Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Unlearning Music: Teaching Eight-Year-Olds Composition

Monday, October 2nd, 2017

For the first time in my career I had the opportunity to teach songwriting to elementary school level children. The class consisted of kids in third to fifth grades, mostly whom had no music background. I was well aware that the music theory concepts that I’ve used all along in my career weren’t going to be effective as a starting point for instruction. I had to think about music creation in a wholly new way, and in doing so, I believe I ended up being the one that learned the most in the class!

In preparing for the class I had to think about those most elemental questions of composition: What is the raw material of music? How are those materials combined to make music? What is a music maker’s creative process? How do you know when you’ve arrived at a final product? Wrestling with these questions proved incredibly enlightening to me.


To begin, the class and I had to arrive at the most basic understanding of what a piece of music is and what it is doing. We couldn’t talk about “songs,” “songwriting,” or “composition.” Those words/concepts already contained too many layers of information. The understanding had to be more direct. We went into exploration mode and listened to pop music and discussed what we heard coming from the speakers: There were sounds. Some sounds came and went. Some sounds repeated more, some repeated less. Some sounds were higher, some were lower.

There seemed to be a plan for when sounds happened. Moments felt “right” for certain sounds to come and go. When sounds got “boring” new sounds appeared. When the “new” got “old,” maybe the old came back as something new. We started noticing organization and patterns in the presentation of the sounds over the course of songs. We noticed that similar patterns appeared across many different songs. We talked about the traditional verse/chorus and the modern build/drop structures, and that was as far as we got with anything close to music theory.

Then we dug deeper.

Question: What is it that the composer is doing?

Answer: Organizing sounds over a period of time. And within that period of time the composer is organizing the presentation, layering and interaction of those sounds. Organizing the new and exciting sounds versus the ones that became old and familiar thru repetition. Possibly one becoming the other and back. Layering different sounds, experimenting with high pitch sounds over low pitch sounds. Organizing the simple in relation to the busy.

Question: To what purpose?

Answer: To create an “experience”. An experience that engaged the listener until the end.

That’s all we needed to know. But the next, all important question was, How do we do it?


It used to be that composers had to make creative choices about everything that happened over the course of a piece. One had to define all of the pitches and chords along with their durations and placement. And typically it also required training and skill on a musical instrument that one would use as the composition tool and/or the sound source for recording. But modern music-making technology allows one to make music without working at that same nuts and bolts level.

Now one can create from, as I like to call it, a different “zoom level.” Using pre-made sounds and longer musical phrases such as loops, one can organize a musical experience from a more zoomed out level. This zoomed out method of music creation is something of a hybrid of arranging and composing: the music creator is planning overall organization while also making choices of some sonic details.

Unlike a similar “zooming” development that happened in the 1970s when turntables evolved to become instruments of sound manipulation and/or song section re-ordering/arranging, the current situation does not require a high level of instrument skill (in this example, the instrument being the turntables). Today, a set up such as using pre-made loops on GarageBand for iPad has obliterated the barriers of entry!

This paradigm shift is what made this class possible. Had this zoom level development and technological advance not happened, this “how” would have not been available for kids with limited musical knowledge and instrument skill.

I should also mention that the reverse is also true—one can create at a previously unavailable “zoomed in” level where one can play with the infinite possibilities of sound manipulation using modern digital tools and techniques (e.g., granular synthesis). A sound can now be molded and worked on at a much more elemental level than ever before. So a paradigm shift of “zoom” happened in both directions, simultaneously in and out from the traditional point of departure of pitches/durations and other traditional music theory concepts, allowing for more in-depth as well as more simplified music creation.


The kids’ primary creative choices for working with pre-made “zoomed out” sonic material (loops) were: 1) choosing sounds and deciding how to layer them, 2) sound placement and duration (loop repetition), and 3) overall organization of sounds over the length of the piece.

