Ethan Hein is a Doctoral fellow in music education at New York University and an adjunct professor of music technology at NYU and Montclair State University. Learn more about music composition from The Ethan Hein Blog.
Back in 2009, Harmonix came out with The Beatles: Rock Band. In order to prepare the sound files for the game, the company needed the original multitrack stems for fifty Beatles songs. Someone at the company posted the stems online, and they remain in widespread circulation. (You can easily obtain them via a Google search.) This was a tremendous gift for people who teach production, songwriting and the history of music technology. It was also a gift for people whose preferred method of expressing their fandom is through remixing. I fall into both categories.
A few years ago, when I was first teaching myself controllerism, I went through the multitracks of “A Day In The Life” and sampled a bunch of loops from each stem: drums, bass, piano, guitar, orchestra, and vocals. I’m writing a book chapter right now about Ableton Live and the Push controller, so to help focus my thoughts, I figured I would load all these loops into a new session and see what I could make happen. I decided to limit myself only to material from the song, in the spirit of The Reflex. Here’s the result:
I improvised the basic structure on the Push, triggering clips without any particular plan. The next day, I had jury duty, which gave me ample time to edit and fine-tune in Arrange View.
I wanted a hip-hop feel for my remix, and the drums in “A Day In The Life” are not very useful for that purpose. Ringo mostly played fills and accents rather than a strong beat. Also, the drum sound is indistinct, and there’s a ton of bleed on the stem from the bass. So rather than try to get my samples to work, I took the clearest one, EQ’ed out as much of the bass as possible, and sliced it up into a new kit. Then I sequenced a beat on the Push. I added Beat Repeat for semi-random stutters, Drum Buss for compression and dirt, and reverb.
In jury duty, I thought the groove needed more rhythmic complexity, so I drew in a pentuplet pattern on the hi-hats (they’re highlighted below.)
I also isolated a shaker from the piano track, EQ’ed out the piano, and put heavy Beat Repeat on it so it would have an Autechre-like randomness.
For the ending, I drew an automation curve on the Tempo parameter of the master track to slow it down extremely. I also used warp markers in the piano clip to stretch the last note out as long as possible.
Obviously I do not have permission for any of this. My remix is sufficiently altered that it slipped past SoundCloud’s automated copyright detection system, but that doesn’t make it legally “okay.” Could I make a Fair Use claim? Here’s what the US Copyright Office has to say about it:
Fair use is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances. Section 107 of the Copyright Act provides the statutory framework for determining whether something is a fair use and identifies certain types of uses—such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research—as examples of activities that may qualify as fair use.
I’m definitely doing teaching, scholarship and research, so, case closed, right?
Courts look at how the party claiming fair use is using the copyrighted work, and are more likely to find that nonprofit educational and noncommercial uses are fair. This does not mean, however, that all nonprofit education and noncommercial uses are fair and all commercial uses are not fair; instead, courts will balance the purpose and character of the use against the other factors below. Additionally, “transformative” uses are more likely to be considered fair. Transformative uses are those that add something new, with a further purpose or different character, and do not substitute for the original use of the work.
I would say my use is transformative. I used large portions of the song, but no one would confuse my track for “A Day In The Life.” I sincerely doubt I’m harming sales of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But what if every hipster academic starts remixing the Beatles? Would that cause them harm? I doubt it, but legal precedents are lacking. Judges are generally fine with people “sampling” compositions, but they tend to regard sampling of actual audio recordings as tantamount to theft.
It’s too bad the legal climate is so hostile toward critical remixing, because it’s one of the most profound creative experiences you can have. If there’s a song you’re familiar with, you can do an arrangement of it, or even transform it completely, and that will have a certain emotional effect. Long before I got involved in electronic music, I learned “A Day In The Life” on guitar, and worked up a whole solo version of it. That was fun and interesting, but it’s nothing you’d want to hear twice. There have been uncountably many covers of the song, and some of them are cool pieces of music in their own right. But without vast sonic universe of the recording, the lyrics, notes and chords lose most of their meaning.
Remixing a familiar recording is a different order of complexity from covering or arranging a song. Beyond the notes and chords and rhythms, there’s the actual sound itself, which acts on your emotions as quickly and powerfully as a touch on your hand. People can identify a beloved recording within a fraction of a second. That means that we can recognize even a very short sample used in a radically different context. The deep weirdness of hearing intimately familiar sounds arranged into novel musical structures is a sensation without precedent in all of cultural history. You get some of the same feeling from composing variations on a melody or soloing over a chord structure, but not much.
My remix has some short melodic and lyrical phrases in common with “A Day In The Life,” but the “musical” resemblance ends there. I deliberately sliced up and recombined the samples to avoid reference to the original song structure. Any given vocal is probably accompanied by piano or guitar from a different section of the song, along with a bass part from yet another section. The timbres are all familiar because they all come directly from the song, but they become strange from their new context. If I were to scramble the song this radically in a cover arrangement, it wouldn’t even meaningfully be a cover anymore, it would be a new song containing a few quotes of the Beatles.
We need the freedom to remix familiar songs. We need to be able to participate in our own musical culture, and in the United States in 2019, that culture consists almost entirely of recordings. When a recording is as familiar and iconic as “A Day In The Life,” that makes it all the more valuable as an object of critical and creative attention. Singing the song while playing guitar or piano is not an adequate way to engage its real substance. We shouldn’t wait for the courts to catch up to cultural reality. I remix the Beatles because it’s fun. But I also do it because I want to encourage other people to do it too.
John Coltrane - Naima (Album:Giant Steps) 1959 - YouTube
There are as many interpretations of this tune’s chord changes as there are transcriptions of it. The ones in the Real Book are real wrong. I hear the chords in The New Real Book Volume II as sounding correct. Fortunately, there’s a surviving manuscript in Coltrane’s own hand, and it confirms the New Real Book version, with a few trivial differences.
“Naima” is full of slash chords – chords with the “wrong” bass note. If you think of the bass note as determining the chord quality, you can interpret most of “Naima” to consist of ornamented or altered dominant seventh chords. But the chords on top also retain their identity independent of their roots, creating some complex emotional colors.
The A section is one big E♭7 to A♭ cadence, but each chord feels like a center of gravity unto itself:
Coltrane only wrote triads on his chart, but I include the full chords implied by the melody notes. Here’s a closer look at each chord:
The D♭maj7/E♭ functions as an E♭9sus4 with an added 6th on top. It’s a bright chord, but ambiguous too. E♭ is not the “correct” root for D♭maj7, but both the note and the chord come from the same A♭ major scale, so it’s not very jarring compared to what follows.
For the second chord, Coltrane wrote G♭/E♭ rather than E♭m, but those are the same chord. On guitar, it’s more practical to play E♭m9. I hear this chord as being borrowed from the parallel A♭ Dorian mode. It’s darker than the E♭7 from A♭ major, but not as dark as the other parallel minor scales.
