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Lately I’ve been asked by a few of my friends – they kinda noticed that I’m not shy about talking about music. They’re guys who have taken music lessons when they were kids, because we’re all Asians and that’s what Asians do. But they’ve reported – and this is also consistent with my own experience – that music education in those days was boring and laborious. You were just taught what to play, it was drill baby drill, and they lamented they never understood what they were doing that well.

Well I had a slightly better music education, since I spent a few years in the music school’s equivalent of a gifted program. But I also had a lot of the boring stuff. So before we begin, just so that we’re clear on that, music education can be really boring and laborious, and you are about to embark on an arduous journey that will test your endurance and patience. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I suppose there were a few of us chosen to go on a different branch of education, and I think we were selected on the basis that we had better hearing and maybe better technique (but I don’t think I have great technique). Which brings me to the other point I want to make right from the start: good hearing skills are very very important when you’re learning music. Just like good physical co-ordination is vitally important for certain sports. Your pair of ears will be your most important teacher and if you don’t think you can learn from them, if you think that music is really about just reading scores, if you think the written form is the music, go and learn from somebody else.

This blog was set up for the purpose of discussing ideas that I’ve come across while writing songs. But it’s really hard work to transcribe so that I can talk about ideas, and maybe I’ve discontinued it. I’m also a little bit leery about being a music teacher, so that I can take your hard earned money and steer you towards an economically unrewarding path.

Obviously when I am trying to answer “what is the meaning of music” in one single blog post, there will be very few details. The purpose here is to list down what are the big questions surrounding music, what are the big issues, so that you know what are the right questions to ask so that you can go look for the answers yourself. Firstly, I want to ask, what is the task? So I’m not going to immediately narrow it down to playing an instrument, but I want to consider the whole process of music production.

What is music production?

I want to answer the question, what is a musician, but first I’d thought that I’d provide some context by outlining the music production process.

  1. Composition.

Sometimes you call the guy a songwriter, if you’re talking about folk music and melodies. The composer is the guy who handles the melodies and the harmonies. He comes up with the notes. There are also the wordsmiths who come up with the lyrics.

  1. Arrangement

Sometimes you can’t draw a fine line between the composer and the arranger. The arranger decides which instrument will go with the notes. Sometimes he even orchestrates the whole thing, and that ‘s a lot of work because you might have to write out upwards of 20 parts for each piece of music.

  1. Playing

These guys are the ones who play the instruments – the pianists, the guitarists, the drummers, the horns, whatever. Also involved in these is the bandleader. Usually, whenever there is an ensemble, there is a bandleader.

  1. Production

During live music or recording sessions, this is the guy who supervises the recording or oversees the sound checks for the concert.

  1. Other extra-musical stuff

Music does not exist in a vacuum, and I’m going to mention all the people who touch everything else. There are people who are managers, people who organise recording sessions, tours. There are the philosophers who espouse some kind of vision that goes along with the music. There may be fashion designers who build a whole world around the music. Wu Tang Clan have a whole clothing line to go around the music. Velvet Underground were the house band of Andy Warhol’s factory. Personally, I care more about the music, but I have to admit that when I was browsing through album covers, the Pink Floyd album covers and the David Bowie album covers stood out for me. (Although I will not understand why David Bowie lost his ability to make great album covers from the mid 80s onwards).

There is a tendency in classical music to give numbers to works, and apparently this takes away some human element from the works and makes them more “respectable” and classical. It’s pretty unfortunate and I have nothing else to compare this to other than


Now, some caveats. The division of labour that I outlined above is reasonably accurate for classical and pop music. With some other genres, these things get mixed up.

In jazz music, the arranger and the player are usually the same guy, and he’s also doing some of the composition work. Wayne Shorter said that the difference in jazz is that some of the decisions are left to the very last. In classical, usually the composer writes down every note explicitly. In jazz, you start with a rough outline, and fill in all the gaps while improvising.

In hip hop, there is very little composition. Perhaps there is also very little playing of instruments, because it’s also possible to cut and paste other peoples’ music (this is called “sampling”). In hip hop the arrangements and productions are the most important aspects. The instrumentalist would probably be the MC, and you know, many people look down their noses at rap music, but very few people can actually rap. They are different skills, and a good singer is not necessarily a good rapper, and vice versa. But my impression is that rapping is more difficult than singing.

Given that we’ve outlined the process of creating music, it becomes easier to answer:

What is a musician?

  1. Composer (does the “composition” part)
  2. Arranger (does the “arrangement” part)
  3. Instrumentalist (plays the instruments)
  4. Producer (recording / sound check for live performances).

What are the elements in music?

The elements of music are four aspects of the music. Personally, people may name different elements when asked. I usually talk about melody, harmony, rhythm and texture.

Melody is the most prominent part of the music. Usually, it is a thread of music, played mostly one note at a time. If there’s a singer, he sings the melody. A guy taking a solo in jazz would be playing melody. Melody usually emphasises the pitch of the notes.

Harmony is usually a variation on chords. Usually, at any one time, there is a chord underlying the music, and the harmony would in its way reinforce the idea of that chord.

The relationship between melody and harmony is usually the relationship between figure and ground in visual art. In a choir or in a string quartet, the upper registers / sopranos usually sing the melody, but not always. In rock music, the lead guitar plays melodies, and the rhythm guitar plays harmonies.

But sometimes the relationship can be inverted in interesting ways. Bass lines are interesting because they can also embody certain properties of melodies.

Rhythm can be thought of in two ways. One is the rhythm pattern of the melody, ie how the notes are spaced out in time. Or it can be the rhythmic figure of the drums / percussion.

Texture relates to the timber of the instruments that play the note. It will affect which instruments you choose to play the music. Remember that backing vocals also count as instruments. Also some thought has to be given to which textures are mixed together.

When you listen to the different genres, you will learn that all musical traditions come with their own unique set of rules. But all of them will have these four elements (at least 2 or 3 in any case), and you can take them apart one by one and analyse them jointly and separately.

Classical music emphasises melody, harmony and texture, but not rhythm. Especially in orchestral music, timbre is important. Hip hop emphasises rhythm and texture, maybe occasionally harmony, but very little melody, unless there is a sing-along chorus. There are people who criticize hip hop for that, but they’re fools who are making categorical mistakes.

The analogy between figure and ground for melody and harmony is interesting when we consider the French impressionists. In painting, the French impressionists messed around with the traditional figure and ground concepts, you never really knew what was the background. And in the music, also, there was no clean line between the melody and the harmony.

Also, when you consider say the gamelan ensembles of Bali. You know that gamelan are basically huge clunky xylophones and you are playing notes. But at the same time they are almost treated like percussion. Are they playing chords? Is this whole thing a sonic backdrop? Is gamelan music one whole nice sounding sonic texture?

Continuing education in music for adults.

What kind of education is suitable for adults who are looking to continue what they learnt as kids? I’m not a music teacher, so I haven’t really had all that much time to think through all these things. Hopefully music education has improved since I was a kid, but then again I think that classical music has been around for hundreds of years, and still the quality of the teaching is highly variable.

Here are some issues to consider.

  1. What do I really want to get out of this?

I’ve previously blogged about my own experiences in musical education, so I won’t repeat that. I found myself shunted into a certain kind of education when I was young. And then I was left on my own to explore things when I was older, and I’ve learnt a lot about music either way.

Music teachers will usually aim to teach you to play an instrument. There are several reasons for that. First, playing an instrument is the one musical skill where you really need to have a teacher to guide you through things. Much of the rest can be self taught. So this is a way of expanding the market for their services.

Second, it’s a real time consuming enterprise, and so you get locked into weekly lessons, and it creates work for music teachers. And let’s be frank, being a music teacher is just about the only thing that a musician can find steady employment in. The great majority of musicians are not going to enjoy the amount of clout needed to generate money spinning tours, so it’s basically teaching music if you want a vocation that revolves around music.

Third, learning an instrument is one of the best ways to learn about music anyway, so you might as well do it. Music theory is worth approximately nothing on its own. 30+ years ago, when I was just starting out, I would have said that singing and playing an instrument is the heart and soul of music. However, during my lifetime, other means of music production have developed, and so I’d now say instead that the generation / production of music is the heart and soul of music.

But in the eco-system that I’ve outlined previously, there are so many other skills to be learnt. You could be a music producer, or just a songwriter. It’s really for you to know where you stand so you don’t end up trying to be a square peg in a round hole.

  1. What genre of music do I really want to learn?

I’m just going to classify this as classical music education vs the rest. I actually don’t really like it that much, but I think that music theory revolves around classical music. It is a great point of departure, in that you can apply the knowledge to a lot (but obviously not all) of other genres of music. Unfortunately classical music will come with some philosophical baggage but hopefully you as an adult can see past that.

By the time you’re an adult, you should know what music you like. I’ve found that people are mostly going to like only a few genres of music, not all of them. Your musical education should obviously be geared towards what you like.

Personally I’ve never really gotten the hang of classical music. There are many things I like about it, and in many ways, it is the most sophisticated music out there even after all these years. However the main thing for me is that it was very good at teaching many fundamental rules of music.

Classical music thrives on rules. With rock or jazz, you’re going to have to teach people rules, and then you need to tell them that this or that sounds interesting because it breaks certain rules. Like a blue note is between a major or a minor third. Like this guy’s singing is interesting because he flattens certain notes or bends others. Or his singing is interesting because he’s behind the beat. Or this rhythm is syncopated because all the beats land where you don’t expect them to land. You know what? Fuck that, just go learn classical music for the rules and then go break them own time own target.

Some parts of music appreciation are subjective, others are not that subjective. There is such a thing as a list of great albums, because by and large fans of rock music can agree about what it means for a rock song to be well made. But which genres of music you gravitate to happens to be pretty subjective. There will always be people who, no matter how hard they try, will never be able to appreciate jazz music or whatever. I didn’t realise this when I was a teenager and I used to be a pain in the ass, always forcing my opinions on people, and being judgemental about their suspect taste. I’m a little more forgiving these days but I still have standards.

  1. What are the main elements in music theory?

Here are probably the questions that you will be asking yourself.

Basic concepts:

  • notes, pitch, scales, bars, measures, rests, time signatures, key signatures, tempo, dynamics. After that, you’ll know music notation.
  • Scales? Major / minor / blue / Dorian or whatever exotic stuff.

Melody issues

  • Can you identify the melody when you hear it?
  • Are there counter melodies and can you identify those?
  • The bass, do you know what it’s playing?

Harmony issues

  • Do you know what key it is in? (Keys are named after the tonic)
  • Do you know what are intervals? Chords?
  • What are the basic chords? Major, minor. But also augmented, diminished 7th, major 7th, all that interesting stuff.
  • What are the inversions of those chords?
  • What is the relationship between the melody / bass / counter melody and the chords?
  • What chords usually transition to what other chords? Which transitions are expected, which are exotic, and which ones are downright wrong?
  • Which intervals are harmonious and which are dissonant?

Rhythm issues

  • When you are listening to music, do you know where the measure starts and ends?
  • Do you know that the composer has sneaked in a change of time signature in order to fuck with you?
  • Do you understand syncopation?
  • Which beats are being accented?

Texture issues

  • What are the strings, the woodwinds, the brass and percussion?
  • Which goes with what? What are the quality of sounds? Harsh? Bright? Soothing / mellow? Designed to annoy parents and neighbours?

That’s the music theory.

  1. The more abstract aspects of music.

Music theory, I’ve come to realise, is what is taught to classical music students, because those are the facts of music, and there are features about the music about which are objective. But much of music is subjective. And there are other questions that you could also ask about the music.

  • Do I like this piece of music?
  • How does the music make me feel?
  • Which parts did I like? What worked, and what didn’t?
  • What were the main artistic decisions that were made, and which ones were successful?
  • In what way did this piece of music exert any influence on what came after? Or how was it influenced by what came before?
  • How does this fit into the tradition? (ie if this were, say R&B, what parts are typical of other R&B stuff and which parts represent a departure?)
  • How is this bigger picture related to the issues that were discussed in the previous section, under “music theory”?

And after that, you start thinking like a songwriter.

  • How do I nick this chord progression? How do I write something similar but different enough that I don’t get sued?
  • How did this guy write this melody, and what do I like about it?
  • There’s something I call the principle of partial differentiation. In calculus, partial differentiation means you hold everything else constant, and you vary only one variable. It’s used a lot of music. You play the same melody, but harmonise it with different chords. You play the same chords but a different melody over it. You take the same melody and transpose it a few intervals up and down.
  • All the stuff that music critics write about.

Strangely enough, these were not questions that were asked or talked about too much in music class. But I was in the advanced class, and I ended up writing my first song at 8 years old because it was homework: go write a song. Almost without exception, the stuff you come up with at 8 is rubbish. But when you get started early, you are motivated to ask questions about a lot of songs that come your way after that. When I was 21 I wrote my first song that I didn’t think was rubbish.

Now, after having listed down as much as what I remember of the rules of music, here’s one thing you always have to bear in mind: in music especially, rules were made to be broken.

  1. Resources

I don’t really know how to look for teaching materials, but just do a google search, and after all, I’ve already written down a few avenues of inquiry.

Also, apparently Coursera has a series of courses. Or you can go youtube and look up people who are willing to talk about stuff like that to you.

There’s also no substitute for listening a lot, and forming opinions about music. That’s how you learn. It’s not just practicing and playing the same old shit over and over again.

Another way to learn is that some of you ppl have kids of an age who may be starting out in music. And sometimes they would require the parents to sit in during the first 1-2 months so that they get to participate in their kid’s musical education. In my opinion, that’s a great way to get yourself some free music lessons, so make sure that you’re paying attention to the teacher during those 1-2 months.

Music publications are also very useful. I used to rely heavily on music critics to teach me about rock music, but now I can use my own judgement to decide. People will tell you why they like or do not like the latest album, and you’re going to read their judgements, and wonder if you agree or not. I was very lucky to be growing up in the 90s, when there were a lot of music developments to follow: grunge music, golden age of rap, flowering of the alternative scenes, madchester, rave, jungle, trip hop, britpop, DJ based records. Around that time hip hop and sampling developed from being quaint novelties to full fledge art forms, and landmark album after landmark albums were put out. Rather unfortunately, for various reasons, the scenes have faded out during the 21st century, although there will always be flourishing left field albums being made all the time: that is a given.

Your most important resources are to be found on your left and your right – they are your ears. There are three musical receptors, the heart, the head and the ass. The heart is the most talked about, because music is supposed to move the soul. But other than that, it is also about highly intricate patterns and the beauty is mathematical – that’s the head. There is a lot of fun to be had, when you hear something, and it’s a big mess of noise at first, and after repeated listens, you find out what it’s really all about. Last of all, rhythm is just fun, and it’s just nice to let it all hang out. You will note that certain genres of music emphasise one or two of the musical receptors and not all three, but that’s probably fine.

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