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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.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Screencast: scary sounds with Audacity

Today I made my first screencast using my KXStudio GNU/Linux system.

In Audacity, use any random sounds (import any recordings or make new ones). Go to Effects - Change Speed and choose a very slow speed. Add echos and reverbs and other effects to taste, the more reverb the better. That's it!

Video editing done in Kdenlive.
Read more about these and other Free/Libre Open Source audio and other software at my Software Recommendations and more page.

Happy Halloween!

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Framework for Studying Human Experience


I've always felt in-touch with both holistic and analytical ways of seeing the world. Breaking things down into distinct parts can be a valuable way to make sense of reality. But human cognition does not have the capacity to deal with great numbers of broken parts all at once — let alone the capacity to recognize how the parts could fit back together again. Sometimes, we need to step back and try to take in the whole picture. When we then return to analyze separate parts, we may not be able to comprehend all the connections, but we can at least try to keep context in mind while looking at any particular item.

I have always been interested in music, but as a student, I was uncomfortable with the degree to which music study seemed divorced from broader context. In the years since finishing my Bachelor of Music, I've grappled with cross-disciplinary questions that led me to study physics, biology, psychology, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, and other fields. I can't claim expertise in these areas, but I've learned a lot. And through my studies, I have gained insights into music which seem more profound and valuable than the things I learned in my music courses.

Recently, I've been considering a return to academia, but I've struggled with choosing the right direction. I now recognize that there are many angles to get at the same questions, and I want to be sure that any program I pursue has a good perspective on how different fields of inquiry fit together.

One of my main concerns is the apparently persistent divide between science and humanities. I appreciate much of what I've seen at conferences and such, but I often feel that the bias for certain angles of study is greater than what would be expected just because people have their particular specialties. Humanities folks (a group which includes the majority of music-related researchers) seem to make everything about culture. Of course, there have been countless debates about universals versus cultural differences, debates about different approaches to scholarly inquiry, debates about nature versus nurture, and so on. There is enough material for scholars to make entire careers out of just studying the history of these debates as a meta-topic. Trying to make sense of all of this, I've developed my own framework to address the different angles of inquiry, and that's what I going to describe here.

My interdisciplinary framework

The deep questions most of us have are basically about understanding the nature of our own experience. We will never be able to know or explain everything, of course. But while our abstract models are imperfect, they may still be useful.

The figure to the right is a diagram of an intellectual framework which I find useful for contextualizing understanding, research, and experience. I don't think any element here is overall more or less important than the others. To reasonably explain any of our experiences, all these levels need to all be acknowledged.
The figure represents a hierarchy of unidirectional restrictions. We live in the inner circle and only experience the outer levels indirectly. We necessarily experience and understand physics through our subjective and culturally-influenced perspectives. Yet while culture influences physicists, culture cannot alter the basic physical laws of the universe. Physical reality imposes absolute restrictions on the possibilities within all the lower levels, not vice versa.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Copying Is Not Theft: Barbershop Arrangement pt2

see part 1 to check out the original song and the context that inspired my version

Announcing my first published barbershop arrangement:
Copying Is Not Theft by Nina Paley

The song is licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 (as is my entire website). This means I have full legal right to do anything I want with it as long as I credit Nina and I license my version the same way. Lots of people have already made tons of variations of the song from jazz to punk rock versions.

I made my barbershop arrangement using the free open-source music notation software Musescore. This software not only produces great looking results, but it supports fine tuning of pitch. I adjusted all the pitches to match just intonation tuning to 1-cent accuracy. If you play the file in Musescore, the harmonies are all well tuned to get nice pure barbershop harmonies (though the sound is a saxophone sample). [side note: to play back with swing rhythm in Musescore, go to the menu display>Play Panel]

Download the Musescore file. Or Download a PDF.

I made a quick audio recording by overdubbing my own singing and created fast-paced and slightly slower versions, an old-timey mix with virtual vinyl record crackles and such, and dedicated learning tracks for each part (with select part on one side of stereo and the other three on the other side).

Here's an embedded audio player:

All the files are available to download at the best free, non-profit media sharing website: automatically creates many file formats, so you can download any format you like of the audio and do whatever you want with it (just include the CC-BY-SA license and credit both me and Nina if you release any modified version).

I really hope some talented animator is up for creating an old-timey cartoon, maybe inspired by Nina's original cartoon but with a quartet singing… And I hope barbershop quartets out there choose to learn the song and perform it and perhaps make new recordings.

Whether for a video version or for live performance, I have some ideas about choreography. The way I arranged the song, the idea is: the lead sings the first phrase alone, but the baritone jumps in and cuts off the lead for the second phrase. Then they copy each other and sing the third phrase together, splitting into harmony at the end, and then the whole quartet joins in.

Overall, the arrangement follows very traditional barbershop harmony, full of all the little embellishments and with a new tag at the end. I added a decent amount of complexity that makes it more advanced than the most basic arrangement might have been, but in the end I stuck with mostly accessible stuff.

So go copy this! Have fun! Change it! Perform it! Whatever! I'd love to be notified when anyone does something with this, but there's no legal requirement to do so.

In harmony,

P.S. I added just the "Copying Is Fun" tag to the wonderful barbershop tag collection at

Copying Is Not Theft: Barbershop Arrangement pt1

Over many years, my views on copyright have morphed and evolved in complex ways. At one point, I was a strong advocate for copyright. I registered my own published CDs with the Library of Congress, and I even bought multiple copies of CDs to sell to my friends when I wanted to share music. But the problems with copyright have become so absurd that I cannot defend the status quo any longer.