The Amaj7/E♭ and Gmaj7/E♭ chords in the third bar are the strangest ones in the whole tune. Ignoring the roots for a second, Coltrane is enclosing the final A♭maj7 with the parallel major seventh chords a half-step above and below. That’s not too weird in and of itself, but putting E♭ under those chords is extremely weird. There is logic here, though. Coltrane is implying the E♭ altered scale: E♭, E, G♭, G, A, B, D♭. The Amaj7 chord is mostly notes from within this scale, except for its G♯ (enharmonic to A♭). I guess that implies a kind of E♭7alt(sus4)? That isn’t really a thing, but it’s the feeling I get. Gmaj7/E♭ is a great voicing for E♭7alt if you leave out the fifth (which you should be doing with your jazz chords anyway.) The whole thing is weird and lovely.
The B section functions as one long B♭7 chord, the V/V that resolves to the E♭7 in the following A section. Each chord retains its own distinct identity as well:
Dmaj7/B♭ implies the B♭ altered scale: B♭, B, D♭, D, E, G♭, A♭. Leave out the fifth of Dmaj7 unless you want a hair-raising clash (though maybe you do want it!)
A♭maj7/B♭ is the same chord as B♭9sus4 with a pleasant added 6th. Even though this chord ostensibly includes the tonic triad, it doesn’t feel like we’ve arrived “home” yet.
Emaj7/B♭ is the same chord as the Amaj7/E♭ from the A section, transposed up a fourth. It’s similarly acting as B♭7alt, but “suspended.”
The ending is seemingly much simpler than the rest of the tune. It’s just a walk up the A♭ major scale from E♭ to E♭, with the chords A♭maj7 and D♭maj7 alternating underneath. That seems awfully plain-vanilla compared to the rich dissonance we’ve been hearing so far. However, there’s more going on here than meets the eye. You would think that the A♭maj7 chords would feel more “resolved” and the D♭maj7 would feel “suspended.” However, the most resolved-sounding melody notes (A♭ and C) are on the D♭maj7, while the most unresolved-sounding ones (G and B♭) are on the A♭maj7. It’s a beautiful effect.
Coltrane recorded and performed “Naima” many times. Here’s a “classic quartet” version with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones from 1965. The sound quality isn’t great, but the music is.
Here’s a performance from 1966, with Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison, Rashied Ali, and Emanuel Rahim.
John Coltrane - Naima 1/2 - YouTube
Frequent Coltrane sideman Eric Dolphy recorded a Latin version with a gorgeous solo bass clarinet intro.
Eric Dolphy - Naima - YouTube
I also appreciate George Benson’s solo guitar arrangement.
George Benson - Naima - YouTube
Shane Parish does a very different solo guitar version. He tunes his bottom strings to drone the pedal tones, which sounds great. But he ignores the changes completely, and leaves out all the dissonance.
Naima - YouTube
Wycliffe Gordon does a straightahead classicist version. The melody sounds great on trombone.
"Naima" Wycliffe Gordon with Aaron Diehl, Ben Williams, Lawrence Leathers - YouTube
Tom Scott’s lounge-fusion version is ridiculous, but it has been sampled many times by rap producers. (It’s from the same album as the saxophone break in “They Reminisce Over You“!)
Tom Scott with the California Dreamers - Naima - YouTube
The most current example is “Wendy N Becky” by Joey Bada$$ featuring Chance the Rapper.
Joey Bada$$ - Wendy N Becky ft. Chance The Rapper - YouTube
From back in the 90s, there’s also “Speak Ya Peace” by Lord Finesse.
Lord Finesse- Speak Ya Peace (Feat. Marquee, Diamond D, and A.G.) - YouTube
Finally, check out Nas’ “It Ain’t Hard To Tell (The Laidback Remix)” produced by The Creators.
Nas - It Ain't Hard To Tell (The Laidback Remix) [Track 11] - YouTube
Hit me with your best covers, remixes and samples in the comments.
As of this writing, the biggest song in America is “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X. It might also be the most interesting pop song of the 21st century so far.
Lil Nas X - Old Town Road (I Got The Horses In The Back) [Visualizer] - YouTube
“Old Town Road” utterly defies genre categorization; instead, like Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” it sits entangled in a vast musical rhizome. Lil Nas X calls it country-trap. It’s definitely not a rap song–Lil Nas X sings throughout, with a clear country twang. The beat sounds like hip-hop, but then, the beat of almost every slow to medium tempo pop song of 2019 sounds like hip-hop. The banjo certainly suggests country, but as we’ll discuss below, that suggestion was unintended by the track’s producer. There’s a lot going on here! Before we take a look at its broader cultural significance, then, let’s take a close look at the musical details of “Old Town Road.”
A Dutch beatmaker named YoungKio produced the instrumental (you can hear his producer tag in the intro.) Lil Nas X bought the beat for $30 from YoungKio’ BeatStars shop. The melancholy guitar and banjo are sampled from Nine Inch Nails, which is not the most obvious source for a country vibe.
Nine Inch Nails- Ghosts IV - 34 - YouTube
YoungKio said in an interview that he heard this as a “rock-type” sample, not a country one. He sped the loop up a bit, which changed its key from G to G-sharp. As is customary in trap, he used a tuned 808 kick drum to play the bassline. He also added multiple layers of intricate hi-hat patterns pitching up and down against a straightforward clap backbeat. It’s an elegantly simple instrumental, and an attractive one.
One thing you notice immediately about the original version of “Old Town Road” is how short it is, just one minute and fifty-three seconds. Wikipedia informs me that it’s the fifth shortest number-one single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, and the shortest since 1965. The structure is minimalist to the extreme: four bar intro, chorus, verse, prechorus (“Can’t nobody tell me nothin'”), another verse, another prechorus, one last time through the chorus, and that’s it. A more conventional songwriter might have followed all that with a breakdown, followed by a few more choruses to stretch the track out to three minutes. My guess is that YoungKio’s original track was less than two minutes long, and Lil Nas X simply followed its structure without altering it–my students do the same thing with type beats they find on YouTube and SoundCloud.
The remix with Billy Ray Cyrus is a little longer, because Billy Ray does an additional verse after the second chorus. Then he and Lil Nas X duet on another chorus at the end, and someone adds a whistling melody on the outtro. This is a slightly more conventional song structure, but it’s still very tight, even by mainstream pop standards.
Lil Nas X - Old Town Road (feat. Billy Ray Cyrus) [Remix] - YouTube
Like most current pop songs, “Old Town Road” is based on a four-chord loop that repeats identically throughout. Wikipedia cites a transcription that gives the chords as G♯7, B(add9), F♯sus4, E6. For such a simple loop, this progression has been the focus of some music-theoretic controversy. For one thing, it’s not obvious what key it’s in. Wikipedia says it’s in B major, which makes no sense to me at all. I would analyze the progression in terms of Philip Tagg’s theory of groove-based harmony, which says that G♯ is the tonic because it’s in the metrically strongest position. The other three chords are characteristic of G♯ minor, but the tonic chord is major. In classical music, you’d call this a Picardy third, and pop songwriters use it for a sense of moody grandeur.
