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I teach in Oregon City and online videochat. I work with all ages and levels and a variety of styles. I specialize in creative exploration, the psychology of music, and conscious music practices. Visit the lessons page to learn more.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Review: Musical Cognition by Henkjan Honing

Musical Cognition: A Science of Listening is a short, concise book for popular readers that describes University of Amsterdam professor Henkjan Honing's particular views of music. This review is of the 2011 English translation recently published by Transaction Publishers.

With only 160 brief pages, this is a relatively quick read. The book is more like a long pamphlet introducing basic ideas but not getting deep. The writing style is very accessible and clean, with no technical jargon, notation, or traditional music theory. The 15 short chapters have clear internal breaks and section headings, so it is very easy to digest this in tiny chunks, which is something I appreciate in any book, whether popular or technical.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Brain Parts Song VIDEO (and Creative Commons discussion)

Several weeks ago, I posted a recording of my new Brain Parts Song. I mentioned then that it called for a video, and I realized later that I couldn't rely on someone else to do it. But that doesn't mean I had to create everything from scratch. Thanks to the internet and Creative Commons, I was able to put together a very effective video:

The player above is from YouTube, but I also uploaded to Vimeo
to, a great media site that is free, open, and non-profit! I also posted files with chords at that link.

There's so much in this video packed into 3 minutes, so I highly recommend repeated viewings/listenings for anyone wanting to use this song as a memory/learning aid. The song lacks the exact repetitiveness of much pop music, but it can be pretty catchy after hearing it enough.

I was concerned about my original audio-only recording for learning purposes because the brain parts are not the words being rhymed, so they could be wrongly mixed up and the song would still work musically. I think having the associated video content solves the problem. I'm a bit disappointed how the mistake/joke about the Anterior Cingulate Cortex isn't as surprising and funny as it is with audio alone, and other hidden subtleties in the recording are more obvious now that they are illustrated visually, but there's new subtleties and details in the video content, so it's all good.

Side-note: as the video hints at, these ideas are simplistic beginning concepts. Besides plasticity, even concepts like having separate motor and sensory areas are wrongish. The whole neocortex has motor and sensory aspects. The main distinction within the cortex is more about which parts are most connected to signals from elsewhere in the brain and body. Don't take any of these rough elementary 101 ideas too strictly.

I had fun making this, and I hope everyone enjoys it and maybe learns something too.

Read on for discussion of making this with Creative Commons, and for credits and lyrics

Monday, June 6, 2011

Review: How Music Works by John Powell

Since I first learned about things like tuning and temperament, the cognitive processing of rhythm, and the perception of timbre, I have had thoughts of writing some sort of universal how-music-works book. Music is usually taught through cultural context (sometimes without revealing this angle), and little to no mention of universal perceptual and cognitive facts. Clearly, however, I am not alone in having this idea of writing some universal music book. John Powell's 2010 book How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond has a same main title that is included in the subtitle of the book I previously reviewed by Philip Ball from just earlier in 2010. These two books are far from alone in this burgeoning arena of authors hoping to enlighten the world to their grand universal insights on the nature of music. Unfortunately, these attempts all fall short of what I would like to see. If I had the same standards as John Powell, I would probably have already written my submission to the field. But I'm trying to learn from the attempts of others first and/or to find existing books I can truly recommend without qualification (Music and Memory: An Introduction by Bob Snyder being among the best I've yet found).

Sunday, May 22, 2011

New recording: The Brain Parts Song

After giving up the chance to start my PhD now, I'm pushing myself to get involved in lots of projects until I potentially re-apply to grad schools. Among other things, I'm taking an online class through the local community college: Human Development and Learning. This class relates to my interests in psychology and education, plus it will be valuable if I ever pursue formal teacher certification.

This week's assignment was to do something creative involving learning the basic parts of the brain, so I wrote a song, of course:

Brain Parts Song by Aaron Wolf

I had to fight the urge to be a perfectionist. I simply didn't have time to add all sorts of instrumentation or details or make a video... maybe another time, but I'm busy with other things.

This song is very purpose-driven: a song for memorizing. Unfortunately, I don't think it does that optimally. These brain part names are really hard to rhyme, so I resorted to rhyming words that fit descriptions of the parts. However, that choice means that the names could be erroneously mixed up and the song would still work musically. Plus, this might be too much content crammed into three minutes — it would be more memorable if there were room for more exact repetition. I'm happy with the result, and I did my best, but it may not be the best study tool for everyone... At least it's a fun song.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Comparison of Different Media for Music Education

When I first realized that most of the content I learned in my schooling and private lessons was available in books at the library, it made me question the value of the lessons and classes. On the other hand, maybe I wouldn't have actually read all the books on my own at that younger age... But I wasn't presented with the opportunity so I didn't know it was available. Of course, in the days before the internet, there simply wasn't quite as much information readily available and even finding the right books at the library was harder before computerized catalogs. Of course, books aren't as meaningful until after one has had real-world experience to relate the ideas to.