For choosing and layering sounds, we needed to define the basic qualities of a sound or loop so that we could create guidelines to help with these creative decisions. Additionally, we needed to come up with some loose rules for what makes different sounds work well together (how those sounds are layered). We considered two axes: one axis was basically pitch, “high” to “low,” and the other was “simple” to “busy,” defining how much “ear space” the sound took up. So a laid back legato flute might be thought of as “high/simple,” a slap funk bass line might be “low/complicated.”

Using these descriptors we came up with some basic guidelines for layering sounds. “High” with “low” is pretty safe. “High” with “high” or “low” with “low”—handle with care. “Simple” with “simple” is safe. “Simple” with “busy” could be okay. “Busy” on “busy”—handle with extra care!

After the kids developed good instincts on choosing and layering sounds, we moved on to the other two types of choices—taken together, figuring out how to arrange the sounds over the course of the piece to keep listeners listening, all the way to the end. This is what we spent the most time on.

We went back to listening to pop songs. Sounds repeated often, but the amount always felt right. Never too much or too little. When a sound got to be too much it either went away or changed just enough to reset the interest. We talked about how a smart and well thought out presentation of sounds can keep us interested and how a badly constructed presentation can potentially make us bored or confused. Too much of the same and the listener’s attention drifts. Too much change the listener may get lost and, similarly, tune out.

We talked about the technique of “pacing” to organize our sounds in order to hold listeners’ attention. For listeners to get in the groove of a song we knew that we needed a healthy dose of repetition. But good pacing made the repetition work and not become tedious. We arrived at the idea of “a little bit the same and a little bit different.” We talked about how when sounds repeated or came back, having the sound or layering be a little the same and a little different was useful in keeping the listener interested. We also decided that lengths or repetitions of 4, 8, and, 16 seemed to work best.

Now that we had the tools for making good creative choices, the kids were ready to go on their own. Half the class time was “lab time” in which they worked solo, or sometimes in pairs, to create pieces. At the end of each day we had a wrap-up show and tell session, where we played a few work-in-progress pieces for everyone to hear and comment on. Some kids were a little anxious to show (we never forced anybody to show), but as they saw everybody having so much fun they began sharing too. There was a lot of peer learning from all the sharing.


Through one-on-one input/revising and the show and tell sessions the kids slowly arrived at their finished pieces that were played at the final recital for family and friends. There were kids who followed the guidelines and created some great stuff. Their talent was in using the rules as helpful guides that inspired them but did not stifle them. They flourished within the lines.

But there were also some rule breakers who created great things. One particular kid ignored the “a little the same, a little different” idea and created a through-composed piece that really worked. He had an instinct for picking sounds that kept you interested but never overwhelmed. It was proof that instinct can sometimes beat set methods or rules.


Overall, the class was a great experience. The kids were inspiring and fun and taught me a lot. There were two main takeaways for me. The first was that if you teach something the same way you leaned it, you’ll just be teaching. But if you teach it differently from how you learned it, you will also be learning.

The deconstruction and re-think of familiar material can be a fresh reintroduction to a topic or a craft you’ve known (a certain way) for many years. You’ll end up knowing it deeper than ever. You’ll understand it from other points of view and see new relations and connections in it. It might breathe some new life into the thing that you’ve thought about or done so many times in a specific way that it possibly became somewhat lifeless.

The other takeaway was that the deconstruction of the composing process that I did in preparation for the class, as well as together with the class, turned out to be of great benefit to me as a composer. Tearing down the concepts and approaches that I have developed (and ingrained in myself) over the course of years opened the possibility of creating from a more open and intuitive place. Thinking “simple,” ”busy,” “high,” “low,” “familiar,” and “new,” as opposed to the more rigid concepts of scales, chords, rhythmic subdivisions, etc., can be a freeing creative experience. I think it has gotten me closer to working from a more uninhibited place with less conceptual restrictions.