The real music-theoretical interest comes in the first measure of the chorus. Listen to the word “horse.” That’s a B natural, which is the minor third in G♯. But didn’t I just say the chord was major? What is going on here? Listen for yourself:
This chord has been the subject of intense debate on the Facebook Music Teachers Group. Some of the commenters there go through contortions to try to explain it in terms of the Western tonal system. To me, there’s nothing mysterious going on here–the song in blues tonality, rather than major or minor. Minor-key melodies over major chords is one of the characteristic sounds of the blues. “Old Town Road” is not a blues song per se, but in the African-American tradition Lil Nas X comes from, blues tonality is part of the standard harmonic toolkit.
Just considering the song as an isolated musical work, there’s already a lot of complex racial politics going on: a moody ambient electronic track featuring a banjo made by a white producer, heard as rock by a black Dutch producer, who sampled it and turned it into a trap beat by adding 808s, which was then heard as country-trap by a black American artist, whose vocal melody turned a Picardy third into the blues. By the way, the banjo originated in West Africa, but it became known as a “white” instrument over the course of the 19th century because it was frequently featured in minstrel shows. It’s no wonder that “Old Town Road” has stirred up some racial controversy in its travels through popular culture.
“Old Town Road” made it to the Billboard Hot 100, Hot Country Songs, and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts in March 2019, a feat previously only attained by such carpet-bombing hits as “We Are The World.” But Billboard quietly removed “Old Town Road” from the country chart. Once people noticed and started asking questions, Billboard explained the move in a statement to Rolling Stone:
[U]pon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard‘s country charts. When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.
Which elements of “today’s country music” are missing, exactly? Is it the trap beats? Country-trap was a well established subgenre long before Lil Nas X showed up. More to the point, drum machines are ubiquitous in mainstream country, though not every country fan is overjoyed about it.
This beat is killing country music - YouTube
Is Billboard upset that Lil Nas X uses Auto-Tune? That’s not exactly a new thing in country either. Are they upset that he’s singing over a banjo sample rather than a live performance by a Nashville session player? If that’s the case, then they are really splitting hairs. It’s awfully difficult to avoid the conclusion that the distinguishing factor in Lil Nas X’s case is the color of his skin. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that conservative country fans got upset about Beyoncé’s duet with the Dixie Chicks at the 2016 CMA Awards. This country fan wants you to know that neither controversy had anything to do with race. At all! Definitely not. But he repeatedly calls “Old Town Road” a rap song. On what basis, exactly, if not Lil Nas X’s blackness?
The racial politics of country music have been fraught for the entire hundred years that the genre has existed as a named entity (though it was called “folk” or “hillbilly” for its first few decades.) We customarily think of country as being “white” music, but that’s the result of a conscious marketing decision, not a musicological description. When you go listen to the vernacular music of the rural South in the early twentieth century, you discover that what we now call “blues” and “country” are two different names for the same hybrid mass of sounds. The racialized distinction between them was the invention of record company executives, and it wasn’t exactly a sneaky subterfuge; during the era when country music was called “hillbilly,” blues and jazz were sold as “race music,” a term coined by Okeh Records.
Karen Pittelman wrote a must-read essay called Another Country on the history of the music’s racial politics. She explains how the marketing categories of “hillbilly” and “race” evolved into musical genres, which after World War II became known as “country and western” and “rhythm and blues.” African-Americans and European-Americans weren’t the only cultural sources for what we now call country. Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Mexican musics are cornerstones too, though these roots are largely forgotten unless you’re a musicologist. Even after the “country” and “R&B” or “jazz” categories took on a life of their own, the actual music didn’t always respect their boundaries. Exhibit A: “Blue Yodel No. 9” by Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong.
Blue Yodel No. 9 by Jimmie Rodgers (1930) - YouTube
There have been prominent black country musicians throughout the music’s history. I’ve been a fan of DeFord Bailey ever since a country-playing friend introduced me to his harmonica playing. The influence of black musicians on white ones is not news either. Bob Wills and Bill Monroe both developed their sounds after close study of the blues. Even for a student of the music like me, though, it was a surprise to learn that the first million-selling country album was by Ray Charles.
Ray Charles Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music - Worried Mind /Sparton 1962 - YouTube
Once you start looking for the close entanglement of “black” and “white” American music, you see it everywhere. A favorite example is Linda Martell’s 1969 country chart hit, “Color Him Father,” a cover of an R&B song song by The Winstons. The B-side of the Winstons’ song, “Amen Brother,” is a foundational breakbeat in hip-hop and every subgenre of electronic dance music.
Berry said that “Maybelline” is based on a folk song, “Ida Red,” which he learned from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
Ida Red - Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys Telescription 1951 - YouTube
Rap itself has an unexpectedly long presence in country, too. Hank Williams raps straight through his 1954 album, Luke The Drifter.
Hank Williams as Luke The Drifter - Men With Broken Hearts - YouTube
The deepest impact that country music had on America’s racial politics may be the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, in which the Supreme Court finally struck down laws against interracial marriage. The plaintiffs in the case were a white man, Richard Loving, and a black woman, Mildred Jeter. They met as teenagers when Loving came to hear Jeter’s brothers play “hillbilly music.” Lil Nas X may be pop’s flavor of the month, but he is also part of a long and noble history.
I love Thelonious Monk more than just about any other musician in history. I especially enjoy learning and playing his tunes on the guitar, where they tend to sit well. I’m especially proud of my solo guitar arrangement of “Crepuscule with Nellie.” A jazz guitarist named Miles Okazaki, who is enormously better than me, also enjoys working out solo guitar arrangements of Monk. So much so, in fact, that he took it upon himself to record every single Monk tune for solo guitar. All seventy of them!
As if the basic idea of this epic project wasn’t enough, Okazaki also imposed some constraints on himself: he played everything in its original key, and he didn’t use any overdubs or other digital trickery. There’s no question about how impressive this all is. However, “impressive” is not the same thing as “good.” Are Okazaki’s recordings good?
I mean, of course they’re good. Some of them are gorgeous. Okazaki is incapable of playing badly, and Monk tunes are bottomlessly wonderful. “Shuffle Boil” is my favorite–Okazaki nods to Monk’s youthful tapdancing by creating the sound of tapdancing on his strings. However, some of these recordings don’t sound as good as they could. The more uptempo ones, in particular, sound like a guy playing jazz solos with no rhythm section, and I find myself missing the rhythm section. As I listen, I also start asking, why not use overdubbing? Why not play with other people? Why not transpose tunes into guitar-friendly keys so you can drone open strings? In “Blue Monk,” which is in B-flat, Okazaki keeps playing his open E string, and blagh, why? Why not just play the tune in A, or E, or D?
