Ask the Internet and you shall receive

I have always wondered why certain instruments are in certain keys. For example, a tenor saxophone is in the key of Bb, which means that a C played on a tenor sax is in reality a Bb in concert pitch, where A=440 Hz. The result is that if a pianist and a saxophone are playing together, their music will be written in different keys. This always seemed unnecessarily complicated to me, why not just call a C a C?

I have learned the reason for this convention. Start with the saxophone family. The sopranino, alto and baritone saxophones are in the key of Eb, while the soprano, tenor and bass saxophones are in the key of Bb. By putting the different saxophones in the different keys, rather than naming the notes by their concert pitch, a saxophonist is able to play all members of the saxophone family, by standardizing the finger positions. The same finger position is a C, in the instruments key, for all of the instruments. I think that this is what Kriston was trying to explain to me last night, but you know beer. I don't really know why I am posting this, I just find it interesting.


Why Time Signatures?

I get asked from time to time what is the point of time signatures? The thinking is why use this: 4/4 G / / / | D / / / | Em / / / | C / / / |, instead of G / / / D / / / Em / / / C / / /? (Note the / represents a beat) Why break apart line and count 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4... rather than 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8...?

Time signatures, for those who don't know, are the fraction looking things found in the beginning of measures. The top represents the number of beats in a measure. The bottom represents the note that gets the beat. For example, a time signature of 4/4 means that there are 4 beats in a measure and the quarter note gets the beat. 6/8 means that there are 6 beats in a measure and the eighth note gets the beat.

First there are is a practical application for time signatures. Take the typical rock song, about 3:30 minutes with a bpm of about 110. If you were counting 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8..., you would eventually get to 330 331 332 333..., and that would just get to complicated. If you get lost, it is easier to find the first beat of a new measure to right yourself, rather than determining if you are on beat 323 or beat 330.

Of course, if you were just sitting in front of the music, playing along, the counting aspect probably wouldn't be much of a concern. You could just read the beats, like a person reading a book moving, from one beat to the next. I find the book analogy apt, music without a time signature is like text without punctuation. The time signature shapes phrases, gives a song structure, and allows one to analyze and make sense of a song.

Most importantly, time signatures each have their own connotation, and tell one how to play a song. For example, when you see 4/4 you know that the 2nd and 4th beat gets emphasized. Imagine yourself in a big arena, the band is rocking, and you are clapping over you head. You are most likely clapping on 2 and 4, that is just the nature of 4/4. In ¾, the first beat usually gets the emphasis, like a waltz: ONE two three, ONE two three.

Lets just look at 12 beats. Without time signatures they would look like this:

/ / / / / / / / / / / /.

A musician would not know where to put the emphasis. If those beats are in 4/4, they would look like this:

| / X / X | / X / X | / X / X|

(Note that X means that the beat is emphasized, played like one TWO three FOUR.)

If those beats were in ¾, they would look like this:

| X / / | X / / | X / / | X / / |,

ONE two three.

Just think count in you head emphasizing the capitalized numbers and you will get the feel, and notice the difference.

This is just a simple explanation, using the two most common time signatures. I have tried to illustrate how time signatures shape a song, and why they are necessary. Maybe I will get to an explanation of complex time signatures, and their various uses. Feel free to mention anything in the comments that you feel that I missed, or have gotten wrong.


Oh My God

Over at Music Thing, there is a running series of “Guitar Superdorks.” I first came across it when Tommy sent me this link. Now, I think we can all agree that this guy is totally awesome, and presumably virile. I mean, anyone can play the guitar with their left hand under the neck, but moving it to the other side! Such a tease, he is tacitly saying that I can do better, but maybe you can't handle it.

While looking around the site, I found this link. I particularly like the end, when he gradually raises both guitars while he is playing them upside down!! Also, when he spanks both guitars like they have been naughty, so hot.

I really wish I had something very clever to say, but words fail me. I am serious, between the hair, the Gold's Gym tank top...wow. I only have one question, why?


In what I hope will become a weekly feature, I am offering a free song again. Again, feel free to burn this song, trade it, do whatever.

This weeks song is “Fandango (Danse Espagnole)” by Ferdinando Carulli, op. 73, no. 2. This is one of my favorite solo guitar pieces. In many ways it is a very simple song, but Carulli accomplishes a lot with it.

The song is in ¾ time, and is in the key of A harmonic minor. Harmonic minor is a popular scale used in classical music, and Arabic music. In this scale, the seventh note is raised a half step (one key on a keyboard, or one fret on a guitar). In this song, that means that the G is sharp, rather than natural in natural minor. The most obvious examples of harmonic minor from recent rock music are “Last Stop” by the Dave Matthews Band off Before These Crowded Streets, and “Worlds Apart” by Bruce Springsteen from The Rising.

After the first two measures, the song starts its basic progression that will continue for most of the song. The progression is V – i, specifically E to Am. The easiest way to tell that this song is in harmonic minor is the fact that the E is major. E major is comprised of E – G# - B. If we were in natural minor, the chord would be E – G – B, and thus minor. The song is basically different arpeggios going from E to Am.

In measure 23, :53, we get a brief melody that will return at the end of the song, measure 72, 3:30. At measure 39, 1:37 the song switches to the key of C major, with the G dominant 7th chord. At measure 42, the song starts a I – V progression in C major. Until the very end of the song, at measure 84, the song uses only tonic and dominant chords, I and V. The song returns to A harmonic minor in measure 52, 2:23, and stays in that key for the rest of the song.

One part I particularly like begins in measure 60, 2:50. The way he uses thirds, hammered off to the open E, and moves them up a second each time does a fantastic job of building tension, while keeping the V – i progression intact. This tension is released by the high E chord in measure 68.

I have tried to point out some of the interesting, but by no mean all, of the things I find interesting about this song. I hope you enjoy it.



I am sitting at home with my Ipod on random and one of my old songs just started playing. On one hand, I find it amazing that I can still play the whole song, but I also find the experience unsettling.

I wrote the song in my freshman year of college, so it is like 7 years old at this point. I remember thinking I was very clever at the time, “look inversions!!” The problem is that in hindsight I really wasn't that clever and I hate being reminded of it. I liken the experience to reading that essay you did in high school about “Lord of the Flies” where you pointed out all of the symbolism and felt really brilliant doing it.

I think the problem is that I was not of legal drinking age when I wrote it. I am not sure, but I think that music quality shares and inverse relationship with sobriety.


Simply Stutter

I have a weird fascination with Time Life cd collections. The meetings to decided which well known songs the company should pay for in order to pedal a lot of crap must be fascinating. “Sure, we can put 'All Along the Watchtower' by Hendrix on there, but you know that means another Lovin' Spoonful song, or even worse 'Incense and Peppermints'.” I imagine that it is a lot like owning a sports team with a salary cap.

Particularly, I love the titles: Lifetime of Romance, Legends: The Ultimate Rock Collection, or Introducing Body and Soul: Soul Fantasy. These are great titles, who doesn't want a Lifetime of Romance? Granted, $119.96 is a lot of money, but you get 10 cds and can pay in 4 easy installments, and don't forget about all of the romance.

A while ago, I was sitting in a bar with Ellis Paul, and we decided that we should put out a cd collection called Simply Stutter. It would feature such hits like: “My Generation” by the Who, “You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet” by B.T.O., and “My Sharona” by the Knack. By the way, I love the way that the lyrics were written in the links to reflect how important the stuttering is. There were some other songs, but I can't remember them, but rest assured that bastard would fly off the...well not shelves obviously, but it would fly.


OK Computer

Spin just came out with a list of the 100 greatest albums of the last 20 years. Their number 1 is OK Computer by Radiohead because “it not only forecast a decade of music but uncannily predicted our global culture of communal distress.” And while the last thing that anyone needs is another essay on the brilliance of Radiohead, there is an important point here.

I have been thinking recently about modern music and trying to determine the current trends in music and what separates the music of today with the music of the past.

It seems to me that the best music today thinks critically about every instrument on a song. I have noticed a rise in the importance of drummers (think Bloc Party and Q and not U for example) in a song. Drummers use to just support a song, banging out eighth notes on the high hat, hitting the snare on 2 and 4, and put in a fill when going from one part to another so everyone knows when the changes are coming. Today, drummers create melodies and hooks in their beats and really pushed themselves to the forefront.

The roles of other instruments have also changed. Bassists no longer support songs by playing the root of the chord, but color chords and create melodies on their own. They are also using distortion and other effects to texture their songs in ways that were not done in the past. Keyboards are casting aside triads and adding melodies and hooks all their own.

