Sunday, March 7, 2010

First Grade Blues Musicians and 6th Grade Activists

While teaching at an inner-city public school in Los Angeles County about 10 years ago, I developed a piano keyboard program in my first-grade classroom. This project came about after I received a grant of 20 electric pianos from the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation. With great support of my principal and my three-teacher team, I was able to give 60 first-graders daily music instruction. In 2003, I was honored with the BRAVO Award from the Los Angeles County Performing Arts Center for my integration of music into the curriculum of my general education elementary students. (BTW, the Los Angeles Times article shown to the left did NOT appear on the front page).

To get a feel for what my students were able to do by the end of the year, here is a short video of our performance for parents. Every student in the class could play any of the four parts (drums, bass, chords, improviser), and we often mixed bands up at random.

The program utilizes a set of electric piano keyboards wired through a central teacher console. Each keyboard is fitted with a headphone and microphone. The central console, positioned adjacent to the teacher’s piano keyboard, allows me to monitor any student, speak with any students one-on-one, combine students so that any one student can be ‘connected’ to another student. When so connected, the students hear one another’s voices and keyboards. The console allows for all students to be paired with the student across from them, or to be grouped in any combination of keyboards at my discretion. The console allows me, with the push of a button, to have individual students or selected groups of students immediately hear my voice and keyboard, or the voice and/or keyboard of any other student. In this way, I can instruct from my piano while not distracting other students who are practicing, and am also able to have any individual student or group of students demonstrate things on their keyboard to all the other students through their headphones.

A distinguishing feature of my music education program on electric keyboards involved my emphasis on improvisation and group performance. In my program, effective improvisation was a principal goal of students’ hands-on work. Much of traditional music education teaches students music theory, sight reading, ear training, and technical development. All of this is important. What can be problematic is if these skills are taught as ends in themselves with no larger purpose in mind. Early on in my program, students were able to experience the excitement and wonder of extemporaneously creating music (improvising) within a set harmonic framework. In this way, the were more readily able to appreciate the role of ear training, scale theory, and technique, as these figure into learning to improvise competently. In fact, students were highly motivated to work on these more rote and conceptual musical training areas, as they understood these to be the necessary means to a greater end: that of becoming effective improvisers and group performers. My methodology, which was centered in part on two key pedagogical techniques of renowned musician and educator Lennie Tristano, focuses on developing students’ sense of time, and in helping students to allow their voice to propel the hand in keyboard playing. In my view, improvised music (as well as composed music) originates as a vocalized expression translated to fingerings on an instrument (or in the case of composition, to notation on manuscript paper). My students learned to sing along with everything they played, from scales, to rhythms, to simple melodic patterns and songs. In so doing, they developed the important improvising skill of translating vocal expressions to their instrument. In addition, students practiced predominantly with a metronome or in pairs. In this way, they developed their sense of time (constant pulse), which is a requisite to performing well with other musicians. Together with improvising, group performance was a central component of my music program. A goal of many of the musical exercises I taught was to help students develop competence in playing ensemble parts to accompany an improviser. All students learned to play and create various rhythmic patterns (using a ‘drum voice’ setting on the keyboard). They also learned to play and create bass patterns within a given harmonic range, and they learned to improvise within a scale or a particular mode (e.g. dorian). Students practiced these parts with metronomes (built into the pianos), and then practiced in pairs and quartets. During practice sessions, students frequently rotated instrumental roles, giving each other the opportunity to both improvise and to accompany. I found that students were highly motivated to play in groups. In my own experience playing in small improvising groups as a professional jazz pianist, I have found that the music that is created, the ‘whole’ so to speak, always seems to be greater than the ‘sum of the parts.’ What is created together therefore, feels greater than the individual parts simply being played simultaneously. For me, this is a significant ingredient in the ‘magic’ of music. Students seemed to experience this too, and were usually very eager to learn their parts in order to play and perform as part of a duo, trio, or quartet. Both improvising and playing together with other musicians requires development of difficult skills. I have found that students, even as young as first graders, are highly motivated and capable of meeting these challenges.

