for each in what is a literary combination of sciences, music, social commentary, cultural anthropology and personal reminiscence. And he offers a lot of conjecture that, while not necessarily provable, is always entertaining and thought-provoking.

That reductionism seems like a challenge to the reader. My first thought was, are these six discrete or can songs overlap and share categories? What about music without lyrics? Soundtracks? Where do they fit? What about non-western music? What about satire and comedy songs? Storytelling songs? Songs of mourning and lament? What about Gilbert and Sullivan?

What about Bob Dylan? I listen to and play a lot of Dylan’s music and there are some songs that I have never been able to classify or explain, even after decades of familiarity with them. Where do you put a song like Stuck Inside of Memphis with the Mobile Blues Again? or All The Tired Horses? The Gates of Eden?

Or Bach’s Goldberg Variations? The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1? Leo Kottke doing Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring on slide guitar? John Fahey’s The Yellow Princess?  Puccini’s Un bel di vedremo from Madame Butterfly? How can a song in a different language you don’t understand move a listener to weep openly? It’s not simply the lyrics. Music reaches inside us in ways we really don’t understand.

And, of course, I immediately came up with my own mental list of songs and tried to fit them into Levitin’s boxes, often without finding a comfortable fit. But that’s part of the fun. Willie the Pimp? the Velvet Underground’s The Gift? The WCPAEB’;s Watch Yourself? Too many to list that don’t fit (as I read it) into comfortable categories.

What about Honshirabe? It’s the classic Zen piece for solo shakuhachi; a stunningly beautiful, haunting piece that speaks volumes to the listener about Japanese culture without lyrics. It is powerful enough to stop me in my tracks and force me to sy stand still and listen, and can easily move me to tears. Where does that fit in the six songs?

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04/18/14

Spoon River: Smith, Goodman and Masters



VERY well, you liberals,
And navigators into realms intellectual,
You sailors through heights imaginative,
Blown about by erratic currents, tumbling into air pockets,
You Margaret Fuller Slacks, Petits,
And Tennessee Claflin Shopes—
You found with all your boasted wisdom
How hard at the last it is
To keep the soul from splitting into cellular atoms.
While we, seekers of earth’s treasures,
Getters and hoarders of gold,
Are self-contained, compact, harmonized,
Even to the end.
Edgar Lee Masters: Thomas Rhodes; from Spoon River Anthology, 1915

What is is about poetry or musical lyrics that moves us so differently than just prose? So thoroughly? So deeply it can make grown men cry?

Why can we remember lyrics of songs we heard decades ago, poems we learned in grade school, yet can’t recall what we had for breakfast or what was on the shopping list? Lyrics, perhaps, are different from poetry in that they are interwoven with the rhythm, melody and harmonies of the song, which itself carves a rut in our memories. But both stick with us better than mere words.

Why can a song send shivers up our spine, raise the hair on our arms, sweep us away with its emotions, helpless like driftwood on a river? Why can it dredge up those emotions years later, outside any context?

(Listening to Trio Los Panchos playing La Malagueña Salerosa today brought goosebumps to my arms… but almost any version of that song does that. Perhaps it comes from hearing it played live, by buskers, along the malecon in a warm, romantic February evening in Mexico… and today, years later, it has the power to transport me there.)*

In The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin writes,

One characteristic of poetry and lyrics, compared to ordinary speech and writing, is compression of meaning. meaning tends to be densely packed, conveyed in fewer words than we would normally use in conversation or prose. The compression of meaning invites us to interpret, to be participants in the unfolding of the story. The best poetry – the best art in any medium – is ambiguous. Ambiguity begets participation. poetry slows us down from the way we normally use language; we read and hear poetry and stop thinking about the language the way we normally do; we slow down in order to contemplate all the different reverberations of meaning it contains.

Which strikes me as a singularly catching insight. I thought about those words recently while transcribing some Bob Dylan songs for our local ukulele group. Dylan is a master of ambiguity. Which makes his songs so much more memorable, I suppose. How odd, how amazing, I thought, that I can still remember the words and chords to his songs I learned to play 30 or 40 years ago.

And they are songs that have no particularly deep emotional contact for me – not necessarily songs I listened to with a lover, shared with a friend or simply found emotionally fulfilling. But I can simply pick up a uke and strum out Memphis Blues Again, It Ain’t Me, If Not for You, I Shall Be Released and The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest or a dozen others without giving much thought to words or music: they just spill out like old, familiar tunes, even though I haven’t likely played them for years.

It’s like the music is a meme; an intellectual virus that binds itself to your DNA. Like herpes; one it takes hold it never leaves and unfolds itself when called out. How and why does it do that? It’s the subject of many books, including Levitin’s.

I HAD fiddled all at the county fair.
But driving home “Butch” Weldy and Jack McGuire,
Who were roaring full, made me fiddle and fiddle
To the song of Susie Skinner, while whipping the horses
Till they ran away.
Blind as I was, I tried to get out
As the carriage fell in the ditch,
And was caught in the wheels and killed.
There’s a blind man here with a brow
As big and white as a cloud.
And all we fiddlers, from highest to lowest,
Writers of music and tellers of stories,
Sit at his feet,
And hear him sing of the fall of Troy.
Edgar Lee Masters: Blind Jack; from Spoon River Anthology, 1915

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