There’s a similar problem facing anyone who wants to engage other masterpieces from the jazz canon, for example a tune like John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Does that mean that jazz should be relegated to the museum, or to LARPers like the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra? No, I do not believe this. I believe that there is plenty of fresh musical expression to be found within the jazz canon. However, I also believe that if you want to say something new, you need to do it using the musical vocabulary of the present. Specifically, I think you should do remixes, not more covers. The jazz canon is a body of recordings, not just scores, and we have barely scratched the surface of those recordings’ possibilities.
Monk is a case in point. His tunes are wonderful, but the real magic of his music is his sound. Anyone who can read music or learn by ear can play a Monk composition, but conveying his touch and rhythmic sensibility is another story. Even if you could somehow learn to imitate his piano style exactly, why would you want to? The message of Monk’s music is to sound like yourself, not like Monk. On the other hand, if you sample and remix Monk recordings, you can shine new light on his playing by placing it new contexts, by looping and juxtaposing pieces of it, and even by playing it as an instrument yourself by mapping slices to a MIDI controller. Just about any two-bar segment of any Monk recording sounds good when looped over a breakbeat. Monk recorded entire albums of sampling-friendly solo piano, and his unaccompanied intros are also easy to grab and slice up. Hip-hop producers love sampling Monk, especially the Wu-Tang Clan.
Here are some of my Monk remixes:
Digital manipulation isn’t the only way to creatively engage with Monk’s recordings. You could also record yourself playing instruments along with them. This idea has some precedent. Yusef Lateef recorded himself playing a saxophone solo over a 1927 recording of “In a Little Spanish Town” by The Revelers, and put it on one of his own albums. It was a bold experiment, and it’s one that I’d love to hear more jazz musicians attempt.
Yusef Lateef - In A Little Spanish Town (T'was On A Night Like This) - YouTube
How delightful would it be to hear Miles Okazaki playing call and response with Monk himself? I’d love to hear him play over “Functional” or “Round Lights.” Yes, I am aware that there are copyright problems with this idea. But I bet that a forward-thinking jazz label might be open to such a thing.
Another suggestion for Okazaki and other would-be creators of Monk tributes would be to duet with a Steinway Spirio, a super futuristic version of the player piano. Steinway has software that can reconstruct piano performances from audio and video recordings, which Spirio pianos can then reproduce “live” with extreme accuracy. I had the uncanny experience of hearing a Spirio piano recreate a live performance of “Monk’s Mood” in a Steinway showroom. It was especially strange to hear Monk “playing” a perfectly in-tune piano, which he rarely got to do during his lifetime. I have no idea what the copyright status is of a Spirio performance–we’re in new conceptual territory here–but I bet it would be easier to work out than licensing samples.
For his NYU music technology masters thesis, Tyler Bisson created a web app called Groove Pizzeria, a polyrhythmic/polymetric extension of the Groove Pizza. Click the image to try it for yourself.
Note that the Groove Pizzeria is still a prototype, and it doesn’t yet have the full feature set that the Groove Pizza does. As of this writing, there are no presets, no saving, no exporting of audio or MIDI, and no changing drum kits. You can record the Groove Pizzeria’s output using Audio Hijack, however.
Like the Groove Pizza, the Groove Pizzeria is based on the idea of the rhythm necklace, a circular representation of musical rhythm. The Groove Pizza is a set of three concentric rhythm necklaces, each of which controls one drum sound, e.g. kick, snare and hi-hat. The Groove Pizzeria gives you two sets of concentric rhythm necklaces, each of which can have its own time duration and subdivisions. This means that you can use the Groove Pizzeria to make polyrhythm and polymeter.
The words “polyrhythm” and “polymeter” are frequently used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Tyler’s thesis contains the clearest definition of the terms that I know of, which I paraphrase here.
Polyrhythm is two or more concurrent loops of equal duration. Each loop consists of a set of evenly-spaced subdivisions or rhythmic onsets. The loops contain different numbers of onsets, meaning that the subdivisions of each loop are not same length. Finally, the ratio of the number of onsets in each loop is not a whole number (otherwise one loop would just be an even subdivision of the other). When people talk about 4:3 or 5:2 polyrhythm, this is what they mean. In Western music, polyrhythms usually only occur for short time spans in the form of tuplets, but in West African drumming, polyrhythms are a core structural feature.
Polymeter is two or more concurrent loops of different duration. The onsets in each loop have the same duration, but each loop has a different number of onsets. This is much more common in Western music than polyrhythm. You mostly see polymeter over short time spans in the form of hemiola or syncopation.
With these two definitions in mind, let’s take a look at the Groove Pizzeria interface.
For each loop, you can control both the number of subdivisions (the number of onsets) in each loop and the length of each subdivision. The basic time unit in the Groove Pizzeria is one sixteenth note in 4/4 time. Each of the “teeth” on the outer radius of each circle represents the duration of one sixteenth note. If you change the Time Units setting, you make the sixteenth notes shorter, and the radius of the circle gets smaller accordingly. The easiest way to understand the difference between time units and steps is just to draw some rhythm patterns on the grid, play with the sliders, and see what happens.
Here’s a 5:4 polyrhythm created by taking two loops that are the same length and dividing them into five and four steps respectively:
If you want a 5:4 polymeter rather than a polyrhythm, then you will need to adjust the number of time units in each loop as well. (The patterns aren’t perfectly symmetric so you can hear where they start and end.)
Here’s a less exotic sound, a 4:3 polymeter, also known as hemiola. On the left is a 4/4 hip-hop pattern. On the right, I made a 12-beat-long pattern that repeats four times in the same amount of time as it takes the hip-hip pattern to repeat three times.
Here’s a less familiar sound, an 11:5 polyrhythm. On the left, I made the closest thing to a hip-hop pattern that’s possible in an 11-step pattern, and on the right I made a simple quintuplet pattern. This will probably sound weird to you at first, but if you listen to it for a while, it will eventually start to make a wonky kind of sense.
How about some real-world examples? Genuine polyrhythm is unusual in popular music, but it’s not unheard of. James Blake uses a quintuplet hi-hat pattern in his song “Unluck.”
James Blake - Unluck - YouTube
Here’s my Groove Pizzeria representation of this beat. On the left is the kick and snare playing a straight quarter note pattern in 4/4, and on the right is the hi-hat pattern (though it’s not playing back on a hi-hat sound.)
Hip-hop producers sometimes use polyrhythms to create specific varieties of swing. On drum machines, swing (sometimes called shuffle) shortens and lengthens each alternate beat. At zero swing, also known as 1:1 swing, the beats within each pair are the same length. At maximum swing, the first beat in each pair will be twice as long as the second beat in the pair. This is known as 2:1 swing, sometimes called “triplet swing” because it’s as if the first beat is two triplets long, while the second beat is one triplet long. In real life, you usually want your swing setting somewhere between these two extremes. (Click here for a more detailed explanation of swing.)