An interesting observation that I’d made some years ago comes to mind. Creative individuals who are formally trained in other disciplines such as visual arts but have no music background, sometimes are able to create truly compelling music. Now I see that without the burden of received music or traditional songcraft rules these cross-disciplinary artists were able create in a more open-ended and natural way.

Of course, this is an oft-discussed dilemma for artists across many disciplines. How do we achieve technical proficiency in a craft and then “un-learn” it to strive for direct, fresh expression? Surprisingly, this teaching experience showed me a possible way.

Whatever your area of expertise might be, if you get the chance to deconstruct its concepts down to the point of being teachable to an eight-year-old, I believe you will gain incredible insights. You’ll be the one standing in the front of the room, but you’ll be very much the most rewarded (and tallest) student!

My trip to Burning Man 2015, sonically, via Coney Island’s great Dreamland fire of 1911

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

Paul Belger of Flux Foundation, an art collective based out of San Fransisco that builds large scale public art, invited me to be a part of an interesting project for Burning Man 2015. Flux was building an interactive art piece inspired by Coney Island’s historic Dreamland amusement park that tragically burned down in a colossal fire in 1911. The Flux team wanted me to create music/sound for the experience. The project had many aspects which I enjoyed: sound design, location recording, incorporating found sounds, and historical research, so I gladly accepted the offer.

Dreamland, along with Steeplechase Park and Luna Park, was one of the original iconic theme parks of Coney Island from the beginning of the 20th century. It was built in 1904 and was designed to be bigger and grander than neighboring Luna Park. It had a tall central tower, a railway that travelled thru a Swiss alpine landscape, gandolas on a Venetian canal, lion tamers, side shows and thrill rides.






In the beginning of the 1911 season while preparation work was being done late at night, there was an electrical malfunction. In the ensuing darkness, a worker who was calking a leak spilled a bucket of hot pitch which started a fire. All of the buildings were made of highly flammable material and the fire spread quickly thru the park. Unfortunately the near by high pressure water pumping station malfunctioned and by morning the park was totally destroyed.



The theme of Flux’s Dreamland is wonder, carnivals, childhood rides, and memories of the past. The installation consists of a central spire reminiscent of a spinning carnival ride along with other surrounding sculptures which have lighting, flame, and sound effects. These effects are controlled by the spinning of the central spire which onlookers are encouraged to do.






On reflecting on what kind music/sound I was going to produce I knew that traditional “music” wouldn’t be appropriate. The pacing of regular music wouldn’t have worked because the sound had to go on for hours and hours. I also wanted the sound not to be intrusive to the experience and be more of a background element. I decided an ambient soundscape that slowly revealed different evocative sounds from carnivals, the past etc., was the way to go….

I veered away from the more obvious childlike, dreamy carnival sounds and went toward something more ominous and darker, possibly foreshadowing the fire. The team at Flux agreed that it was a good creative direction. I produced five different pieces ranging from 30 to 60 minutes each with low pulsing drones, static, and vinyl crackle, along with recordings of carrousels, carnival music, barkers, rides and crowds that I captured on location at Coney Island (The historic Cyclone roller coaster included!). It was rewarding to incorporate authentic sounds from the actual location the sculpture was inspired by.

Here’s a video of Dreamland when the carousel section of my piece was playing:


Here’s a video of when a more ethereal section was playing, incorporating music box piano, roller coster sounds, crowd, and dreamy/hazy ambient sounds:


It was a great project all around and I was grateful to be a part of it, thank you Paul!

On a side note, the historic Coney Island B&B carousel, built there in 1906, has been recently refurbished and has a beautiful German-made Gebruder Bruder organ. Turned out it wasn’t working the day I went there, which I only realized after I paid for the ride, sat on a carriage, and turned on my recorder. The carousel music I was recording was coming from a CD playing thru speakers and not the organ I was looking at!