Working in groups, students composed ensemble pieces that they performed together for other students or other classes. In addition, during my 5 years teaching 6th grade at a more affluent public school, students recorded their music and produced CDs of original songs. My students sold these CDs to raise money for a number of global causes which they had identified and studied at length. You can read about their efforts at:

Here is a video from one of those recording sessions:

A wonderful quality of this keyboard program, in addition to the sense of accomplishment and joy students experience through music, is the many interpersonal strengths that it builds in students. Young people who learn to compose, practice, and perform in musical groups, develop deep listening skills, great cooperative abilities, an array problem solving competencies, a broad understanding of team-work, and a heightened sense of accountability for what they must bring to a competent musical group. The keyboard lab and music program become a workshop for building interpersonal strengths and sense of teamwork. These skills grow out of the motivation students feel when they are called upon to improvise and accompany on keyboards.

The photo below was sent from an organization in India which frees children from slavery in the carpet weaving industry and provides them with recovery counseling, schooling, and reintegration into their home villages. Students from my 6th grade class donated $5200 to this organization in April 2008 through sales of their CD entitled "Beyond Common Thought."

During the 2007-2008 school year, children supported an organization in Ghana, Africa which freed children from bonded servitude, sending $3800 though sales of their CD "The Third Arrow."

The very first fundraising project of my 6th-grade students was during the 2004-2005 school year and immediately following the South-Asian tsunami which claimed over 140,000 lives. Through our research, we discovered an organization in southern India which was working with children in fishing villages which had been devastated by the tsunami. They felt that children needed to have healthy ways to play and recover from the trauma of the death and destruction they had experienced. Through a grant of $3800 raised from sales of their CD "Starting from Scratch," a playground was built in the village of Shanmuga Nagar, India.

In Spring of 2006, my 6th grade class produced their CD "Through Eyes of Hope," selling it to raise over $5600 to support both a local cause and an international issue. They donated over $1400 to a local animal rescue organization "The Nature of Wildworks," as well as giving over $4000 to Darfur Peace and Development Organization to help support a United Nations run school in a refugee camp in Darfur, Sudan.

Friday, March 5, 2010

'Groovology' and Finding 'Deep Time' in Music


In this post, I will delve deeply into the illusive concept of ‘groove’ in music, introducing readers to the field of “Groovology.” As preposterous as it may seem to end the word ‘groove’ with the Greek suffix –ology- (from ‘logos’ meaning ‘study of’), this is quite justifiable as you’ll see. Groovology is in fact a definitive field of scholarly study, if only a sparsely populated one. As a musicological science, Groovology seeks to answer the age-old musician’s question, “What do we have to do with our bodies playing these instruments and singing in order to get their bodies moving, bobbing their heads, snapping their fingers, up from their tables and dancing?” This quote comes from the brilliant musicologist Charles Keil in an article entitled Groovology and the Magic of Other’s People’s Music. He then goes on to ask, “how do people and musicking [the making of music] becoming consubstantial, a communion, communitas, a sacrament, the music inside the people and the people inside the music?” In this post, I will address this subject as both a student and teacher of music. To this end, I will first need to cover some basic elements of music to outline the language I will be using, and to clarify some commonly misconstrued terms. The well-versed musician may wish to skip ahead to the discussion of ‘deep time’ in music.

Basic Elements of Music

In its simplest form, music could be described as combining patterns of rhythm with sequences of tones of varying pitch, all with respect to an underlying pulse, and with some conveyance of human sentiment or emotion so as to be comprehensible. Of course, ensembles of drummers are playing music, so the presence of tonal instruments is not a necessary part of the equation.

In analyzing the structure of music, I will present a very brief overview of its tonal qualities, and then I will describe in some depth aspects of the rhythmic dimension as I have come to understand them. These rhythmic, non-tonal aspects of music must be analyzed if we are to begin understanding what creates the drive, or ‘groove’ in music. I believe that the tones which make up melodies and harmonies, however interesting, evocative, powerful, inventive, or technically dazzling, have much less to do with the groove, than the actual placement of these tones and harmonies ‘in time.’ I will argue that intensity of a musical piece is mostly a product of time, not tone. Furthermore, I will differentiate ‘time’ from other aspects of music that are related to time, namely, beats, tempos, and rhythms. Time, as I am describing, is quite different from beats, tempos, and rhythms.

