Music Theory: Melody

October 26th, 2012  |  Published in Music & Arts

Once you’ve got a few key concepts for describing sound (rhythm, pitch, and tone), you can start talking about how different sounds assemble into music.

But let’s confront a key fact right away: some music is good–amazing, even–and some of it is lousy. Let me frame that for now purely in terms of your own gut reaction. Surely you’ve heard songs for each of these categories:

  1. Transportative. Exquisite. Life-changing.
  2. Boys don’t cry.
  3. #@$%ing rock and roll, man.
  4. Hey, that’s a great song. Love that song.
  5. I am totally on board with this dance craze / [evolving into] I can’t believe I let you put that on YouTube.
  6. Spring Break 2000!
  7. Sure, all my friends like this one.
  8. My mom said this is good for me. Wake me up when it’s over.
  9. Can’t. Stop. Laughing.
  10. Please, please, just make it stop.

(If you haven’t experienced each and every one of these reactions to a song, then you need to live a little. Go listen to some music. Come back when you’ve found something from category #1.)

What’s the difference, 1-10? Sure, some of it is individual taste–or it’s cultural, or it’s to do with the setting (that WAS a great spring break…). But there are universal principles, too; consistent threads among all the music that you like.  Identifying those threads is the discipline of Music Theory. Nothing mysterious, just trying to describe what sounds cool.

Only … the rules we uncover–and the emotional impact they’re capable of producing–they do turn out to be kind of amazing. Almost mystical.

Let’s start with what happens when you string a bunch of sounds together in sequence. You can mess around with rhythm or tone, and that’ll feel like something. But the real money is in varying pitch: creating melody.

And here’s our first rule: good melodies work like little dramas. They give you a few notes that feel comfortable, that introduce you to the feeling of the song. Then they carry you off into some notes that feel dramatic, fight through tension, surprise you. And then they resolve back home. Just like a good story, in miniature.

Too predictable? Wake me up when it’s over. No drama? So bad it’s kinda funny. Notes all out of order? Please … just make it stop.

But what’s with this idea of some notes feeling dramatic vs. some notes feeling like home? That’s where we start talking about scales and key signatures.

(Trust me, it’ll be worth it.)

Music Theory: Elements

October 25th, 2012  |  Published in Music & Arts

When you start to answer the “what sounds cool” question, you kinda end up talking about about three key elements: rhythm, pitch, and tone.


One of the most basic things that people like to hear is the steady repetition of a sound. A “beat.”

And it turns out that we like to hear beats in groups–most often of three or four. You can put a little weight on the first beat in the group, to make it clear how the groupings work, to settle yourself and your listeners into a groove. Once that groove is set up, you can play around with it — put some pulses off the beat, add layers, just play around.

Where each bit of sound fits in against that beat is what we’ll talk about as “rhythm.”


We also like to hear distinctions between high and low frequencies (“pitches,” of course). And some smart people–I think it was in Greece, like a few thousand years ago–started figuring out patterns in how we hear those frequencies. The most important pattern is the octave: if you hear one pitch (say, just hypothetically, a string vibrating at 440 cycles per second), then it somehow sounds kinda the same as the pitch exactly half as fast or twice as fast (220Hz or 880Hz, to get all scientific about it).

Then you can divide the octave up into an infinite number of different pitches, each one sounding a little different to human ears. But it kind of makes sense to have some preset options that we can mix and match. In the European classical tradition, we happen to have picked out 12 preset options, intervals within the octave (call ‘em “notes”). That gives us a great palette of sounds to choose from, but simplifies things just enough that it doesn’t get crazy when you’re trying to describe what you want from the other musicians in your band.

(And then … there are some good reasons that we’ve picked the specific 12 options that we have, but … they’re complicated. Don’t worry about them quite yet…)


The last element to worry about for now is tone. And I can’t help but think of tone as a straight set of allusions to what we hear in the natural world. Harsh, metallic, grating sounds, guttural roars–those convey drama or danger or fear. Windy sounds convey open space. Some sounds make us think of wood, or water, or other people–even specific kinds of other people: kids playing, grownups arguing, lovers sighing, our mom, our dad … you get the idea.

