Take lessons with me!

Looking for music lessons in Oregon City or Portland (or perhaps over the internet)? I teach all ages and levels and a variety of musical styles. I specialize in bringing to lessons the science and psychology of music along with creative exploration. Visit the lessons page to learn more.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

tags/labels revolutionize style and genre in music

A "genre" is just a set of expectations you could reasonably apply to a large set of items. If all or most of your expectations when you hear a "blues" song are met, then obviously it was useful to call it "blues." If it had a few elements that remind you of that, then maybe "bluesy" would make sense. If there is almost nothing that anyone could expect based on hearing other music before then the piece in question HAS NO GENRE. Genre is not a quality absolutely inherent to everything. It only happens when a large enough quantity of something is able to be identified with a set of distinguishing characteristics. When a new genre starts, it isn't actually a genre until we've heard enough of it to know what to expect.

Categorizing things into styles and genres is a natural and useful part of human culture. Part of artistic, creative interest is in deviation from an existing norm. Those norms must be identified and embedded in the listener's unconscious in order for deviation to have any effect. On the other hand, some art is not intending to deviate, but is merely not related to any known genre, and people's openness to such new things is quite varying.

The future is promising. By using tags/labels in the digital computer world (in programs, like this blog site, that do not limit the number of tags versus the awful mp3 genre id tag that requires a single listing for any mp3), a piece with blues elements can be tagged as "blues" or as "bluesy", without sticking into any box. Tags are not exclusionary or restrictive. We may use as many or as few tags as are useful. Hopefully we will see the extinction of arguments that say, "this piece isn't rock, it's funk-blues." Instead the discussion can be "does this have enough rock elements to have a rock tag? I know it should be tagged with funk and blues, but maybe rock too?" In the past, a record had to be put in either the rock or the blues section at the record store, unless they had copies in both, which was very impractical. Now, an mp3 at an online store can be in both categories at once, and others as well. And we can choose to search for only songs that have both rock and blues tags if we like. Lots of people have tried to put things into one box or another, and those who rebelled tended to reject the entire concept of genres and labeling. I think tagging and digital technology liberates the discussion. I hope this will also encourage musicians to take a much more fluid view of their own stylistic identities.

Friday, August 22, 2008

What and why need to come before how

It is all too easy to spend immense time learning and preparing how to teach something. Teachers can fail to question the value or accuracy of what is being taught. Certainly, it is better to fail at an attempt to teach the most valuable lessons than it is to succeed at teaching incorrect ideas.

The challenge of the most dedicated teacher is to balance these questions. People who spend all their time on the facts and ideas will certainly be lucky to have even a moderate ability to express them accessibly. On the other hand teachers can sometimes be so focused on how that they actually become more and more dogmatic, close-minded, and even defensive regarding "what" type questions. Those questions could undermine all the work they've done preparing the unquestioned subject.

Of course, we need to be practical. I would simply encourage all teachers and parents, (well, everyone actually) to try to return to what and why every now and then. And if those can't able to be answered with certainty and you can't afford the time to explore further, then at least keep the question open - allow for it to be questioned by others - and just don't teach it as absolute.

Students should not only question what and why but they need to remember sometimes to think about how things are taught. If a student questions how things are taught, then sometimes ideas that are poorly presented can be figured out anyway -- by understanding what is wrong with the teaching style. Or they can figure out how to learn for themselves. They may even empathize with the challenges the teacher faces. Finally, if they are like me, they may be inspired to become teachers themselves, if partly to do a better job than some of the teaching they received.

There is never anything wrong with questions. Everything should be questioned. We just have to realize that questioning everything means a very small proportion of questions are able to be answered. So instead of randomly questioning, we need priorities. If we ask the big what and why questions first, we'll have the best shot at everything else making sense later.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

What is the whole point of music?

Music lessons generally involve learning the technique to play a specific instrument or learning the rules, patterns, and jargon of a particular music culture. However, those nuts and bolts do not address questions of why we bother with this music stuff in the first place.
I've heard explanations like, 'music is part of what makes us civilized', or 'music is food for the soul', or simply, 'music is wonderful and enriching'. Clearly, those answers don't really tell us anything. In some cases, we tend to hear about extramusical side-effects, such as learning teamwork or that music involves mathematics. Certainly, music is one of the many forms of play that develop all sorts of general skills, but as many of us sense, music can be deeper than just playing around.

Perhaps the main drive to music is simply that, for most people, it achieves a strong emotional response. How that happens is certainly worth studying, and that is a substantial aspect of the field of music psychology. Music can have useful functions as well. We use it to control our sense of time, coordinate groups of people, support rhythmic physical activity such as repetitive labor or exercise, augment verbal expression, control moods, entertain, assist in memorizing, and more.