One way to get a swing ratio in between 1:1 and 2:1 is to use a quintuplet grid. If you think of the first three quintuplets in each group as being one “beat” in a pair and the last two as being the “beat” in the pair, you get the equivalent of 5:3 swing. Slynk explains how to set this up in Ableton:
Ableton Tutorial: What Is Quintuplet Swing? (Neo Soul, Drunken Drummer, J Dilla, Wonky Groove) - YouTube
Here’s a neo soul groove I made using quintuplet swing:
For an even narrower swing ratio, you can use septuplet swing. It’s the same idea, except now you’re grouping together the first four septuplets into one “beat” in the pair, and the last three septuplets into the other “beat”. This gives you a 4:3 swing ratio. This is pretty close to no swing at all, but it’s noticeably “off,” in a way that gives you a nice J Dilla “drunken drummer” feel. Slynk explains again:
Ableton Tutorial: What Is Septuplet Swing? (Neo Soul, Drunken Drummer, J Dilla, Wonky Groove) - YouTube
Here’s a neo soul groove I made using septuplet swing:
The more I think about it, the more I feel like Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” is the most interesting musical recording of all time. It touches every form of twentieth century American music, from blues to jazz to rock to techno, and it’s one of the founding documents of global hip-hop. Not bad for a last-ditch effort to keep Herbie’s label from dropping him. Here’s the album version:
Herbie Hancock - Rockit - YouTube
Herbie’s performance of the song at the 1984 Grammys had a colossal impact. Few people watching the broadcast had ever heard (or heard of) turntable scratching. If you watch Scratch, one interviewee after another cites this broadcast as their inspiration for getting into turntablism. Breakdancing was probably new to most viewers as well. Even twenty-five years later, the whole thing remains fresh.
YouTube - HERBIE HANCOCK Rockit - YouTube
It’s also fun to watch another live version from a year later. This time, rather than recreating the studio recording, the band takes it as a jumping-off point, starting with an abstract and ambient introduction that includes Grand Mixer D. ST scratching through dub echo:
Herbie Hancock - Rockit 1985 - YouTube
Between the clothes and the gear, this performance epitomizes the 1980s. The multiple keytars are especially evocative of the era. Keytars are easy to make fun of, but Herbie embraced the instrument for a good reason: it enables him to be up on his feet dancing while he plays. Look at his face! Doesn’t he look happy? That joyful ease translates loud and clear in his playing. The idea of a dancing keyboard player represents a stark contrast to the tradition of the piano. I think all the ridicule of the keytar represents anxiety about Africanizing the most Eurological instrument.
Anyway, as remarkable as live performances of “Rockit” are, it’s the original studio version that holds the most significance. This track is a node in an immense musical rhizome, with roots and tendrils stretching deep into musical history, horizontal connections to everything else happening in the 1980s, and branches extending far into the future. Before I dig into the track, though, I’m going to take you on a short metaphysical side journey to understand what a rhizome is and why it matters.
In botany, a rhizome is an underground network of roots joining multiple plants together. Ordinary grass is an example – you can think of a lawn as one big organism, rather than a collection of individual plants. Deleuze and Guattari use the rhizome as a metaphor for a method of organizing knowledge: think of a network, a web of nodes connected to other nodes. A metaphysical rhizome has no center, no periphery, and no overarching organizational scheme. There are just nodes, some of which are connected to many other nodes, some of which are connected to fewer nodes. Wikipedia is organized this way, as is my blog.
The opposite of a rhizome is a tree-shaped hierarchy, in which nodes are only connected to the nodes directly above and below them. In a tree, information usually only flows from the top of the tree on down, as opposed to the chaotic wanderings you see in the rhizome. The military is a tree. A friend network is a rhizome. A computer file system is a tree. Your brain is a rhizome. A symphony orchestra is a tree. The world’s bedroom producers are a rhizome.
Western music history and musicology is usually presented in tree format. But where in a tree-shaped folder system could you possibly file “Rockit”? Is it techno, hip-hop, jazz, funk, rock, all of the above, none of the above? You can see why music history textbooks almost never mention it. Even jazz historians who scrutinize Herbie’s 1960s recordings treat “Rockit” as an embarrassing afterthought, when they mention it at all. If I had to pick a single genre to fit “Rockit” into, it would be hip-hop, but it’s an outlier there too, between the vocoded scat singing and the synth solo. Any truly innovative piece of music is going to defy categorization by definition. “Rockit” has had deeper and more lasting cultural significance than anything else created by a jazz musician in the 1980s, and it may end up being Herbie’s most lasting contribution to the world. If a tree-shaped folder system can’t find space for it, then that’s a failure of the tree. In a rhizome, on the other hand, “Rockit” makes perfect sense as a node connecting to unusually many other seemingly disparate nodes. Rhizomes give a neat definition of a song’s significance: the more nodes it connects to, the more significant it is.
You can read the story of “Rockit” in the third chapter of Mark Katz’s excellent book Groove Music. I’ll summarize here. First, let’s meet Herbie, seen here singing through a vocoder.
Herbie was a classical piano prodigy who dropped out of conservatory to play jazz. He went on to write a bunch of bedrock jazz standards, and his intellectually abstract post-bop sound would come to be a defining pillar of mainstream jazz. If Herbie had quit music in 1965, his place in jazz history would be secure. Instead, he followed his mentor Miles Davis into fusion. Herbie spent the 1970s playing Afrofuturist funk, horrifying jazz critics, and selling mountains of records. The cover of his classic album Thrust gives you an accurate picture of his place in the culture.
By the beginning of the 1980s, Herbie’s star was on the wane. He loved dance music and was eager to get on board with disco. His music increasingly featured vocoded singing over four-on-the-floor beats. Herbie’s disco records sound as fresh as a daisy today, but at the time, they didn’t connect with audiences, presumably because they were too pop for jazz audiences while being too artsy and abstract for the club. In 1982, after a string of money-losing albums, Columbia Records decided to give Herbie one last chance before dropping him.
As a kind of Hail Mary pass, Herbie agreed to work with a group of young hipsters who were part of the New York No Wave scene: bassist Bill Laswell, synth player Michael Einhorn, and engineer Martin Bisi. Their idea for Herbie was to produce some electro-funk tracks informed by hip-hop, which was just starting to be a presence in white downtown clubs. “Rockit” started as a beat programmed on an Oberheim DMX. Laswell added a bassline interpolated from a vocal part in “Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt” by Pharoah Sanders. Then they brought in Grand Mixer D. ST to overdub some record scratching. One of the records he ended up scratching was a rap single that Laswell had produced called “Change The Beat.”
Beside - Change The Beat - YouTube
The part of the record that D. ST scratched comes at the very end. There’s a short beep, and then you hear Laswell’s manager Roger Trilling goofing around with the vocoder. Though a white noise carrier wave, Trilling imitates a nerdy older label executive saying “Ahhh, this stuff is really fresh.” Most of D. ST’s scratching on “Rockit” is on the word “fresh.” DJ gear wasn’t as sophisticated as it would later become, and D. ST couldn’t move the crossfader fast enough to cut in the entire word at that tempo. That was probably for the best; the abstraction of the swishing white noise is more futuristic and mysterious than a recognizable word would be.
To wrap up the first “Rockit” session, Laswell, Beinhorn and Bisi had percussionist Daniel Ponce overdub three tracks of Batá drums. At a subsequent mixdown session, they wanted to layer in a sampled snare drum to beef up the sound a little. They planned to use a snare from the intro to “We’re Gonna Groove” by Led Zeppelin, but they ended up using a fragment of guitar from the song instead. Since dedicated samplers were expensive at the time, they recorded and looped the sample using a digital delay unit instead. When I asked about the provenance of the guitar stab on Twitter, Bisi himself made a video explaining how they did it.
I did a vid describing what the guitar stab loop sounded like -it was very short. I doubt it was from end of song. we didnt need it isolated like that.. I was just randomly hittin hold trying to get anything cool. You can hear stab is actually 2 stabs-that was length of the loop pic.twitter.com/H2wraSKLXq
Herbie only became involved in the creation of “Rockit” a few weeks later. After Laswell and Beinhorn brought him the tape, the three of them spent a few minutes scat-singing a melody. Herbie recorded it on three layers of synths, and also recorded a short solo at the end. He wanted to add vocoded scat singing too, so Laswell and Beinhorn suggested some lyrics from “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force. The result combines the icy timbres and rigid rhythms of electronica, the improvisational spirit of jazz, the melodic style of the blues, and the still-radical idea of performing an existing piece of recorded music as an instrument. This is, to put it mildly, an unusual recipe for a pop hit.
As befits its DJ-centric origins, “Rockit” has been remixed and sampled many times, including two mixes by Grand Mixer D. ST himself. But “Rockit” isn’t just a sample collage. It’s an actual tune, written (partially) by a jazz musician. It hasn’t been the subject of much musical analysis, though, whereas there are a ton of transcriptions of Herbie’s 60s and 70s music. When you do a Google search for “Herbie Hancock Rockit transcription”, you get a lot of irrelevant links, a handwritten transcription of the bassline, and this:
It makes sense that analyses are so thin on the ground. Very little of interest in “Rockit” can be captured by Western notation. Still, it does have some notes in it, and they’re interesting. Herbie’s melody uses a variant on the A minor blues scale: A, B, C, D, D-sharp, E, and G. His solo is mostly in A blues too, enhanced with his usual wild chromaticism. Jazz critics tend to dismiss synthesizers as impersonal and cold, lacking the expressive nuance of acoustic instruments. To me, that speaks more to the lack of imagination of most synth players. Herbie’s touch on a synth is sometimes even more personal and distinctive than his touch on the piano, because he can use the pitch bend control to explore all the notes between the piano keys. Listen to the first note in the “Rockit” solo, that long guitaristic bend. It comes straight out of the blues, and you can’t do it on a piano.
I made a DJ mix of all the songs sampled by “Rockit,” and some remixes and samples of it. Enjoy:
Here’s a diagram of all the tracks that appear in my mix, click to enlarge:
Update: I was asked how I created the mix. I used Ableton Live’s Arrange view. I did some tempo automation toward the end but otherwise it’s just straight ahead audio editing.
I would love to have enough DJ chops to be able to perform mixes like this live using Serato, but that is far in the future.
Music evolves the way life does: through change in the heritable characteristics of populations over successive generations. Most of the heritable characteristics of music are abstractions like rhythm patterns and chord progressions. However, you can also see heritability at work more obviously in the form of sampling. It’s especially illuminating when a song samples a song which in turn samples yet another song. The longest such chain that I know of: “Workin’ On It” by Dwele (2008) samples “Workinonit” by J Dilla (2006), which samples “King of the Beats” by Mantronix (1988), which samples “Pump That Bass” by Original Concept (1986), which samples “Close (To The Edit)” by Art of Noise (1984), which samples “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes (1983), which samples Stravinsky’s ”Firebird Suite: Infernal Dance of All the Subjects of Kastchei.” I made a DJ mix of all of these tracks for my dissertation mixtape, enjoy:
I made a family tree of the sample chain, along with other samples appearing in these tracks:
Some of the tracks shown above have been sampled in many other places as well. I couldn’t show all of them, because otherwise the diagram would be the size of a barn. Go visit WhoSampled to explore the whole vast web of connections.
The first chord in the Infernal Dance of All the Subjects of Kastchei from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite is better known to the electronic music world as ORCH5, a factory sound that came packaged with the Fairlight CMI. Sound Designer David Vorhaus sampled it without any permission whatsoever. ORCH5 is the paradigmatic orchestra hit and is a signature sound of the 1980s. Robert Fink tells its story here. I think sampling classical music is a good idea.
“King of the Beats” plays a significant role in hip-hop history: it’s the source of the ubiquitous Dilla siren. Let’s ponder the Dilla siren for a second. Dilla is hardly the only producer to use sirens as a signature sound. He also wasn’t the first to sample the one from the Mantronix track. Why don’t we call it the Mantronix siren? How did Dilla come to have cultural ownership over this sound? One answer is, well, Dilla is famous, at least among nerds like me, and he used the siren about a thousand times, so. But even though I know where the siren comes from, I hear Mantronix and think, oh wow, there’s the Dilla siren! Copyright law does not agree that Dilla has any kind of claim over the sound. But copyright law is predicated on an exclusive theory of musical intellectual property that is far removed from the reality of hip-hop production, or musical creativity in general.
When you create music, you do very little creating; you mostly rearrange existing pieces of music. The creativity comes in the combining, editing and juxtaposing of those existing pieces. In sample-based music, this is particularly obvious, because you can compare the edited version of an idea with the original version. It’s possible that music information retrieval will advance to the point where we’ll be able to “sequence the genome” of any piece of music and draw a complete tree of its ancestry. At that point, we will have to do some society-wide rethinking of the concepts of musical authorship and ownership.
A while back I saw this viral video of Amber Wagner giving a motivational speech in her car. As you can tell from the video’s title, she uses extremely NSFW language.
you are the motherfucking shit - YouTube
Beyond its inspirational value, Amber’s speech is appealingly musical. I grabbed the audio and filed it away. Then during my morning commute this week, I was making a beat using using samples of my kids splashing around in the bath. I tried out Amber’s speech on top and it fit well, so I pulled a non-sweary excerpt and looped it up. Here’s the result:
Here’s Amber’s speech as visualized with Melodyne.
In order to turn this into a set of discrete pitches, I first used Nectar to auto-tune it for maximum pitch quantization. Nectar has a key detection function, and out of the various options it suggested, F-sharp Mixolydian sounded the best. Next, I used Ableton’s audio-to-MIDI function on the pitch-quantized audio. After much manual cleanup, I had a musical-sounding melody. When I went to notate it, I found that I had to simplify the rhythms to make them readable.
I love this approach to creating tunes, but am not sure what to call it. I’m not composing, exactly, since Amber is the one who created the underlying tune. But I’m not just transcribing, either, because I made a number of editorial choices along the way. I guess the right word would be adapting? Whatever it is, I find it intensely satisfying, both as a process and a product.
I’m generally fascinated by the continuum from ordinary speech to heightened/poetic speech to rapping to singing. (I would put Amber’s video somewhere between heightened speech and rap.) Maybe there’s a definition here: speech is almost totally unquantized in its rhythms and pitches, while singing is almost totally quantized. Rap is mostly quantized in its rhythms and mostly not quantized in its pitches. Heightened speech is like rap with freer time.
In my recent post about “Giant Steps,” I briefly mentioned the idea of doing improvisational remixes of jazz recordings. This is a big enough idea to merit a post of it own. My slow-tempo remix of the tune includes a solo section that I played by slicing up the tune, putting each note on a sample pad, and then playing the slices back as an “instrument.” Listen at 1:49.
Imagine: I created an instrument which consists entirely of the individual notes in the melody of John Coltrane’s recording of “Giant Steps.” I can play those notes in any order at any volume as easily as I can play notes on the piano (and I can do it using the same interface, too.) My “GiantStepsatron” doesn’t just play back the saxophone part. It also plays the underlying chords, bass notes, and drum hits. The chords in “Giant Steps” are pretty wild to begin with, and when you play them out of order, the complexities multiply.
The screencap below shows the GiantStepsatron. The tune is sliced into 50 pieces, one for each note, and slice 20 is highlighted in the screencap. Ableton gives me no indication of the harmonic content of the slices, but by counting notes on the chart, I figured out that slice 20 is Coltrane playing a concert D-sharp over an F#7 chord in the piano and an F-sharp in the bass, taken from measure 12 of the tune.
The GiantStepsatron has some strange affordances as an instrument. The notes F#2 and G2 on the MIDI keyboard play slices 19 and 20, which both trigger the note D-sharp. However, the D-sharp in slice 19 has a C#-7 chord under it, while the one in slice 20 has an F#7. It’s weird to have the piano keys not correspond to the note that comes out when you play them, and it’s even weirder to have adjacent piano keys that both play the same note but with different chords under them. It requires some rewiring of your brain to play an instrument this way! There’s no point in trying to remember which key plays which note and chord; instead, you just have grope around by ear. It throws you into a state of zen mind/beginner’s mind, though with the advantage of being able to clean up your naive stumbling afterwards via quantization, looping, and editing.
My “solo” is pretty jagged melodically. Still, it sounds unified because it’s all from the same contiguous recording, the timbre is the same across all of the slices, and there are many repeated notes. I smoothed everything out further by applying compression, a filter sweep, and some echo. Also, to keep the solo from being an overwhelming amount of information, I played simple phrases that I copied and pasted in groups of four, so you have plenty of time to absorb each one as you listen.
If I wanted to transcribe my solo, I could make a list of the slices I played and figure out what note and chord corresponds to each slice. This would be an amazing method for jazz composition, should I ever again find myself composing for a jazz ensemble. Sometimes I listen back to this and other remixes of mine and think, hmm, it might be fun to arrange this for big band. I work in a couple of music schools, maybe I’ll get a chance to do such a thing someday. But then I think, even if I could, why bother? An instrumental performance wouldn’t have the vibe and flavor that the samples do.
This brings me to the larger music-pedagogical point: remixing recordings has deep untapped potential for bringing the rich history of jazz into the ears of contemporary listeners. While the specific tunes on jazz records are unfamiliar to most of us, the sonic qualities of the records are deeply familiar, nostalgic even. You don’t need to know the history of the Blanton-Webster band to feel the 1940s vibe of those recordings; it comes through loud and clear in samples.
The main pleasure of jazz during its period of peak cultural salience was that you were hearing creative takes on familiar material. That’s why Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Mingus et al played so many corny showtunes–those songs were deeply familiar to their audience. If you went to hear Miles Davis in 1957, you weren’t just hearing a bunch of angular abstractions; you were hearing them used as commentary on ubiquitous jukebox or movie musical hits. Jazz today still uses the same angular abstractions, and it’s still applying them to those same midcentury pop standards. As a result, the sense of signifying on familiar material is mostly gone from jazz, unless you’re an obsessive scholar of the music. You can see why a nonspecialist would have trouble staying interested in abstractions of abstractions of abstractions of tunes that were familiar to our grandparents.
While the source material of jazz is receding into the past, jazz recordings themselves have a life of their own that continues into the present. I have no idea what the lyrics are to “Bye Bye Blackbird” or “When Lights Are Low,” but I feel a strong visceral reaction to the sound of the 1950s Miles Davis records where he interprets those tunes. It’s a sound that’s familiar to anyone who has set foot in a Starbucks. Rap producers have been sampling jazz records since the 1980s, but they’ve barely scratched the surface (no pun intended). There’s an opportunity here to explore jazz not just as a bunch of music-theoretical concepts and the contents of the Real Book, but as a collection of sounds, timbres, and grooves.
The history of jazz is coextensive with the history of music as a recorded medium. A single artist can span multiple generations of technology–just follow Duke Ellington releases in chronological order, and you’ll hear the move from disc recording to tape, then to multitrack, and finally to hi-fi and stereo. There can be conspicuous differences in sound even between releases from the same label during the same time period. For instance, in my folder of Coltrane samples, the ones from A Love Supreme are buried under murk, whereas the ones from Interstellar Space, recorded just three years later, have bell-like clarity. Sampling brings those sonic textures to the forefront of the listener’s awareness.
Sampling is also an opportunity to appreciate the full value of Duke Ellington’s music. College jazz programs teach his tunes and compositions, and they’re great, but Ellington is also a bottomless source of inspiration for sound designers and producers. Listen to his wild instrumental blends, his love of timbral extremes, and his horn players’ plunger-muted growls. I never need to hear “Satin Doll” again, but I’d love to hear more Cootie Williams and Tricky Sam Nanton looped over beats.
Note that I am not opposed to instrumentalists creating new jazz music. They should be doing that! But they should do it with some awareness of the state of music in the year 2018. Jazz musicians should be signifying on electronic music production tropes, not just on tunes. They should be playing against and on top of recordings and samples. One of the freshest things I’ve ever heard is Yusef Lateef blowing a solo over a 1930s record. He put this on one of his albums!
Yusef Lateef - In A Little Spanish Town (T'was On A Night Like This) - YouTube
Yes, I know, copyright and licensing are an issue with sample-based productions. So far, though, the jazz labels have been happy to open up the vaults to remixers. I’m optimistic that everyone would want to work together to encourage more jazz sampling.
This post is self-serving, because I do lots of jazz remixing, and I’m happy to do so for my own listening pleasure, but I feel like it’s just me and Madlib out here.
I want more people making this kind of music so I can listen to it. I want jazz musicians creating stuff that I want to listen to. I want to spend money on it! I don’t just want to hear people referring to Monk and Coltrane via quoting and interpolation; I want to hear conversations with their actual sounds.