A teacher's job is to get students to learn and be thoughtful, and, ideally, that is done as efficiently as possible. The most efficient learning for beginners is full multi-sensory immersion: playing music with others in a real-world context. Then students are able to relate these experiences to more removed media like recordings and abstract symbols such as music notation. Of course, efficient also implies practical; so the value of experiencing different media must be weighed against accessibility and cost. Teachers should make students aware of the opportunities of different media as soon as students are ready for them.

Though not all students may follow through, I intend to do everything I can to enable and encourage independent study. Unfortunately, while information is now more readily available than ever, the options are overwhelming (see this compelling video: Barry Schwartz On The Paradox of Choice). So my job is both to directly teach particular ideas as well as to be a guide to the learning process in general.

This post is about evaluating different media. I am sure that information scientists (i.e. librarians et al) and pedagogy scholars have done extensive work studying this subject (please let me know if you have specific recommendations about research I should check out), but here I would like to share my personal thoughts specific to the study of music through different media including private lessons, classes, books, videos, software, and more.

Different media offer different benefits. Therefore, the best learning is multimedia using the all the forms for their different values.

Pros and cons of learning music through different media:

Friday, May 6, 2011

Opportunities vs life circumstances: music vs environment...

I've been through a lot since my last post. I went from being quite certain that I would move across the country to pursue a PhD in Musicology (with a cross-cultural focus) to changing plans and now staying in Ann Arbor while my wife, Samantha, does a MS degree in Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. I won't get into discussing the complex issues of different universities, my general feelings about academia, the issues about the prospects of UofM for me, other alternatives, etc (maybe another time...). Simply put, every opportunity comes in a package with all sorts of issues, pros and cons, open or closed doors, costs, etc. Making decisions about these things is very complex. It is impossible to truly know what unchosen decisions would have brought. Among many other factors, I am sincerely excited for Samantha — and not just for her sake, but because I also find biology and environmental issues fascinating and important.

So now I am continuing to teach private lessons while also considering how else to make the most of the next couple years. I have several projects to pursue. I already have more than a dozen planned blog articles on many subjects. I have an endless reading list. I want to record and compose new music. I ought to get out and perform more, perhaps get together an ensemble with other musicians. I intend to pursue formal publication of some of my academic research. I may take and/or audit various classes. And I just got started working with a programmer friend with the goal of realizing some of my computer-based music theory education ideas. I could even start on finally writing my guitar method (given that I've reviewed over 700 related publications and still haven't found anything quite like what I want), but I think that project may have to wait...

Today I want to share two specific items:

(A) I fully revised my page here: Lessons: Details, Philosophy
The updated page describes much of my attitude as a music teacher and clarifies (I hope) my wacky philosophical title of this site. I had trepidations about trying to explain in a few sentences some philosophical concepts so complex that I'm not sure I fully understand them. But, as Professor Bob Woody replied recently when I commented on his blog, maybe writing controversial or simplistic things might encourage more comments! I have certainly gained more understanding by sharing my thoughts and making them open for criticism than by trying to hold onto my ideas until I think they are flawless (which is never). As that static page doesn't allow comment, please comment here regarding that page.

(B) I thought of a way to be more environmentally responsible in my teaching:

The background: I feel happy and responsible that my wife and I share a single car — and still, it is rarely used. We put much less miles on our shared car than the average single-driver car. This is possible for many reasons, including our decision to run errands by bicycle or foot as much as possible and to avoid other unnecessary driving. But the main reason I drive so little is that I teach out of my home studio most days. The problem is: while this saves me a lot of money, it doesn't actually reduce cost and pollution overall because my students still drive to come to me. Yeah, it's still better than if my students and I both drove to meet at some separate location, but it still isn't an ideal sustainable  arrangement considering environmental and energy costs (and I don't believe in the absurd premise that electric cars or similar can somehow be efficient enough to make sprawling, commuting suburb life sustainable). If my career is to be feasible and responsible in the future, this needs to be addressed.

There is the possibility of online teaching with video conferencing and such, and maybe I'll try that sometime. Online can never be quite the same as in-person lessons, but maybe it really could be a fair compromise in some cases. But I thought of a more immediate solution:

I just need to encourage students to take public transit or bike (or even walk) to lessons. I had hesitated to do this in the past because I know it is hard (though not impossible) to bike with a guitar, but I realize now I just need to have enough various instruments of my own so that students can use one of my guitars in their lessons. Yes, it is better for me to see how they play with their own guitar, but it is more important to encourage students to save money and reduce pollution and waste. I want to live in a world where people are healthy and responsible and bike more, and I'm thrilled to have thought of a way to directly encourage that. I added a note to my official policy and will mention it to my students in the future. I hope it works out for at least some folks!

Thanks for reading. Check back here (or subscribe via the form to the right) to keep up with future updates. The vast majority of my planned posts are about general insights in music and related things, in contrast to the largely personal nature of this post. Thanks goes out to the numerous folks who helped me in so many ways throughout my grad school application process — I gained a lot of perspective and understanding even though I will not be going back to school yet.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tonal Plexus microtonal keyboard: 3 videos

In 2008, I became one of the first owners of a Tonal Plexus keyboard from H-Pi Instruments (a mostly one-man production of owner Aaron Hunt, who hand-builds the keyboards and creates the supporting software).

I had already deeply studied pitch in music through barbershop harmony, alternatively tuning my guitars, listening to software tone generators, listening to a wide variety of music from around the world and from composers who explored pitch (such as Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, Toby Twining, Jon Catler, and many others), and through extensive reading (including Hermann Helmholtz, Easley Blackwood, Bill Sethares, and many more).

At one time, I had hoped to find some simple scale or guitar tuning or guitar fretting system that would achieve the sounds I was seeking; but no optimal system seemed possible. If I wanted one chord tuning, it interfered with tuning another chord. Frets would have to be so close together, that I might as well have no frets. No frets allows any pitch, but then it is much harder to avoid errors in tuning. Violinists and barbershop singers work hard enough to get one pitch tuned just so. Achieving consistent accuracy (to the degree that I want) with multiple notes and complex chords all on a single stringed instrument is unrealistic.

With the Tonal Plexus (TPX) keyboard, a whole new flexibility is possible without sacrificing accuracy. The sheer number of pitches approximates a complete pitch continuum. In other words, the very low-bit digital system of the traditional keyboard or fretted instruments is rough and blocky, like an old eight or sixteen color computer screen, whereas the Tonal Plexus is still digital but is more like 8-bit or 16-bit color (meaning hundreds to thousands of colors) on a computer monitor which can much better approximate the full color spectrum. Full analog devices are completely continuous, but being digital offers more accessible accuracy. I can press a specific button and get a specific predetermined pitch.

On the downside, the TPX cannot achieve the natural fluidity of analog instruments like fretless strings or the human voice. Also, the lack of touch sensitivity further limits the keyboard's expressive potential. Of course, adding touch sensitivity for so many buttons would make the instrument prohibitively expensive, if it were even possible. At least there is a randomization option for velocity as well as a whole-keyboard option for volume and velocity control via footpedals. It is worth noting that harpsichords and organs have still been used to make effective music despite their lack of touch sensitivity.

While I learned much upon initially playing with the keyboard, I found it frustrating that it still could not achieve quite what I wanted. The stretches seemed awkward. I wondered about all sorts of other alternatives. I decided to finally get a fretless guitar (see my 2009 video). The guitar's nuances and fluidity were thrilling, but it wasn't the full answer either. I've come to accept that my imagined complete instrument may simply be practically impossible (even though simultaneous fluid melodic motion, precise harmony, harmonic deviance, and control of touch sensitive nuance is — in principle — possible). Maybe touch-sensitive multi-touch computer screens along with some complex algorithmic tuning will get closer, but we're not there yet.

In the end, I have realized that what matters more is the human context: the cultural and psychological experience of music over the details of the objective form. And yet, I am convinced that much of the pitch subtlety available on the TPX is psychologically relevant. I have much more to study and hope to get more involved in that sort of research, but that's a subject for another time.

In an effort to be less idealistic and perfectionist, I have gone back to the TPX to show off its unique capabilities. It certainly can do particular expressive things that no other musical instrument has ever achieved. It is worth appreciating that without worrying about the compromises. All instruments bring different insights and potential, and exploring the Tonal Plexus for what it offers has been very enriching.