There is an unlimited number of different pieces to learn and techniques and styles to study. Without an understanding of what music is and why we use it, music study can lose direction and meaning. With such understanding, we can prioritize and focus on the specific skills, techniques, and pieces that achieve our practical goals. We can more effectively teach, write, practice, and appreciate music. I strongly believe that no technique or theory should be taught without also explaining its purpose (or at least asking the questions if the answers aren't yet known).

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Benefits of Music Study

In many ways, music is only one of many fields through which students may gain various important lifelong skills. Some people claim music to be more important than other fields such as athletics, visual arts, etc. However, in many respects, the best music teachers, the best athletic coaches, and the best science teachers are all essentially teaching how to be a dedicated, critical, and creative person. Music happens to be my field of expertise, so I teach through music.
Music's intrinsic values and functions should be paramount. Still, there is nothing wrong with discussing some of the more broad benefits as well. It is not reasonable to study music just because it helps with math, but some subjects, such as confidence, have no direct course of study. Confidence is not an activity or field of study, it is something gained through many varying activities, music among them. And while the best way to excel at math is to study it directly, it is alright to note that music does involve math as well.

Below is a list of extramusical items that can be learned through well-taught music study. This list includes both broad skills as well as tangential, interdisciplinary subjects. Any good music teacher should strive for including all of these. (And with such a broad list, there's no excuse for artificially connecting truly unrelated things to music just to be "interdisciplinary") This list helps define some of the what and why of music study, which should always be a prerequisite to studying the how of teaching or learning anything.

Music study may involve or encourage, in no precise order, explained only when I felt necessary (and not an exhaustive list):

Self-awareness & reflection

Critical thinking

Imagination - specifically developing control of aural imagery ('audiation')

Creativity - through interpretation, composition, improvisation, and experimentation




Respect - for traditions, for teachers, for audience, for fellow musicians...

Teamwork - through ensemble playing

Independence - practice is often done alone, especially at more advanced stages

Vocabulary / language / poetry - through song and songwriting, and through analogous pitch and rhythm aspects of relating language to music

Personal expression

Control over one's own mindset - such as the ability to choose when to have one's listening or playing be more emotionally versus more intellectually focused

Control of the experience of time - different music can encourage smaller or larger time-scale focus. Also, learning to focus on longer and shorter sections of the same music is fundamental to advanced playing. Patience is actually a skill contained within this overall time-flow control.

Habit control - to succeed in music, one must understand of how habits work, how to recognize them, how to unlearn bad habits and develop desired ones.

Physical control, coordination, dexterity - some variance depending on instrument, but the physical skills of playing or singing are substantial. Good music teaching informs students what physical positions are healthy, how muscles work, and how to be conscious of these issues.

Pattern recognition - a major aspect to understanding and learning music. Awareness of the way human psyche processes patterns, including illusions is important.

Mathematics - unfortunately, typical western interval names in music (e.g. "major second") actually are mathematically problematic because they create a fence-post error (two major seconds make a major third, 2+2=3?!? — this is because the naming system lacks a zero and double-counts the note shared by both "second" intervals). Additionally, rhythm terminology is mathematical but often taught purely by rote. It is enabling to learn the real math behind how rhythm, harmony, and melody operate. Explicit math is not a necessary factor in music, but music is overall very mathematical.

Physics - the acoustics of instruments, rooms, and anatomy of the ear are all relevant and should be taught from the very beginning. I haven't yet had a student of any age struggle to understand that strings vibrate - and that is what makes sound. And furthermore that they vibrate faster and slower based on (A) mass (practically described as a string's thickness/density and length) and (B) tension. Many music teachers unfortunately deprive their students of these simple insights by simply asking them to accept by rote that a sound is "low" or "high." Learning these insights into the physics of sound is not only interesting, but also provides the ability to think critically about the actual effect of technical choices in one's playing.

Psychology - music is nothing if not psychological. Because it is so multifaceted, music offers significant insight into psychology in general and everything else listed here exists within a psychological framework.

Culture and history - Music is among the most ancient elements of human society. Musical patterns that happen to have become common historically are very relevant to being a musician in the real world, but they need context and qualification. The best teachers should not say "music works like this" when referring to a cultural tradition. All music should be taught with cultural and historical context.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Rational View of Copyright

Revised December 2013

These days, there is a lot of discussion about "piracy" and "theft" referring to illegal copying. But obviously, the comparison of music downloading to stealing a car is absurd.

Yet we can't just ignore copyright infringement and assume everything will be fine. If we want quality products, they must be adequately funded, and it is important for everyone to contribute their fair share. Instead of the inappropriate metaphor of "piracy" for illegal file-sharing, we should use the term freeloader. With this more accurate frame, we can go about figuring out what issues are real and how to move forward and deal with the problems.

We face great challenges to maximizing open access, creative output, fair use, individual expression, individual freedoms, and fair wealth distribution. In this article, I am going to attempt to thoroughly discuss the issue, asking questions, proposing ideas, and sharing links to important resources. My goal is to take a broad view, focused on what is best for society as a whole while respecting individual concerns.