Many years ago when I had my improv techno band, we had a couple of sax players show up for one of our (poorly attended) gigs. I played a track that included a loop of Coltrane’s fanfare intro to A Love Supreme.
John Coltrane - A Love Supreme [Full Album] (1965) - YouTube
Both sax players pulled out their horns and started playing along with the loop. Then they started harmonizing with it, and then rhythmically displacing their harmonies to make call-and-response patterns. It was magical. I would like music to be like that more often. I want jazz to have more of a DJ ethos.
There’s some precedent for DJs playing with jazz musicians. The most iconic example is Grand Mixer DST with Herbie Hancock in the 1980s.
GrandMixer DST and Herbie Hancock - YouTube
Back in the 90s, I used to go to Project Logic shows.
DJ Logic Presents Project Logic The Garage, D.C. 4/16/2000 - YouTube
The Herbie Hancock/DJ Logic model treats turntables as another instrument soloing in a jazz group, which is fine. But I want to invert the situation, and have the jazz group live inside the DJ music. I’m not exactly sure how that would look onstage, but I’m open to suggestions, and am eager to try things out myself.
“Giant Steps” is a beautiful tune, one that rewards as much scrutiny as you care to give it. But it also had a some negative effects on jazz as an art form.
If you don’t feel like sitting through the whole Vox explainer, the bottom line is this: “Giant Steps” is hard to improvise over both because it has a complex chord progression, and because it’s extremely fast. Here’s the transcription from the New Real Book:
Music-theoretically, there’s a lot going on here. But the main idea is simple if you understand what a major key is. There are three of them in “Giant Steps”: B major, G major, and E-flat major. All the melody notes and chords in the tune come from these three keys. Plenty of jazz tunes use multiple keys, but “Giant Steps” is unusual because its three keys are as harmonically distant from each other as possible, and because the tune jumps between them constantly, never settling on any one for more than a bar or two.
All three scales are “the same” in terms of their intervallic relationships, the pattern of filled and empty slots in the pitch circle. You can rotate the pattern of filled and empty slots to produce any major scale.
Things get interesting is when you start juxtaposing the three keys of “Giant Steps” together. You only hear one key at a time, but the tempo is so fast that they all blur together perceptually. I assume that Coltrane wants you to be constantly comparing and contrasting them as you listen.Here’s the combination of B and G:
Here’s the combination of G and E-flat:
Here’s the combination of B and E-flat:
Finally, here are B, G and E-flat together:
That last chromatic circle representation is full of intriguing visual symmetry, but it’s jumbled up like a bag of Skittles. The symmetries are easier to see on the circle of fifths, where the overlaps between keys are neatly grouped.
I started drawing circular visualizations of music theory concepts in large part due to Coltrane’s influence. Here’s a drawing known as the “tone circle,” which Coltrane made as a gift for Yusef Lateef, and which you can see in Lateef’s Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns:
So, “Giant Steps” is a fascinating work of art, a prism refracting the combinatorial mysteries of Western twelve-tone equal temperament. Why, then, did I say that it had a negative influence on jazz? The problem is that Coltrane inadvertently helped to usher in a cult of virtuosity at the same moment that jazz was becoming a “respectable” academic music. At the time of its recording, “Giant Steps” represented the furthest extreme of intellectual and technical ambition in jazz. Now, it’s a basic entry requirement. You won’t be taken seriously as a jazz musician unless you can play “Giant Steps” at speed, and you won’t get the full respect of the other jazz bros unless you can play it all twelve keys. It’s not enough to “conquer” the tune; the jazz bros have to keep one-upping each other with ever-more-Baroque variations on it. It would be fine if all this obsessive technical study was leading to better and more creative music, but that is not what’s happening. Instead, the jazz bros treat “Giant Steps” as a kind of musical video game, and compete to beat each others’ high scores. This is boring even for a devoted Coltrane fan like me, and I can only imagine how much it repels casual onlookers.
Here’s an example of how dull the cult of virtuosity can be. A few years ago, I went to hear jazz-bro icon Chris Potter perform. I got to the club a little early, and the band was doing a sound check. They were jamming on an open-ended one-chord funk groove, and they sounded amazing. But when they started their actual set, each tune was a convoluted maze of key and time signature changes. There was nothing emotionally engaging about the material. The musicians ran the mazes confidently and expertly, but it was exactly as interesting as watching someone else play video games.
Jazz bro culture is not Coltrane’s fault. Within a few years of writing “Giant Steps,” he came to realize that it was a dead end, and he went in the opposite direction, playing music with few or no chord changes and open-ended forms. He still used a lot of complex key changes in his own improvisation, but they tended to happen against a static background. More importantly, Coltrane never lost sight of the main point of music, which is to communicate emotionally. All of his intellectual abstractions were in the service of melody and feeling. “Giant Steps” itself is a case in point. It’s not just a mathematical puzzle; it’s also one of the loveliest and most memorable melodies in jazz history. After hearing it once, my five-year-old son was walking around humming it. I can explain analytically why the melody works so well, and maybe I’ll do that in a future post. But you don’t need any technical music knowledge to hear how and why it works, because it explains itself with perfect clarity.
Contemporary jazz bros revere Coltrane, but they haven’t abided by his commitment to strong and soulful melodies. I’ve never heard a Chris Potter tune that I needed to hear twice. Some of this is due to the structure of the music academy. You can systematize the study of harmony, you can write journal articles and books about it, and you can teach it in classes. But you can’t teach the writing of emotionally resonant tunes, because no one has a formal understanding of why we like what we like. Anyway, it’s not like academic jazz musicians are even trying to figure that out; they deliberately isolate themselves from popular culture. Coltrane knew pop songs were worthy of attention. The same year he released the Giant Steps LP, he also released My Favorite Things, which is all brilliant reworkings of the most cliched, middle-of-the-road pop standards of its era.
My Favorite Things - John Coltrane [FULL VERSION] HQ - YouTube
Coltrane’s takes on pop songs are as significant as his originals. It’s impressive to be able to write challenging and abstract music, but it’s even more impressive to be able to bridge the gap between that music and banal pop songs. Present-day jazz rarely engages the pop charts, very much to its detriment.
In 1960, it was a politically radical act for a young black man like Coltrane to create demanding art music. In 2018, however, there is nothing radical about continuing to play the way Coltrane did in 1960. The equivalent of the jazz bros now would be musicians in 1960 playing ragtime and Souza marches. Coltrane’s 2018 equivalent isn’t a jazz musician at all, it’s a rapper or producer, Kendrick Lamar being the most obvious candidate. “Giant Steps” has great historical significance and is worth learning and playing, but the jazz bro approach has run its course. Fortunately, technology gives us some alternative ways to explore and interpret Coltrane’s ideas. For example, Q-Tip sampled Joe Pass’ solo guitar version of “Giant Steps” for his song “Let’s Ride.”