Tones: Melodies and Harmonies

Concerning tones, these quite simply can be played individually (melodies and monophony) or in groups (harmony or polyphony). Some music deploys tone in a near purely melodic way (Indian ragas), while other musics rely predominately on polyphony to express tone (church chorale music). Still, a vast majority of music played today combines single-note melodies with accompanying harmonies, usually referred to as chords.

A good deal of scholarly effort has sought to determine what constitutes a ‘good’ melody, and it seems that human beings organically produce melodic patterns which when graphed by the wavelength frequency of the tones, or the rhythmic dimensions of the note groups, produce a certain shape, or motif. These motivic shapes may be melodic, rhythmic, or some combination of both. A melody usually employs specific shapes, and then presents variations on these shapes. It is the listener’s familiarity with the initial shape, stated early on, that leads to a pleasant experience upon hearing the variations on these shapes. Generally, a melody utilizes points of dynamic emphasis, acoustically provocative intervals, a mixture of duration values (e.g. quarter notes versus half-notes), as well as ample pauses or spaces (rests), as the syntax of communication to the receptive listener. It is my view that if a melody provides drive and momentum and context to a listener, even when stripped of accompanying harmonies or percussive accoutrements, it is an especially ‘good’ melody, because it embodies meaning on its own, as a line of single tones presented over time.[i]

Unlike melodies, harmonies are produced only when two or more tones are played in unison. Technically speaking, this creates an interaction of sound waves of varying degrees of dissonance and consonance. While dissonances, in which the wavelengths do not ‘line up’ can be jarring to the ear, the capacity of dissonance (or consonance) to be pleasing and musical depends largely upon on context –namely what tone and harmonies precede or follow the harmony of a given musical moment. Harmonies usually accompany the melody. This means that the melody becomes a part of the harmony, and most often constitutes the highest tone in the harmony. Generally, the human ear ‘hears’, or feels the harmony in its mood or color, while the more conscious human attention, or ‘listening,’ is focused upon the shapes and turns of the melody.

‘Time’ in Music

Following this brief overview of tonality in music, we now turn to a discussion of what most people refer to as rhythm, which will be the primary focus of our efforts to understand ‘groove’. Notwithstanding music which seems to adhere to no fixed pulse –some 20th Century classical compositions come to mind, as well as the music of some players of “free jazz” - the majority of music played the world over, places these tones, these melodies and harmonies described above, across a spectrum of time. This time can be represented on a drum or other percussive instrument, plucked on a bass or guitar, or simply felt by musicians while not explicitly stated. As noted above, one feature of a ‘strong’ melody is its capacity to autonomously drive the rhythm and provide momentum to the piece entirely on its own.

Since most of my discussion here will be concerned with aspects of rhythm, it is important that I clarify my terms. I will be using the terms ‘time,’ ‘tempo,’ ‘rhythm,’ and ‘beat,’ all in different ways. The Encarta World English Encyclopedia says that ‘rhythm’ is either a “regular pattern of beats” or a “particular pattern of beats” in a piece of music. I believe that these two concepts are actually quite different from one another and should be referred to with different terms. For my purposes, Encarta’s ‘regular pattern of beats’ relates more to what I will call ‘time’ while ‘a particular pattern’ will be described as a rhythm. I will discuss these separately, beginning with a discussion of ‘time.’