Over the years, I learned more about the complexities of the music industry, the inconsistencies with what is copyrighted and what isn't, the nature of music styles as almost entirely derived from common cultural heritage, the value of open culture and sharing, and the complexities of 21st century media… I changed my views pretty dramatically, but my ideas are still evolving. I have described the issues and  my philosophical position in an article called A Rational View of Copyright. I've continually updated the article since first writing in 2008, and I plan to reformat it soon, but it covers a wide range of issues.

Recently, I was singing with my casual barbershop quartet and we decided to try an arrangement of Shenandoah, a traditional American folk tune. It would be easy enough to make an arrangement, and the song is public domain, but I decided to order four legal copies of an arrangement from the Barbershop Harmony Society. When I got the sheet music, I was dismayed by obnoxious text printed over the notes stating "COPYING IS ILLEGAL."

First of all, copying is not illegal! The United States copyright law protects fair use. That means that I can legally make a backup copy for myself to archive. I can make a legal copy in order to write notes to myself without marking up the original. And I can legally copy this excerpt and show it here for the sake of this essay.

Secondly,  I paid for a legal copy of this music. Why is my copy defaced with this annoying mark‽ It makes it harder to read! This mark doesn't just discourage copying, it discourages buying and reading the legal copy in the first place!

Unfortunately, the Barbershop Harmony Society is a nice large target for copyright lawyers, so the BHS has taken a particularly strong position on copyright. Ironically, a huge portion of the songs that barbershoppers sing were written before 1923 and so are public domain, including Shenandoah. So barbershop benefits greatly from music being free to share and access. The main activities of barbershop singers include getting together at conventions and singing songs with each other, often teaching people new parts. Like other great participatory music traditions, barbershop embraces sharing and derivation. For this type of rich cultural experience, restrictive copyright is an extreme burden.

I was told by a chorus director recently that his chorus was singing some old song about an apple tree or cherry tree (I forget which). They wanted to switch the words from apple to cherry (or reverse, whichever it was) in order to fit it into the theme of some other songs for their concert. Being so hypersensitive about copyright (thanks to all the admonitions from the society), they contacted the copyright holder. After lots of effort they were denied permission. Despite my belief that the change they wanted is legal fair use, they chose not to go ahead with performing the word change.

Often the bureaucracy of copyright licensing is so bad that it is simply impossible to get anywhere. Read this short article about someone trying to legally license an arrangement of Don Henley's song Desperado.

All this got my thinking about Nina Paley's wonderful song, Copying Is Not Theft.
I decided this deserves a barbershop quartet arrangement, so I made one. Check out my arrangement in part 2.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Book Review: Guitar Zero by Gary Marcus

At 40 years of age, Gary Marcus had no music training and no apparent musical talents, but he loved music. With the excuse of testing the learning capacity of adults, he decided to commit to really giving music a try for the first time. In his 2012 book Guitar Zero, he tells of his experience. More significantly, he somehow managed to condense a vast overview of diverse research in music psychology and the psychology of learning into a fun read for all audiences.

If you assume this to be an instructional book, you will be overwhelmed. To follow the path of Professor Marcus, first become a tenured faculty at a well-funded institution; then get a paid sabbatical. As Marcus clarifies, the lack of dedicated time is the primary obstacle for most adult attempts at learning new skills. So, now that you have time, funding, and professional connections to call on, the next steps are simple: Make arrangements to meet some of the most famous living musicians; go take lessons with several of the very best teachers; and get the top experts in music psychology and theory to personally answer your questions and advise you on what research to read. With these simple steps, you too can become an adequate amateur musician!

Of course, Marcus is not suggesting that others could follow in his steps exactly. Instead, this book is more about the science of music and the science of learning, as told through a quirky personal story. Simply put, there's been no way to test theories about adult learning versus child learning. Children regularly put in persistent commitment over many thousands of hours; and researchers can't find adult beginners able to do the same. So Marcus decided to be subject number one.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Absolute vs relative pitch — my take

I was practicing guitar — in this case, sight-reading through a book of intermediate/advanced exercises in all different keys — when I found myself, as usual, distracted by reflective ideas about how I was processing the music. In this case, I found myself modulating back-and-forth between processing the notes in an absolute manner versus a relative manner...

Sitting down to write this, I worry about how to take on one of the most controversial issues in all of music in a short article. Entire books and websites and learning programs have been made on this topic. I do not have time or space to review them all or cite all the vast amounts of research, but the Wikipedia articles are a good starting point: Absolute pitch / Relative pitch.

There is more than enough evidence to conclude that all normal people are sensitive to both absolute and relative pitch. Some rare people are highly sensitive to absolute pitch, including the ability to explicitly name any pitch regardless of context — a skill often called "perfect pitch." All my personal acquaintances who have this  ability are children of piano teachers or at least started music training at a very young age. It seems that full development of "perfect pitch" requires explicit connection between consistent sounds and consistent names during a critical period in early childhood. Nevertheless, everyone seems somewhat sensitive to absolute pitch (see The Levitin Effect).

In his wonderful book Sweet Anticipation, David Huron argues (among a great number of other insights) that absolute pitch is unremarkable (it is easy to understand a neuron firing for particular pitches, and absolute pitch is how most animals recognize sounds). In contrast, the uniquely human ability to recognize relative pitch patterns is more cognitively significant. He supposes that when most children pick up on the idea that songs can follow patterns independent of their exact frequency, sensitivity to absolute pitch is actively suppressed in favor of relative focus.