Happiness is a Warm Gun
The Ethan Hein Blog
by Ethan
5d ago
The White Album is full of cobwebby subterranean corners, and this song is one of the cobwebbiest. The title comes from an issue of American Rifleman that John Lennon thought was funny in a bleak way. The joke became quite a bit more bleak after his death. You can listen to the isolated tracks here. This is probably the most formally complex Beatles song unless you count the Abbey Road medley as a single work of music. “Happiness is a Warm Gun” is a miniature medley unto itself, since John stitched it together from several unfinished fragments. It took a lot of in-studio rehearsal to pull it ..read more
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Identifying augmented chords
The Ethan Hein Blog
by Ethan
1M ago
Augmented chords don’t come up much, but they are on the aural skills syllabus, and they have that specific quality that no other harmony can create. Their uncanny zero-gravity quality is the result of their symmetry. Any note in an augmented triad could function as its root. When you write the augmented chords on the chromatic circle, you quickly discover that there are only four possible ones, shown in the image below. The one on the top left is C+, E+ and G#+/Ab+. The one on the top right is C#+/Db+, F+ and A+. The one on the bottom right is D+, F#/Gb+ and A#/Bb+. Finally, the one on the b ..read more
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Identifying modulations
The Ethan Hein Blog
by Ethan
1M ago
In class we have been talking about secondary dominants, where you temporarily treat a chord as a new key center before returning to the main key. In a modulation, you move to a new key center and stay there (for a while, anyway). Modulations were a common songwriting technique in pre-rock popular music, and a somewhat less common one in the rock era. They have become increasingly rare in the Anglo-American pop mainstream, though they are still a feature of game and film scores. Let’s start in the jazz era. Many if not most of the midcentury standards modulate to a new key at least once. The ..read more
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Identifying blues melodies
The Ethan Hein Blog
by Ethan
2M ago
This is an exciting week of class for me, because we are analyzing blues melodies, and that is a music-theoretic subject that is close to my heart. Given its impact on the past hundred years of Anglo-American popular culture, the blues has been the subject of a shockingly small amount of musicological analysis. The best resource I know of is Early Downhome Blues: A Musical and Cultural Analysis by Jeff Titon. I collect lots of other references of widely varying quality here. It’s wonderful that NYU is centering the blues in its new pop theory sequence, but how do we actually teach it? Western ..read more
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Identifying melodic motives
The Ethan Hein Blog
by Ethan
2M ago
Motivic development is more of a classical music thing than a rock/pop thing. If you want to hear a motive carried through a series of elaborations and variations, you should look to Beethoven rather than the Beatles. Pop songs are a few riffs, repeated or strung together. But there are some songs out there whose riffs are organized in ways that you could understand in terms of motivic development. Let’s start with the melody I have probably spent more time thinking about than any other, “Dear Prudence” by the Beatles. Here’s a chart. Here are two views of one of the song’s main motives, fir ..read more
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Identifying embellishing tones
The Ethan Hein Blog
by Ethan
2M ago
We’re getting started on melody in pop aural skills by talking about embellishing tones. The word “embellish” is from the Old French embelliss-, meaning to make something beautiful by ornamenting it. To understand what embellishing tones are, you first need to know about the tones they are embellishing. In Western tonal music and (non-blues-based) Anglo-American pop, the main melody notes are (usually) found within the underlying chords. For example, if the song has a C chord, then the main melody notes over that chord will (probably) be the notes C, E, or G. Any other melody note will be an e ..read more
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Identifying phrase structure
The Ethan Hein Blog
by Ethan
2M ago
It’s easy to understand what a section of a song is: an intro, a verse, a chorus, a bridge. It is less easy to understand phrases, the components of a song section. Usually a song section contains between two and four phrases. But what is a phrase? No one seems totally sure. This is important to figure out, because if you aspire to write or improvise music, having control over your phrasing might be the most important thing you need. If you can organize your phrases, you can have limited technique and knowledge of theory and still sound good. If you can’t organize your phrases, all the techniq ..read more
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Identifying pentatonic scales
The Ethan Hein Blog
by Ethan
4M ago
It’s pentatonic scales week in aural skills class. This would seem to be the easiest thing on the syllabus, but I discovered while doing listening exercises with the students that even these simple scales have their subtleties. Major Pentatonic You can understand the C major pentatonic scale to be the C major scale without scale degrees four and seven. These are the ones that create all the tension and dissonance, and without them, the major pentatonic sounds uncomplicatedly sunny and cheerful. (Or does it? More on that in a minute.) Click the image to play the scale in the aQWERTYon. You can ..read more
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Call Me Maybe
The Ethan Hein Blog
by Ethan
4M ago
For the first day of my new pop-oriented Aural Skills II class at NYU, we analyzed “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen. I have been using this song as a listening example in music tech classes for many years because it is the apex of maximalist brickwall-limited caterpillar-waveform 21st century pop production. In the music tech context, I tend not to talk much about the song itself, but it’s a perfect entry point into pop aural skills too. Here’s the video, in case you have been trapped in a well since 2012. Delightful though the song is, at first it seemed to me to be too simple and repetit ..read more
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Jack Straw
The Ethan Hein Blog
by Ethan
5M ago
After spending their first few years writing abstract psychedelic tunes, the Grateful Dead took a hard turn into Americana. They wrote a bunch of songs inspired by blues, country and folk, and in doing so, they massively expanded their listener base. Several of these songs involve outlaws and drifters in the Wild West. I think the best of the Dead’s cowboy songs, both lyrically and musically, is “Jack Straw”. When I was a kid, my older stepbrother had a bunch of Dead albums stored in our apartment. I avoided listening to them at first because their covers suggested that would be too heavy and ..read more
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