If you can tap into these different emotions–certain fairly-universal experiences–just by simple sonic allusion, then you have a powerful way to share these emotions with other people.

And when you blend all three elements in a deliberate way … you’ve got music.

–either in sequence (melody) or all at the same time (harmony).

Music Theory: A Definition

October 25th, 2012  |  Published in Music & Arts

Music theory is just a fancy way of talking about a very simple question: what sounds seem cool when you stick them all together?

You can break that down into some smaller questions. What sounds are cool in sequence? (That’s “melody.”) Or what sounds are cool when they happen all at the same time? (That’s “harmony.”)

Then the answers get kind of amazing. They can be complicated: there’s a mysterious set of symbols and rules, there’s new language to master. Some of it is sensible; some of it is almost arbitrary. But the results are like magic: if you set up certain sounds–just sounds!–then you can walk people through some of the most sublime or dramatic experiences they’ll ever have. That’s crazy, on its face, but … you’ve probably seen it happen.

And it all starts with this simple, gut-level question: what do you like to listen to? What sounds cool?

Do all of this and none of this

June 17th, 2012  |  Published in About, Etc.

What I’m Reading

June 1st, 2012  |  Published in About, Etc.

Here are some voices I consistently find myself going back to. In no particular order. Thanks to each of them for what they do.

Why “Studios”?

March 7th, 2011  |  Published in About

A good blog, I suppose, is a workshop, a place to hash things out, itself a working studio. So I like the title in that sense.

More personally and specifically:

(1) My wife and I have always called our amalgamation of freelance work — joking a bit because it sounds so pretentious — “The Thulson Studios.” It made a natural title for a blog where I talk about that work. I just wouldn’t want you to take it too seriously.

(2) Except … I do love the word “studio,” coming from Latin for zeal or devotion; it’s a wonderful etymology for the way we describe, in English, both the process of learning and an artist’s physical workplace. If I’m a student of how art interacts with society, I suppose that this blog is one of my primary workplaces. Each of the posting categories becomes a workshop of its own, a place I can assemble ideas and test them out. Each navigational point of entry, I hope, becomes a place of its own for collaboration.

That meaning — a place for students/devotees/artists to work together — seems like the highest and best meaning of “studio.” And those places, online or off, are what I work constantly hoping to create.

WordPress 3.1 and Permalinks

February 28th, 2011  |  Published in Technology  |  1 Comment

I recently upgraded to WordPress 3.1 and was surprised to find that my permalinks had broken. So I did the usual round of plugin testing, first deactivating and then reactivating, but I couldn’t isolate it as a plugin problem.

Then I moved on to testing the permalink settings themselves, checking (and regenerating) the .htaccess file, then testing alternate permalink structures. And I found, essentially, that 3.1 requires a little more tidiness from me.

Previously, my site had run with this Custom Structure, which overrides the native WordPress category archives but did work until the 3.1 upgrade. Under Admin | Settings | Permalinks:

Custom Structure: /category/%category%/%postname%/

After testing alternate configurations, I found that this structure continues to work in 3.1 without a hitch:

Custom Structure: /%category%/%postname%/

So the issue was my archive system override. (From a usable-URL standpoint, the second structure, /%category%/%postname%/, is cleaner. But it’s disfavored for performance reasons; WordPress documentation indicates that %category% as the first element of a permalink Custom Structure adds database load and slows down the site.)

So providing an alternate Category base, as follows, took care of the problem:

Music Licensing Basics for Film/Video

February 9th, 2011  |  Published in Law, Music & Arts

Found the perfect song for your movie?

Copyright law is such that you’ve got to license music before you use it in, basically, ANYthing, even if it’s nonprofit, for a great cause, etc., etc. But that licensing process isn’t in its nature prohibitive. It’s just a matter of getting permission.

If you’ve got talented singers/songwriters among your friends, the whole thing can be very simple. (And, by all means, support them!) Other artists are a bit more complicated, so here are the key things to know going in:

(1) Most important: there are two separate permissions you have to acquire, two “sides”:

  • one from the song publisher, for the composition;
  • the other from the record label, for the recorded performance.

Usually you have to negotiate the two separately and pay a separate fee to each.

(2) Pricing for both sets of rights is completely up for grabs. (So negotiate hard on what a good cause you represent / how artistically amazing your project is / what a good person you are.)

(3) Each side is likely to ask for “most favored nation” status, which is just an over-dramatic way of saying that you’ll pay, for example, the label no less than you pay the publisher, or vice versa.

(4) Everybody will want to know where and how you’ll display the finished film, including numbers of viewers or copies distributed, whether global or local, whether you’re charging admission, etc. (You need permission regardless, but it’s a negotiation point in your favor if you’re not making wads of money from the film…)

(5) The record label calls the permissions they give you a “master use license.” The publisher calls their permissions a “synchronization license.” There’s no magic to those terms — they’re almost arbitrary — but I guess “sync license” is a little shorter than saying “all the customary permissions I need from the publisher.”

Good luck! While some of the major labels are notoriously hard to reach, small or midsize labels can be surprisingly helpful.

I believe that, as a lawyer, I should end with a few disclaimers:

Get everything in writing. Think through the details — or hire an experienced attorney in the field to think them through. Licensing agreements can get pretty fine-grained, and you don’t want to get into trouble down the road because you inadvertently limited the film to VHS distribution in North Dakota. Make sure your agreement will survive transfer to new copyright owners, like when your songwriter friend sells out to the big record label.

And, of course, you should not treat this post as legal advice. That would take a detailed, confidential review of your specific facts and circumstances. (Sorry, though; I know you already knew that.)

Cello Teaching Aids: Beginning Improv Chords

January 20th, 2011  |  Published in Cello Teaching, Music & Arts

I’m working on a loose curriculum that I can use to teach the basics of cello improvisation. Huge topic, but simple melodic figures are a good early lesson.

Key ideas are that the harmonic structure provides a foundation (the root of the chord) and a series of important platforms on top of that foundation (the other notes in the chord). So your bass riff or your melody or whatever fills in other notes–passing tones, ornaments, outright dissonances–that move you from platform to platform. The goal is to take advantage of the years of music listening that students have done–the subconscious layers of what music should sound like–and link that subconscious up with a handful of useful conscious ideas.

So I can talk on and on about that as it relates to our repertoire song of the moment, but at some point, students have to just try it out. And I needed a visual. Et voilà:

G, C, D, and G chords, showing all inversions in cello first position

This is a standard 1-4-5 chord progression with the notes of the chord written out wherever they’re possible to play in first position on the cello. It gives students a visual hook as we play back and forth. The idea isn’t, of course, to play the chords; it’s to keep half an eye on these important tones while making up something melodic.

To be combined with your rigorous scale and arpeggio practice!

Cello Teaching Aids: Triplet Subdivision

January 19th, 2011  |  Published in Cello Teaching, Music & Arts

From time to time I need some particular bit of music as a cello teaching aid, but I can’t find quite the right thing in my standard exercise books. So I type it up myself. Thought I might post some of these on the blog, in case they’re useful.

Here, then, is a quick walk through triplet subdivision:

eigth note triplets; sixteenth note triplets; dotted eight and sixteenth note triplets

This made for a relatively easy way to talk about dotted triplet rhythms, which look scary at first. On top, it’s not too hard to divide a quarter note beat into three even triplets. On the second line, you can split those in half to make triplet sixteenths. Then, at bottom, you glue some of the sixteenths back together to make the dotted rhythm.

So I lined all that up vertically, and have used the resulting visual to good effect. Hope it helps someone else! (Otherwise, I suppose, I’ll at least be able to find this quickly the next time I need it…) You can click on the image for a high-resolution version that is suitable for printing.

Feel free to reuse this, or any music teaching aid on my website, under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

And I should credit MuseScore, Inkscape, and Gimp, which I use to make this sort of thing.