With other instruments increasing their importance, the guitar is languishing. I can't think of another time in music when guitars have been as unimportant as they are now. We have no real guitar heroes, and are better for it. In fact, when I thinking about writing a song, I start with the drum beat and bass line then add the guitar part. The guitars are always last in my mind, adding something extra or creating dynamics but I don't think a guitar part can make a song on its own anymore. I can't think of a riff that makes a song in the way that the Keith Richards made “Satisfaction.” When was the last time you heard a new rock song that made you want to play the air guitar?

To get an idea of what I mean, think about Nirvana's Nevermind. I think this album is the last great album in the older vein of rock music. The songs are fantastic, but the instruments basically just support them. The bass just plays the root of the guitar line, following it almost exactly. The drums have some interesting beginnings, think “In Bloom” but mostly just play it straight in the verses and choruses. The strength of Nevermind is in the songs, and the songs only.

I contrast this with OK Computer. OK Computer is a great album because Radiohead took the time to think about every single part. Just listen to the opening to “Airbag” to get an idea. The way the guitars work together, then the drum beat comes in. The bass comes in later, and loud up front playing single staccato, funky notes. A cello then plays a lovely melody in the beginning of the second verse. Just the whole progression of the song, each part is unique and adds to the song in ways that were not done before. In the first minute of the first song on OK Computer you know that Radiohead is thinking about music differently.

There are better odes to the genius of Radiohead out there, my point is the album started a new trend in music, and a new way of thinking about rock music. Understanding what made this album unique is important to understanding what is going on in music today.


Free Music Friday

I decided that if I am going to spend my time pretending that I know anything about music, then I should give everyone an example of music that I have created. As such, I have put a song, Toe the Line, up for download. It is free, so do with it what you will. Burn it, trade it, sell it if you can sucker anyone into buying it.

I recorded this song with the lead singer, Aaron, of my old band. We wrote, recorded and mixed the song in about three and a half hours.

The song started with the drum beat. When I first got the technology to record in my house, I sat down to start writing some music and realized that I knew nothing about the drums. I just sat at the keyboard and had no idea how to create a drum beat. So I went out and bought The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing Drums. Aaron and I were sitting around when I saw a drum beat in 12/8 in it. Aaron wrote the chord structure while I recorded the drum beat. Without getting into a long explanation of different time signatures and their purposes, I will say that we found that 12/8 allowed us to break each measure up differently to make the song more interesting. For example, we break the first measure up into 3 sections of 4 beats and the second measure into 2 sections of 6 beats. One interesting effect of writing drum tracks on a keyboard is that any drummer recreating what I have written here would have to have 3 arms, particularly in the chorus.

As for the rest, I play the bass and 2 guitars on the song. The first guitar is the high eight note you hear in the right channel. The second guitar is just distorted chords to beef up the chorus. With the bass line, I just tried to mimic the rhythm that Aaron came up with for his guitar part. Aaron plays one guitar and a short distorted piano lick during the chorus. We wrote the song so quickly that I can't actually remember the specific parts that I played, or even the chords to the song. Finally, don't pay much attention to the lyrics, Aaron just made them up as he went along so he could get the melody down.



As Tommy mentioned, I have my first piano recital tonight. I have been playing the piano for about 9 months now, and my teacher recently complemented my playing. Apparently, I now play like a bad piano player (not her words), which is a step up from a good guitarist sitting down at a piano.

I will be playing four pieces: Symphony No. 5 by Tchaikovsky, Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring by Bach, Polevetzian Dance by Borodin, and Let It Be as a duet with my teacher. The first three are arranged by James Bastien, a man that made his living arranging difficult pieces for beginners so that we can play songs that don't involve little lambs.

O Street Studio

I am currently working on starting up a small studio in my apartment. I have registered the domain name, and you can find the link on the left. My plan is to find singer-songwriters and record all of the background tracks for them, and they can record the rest. My friend Darren is helping me with site design. This, and the process of searching for a real job that will actually allow me to pay rent, explains why I haven't been posting that much. Never fear, I plan on returning as an obnoxious music snob soon enough.



Well, I have been found out. I guess I have to start writing again, but now with the added pressure of having to be interesting.

I have been thinking of the scene at the beginning of “Back to the Future” when the Marty first gets into the time machine in the parking lot and Doc Brown shouts “They found me, I don't know how but they found me. Run for it Marty.” Basically I picture all of you as terrorists with rocket launchers.