By the term ‘time’ I am referring to a metronomic, often unstated beat, a passage of felt pulses, which all the performing musicians in a group are respecting as they play. In the domain of jazz music, the world where I come from, ‘time’ is used in two distinct ways. One use of ‘time’ among jazz players refers to a phenomenon outside of the individual, while the other use of ‘time’ describes a personal quality of individual musicians. In its perhaps more esoteric sense, time is that thing that is always happening, even when there is no music. I will call this ‘perpetual time.’ You can “see” the passage of perpetual time if you watch something that is pulsing evenly, like the turn signal of a car, or the second hand of a clock. Ideally, musicians will feel this time when they play in order to stay together. Perpetual time is actually easiest to feel consistently when we are sitting mostly still, when we feel very little stress in our bodies because of limited movement and intention. In my personal experience, perpetual time is most acutely experienced not as a pulse, but as a continuum. It is a deep awareness of the passage from present moment to present moment. Some of the most sensitive perception of time occurs among members of the audience of a musical performance. These listeners are not ‘doing’ anything; they are relaxed, focused, and their natural perception of the metronomic passage of time is generally very good in these circumstances. I must emphasize that while I call this ‘perpetual time’ ‘metronomic,’ such time does not pulse like a metronome, rather it is consistent and predictable and precise like the finest metronome, but exists as a felt continuum.

Another use of the term time among musicians is the reference to another musician’s ‘sense of time.’ We say that this or that player ‘has good time.’ It is a very significant compliment, particularly in jazz, to say that someone ‘has good time’ and equally disastrous to be viewed as having ‘bad time.’ In jazz, it is assumed that everyone who plays professionally has good time, so to state it explicitly is to emphasize this quality. Having good time is paramount to generating and sustaining a ‘groove’ in music. I should point out here, that I believe there are varying levels of ‘good time.’ A fundamental, or base level would be evidenced in a musician who does not rush, drag, or add/drop beats or beat fragments. This person would be said to have ‘good time.’ In its more subtle and sophisticated form, a musician can be said to have “a profound sense of time.” Such a musician is able to manipulate musical expressions consistently with millisecond timing, all requisites to establishing a deep groove.

I must emphasize that saying someone ‘has good time’ does not mean that they play interesting rhythms, or that they can play fast and with clarity and articulation. It does not mean these things. As I stated, first and foremost, having good time simply means that a musician does not drop or add beats during the course of a performance, and does not rush or drag the band. While ‘good time’ has deeper and more subtle meanings, its most obvious manifestation concerns a musician’s capacity to remain attentive to ‘perpetual time,’ which exists outside of the performing musicians. So, unlike perpetual time, this latter use of ‘time,’ refers to a quality specific to players, and describes a musician’s attention to, and ongoing awareness of the pulse of time outside of the music. Having ‘good time’ doesn’t mean that a musician delivers all of their notes and phrases ‘on’ the pulse of perpetual time, but only that they remain demonstrably tuned to perpetual time. I will refer to this personal, musician’s time, as one’s ‘time awareness.’

Obstacles to Consistent ‘Time Awareness’ in Improvising

For a musician to improvise, as in jazz and certain popular music forms, they must spontaneously invent musical phrases, rhythms and melodies, on the spot. Doing this means that one may arrive somewhere that one did not intend to go, which often happens in improvisation. It also means that an improviser must be fully cognizant of the limitations of their technical ability, because executing an improvised idea imperfectly can quickly mean a few notes get jumbled or blurred together, skipped or flubbed. This will usually change the intended length of a phrase. Arriving somewhere one did not intend to go, or arriving before or after one intended to get there -because one is playing beyond the limits of one’s technique- is immediately disorienting for the player, and one’s internal sense of time quickly differs from that of the ‘real time,’ the actual ‘perpetual time’ out there, a time that everyone else, including an audience is feeling. The player who executes an improvised melodic phrase which is even just slightly beyond their technical ability will inevitably end up feeling the ‘one,’ the downbeat, or the beginning of the bar, differently from the other players. This problem is especially acute in jazz, because modern jazz ensembles do not necessarily state the beat explicitly when they play. Therefore, there may not be external, audible reference points to the pulse, such as a bass note, or cymbal strike.

An improviser must have a very well developed time awareness, and certain behavioral orientations when playing so as not to compromise their internal feeling of the time. Adding or dropping beats, or even just beat fragments, is not tolerated very often among performing ensembles, and players who drop beats can develop poor reputations whatever other talents they may possess.

As noted, symptoms of losing ‘time awareness’ include unintentionally rushing or dragging the beat, and dropping or adding beats or beat fragments (what many musicians call ‘losing the time’). I believe that there are two primary behavioral traps which compel an otherwise talented improviser to ‘lose the time.’ These are: (1) physical stress (tightening of the shoulders or arms for example); and (2) any cognitive activity (thoughts) strong enough to contravene awareness of one’s relationship to perpetual time. Typically, there are three kinds of thoughts that can occur in the course of an improvisation that, if they become anything more than passing thoughts, will push the improviser away from time awareness. These three ‘thought hazards’ of the improviser are: (a) willing or intending, as in ‘trying’ to improvise ‘well’ rather than surrendering to a trained intuition –this constitutes a focus on the future, rather than an awareness of the present moment; (b) reflecting or reviewing, as in a focus on something that just happened, which again pulls awareness away from the present (the only place where perpetual time exists); and (c) critiquing and evaluating, which tends to create physical stress in the body, a stress that imposes a distorted time sense, most often resulting in a rushing of the actual beat of perpetual time.

The dilemma faced by the improviser is that there are tremendous cognitive and physical demands in the act of improvising. Combine these dilemmas with the anxiety produced by the myriad surprises, frustrations, uncertainties, and self-criticisms that accompany the flow of an improvisation, and it is easy to see why an improvising musician must have well-developed internal time-regulating resources to keep the body calm, the mind focused, and the muscles relaxed, while projecting the intensity of emotion and navigating the physical complexity of executing musical ideas on one’s instrument. Improvisation, which in the domain of jazz is very technically and harmonically demanding, is a physical, emotional, and cognitive act at tremendous odds with the relaxation necessary to ‘keep one’s time.’

“Losing the time,” in which a beat or beat fragment is added or removed from a performer’s awareness, causing that player to diverge from perpetual time, and from the time awareness of the other players, is especially significant, because very often in the lose of momentary awareness of perpetual time, a musician essentially ‘blanks out’ for a millisecond, returning to awareness of perpetual time with no sense that anything out of the ordinary has happened. Perpetual time, being a continuum, is ‘re-boarded’ by the wayward player with no sense that they’ve ‘stepped off the train’ at all. When the sense of where the actual downbeat of a given songs occurs in perpetual time, is different for two or more players in an ensemble, it’s like a wheel coming off a car racing down the highway. A ‘loss of time’ is devastating if not caught and corrected quickly, especially if one or more of the other players tries to adjust their time to that the befuddled soloist. Jazz musicians rightfully call such an event ‘a train wreck.’ Understandably, players who lose the time generally don’t make it as professional players, or don’t remain in that world for long.

I have taken some time here to discuss improvisation and it’s relationship to ‘time awareness,’ and an explanation is in order, especially given that a ‘groove’ in a musical piece can certainly occur among musicians who are not improvising, and within genres where improvisation is non-existent or minimally present. The reader could reasonably ask why my initial promise to explore ‘the groove’ has led us down this path of the experience of the improvising musician, something of a rare bird it may seem, as few players identify themselves primarily as improvisers. I want the reader to understand how an examination of ‘the groove’ in any musical genre, including in settings with relatively inexperience children, will be aided by this specific exploration of the improviser’s relationship to time. In order for improvisation to be effective, it requires a high level of creative, technical, and theoretical knowledge of music. Technical, theoretical, and even creative enterprises immediately run the risk of engaging cognition, or the thinking mind. A great deal of thought will preoccupy the practicing student who intends, eventually, to improvise well. To then keep this practiced cognition out of the performance can be a challenge. Also, improvisation is a ‘laying bare of one’s soul,’ so to speak, a willingness to open oneself to the vulnerabilities of expressive art, and to do so in ‘real time,’ in front of other people, whether fellow musicians or an audience. Doing this can quickly leave one at the mercy of the critical, reflecting, scrutinizing, (even narcissistic) mind. Finally, improvisation is something of a gymnastic feat on most instruments, a mechanically rigorous kinesthetic undertaking. This physically demanding act can cause tension and stress in the muscles of the body. Taken together then, the improvising musician is faced with the possibility that she will be mentally thinking, emotionally judging, and/or physically stressing during her making of music. These tendencies are all anathema to deeply feeling ‘perpetual time’ and therefore remaining ‘in the time.’ Compromising one’s ‘time awareness’ will negatively impact the capacity to groove. Understanding therefore how these challenges are handled among improvisers has implications for anyone seeking to develop a framework to appreciate ‘the groove,’ whatever the genre of music under consideration. The rules are the same for all players, whether executing a rehearsed part or an invented part. The improviser simply is the best candidate to expose the pernicious enemies of the ‘groove’ because he invites the most obstacles through his particular approach to “musicking’ (which means making music).

Beat, Rhythm, and Tempo

As I noted above, ‘time,’ is only one aspect of what constitutes a ‘groove,’ but it is the most critical and I have therefore addressed it here in some length. Let us turn to a clarification of these other terms, namely ‘beat,’ ‘rhythm,’ and ‘tempo.’

The ‘beat’ of a given musical piece refers simply to where the musicians agree to partition perpetual time. This is not to be confused with ‘tempo’ which refers to ‘how often’ perpetual time is partitioned. So, if I count off, ‘one, two, three, four’ with an even time space between my speaking of these words, however slow or fast I say them, I establish that the partition of perpetual time is occurring with each word, and is expected to continue with additional ‘felt’ pulses throughout the song. These additional pulses will not have to be verbally uttered, as the instruments will pick up where my words left off. Given that most musicking relies on the presence of an underlying pulse, musicians typically ‘count off’ in this manner so that everyone begins together.

By ‘tempo,’ I refer to how often perpetual time is to be partitioned, how long or short the spaces are between the ‘beats’ or the felt pulses. Again, the musicians establish the tempo when one of the players ‘counts off.’ Counting ‘one, two, three, four’ with a second of time passing from the onset of one word to the onset of the next, is a much slower tempo than counting off with ¼ second lapse from word to word. Tempos can change during the course of the piece. If this is done willfully by the musicians, it constitutes a collective agreement to change the partition rate of perpetual time.

Finally, by ‘rhythm’ I refer simply to patterns established in relation to the beat or the pulse of a song. Any instrument can play a rhythm, as long as the expression of that rhythm within the performance does not compromise anyone’s awareness of ‘perpetual time.’ To this end, rhythms generally are comprised of combinations of beats of varying tempos which are overlaid upon the underlying pulse and which line up at various points with the underlying pulse. Rhythms can be played by any of the musicians in an ensemble, they can be improvised, and different rhythms can occur simultaneously. In fact, everything played constitutes some kind of rhythm. Generally, we think of the individual patterns played by the different members in an ensemble as collectively generating the rhythm of the song. Still, each instrument could be separated out and an individual rhythm could be identified as belonging to that particular instrument. A melody, usually played by one instrument at a time, or in unison by a pair of instruments, will be comprised of changing tonalities and changing rhythms.

The ‘Theorettes’ Framing My Music

I have developed a number of theories which frame my performing of music, my conceptualizing of music, as well as my teaching. These theories include the following: (1) the human voice is the center of our innate musical inheritance; (2) all humans are profoundly musical, evidenced in our capacity for language which depends upon the brain translating overtone intensities of the tonal vowels[ii]; (3) only the human voice is ‘timeless,’ meaning that only vocalized expressions can connect organically to ‘perpetual time’; (4) our innate musicality means that we are capable of musical expressions possessing greater tonal range and technical speed than our vocal chords, hence the invention of instruments; (5) woodwind instruments, channeling air from the lungs which passes by the vocal chords, lead the player to position a ‘perceived’ vocal chord at the lips and reed, leading naturally to vocally expressive music; (6) the human vocal mechanism does not need to reside in the vocal chords, but can be trained with tonal accuracy to other parts of the body (witness whistling or ‘lip trumpet’); (7) channeling the dynamic subtlety of the voice to percussive instruments presents unique challenges, namely a re-training of finger, hand, arm, shoulder and back muscular tendencies and impulses to a voice responsive obedience; (8) ‘swing’ in jazz has much less to do with what jazz writers claim (staggered 8th-notes, ‘laying back,’ from the beat, broken triplets, something ‘intangible,’ etc), and everything to do with a controlled accelerating and de-accelerating of an improvised line towards and away from ‘perpetual time’; (9) Alfred Tomatis’ theories about the human skin being a form of differentiated ear-tissue (and not the other way around) helps explain the ability of listeners to perceive music through the entire dermatic organ; (10) attention, in the form of active listening, is an energy which directly supports the object of one’s listening and participates in its success; (11) attentive listeners are active participants in musicking through the energy of attention, a fact which accounts for the difference in the vitality of a live performance from its recorded rendering; (12) a commitment to ‘process’ over ‘product’ in musicking helps ensure vitality because it contravenes ‘future’ thinking and allows greater awareness of in-the-moment perpetual time; and (13) the human ear/brain has the capacity for partitioning and quantifying perpetual time to at least milliseconds, and for recognizing evidence of this as an aesthetic quality in music.[iii]

The Science of Grooving: Charles Keil and Participatory Discrepancies (PDs)

Some of the finest research that systematically analyzes what makes music ‘groove’ deeply is the work of musician and musicologist Charles Keil. In 1966, Keil published a groundbreaking article entitled "Motion and Feeling through Music" in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. In that piece, Keil very systematically analyzed pairs of jazz bass players and drummers from historic recordings, carefully studying their placement of notes and beats in time. Keil determined that these pairs of musicians, these stalwarts of the jazz rhythm section, did not always play entirely together, and that these slightly perceptible deviations from unison playing were actually deliberate components of the establishment of ‘swing’ in jazz. These subtle time ‘imperfections’ were intentional and controlled, and were responsible for the drive present in their music. Though deliberate and controlled, Keil did not say musicians were necessary fully conscious of what they were doing to establish this groove. Several years later, working together with ethnologist Steven Feld, Keil presented his theory of Participatory Discrepancies (PDs) in music[iv], and essentially founded the field of “Groovology.” Refining Keil’s early thesis, Keil and Feld argue that for musicians to really reach that deep groove -one which is recognizable in that it compels its listeners to sway, snap fingers, tap feet, or get up and dance- the players must be ever so slightly out-of-sinc with one another. They define PDs, as “semiconscious or unconscious slightly out of syncness… Music, to be personally involving and socially valuable, must be ‘out of time’ and ‘out of tune…It is the little discrepancies … that create the groove and invite us to participate.”

Despite the evidence presented by the authors supporting the role of these PDs in the deeper grooving of various musics, there has been, according to Keil, very limited interest in the field of musicology to pursue further research into PDs. Keil laments this dearth of studies in what he calls “Groovology:”

“So some ten years after the publication of Music Grooves… I must report that at the microlevel we have not persuaded any grad student to measure ‘Participatory Discrepancies (PDs)…reflecting on the apparent failure of the paradigm to win a host of new friends, influence many people, open a Department of Groovology somewhere, [or] shift the prevailing focus from syntax to process.”[v]

Keil identifies several obstacles to further research in PDs. First, he cites researchers’ interpretation that studying PDs is too touchy-feely, too New Agey, as if someone could dare unravel the ‘mystery’ of music. There is also the inverse criticism that it’s too technical and crassly materialistic to measure music ‘to the thousandth of a second,’ something required for a deep analysis of these ‘out of sinc’ PDs. Finally, Keil states, “the idea of ‘discrepancies,’ the little gaps in timing and pitch, implies that great artists may be loose, sloppy, mistaken, not entirely in control.” For researchers to approach musicians with this premise in order to study their craft, could seem inappropriate, or could cause researchers to feel they were being unforgivably pretentious, even condescending. Whatever the reasons, the work of Keil and Feld has received limited scholarly attention to date. Still, it offers an enticing framework for elucidating some of the otherwise elusive qualities of the most engaging musics.


So in review, we have discussed the tonal qualities of music, how melodies and harmonies can be a part of music, and how ‘good’ melodies can act as vehicles to drive the music, depending on the rhythms that they employ, and the placement of accents and rests. I have described the non-tonal aspects of music, outlining a construct of ‘time’, and differentiating between ‘perpetual time,’ which is a precise continuum that exists outside of music, and ‘time awareness’ which refers to the degree of a musician’s capacity to remain ever conscious of this perpetual time. I have outlined the role of physical relaxation and I have presented specific cognitive and physical barriers sustaining one’s alignment with perpetual time while performing, especially during the difficult act of improvising. I have argued that improvising presents immediate obstacles to grooving, and understanding these barriers will serve the general examination of grooving in any genre. I have defined ‘beat’ as the collective agreement of musicians as to where they will partition perpetual time for the duration of a musical piece, and tempo, which represents the players’ agreement as to the frequently of the occurrence of these beats during a song. I have explained that rhythms are combinations of varied partitions of the beat, which are superimposed upon the ongoing beats of a piece. Finally, I have reviewed the work of Keil and Feld and their study of participant discrepancies, describing how small differences in the placement of notes and beats across stated time, can create tremendous impulse and drive to a musical piece, creating what we refer to as the ‘groove.’

[i] Some genres of music have ‘rules’ governing melodic composition (Western classical music), although many skilled artists performing in a variety genres are ‘unschooled’ in any traditional sense. I have taught musical improvisation to school children for the past 10 years using a Yamaha piano keyboard laboratory. I have found that children as young as 5 years old, once they have developed mastery of a certain mode, can spontaneously generate melodies within that mode which adhere quite closely to the rules of classical melodic structure. I conclude from this that good melody-making is quite organic to human beings, much as it is to certain species of birds or cetaceans.

[ii] Vowels in language are created by overtone intensities and therefore the human ear and brain are in the business of doing complex math very quickly, not to mention sorting barely audible overtones out of fundamental tones with tremendous precision (see Godwin’s Mystery of the Seven Vowels). Spoken language averages two to five syllables per second, which must be analyzed by the brain tonally to decide which vowel is being spoken (an overtone analysis), and hence what word is being represented by or contains that syllable. In the absence of this unconscious sorting of overtones, language would not work, because a listener could not differentiate vowels (hot, hat, hit, hate, hoot, heat, hut, and height, are different because the medial vowel graphemes create different overtones when spoken, even if the fundamental tone remains the same for that vowel. (Consonants don’t create tones, only vowels do). Middle C on the Oboe is not a different fundamental tone from Middle C on the Trumpet, but they create different overtone intensities, and are thus distinguishable in what we call timbre or color. The brain must decipher overtone intensities of spoken vowels to assign meaning accurately to words. Complex musical analysis, however unconscious, is a requisite to language comprehension, and is therefore organic to the human brain.

[iii] Just consider the capacity of some people awake at a certain time, to the minute, without an alarm clock. A friend who studies the brain (Dr. Orlando Gil) told me that there are three neural centers in every brain which oscillate at a period of between 4 to 7 cycles per second. Each one is different but consistent, and every person has slightly different cycles. Together, an individual’s three centers create the kind of pattern, similar to what three randomly set metronomes would create. Over a certain period of time, these hypothetical metronomes would establish a distinct pattern through the combination of their respective clickings, sort of like the polyrhythms often created by train wheel irregularities striking steel tracks. That is, these metronomes would start repeating themselves, creating a detectible collective pattern. Statistically speaking, these three oscillators in the brain would produce patterns which would include partitions to the thousandths of a second. Such neural centers in the human brain, acting like these hypothetical metronomes, could account for the human capacity to both play and to detect the very small rhythmic variations which are certainly happening in good musical grooves. When we consider jazz pianist Bud Powell (or classical pianist Glenn Gould) playing 10-12 notes per second, measurable against a stated time, and possessing identifiable accelerations and de-accelerations against this perpetual time, we are talking about a level human precision with respect to time that is profound. We may be able to relate to the presence of these periodic oscillators in the brain, though this warrants further study.

[iv] Keil, Charles and Steven Feld. 1994/2005. Music Grooves. Fenestra Books.

[v] Keil, Groovology and the Magic of Other People’s Music” downloaded on September 27, 2008 from