With help from my friend Doug Jones doing the camera-work and providing some direction and feedback, I have made an initial set of videos on my TPX. The first is an introductory explanation:

Next, a melodic improvisation over a drone:

Finally, a barbershop tag in just intonation:

[note: click the links to YouTube to read the specific descriptions I wrote of each video]

More videos will come soon. I hope these first ones highlight just a little of the enormous potential here. My future with this could include more careful practice, maybe detailed compositions, additional controllers for more timbrel and dynamic (and even additional pitch) nuance, and coordination with other instruments and musicians.

I welcome any comments or questions, though I suggest that anyone interested in the theory explore the H-Pi website first. There, Mr. Hunt has included everything from history to theory about much of the ideas behind this keyboard. He also offers software including a FREE virtual version of the keyboard (which is also used by owners to create alternate tunings or other adjustments). H-Pi also offers software for ear-training, an alternate-tuning device for standard keyboards, and much more.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Review: The Music Instinct by Philip Ball

It is at once mundane and yet remarkable how much one's impression of the world is influenced by what one focuses on. In college, I was taught traditional eurocentric classical music theory. Though some exceptional professors had broader perspectives, it seemed they were still resigned to the primacy of the conservative traditions. Not wanting to be an ignorant critic, I made a conscious effort to understand and appreciate the traditional views. Later, I did the same with guitar pedagogy: reading through all the classical literature to understand that perspective. I learned a lot and valued some of the ideas, but I felt small and alone in my persistent interests in music cognition, ethnomusicology, and other less-classical approaches.

More recently, I began seeking out more cutting edge contemporary research. At first, I had little guidance because most of my professional acquaintances have only superficial awareness of the questions that interest me. But then one connection led to another, and I was soon overwhelmed with books, journal articles, conferences, websites, music, and names. It seems I wasn't so alone after all. Now I feel as though I am just one of a vast number, possibly even a majority, of younger researchers and teachers who are fully engaged and open to the broad perspectives on music that are available in the 21st century. It now seems to me that everyone acknowledges the validity of all the world's musics, appreciates the insights of cognitive neuroscience, and is interested in the whole complicated discourse of various perspectives. But, is this impression just a result of with whom and with what I am now surrounding myself? I think the reality is somewhere in the middle.

Philip Ball's new book The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It presents an impressive overview of the current issues in music scholarship, balancing respect and awareness of both classical perspectives and the important questions of global and scientific insights. Reading it, I felt very humbled. How can this popular science writer (who is not a career musician and who has covered a wide range of subjects from art to physics to biology) be so knowledgeable about all these music issues that took me years of study to understand? He even seems to possess a thoughtful perspective on evaluating it all.

Ball starts off with an introduction that beautifully addresses the concerns that I and others have dealt with in today's world of music. It emphasizes the inherent musicality of cognitive music listening skills over the Western emphasis on performance and note-reading. He addresses the concerns that ethnomusicologists have about attempts to understand music universally. He deals with the philosophical questions of music's significance to humanity.

Ball's book, along with other recent popular titles like This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin and Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, is another sign that the zeitgeist is shifting. The questions I have been asking for a long while are now mainstream. (Incidentally, I was excited to see Ball using the same music/cooking analogy which I developed independently). As I read further, however, I found that The Music Instinct is a mixed attempt, still hampered by some of the older assumptions and terminology. The Western art music tradition is foremost, balanced mostly by reference to Western popular music. Ball understands and explicitly states that non-Western music traditions are as rich, but he knows less about them and so offers little in that direction aside from some minor mentions. While his attitude is commendable, his compilation of a wide range of subjects is a jumble of blocks that struggle to cohere into a greater whole.

The main value of this book is its up-to-date overview of many of the interesting subjects at the forefront of musicology today. I see it as a signpost in the exciting progression of our understanding of music. It does not get all the way to the destination that is in sight — a place where understanding of music will be comprehensive, better organized, and liberated from cultural or historical bias.

The Music Instinct fails to justify the subtitle of "why we can't do without it." Even the known benefits of music, such as making repetitive work more fun and tolerable, are not addressed here. My own consciousness was raised by the remarkable movie Sound and Fury. In one scene, some members of the deaf community, happy — even proud — in their deafness, dismiss the supposed importance of music. I think, in fact, we can do without music, though I, for one, certainly prefer having it. And I enjoy understanding music enough to appreciate Philip Ball's compendium of issues in musicology despite his imperfect organization. I'm just not quite sure to whom I could recommend the book. It is too difficult a read for any true novice, not optimal for teaching music appreciation or theory, and not in-depth enough for serious academics (I was particularly frustrated that he mentions studies sometimes without any identifying title or citation). Perhaps the best fit is someone like me: already aware of many of these issues but interested in reading different perspectives.

Read on for more content summary and further discussion: