Talking About Music….

You know the line “talking about music is like dancing about architecture“? It’s true: talking about music is a little like dancing about architecture (or singing about economics, if you prefer that version of the line), but I make this claim as someone who loves to sing about economics and who constantly dances about architecture.

Talking about music is one of my favourite things to do. I’m both fascinated by the way music works and astonished at its power to unite and divide, to motivate and to soothe. I think about music nearly all the time; admittedly, this is my ‘job’ as a composer, music educator, music publisher and marketer, but I’m certain that my musical jobs are the result of my thinking about music nearly all the time, rather than the other way around.

Mostly, I like to think and talk about the way music makes us feel.

This makes me a tad unusual in academic and art music circles, where a commonly held view is that “talking about how music makes you feel isn’t really talking about music at all” (Andrew Ford, Meet the Music mid-concert talk, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, October 21, 2010).

My view is the complete reverse: unless we are talking about how music makes us feel (in the sense of describing our feelings and in the sense of exploring how music elicits these emotional responses) we aren’t really talking about music at all.

All the chatter we can engage in regarding compositional devices and timbral effects really only makes sense when we apply that analysis to how these devices and effects change our physical and emotional worlds, whether we are performers or listeners, or both.

All this is by way of prefacing some recent talking about music that I’ve been engaging in.

Yvonne Frindle, the publications editor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, contacted me a couple of months ago about trying my hand at writing a program note for Matthew Hindson’s yet-to-be-premiered double piano concerto. Of course I jumped at the chance, and was soon collecting the score and some scraps of interviews and quotes in order to create the note.

I’m looking at scores all the time in my role as a composer and as an print music editor, but working through a full orchestral score is something I’ve not done for many a year, I realised wryly as I began to read through page after page. This is a BIG work by contemporary standards, where commissions are usually so modest that a new orchestral piece might only last for 12 minutes or so. At 25 minutes, roughly, this is a very substantial work. On top of this, having two pianists soloing against the orchestra creates new levels of compositional intrigue!

The first thing to strike me about the work was the emotional kaleidoscope Matthew Hindson has applied to his subject matter (the concerto is a commission to celebrate the marriage of the two pianist-soloists!) – the music really does explore what ‘marriage’ is about from a number of angles, rather than just paying lip service to the circumstances of the commission.

Now, I find this ‘first thing to strike me’ very interesting: it wasn’t any of Hindson’s compositional effects or devices that caught my attention, but rather the way the music was (is!) going to make the audience feel from one moment in the composition to the next.

After getting a sense of the emotional content of the work I went back and started looking at exactly what the audience would be hearing from a technical point of view: the melody in this instrument or that, the arpeggiated figures in this or that register, which particular interplays between ensemble and soloists. It was at this point that I noticed the very many ways in which Hindson has created bell-effects throughout the work.

I then went through the work again, this time with an ear for formal properties and an eye for traditional ways of explaining/analysing the construction of the work.

And then it was time to start writing: you can read the program note that ensued here.

One of the aspects of the composition that was most important in generating an emotional response from the audience was the use of the Lydian mode. In the program note you can see the breakout box we made explaining what the Lydian mode is, how it differs from the major scale, and so forth. Yvonne then asked me to create an audio feature for the SSO website, as a further means of explaining how the use of this mode works to create this emotional response.

Now while my singing about economics is rare, and my dancing about architecture rarely witnessed, my talking about music is now very much on the public record. And rather than being an irrelevant and tangental self-indulgence, talking about music is as much a part of musical culture as tuning a guitar before a jam-session or choosing just the right mix for a personalised playlist. Talking about music is about sharing our enthusiasms and our insights, and just as conversation makes people feel included and valued, so talking about music demonstrates the value music brings to our lives.

Talking about this particular new orchestral work has been a delight, and even more delightful is hearing back from people who’ve listened to the audio feature and have then gone and booked tickets to one of the concerts. Conversation creates community: long may we dance about architecture.

P Plate Piano Masterclass (VMTA January 19)

It’s been a while since I talked P Plate Piano. After a flurry of launch events introducing the P Plate Piano philosophy and publications in the last weeks of 2009 and the first six months of 2010, I’d had a welcome lull. But the new teaching year is almost upon us, and AMEB Victoria saw the Victorian Music Teachers Association Conference as the perfect opportunity to look at P Plate Piano one year on.

One year on means that students (and teachers) have actually been using these books, playing the pieces, experimenting with the activities, and exploring the things they can do with this repertoire.

One year on also means that the world has changed: touch-screen technologies have gone mainstream, with primary school students receiving iPodTouch and iPad devices for Christmas. [Yes, one would think they'd have had to be particularly good to have an iPad in their Christmas stocking.] Factor in toddlers and preschoolers expertly manipulating any range of apps and programs developed for these technologies and the piano teachers of Australia have a very different cohort of beginner piano students than they had even two or three years ago.

These iPad children interact to learn. They are not waiting to be passively filled with information (as if children ever were), but are actively engaged in constructing their own learning experiences through this technology that does not rely on advanced literacy in the user for functionality. Instead of exploring broadly, children can explore deeply, changing direction and focus as it suits them, not as suits their parents or older siblings. They are simultaneously more prepared to spend time engaging with learning and more prepared to move on to a new challenge if the present activity fails to exhilarate.

This changes the way we can teach, and it must change the way we do teach.

One of the most exciting aspects of P Plate Piano is the range of activities designed for this 21st century style of learning: experimentation, exploration, reconfiguration, extension. This deeper-sideways kind of learning looks like ‘mucking around’ to the traditional teacher or the exam-obsessed parent. But this kind of learning is the kind that creates musicians out of piano students, and unless you become a musician your piano lessons (and your examination certificates) won’t be worth much in the long run.

Just as pre-literate children can navigate their way around our touch-screen world, so young piano students can manage any number of musicianship skills we normally delay teaching until a student is seriously advanced. And this is where the P Plate Piano Masterclass came in.

Seven children participated in the P Plate Piano Masterclass, demonstrating a range of pieces from the P Plate Piano series, in a range of stages of learning. One boy had been learning “A Little Latin” for two days and hadn’t quite conquered the groove, while another had mastered “Finger Feet”, performing exquisite crescendo/diminuendo with absolutely impressive control.

One very little boy played “Aunty Flossie” from Book 2 in 4 different keys – a master of transposing! While an older girl played “Here Comes the Caravan”, and happily experimented with alternative articulations switching the left hand staccato and right hand legato (no easy feat). Another student performed his arrangement of “Listen Please”, expertly moving from major to minor tonalities (not written in the score). Particularly delightful was the nine-year-old girl who performed her own composition “Mysterious” at the conclusion of the masterclass. A meditation in the Lydian mode, this piece lived up to its title, conveying an extremely appealing sense of intrigue and otherness.

Some of these students had already taken their non-graded P Plate Piano assessments, and it was a delight to see the range of skills they demonstrated.

I can hardly wait til the next one.

Scale of the Day #2: The Simpsons Scale

Rather than alter the original post (which would make the comments below somewhat hard to follow) I will leave it as is, but point out that “The Simpsons Scale” certainly does have a name within the jazz tradition, the Lydian-Dominant (just as last week’s scale has a name within the tradition of South Indian classical music, “Mayamalavagowla”), so in reality when I call this scale “The Simpsons Scale” I am boldly naming what hundreds of thousands in the world of jazz have named before. (And note that this scale has a name in the South Indian tradition  [Mouli's comments below]).

Now this scale isn’t actually called “The Simpsons Scale”, but since it isn’t actually called anything [in western theory] I have decided to boldly name what no one has named before.

In reality the Simpsons scale is the melodic ascending pattern starting on the 4th degree, but it happens to be the pitch pattern used for the tonic harmonies in the theme music to The Simpsons, so I decree that the scale henceforth be known as…..

Here’s the pattern, in F (because the pattern of white/black notes is identical to that of G Major):And here in C (so it is easy to see at a glance which notes have been altered, and by how much, from a ‘neutral’ major pattern):

And here is how the theme from the Simpsons goes (in seriously truncated form, so that all the notes of the pattern as evident):

This sounds like the Lydian mode, to a casual listener, because the raised 4th is the predominant note in the melodic sequence, while the Mixolydian marker, the flattened 7th, only makes an appearance as the theme wraps up at the every end .  But a careful listener will notice that this is the only kind of 7th note that occurs in the harmony also.

Yes, this pattern has the Lydian and the Mixolydian marker notes, so it’s a kind of Hyperlydian, succeeding in doing both the fundamentally major modes at once.  It’s a sensationally modern take on major, sounding quirky but smart, and full of a very contemporary energy.

I used this “Simpsons Scale” as the basis for my trumpet composition, Go-Goanna, published by Faber Music in their Fingerprints series, and now an ABRSM exam piece (Grade 4). But while Danny Elfman creates the feeling that we are flickering between C Major and D Major, in Go-Goanna the melody is shaped so that it feels like an alternation between C Major and G minor (in transposition), with the G minor leading note (F sharp) as part of the equation.  It’s interesting to me that this same scale produces two equally successful harmonic partnerships from its triads.

It takes a while to become accustomed to playing this scale, obviously to the ear, which is expecting neither the raised 4th or flattened 7th, but more especially to the fingers, who simply refuse to believe that a major-sounding pattern has its two semitones positioned so close to one another.  This is why I included the scale pattern in F – one’s fingers can be tricked into playing this correctly quite swiftly if one focuses on playing that G Major pattern that we know so well, but hearing this brand new pattern! As it turns out, starting on G is a similar proposition: play the white/black note pattern of F Major and you’ll get it first try.  Starting on F sharp can be quite rewarding also, as one can concentrate on playing the C (really B sharp) and the E around the two black note group.

Have a play, and then have your say.  How do you like it, and what does it make you feel?  And is this name, The Simpsons Scale, really the right one??!

Scales as propaganda

Why do we require our students to learn scales?

It’s heresy, really, to suggest giving piano lessons without teaching students the full range of major, harmonic and melodic minor patterns.  Not teaching scales would be seen as gross negligence, in fact;  a kind of failure to innoculate, or a musical malnourishment that would only happen in the worst of circumstances;  a pedagogical incompetence, perhaps, or a breathtaking breach of duty of care.

But why?  What is it that scales (and arpeggios) deliver that simply cannot be gained any other way?

Teachers respond quite naturally with issues such as finger strength and velocity.  And scales do focus on these two important skills of execution.  But scales are certainly not the sole means available to piano teachers to develop a student’s finger power and speed.

Some teachers might add that scales allow students to develop tonal control and evenness of touch, and this is also certainly true. But these skills can also be developed using any number of other means besides scales.

What is it that scales, and scales alone, can bring to the musical education of a student?  Is there, in fact, any musical benefit that scales uniquely provide?

Well, yes, but this benefit has absolutely nothing to do with agility or control.

Scales are unique in teaching us how to hear.  Scales teach us how to hear in pitch patterns, how to anticipate melodic contour, how to predict harmonic outcomes.  Knowing the pattern of a scale starting on any one of the 12 semitones in an octave enables a pianist to move between keys almost effortlessly, able to transpose at sight or by ear.  An understanding of scale patterns underlies the ability to harmonise a lead sheet, to play from a chord chart or to sight read an accompaniment.

These benefits quickly accrue to a student who learns scales with these functions in mind.  The patterns are interesting in the way they relate to music known and music yet to be known.  The geographical configurations each pattern manifests appear to the student as interesting terrain to be conquered in pursuit of increased musical flexibility.

But for the student who practices scales in order to play at a faster pace and with stronger fingers, the scale itself is more like an obstacle course, with hurdles that impede progress and sudden tricks in layout that preclude clarity.  Practising scales in this fashion is a task undertaken dutifully (if at all) with no sense that the scale itself is of any particular value or interest.

Now, it should be clear that I strongly advocate the use of scales in every student’s education, and it is equally clear that I believe that knowing the major and minor scale patterns sets students up for all kinds of musical adventures.  But this is not anywhere near enough.

The scales we traditionally teach our students (major, harmonic minor, melodic minor, chromatic) as well as the scales that more recently have come into vogue (the natural minor scale, pentatonic scale variants, and the so-called blues scale) don’t even come close to covering the patterns that 21st century students actually encounter in the music they hear every day and the music they will want to play throughout their lifetimes.

Just listen to the themes of prime-time television shows.  The Simpsons, the longest running television show of all time, is an excellent example.  The theme seems, at first listen (to a classically trained ear), to be a slightly quirky take on a major scale.  Now, that’s not a bad way of hearing it, as it turns out.  The theme IS a major scale, with the 4th raised a semitone, and the 7th lowered a semitone.  Looking at it another way, The Simpsons’ theme uses the melodic ascending pattern starting on the 4th degree.

This is a really cool scale!  The raised 4th (in common with the Lydian mode) expresses a high-energy optimism, while the the flattened 7th (in common with the Mixolydian mode) expresses a laid-back approach to life.  Six Feet Under also uses this pitch pattern at the start of its distinctive theme.

Desperate Housewives uses the Lydian mode (major scale with the 4th raised).  Then there are the themes in the Dorian mode (major scale with the 3rd and 7th flattened).  American Beauty and The Sopranos are two of the many films and tv shows that have been accompanied by music in this off-the-educational-menu scale.

And that’s without getting into popular and dance musics where variants on the harmonic minor scale (particularly starting on the 5th degree) have been becoming increasingly common over the past decade, and where the mixolydian mode (major with the 7th flattened) has really been the norm for nearly 50 years.

Why don’t we teach these scales?  The goals of strength, velocity, agility and control could be just as easily achieved while playing these patterns as any of our traditional scales.  In fact, by teaching more patterns, one would think that technical skills could be positively reinforced.

So why don’t we do it?

It comes back to that earlier point that scales teach us how to hear, and piano teachers have been in the business of teaching students how to hear music written in a classical style (let’s say from about 1720 to the mid 1800s) since piano teaching began. Teaching students how to hear the music of Bartok or the blues (both past their centenaries) hasn’t been all that high on our professional agenda.  Even the music of Debussy still seems harmonically brave and adventurous nearly 100 years after his death, and that’s because we haven’t learned how to hear it, how to be inside the pitch patterns that are the foundations of his work.

We (piano teachers) need to recognise that scales are propaganda – they teach our students what to hear, what to ignore, what to write off and what to value.  And rather than just keeping on doing things the way we always have, we need to start actively introducing our student to the patterns that permeate their iPod playlists, these new scale-codes that decipher contemporary composition, and these new keys to understanding the music of their time.