I was determined to get a real carousel organ “on tape” so I went to Brooklyn Bridge Park which houses Jane’s Carousel, a 1922 carousel made built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company and originally located in Youngstown Ohio. I got some great recordings of that organ, from on and off that carousel, which ended up in my Dreamland pieces at Burning Man 2015.

Bash out an A chord

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

“Sometimes you have to forget all of the theory and just bash out an A chord” – Mike Manuele (music educator/guitar teacher/mentor)

“Ripped Jeans in Love” – Firstcom Darkfly (UPPM)


American Idol and the Birth of Hip Hop

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

A track I wrote called “Birth of Hip Hop” available on Firstcom’s Darkfly series (Universal Publishing Production Music) was used on American Idol Season 13 as background in a segment where the contestants are goofing on each other. The track has the spirit of early 80’s hip hop in its blending of 60’s and 70’s disco/funk/soul samples.

The production of hip hop of that time was interesting because a track could have samples from multiple records made in different studios with different producers using different equipment to create an interesting blend of sounds (and music production technique history!) in one track. Artits like Public Enemy took this to the extreme by mashing/layering together tons of samples to create one production “sound”.

“Birth of Hip Hop” mixes imaginary samples created using different “aging” techniques such as tape emulation/compression, tube saturation, vinyl crackle noise, and eq filtering to simulate the sonics that an early 80’s hip hop track might have had.

The drums and bass guitar are produced as if they might be a drum break from a 70’s record with typical tape saturation and no reverb or ambience. The piano hook is filtered and distorted along with vinyl crackle to emulate a 60’s Motown sample. The guitar riffs could also have been from the 60’s, maybe from a garage rock (or “freakbeat” as they might call it in England) record. The horns stabs could have been from an early 80’s disco record. All of this combines to create a lighthearted blend of samples and sonic colors.


“Birth of Hip Hop”:


Collaborating with Eddie Tadross Part 2

Friday, April 12th, 2013

Eddie and I finally finished writing and producing “As Long” as part of our three track project. The track ended up dark and moody in a cool cinematic way. We had an imaginary scene in mind while producing the track: a guy walking down a road while far behind him a city lay in ruins. Maybe a zombie apocalypse kind of thing. I’ve been seeing a lot of this kind of imagery in sci-fi/thriller/horror movie posters in the subway, specially ones using iconic New York City sites. I recently saw one showing a fallen Manhattan Bridge sitting on the bottom of a dried up East River. These ideas played into the feeling for this track.

The vocal production in “As Long” is interesting because the reverb and echo levels are constantly changing, almost word by word, for emphasis or embellishment. It’s something that you hear a lot these days in pop production, although in less extreme fashion. I also implemented a technique of using the main vocal to duck out the effects so that when the vocal is happening the effects are quiet but as soon as the vocal stops the effects jump to the foreground. This keeps the intelligibility of the words intact while filling the space between the vocal phrases with a deep ambience.

The track also has an interesting arrangement feature. The second chorus starts out with just vocals and mallets and then it slowly builds back up part by part with the guitar and bass being filtered in DJ mixer style.

“As Long”:



After re-listening to the three tracks I decided that maybe
“I Never Knew” was a little too clunky and too repetitive rhythmically and harmonically. We wrestled again with the issue of how minimal can a track be while still having enough material to carry the listener thru the end. Having listened to it so many times we were running the risk of having lost creative perspective. So we really considered the track carefully before deciding that it did make sense to revisit it.

I improvised some new chords on guitar over the verse and came up with better chord changes. Only some minor vocal melody tweaks were needed to fit the new chords. I also added electric bass guitar which rounded out the track sonically and allowed me to implement some more chord movement which was missing from the original choruses. Now in hindsight I see that the choruses were always a bit too long to stay in one place harmonically.

The last thing I added was reversed harmonic guitar notes on top of the mallets. The motivation being to make the mallets different from the ones in “As Long”.

Here’s the new version of “I Never Knew”:



Here’s the previous version: