Why Do We Make Music?

MusicMusick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform’d,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
What then am I? Am I more senseless grown
Than Trees, or Flint? O force of constant Woe!
‘Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.
Anselmo sleeps, and is at Peace; last Night
The silent Tomb receiv’d the good Old King;
He and his Sorrows now are safely lodg’d
Within its cold, but hospitable Bosom.
Why am not I at Peace?

William Congreve (1670 – 1729) in his play, The Mourning Bride (1697).

Why have humans made music from the earliest times of our species? The oldest known bone flute is more than 40,000 years old. But a Neanderthal hyoid bone shows humans could speak 20 millennia before then, and that means they could probably sing, too. Steven Mithen hypothesized just that in his 2004 book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body.

Mithen opens his book with the words, “The propensity to make music is the most mysterious, wonderful, and neglected feature of humankind…” Liisa Ukkola, researcher at the University of Helsinki and Sibelius Academy, said of a recent study on the genetic basis of musical aptitude,

Music is social communication between individuals… music perception and creativity in music are linked to the same phenotypic spectrum of human cognitive social skills, like human bonding and altruism… We have shown for the first time in the molecular level that music perception has an attachment creating impact.

Clearly the urge to make music has been with humans since the beginning. Why, is, of course, open to debate. Wikipedia notes:

Some suggest that the origin of music likely stems from naturally occurring sounds and rhythms. Human music may echo these phenomena using patterns, repetition and tonality. Even today, some cultures have certain instances of their music intending to imitate natural sounds. In some instances, this feature is related to shamanistic beliefs or practice.It may also serve entertainment (game) or practical (luring animals in hunt) functions.

Then it adds, almost as an afterthought:

Music evokes strong emotions and changed states of awareness.

Congreve said it best: Music has charms to sooth a savage breast/To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak. But emotions are, despite all the study done on them, notoriously difficult to categorize in a way everyone agrees on. Much like music.

I often ponder why music matters, why I feel compelled at times to play, to create, to sing, to listen. Why one song moves me to tears, another to joy, another to dance and yet another to sing along. And why does some music leave me cold and unmoved?

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Musical Sources

Old sheet musicTrying learn a song from an old songbook or sheet music can be difficult unless you already know how the song goes. Many of our group are introduced to the music in our songbook only through my version when I play in at our meetings. And, I admit, my version may not always reflect the original accurately.

It’s good to be able to hear the song so you can  appreciate how it is arranged and where the chord changes will be.

Here are a few of the online resources I recommend, you can go to where music from the 1920s and 30s is available to listen to or even download:

Of course, you can also look for a song on YouTube. Keep in mind when you’re working from old sheet music that most of the songs were not originally intended for ukulele, and may be written in a key that is difficult to play in. To simplify and correct the arrangements, the chords shown in the sheet music may not always be the ones we use in our own songbook.

NB: This is a copy of what I posted on the CPLUG blog.

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Reading Ukulele Tabs

Smile tabbed by Mike LynchOne of the things I want to discuss in our upcoming CPLUG workshop is how to read tab sheet music. In this post I’ve give you some pointers so you can practice on your own. It’s worth learning to read tabs because it gives you the ability to play melodies and solo pieces without having to read music.

Don’t be confused when you see a piece labelled “tab” but only showing the lyrics and chords. The name is often used for that purpose, although it’s not really a tab in the proper sense.

First you’ll need a properly tabbed song to work with. For this exercise, I’m going to use Charlie Chaplin’s song Smile, tabbed for ukulele by Mike Lynch. you can click on the image of page one at the upper right and download the PDF from his site. Mike offers a number of ebooks for sale on his site, as well as online ukulele lessons. This lovely piece is from his Ukulele Solo Instrumentals book, a collection of 52 songs. He also has two chord melody books. I’ll discuss chord melody techniques in another post, but what you learn here works with them, too.

Mike’s tabs are more comprehensive than some: he includes both the music staff and the tab, below, plus the words. Not all arrangers include the actual music. You can also see the chord names above the staff. Mike links the music notes on the staff with the string/frets on the tab with a vertical line – this can be helpful if you’re trying to learn to read music.

Let’s take a look at some of the parts of this song. First the start:

Smile 01

Smile 01What does this tell us? The music staff tells us this song is in the key of F (one flat – the ‘b’ sign) and is in 4/4 time. The first chord, shown above the staff, is F. Quite often the first chord is also the song’s key, as it is here. The F chord on the ukulele looks like the diagram on the right. This is also written out as 2010 which identifies the strings and frets, reading from the fourth string (leftmost) to the first.

2010 means: put a finger on the second fret of the fourth string, and another on the first fret of the second string, and play the other two strings open (0). These are the notes A-C-F-A, reading left to right (fourth to first strings). For those of us with re-entrant tuning (high G), the A on the fourth string is actually an octave too high for the note shown in the staff.

If a string should be dampened or not played, it is usually marked with an X. Now turn that diagram 90 degrees counterclockwise and you’ll see how tabs work.

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Revised Chord Wheel

Revised chord wheelI have revised my transposing chord wheel/circle of fifths tool this week. It is now a three-ring version for use by all musicians (ukulele players who want to learn music theory or work on arranging songs especially). You can click on the image on the right to download the PDF.

The outer ring shows the Roman numerals for the key. This lets you see the chords by number – uppercase is major; lowercase is minor. Turn this wheel to the I key is above the key on the middle ring. The names in dark blue are some of the chord forms you can use in that position (i.e. I: major, major seventh).

The two inner wheels show the circle of fifths, with notes for the major triads for each key in green, with the relative minors named in blue. Fifths move clockwise; fourths counterclockwise. The middle ring also shows the number of flats (b) and sharps (#) in a key signature.

The inner ring is used for the key a song is in. Turn the key so that letter points to the letter of the key you want to transpose into. The chords shown on the middle ring relate to the new key.

For example, if your song is C-Am-F-G and you want to play it in F, turn the inner ring so C aligns with F on the middle ring. A on the inner ring will align with D (which means Dm since the original was Am), F with Bb and G with C. So the new chords will be F-Dm-Bb-C. And in G it would be G-Em-C-D.

Print the pages, laminate those with the wheels, then cut them out, punch holes in the centres, and push a brass paper fastener through all three. Instructions are more fully described on page four. Page five is a larger version if you want something with bigger type. Print three copies of that page.

Please contact me if you find any mistakes on the wheels.

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Ukulele Workshop Today

Manitoba HalI just returned from Orangeville where Broadway Music hosted a two-and-a-half hour musical workshop this Saturday by Manitoba Hal today (which will be followed by his concert tonight from 8-11 p.m. – try to attend, if you can: he’s very talented).

Very informative and well worth attending. Interestingly, at least half the participants were my age, and I didn’t see anyone in the classroom under 40. Perhaps you have to be mature in order to really appreciate music this way, not simply as the soundtrack in the background.

Hal spoke to the group about a basic approach to understanding music theory – chords, chord construction, scales and the all-important Circle of Fifths. He also spoke about how to put it all together to both make music and to figure out song arrangements for yourself (something dear to my own heart as I struggle to arrange songs for our local group).

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A Few More Uke Arrangements

Lately, I’ve been redoing all the arrangements of songs I put together for the Collingwood Public Library Ukulele Group (CPLUG) this year, as well as arranging some new pieces for the group. I’m working on a new layout for the tunes that makes them easier for beginners to follow and makes the songbook somewhat easier to manage.

I’ve zipped a few of the most recent tunes (in PDF) here: Dec 2014.zip. As I often do, I offer some of the songs in alternate keys. You can always transpose any song yourself, with the help of my free chord transposition wheel.

This zipped file includes:

  • Mr Bojangles (F)
  • Till There Was You (C and D)
  • I’m So Lonesome I could Cry (F and G)
  • Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody (G)
  • Paint it Black (Dm)
  • St. James Infirmary Blues (Dm)
  • Tower of Song (G and F)
  • Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (G & F) added Dec 18
  • That’s Amore in G (added Dec 19)

Vorson ukuleleHope you enjoy them. Please let me know if you find any problems or mistakes with the files. I’ll post a link when I have the older songbooks complete.  Have a great holiday season and keep practicing!

PS. These are only the songs I’ve arranged recently, not all the songs from other groups and arrangers I’ve shared with the CPLUG members in the past or any of the Christmas music. And I’m working on a version of That’s Amore to send out to members before the New Year.

And for those who read my ukulele reviews, I will have a new review coming soon: the Vorson steel-stringed electric uke, see in the photo on the right. it’s an interesting instrument and not very expensive.

Finally: interested in owning a very rare, all-metal, tenor resonator guitar? One of only 12 made by Mike Soares. Sale or trade. Contact me…

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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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Song arrangements for CPLUG

CPLUG songbookI have arranged several songs for our local ukulele group (CPLUG – the Collingwood Public Library Ukulele Group) over the recent months, and put them online for our members and for any other ukulele aficionados. The most recent was prepared for our May 21 get-together. Links are below.

Some of these are my own arrangements based mostly on my reading of the original song sheets or the music itself, others are based on those of other modern groups or players (albeit generally changed or updated by me).

I search online for variations of songs – other arrangements – so I can make sure the one I put together is both playable by the group, and sounds right (to my tin ear).

The songs offer a mix of old and modern material – modern I suppose being relative, because none of the songs I’ve arranged are post-2000 (yet). Mea culpa, but they are those of my own preference and my taste in pop music tends to thin out post-1990. If anyone in the group wants modern recent songs, he or she is going to have to work with me to help make it work.

Not that there aren’t good musicians and songwriters today, just that the majority of stuff I hear on the radio is derivative pap that fits into formula-istic, computerized play lists. What passes for R&B today is especially dreary. Nothing like the great, powerful music that R&B was in the 60s and 70s. And to me the “new country” is equally sleep-inducing: repetitive and vapid. Trucks, booze, girls in tight jeans… rinse and repeat…

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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.

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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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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Oooh, shiny….

Godin MultiukeReligious texts are full of admonitions about avoiding temptation. The Lord’s Prayer tells God to “lead us not into temptation.” Fat lot of good that does. We can find the way ourselves, thank you.

Not only do we lead ourselves there, we go willingly and eagerly. Pushing and shoving aside those who stand in our way to reach temptation. Ever see the crowds in the mall on Boxing Day?

Psychological texts, magazines and sites are full of secular advice on resisting temptation, too. It’s our brain’s “executive control” functions that  fail use when we succumb to our impulses. And fail they do, with disconcerting frequency.

Religious temptation, Wikipedia tells us, is the inclination to sin. Well, I can’t get into the whole notion of sin, relativism cultural and social bias, and situational ethics here. Maybe another post. For now, I’ll leave it to the theologians to wrestle that particular set of demons into the mud.

I’m talking about the average daily, run-of-the-mill temptation, the sort  that makes you pull out your wallet when you come across an unexpected sale on power tools, when you went to the store for a bag of potting soil. The sort that makes you go to the grocery store and come back with mangoes, exotic cheese, avocado and ice cream instead of just the milk you went to get. The sort that makes you go onto Amazon’s website just to look up something and end up ordering a half-dozen books and that first West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band CD you’ve always wanted in your collection (okay, okay, but I had the other two already so I had to complete the set).

Temptation, Wikipedia says,

…is the desire to perform an action that one may enjoy immediately or in the short term but will probably later regret for various reasons: legal, social, psychological (including feeling guilt), health-related, economic, etc… actions which indicate a lack of self control.

Godin MultiukeIt’s tough, you know. We live in a rich, consumer-oriented society in which we are bombarded daily by thousands of ads all screaming “Buy me!” Promising a better, richer, more fulfilling life if we just give in and pull out our wallets. We are born and bred to be consumers.

We live in a world full of music stores replete with ukuleles just hanging there on the walls singing like sirens when you walk by. Hear that? That’s the voice of a solid-koa Koaloha sweetly calling my name… and that dulcet voice? That’s a Martin… Oooh, what’s that shiny one?

And then when we get the credit card bill, we start regretting it. But how to resist? Should we even try? Are we doomed to fail? But… is life to short to live without another ukulele?

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde has his character, Lord Henry, say,

The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also.

And when you do, inevitably, yield, you are then beset with those nagging questions, the voice of your conscience nagging, scolding. What was I thinking? Why did I do it? Why did I buy it? What will she think?

She being the spouse, of course (at least in my case). The one who sits in judgement on the new toy, the new pet, car, TV set, ukulele, motorcycle, personal watercraft, riding lawn mower, that bag of specialty cheeses… did I mention ukulele? Did I mention it was shiny?

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Thinking about a new ukulele

Kala resonator uke
I’ve been thinking seriously of adding another ukulele to the herd. A tenor resonator, or resophonic, like the Kala shown above. That’s the re-designed 2014 model.

I’ve played earlier models, including the 2013 version with the strings attached to a tailpiece (see photo below, left). The 2014 design (shown above) anchors the strings back into the cover plate, which I expect will be a better design; it looks cleaner, too. But I believe the biggest change is that the through-the-plate model has more tension on the biscuit (see below). And I like Kala products, too.

Earlier Kala resoI really like resonator instruments and currently own a Soares resonator tenor guitar. It’s lovely; all-metal body, but a heavy beast (20lb or so)

I owned a Republic all-metal reso uke, a few years back, but it was concert scale. Interesting uke, but I didn’t keep it. I loved the look, but I don’t like concert scale as much as tenor, and I think that concert scale strings don’t put enough tension on the biscuit to make the cone work effectively. However, it gave me some ideas about improving reso uke output.

In the physics of guitars and ukuleles, the more tension on the saddle, the greater the energy passed along through the bridge to the sounding surface (top). Thus the greater the tension, the louder the sound and the greater the sustain.

A tenor uke has more string tension than a concert, and because of this it is this is generally louder and richer in tone than a shorter scale uke.

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