When I was a young child experimenting on the piano, I found myself instantly drawn to the sound of the black keys. I could bang on them all I wanted, and play little random lines on them and everything came out sounding great. To me, they sounded extra beautiful and sort of Chinese – based on who knows what, as I hadn’t actually heard any real Chinese music as a Jewish kid in Washington, DC.

Yes, when anybody wants to fake Chinese music, they go for the black keys on the piano (just think of the stereotypical riff in “Kung Fu Fighting”). Putting aside the belittling of one of the oldest and musical cultures in the world, the fact that they use those black keys shows how famous and instantly recognizable the characteristic notes of Chinese music are to those ignorant of the actual material.

Most Western music, including pretty much everything from pop to R&B, gospel to classic, usually uses a scale based on seven notes at a time (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do) or something like it, AKA, the white keys of the piano. Chinese music, like Irish music (think “Danny Boy,”) many African traditions, and a whole lot of country fiddle tunes, uses a pentatonic scale of five notes at a time. Notice that the little black keys on a piano come in repeating sets of twos and threes? Those five distinct keys make up a five note scale, and a very unique one as well.

Today, we’re going to hear the pentatonic scale put to real use on perhaps the most common of traditional Chinese instruments, the erhu. This two stringed fiddle sings like a human voice when played well. The song that Ma Xiao Hui is playing is called “Birds Singing on a Desolate Mountain” and it was written by Liu Tan Hua, perhaps the best known of all erhu composers. Let’s listen.

A little more sophisticated than “Kung Fu Fighting,” right? Throughout the song, the composer Liu uses the same five note, pentatonic scale that people already assume sounds “Chinese” but pulls as much melodic variety out of it a good Western composers do out of seven or more notes in a scale.  Also, as is common in music from China, Korea, and Japan, the music contains literal references to nature. The free-floating strings of the erhu allow Ma to slide her fingers and create actual birdsongs withing the music. Do you have a favorite erhu song, or another kind of pentatonic music that moves you? Let’s talk.

AuthorSteve Mossberg

Sometimes when listening to music, any kind of music really, I’ll say something like “man, that bass player is great.” Often, people will ask me how I can tell. This is a fair question – it’s the bassist’s job to play the low notes in music; keep stuff grounded, provide a deep foundation for the other musicians.  That said, a good bass player can really enhance any kind of music with a great rhythmic feel, nimble fingers, or clever melodic invention.

When playing jazz, which is fairly unrestricted in terms of what musicians’ roles are, bass players get to do all three. The common way a bassist works in a jazz group is to play a walking part. Walking bass is a long, winding series of low notes that may evoke the feel of a person’s alternate footsteps while going for a stroll. Bass players achieve this effect by improvising notes in between the ones they have to play to match the chords in a song

Today, we’re listening to Paul Chambers on double bass (the tall wooden kind that gets its name from playing twice as low as a cello.) On this 1958 recording, he’s playing “Softly As In a Morning Sunrise” as part of the pianist Sonny Clark’s trio. During the head or melody part of the song, Chambers only plays the notes he has to, and they match the bottom notes of the chords the bandleader plays on his piano. Exactly one minute into the recording, Clark begins to improvise a solo, and Chambers starts improvising a walking bass line in kind. Let’s listen.

So what makes the walking bass line interesting, and how can you tell if Paul Chambers is any good? First of all, he constantly finds new ways to connect the dots between the required bass notes for each chord. Secondly, his timing is spot on. Lastly, when the footstep rhythm gets boring, he throws in quick little extra figures to mix things up. He strikes an excellent balance of support and self-expression in his role

It may help, when listening to jazz, to use a speaker with good low range so the bass pops out at you more. I love using headphones when I can, because it gives a sense of standing right next to the bass player. The next time you hear this kind of music, it’s worth it to divert your ears down to the low end on occasion, and see if the bass player is any good. You’ll be surprised what you hear, and for me, it often changes my impression of a song altogether. Have you heard anything interesting down under lately? Let’s talk.

AuthorSteve Mossberg

Every time I put on accordion music with friends around, somebody asks that question. Indeed, for most of us the accordion conjures up only an image of a French cafe or perhaps a wild dance in some Italian country village. There is, however, a variant of the good old accordion in most countries in the world, and its roots go all the way back to an ancient Chinese bamboo instrument called the sheng. So basically, its everywhere but finding a good recording can be a challenge if you don’t know where to look. This week on the Listenover Three – it’s a trio of international squeezebox wizards with very different approaches to the instrument.

1.    “Swing Valse” – Gus Viseur – 1930s

It’s perhaps natural, given the Western perception of the accordion, that we go straight to Paris for our first recording. The French button accordion (yep, circular buttons on both sides) was developed as a louder replacement from the bagpipe-like musette that dominated dance music at the turn of the 20th century. Viseur was the hippest of the accordionists in the first half of the 1900s, because he managed to combine the more traditional musette dances with swing-era jazz. You can hear his skill in the bubbling phrases, dynamic surges that mimic the human voice, and his relaxed sense of swing. 

2.    “Red Square Dance” – Farmers Market (Stian Carstensen) - 2008

Never mind that Norwegian button accordionist Stian Carstensen was a child prodigy on his instrument at age 9 and is one of the most accomplished players in the world. He’s also a virtuoso guitarist, banjoist, and brilliant composer with a wicked sense of humor. He spent lots of time in Bulgaria collecting folk music from the country’s deep history and learned the specific accordion techniques of the culture. Instead of playing that material by the book, he blends it satirically with other styles country, funk and punk rock in the group “Farmers Market.”

3.    “Libertango” – Astor Piazzolla - 1974


The bandoneon is the long, fiendishly difficult to play, national instrument of Argentina. While technically closer to a concertina than an accordion, the music of one of its greatest practitioners, Astor Piazzolla, is too important to skip in this edition of the “Three.” When he transformed traditional tango music into nueva (new) tango, the cosmopolitan composer received death threats in Buenos Aires. The frantic, dark and strange music doesn’t sound much like the stereotypical tango music that you’d see sweeping the ladies swept off their feet in old black-and-white movies.


AuthorSteve Mossberg

In my last my post we practiced hearing a long, classical-style melody by picking out the first theme from the first movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony. We listened to the ways Mozart stretched his tune into a compelling run-on sentence, ducking the obvious choice, pulling the listen onward up to the point where he brought it to a close worlds away from where he started out.

Why choose to end a gigantic melody so far from where the piece began? Because it sets the stage beautifully for a second theme. As I mentioned last time, pretty much all the great composers for 100 years after Mozart included at least two themes in the opening movement of a piece. The tendency is to make the second theme contrast as well as possible with the first, so if the first begins darkly, the second should begin brightly. Notice also that in the 40th symphony, Mozart makes the popular choice of making his first theme sound loud, fast, and aggressive and his second one softer, slower-sounding, and prettier. He  chooses to use “happy” major chords instead of the “sad” minor ones from the opening theme. Let’s listen.

You might have noticed that the piece goes “Theme 1 – Theme 2 – Theme 1 – Theme 2” at first. This is so that the listeners in Mozart’s time would have a very good idea of all the melodic ideas in his piece before he got to the best part – the development. This is the section of an opening movement where a composer takes some of the most interesting phrases from both themes and “remixes” them, moving them further away from their familiar places, extending them, chopping them up, combining them and all the while building up a great deal of tension.  In this case, Mozart spends about a minute and a half just playing around with the first few notes of the piece, and shows of the astounding variety of musical effects he can get after that short amount of music.

            Naturally after all that development, we want to hear the main themes again, and Mozart obliges, but in order to not sound too repetitive (who wants to hear the same minute-long melody three times in the same piece?) he puts a spin on his themes. The first one gets stretched out a bit and intensified, but the second one gets the true evil treatment – he changes it into a super-dark minor key. When the movement is almost over you may notice that there’s some new music that’s never played before and this is the coda, the extra bit of composition that composers do to round things out and give finality to an ending.

All in all, it ends up like this:

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You might say that this chart of the movement doesn’t do anything to describe its emotional power or musical worth and that’s certainly right. It basically is a guide to help you follow it through the common pattern known as sonata form. It’s the balance of the piece, how long the melodies go, how much they get altered and what happens when, that makes it hang together so nicely – much like the composition of a great painting or the pacing of a good action movie. Plus, once you know the order of events, as everyone in Mozart’s time did implicitly, you can appreciate how slick the guy was maneuvering his way around an orchestra. What did you hear? Let’s talk.


AuthorSteve Mossberg

There’s no way around it for those who decide they really want to hear it. Classical music is long – really long. It comes from the same Western European tradition that produced 1000-page books, gigantic oil paintings, and massive cathedrals. We don’t have a lot of time on our hands. we’re fierce multi-taskers and the idea of sitting down for a half hour or an hour and just listening to a symphony is, for many of us, daunting at best, torture at worst. I think however, that by getting one’s ears used to the way melodies tend to work in classical music, it can be extremely approachable whether listened to as a mindful single task, or in the background while eating lunch and working on the computer.

Classical concerts aren’t too different from pop concerts. When a rock band or rapper does a show, they’ll do a bunch of songs from albums they’ve recorded. An orchestra will play a bunch of different “tracks” as well, except that instead of mixing it up, they’ll actually play all of them in order, exactly the same way that they are on the “album.” Of course, someone like Mozart, living in the mid 1700s, didn’t get to record an actual album, so he’d arrange his music for orchestras into large symphonies and instead of breaking them down into tracks he’d split the whole thing up into several movements. Think album=symphony and track=movement.

Now, movements are actually much longer than the average pop song. In Mozart’s time, they’d be 6-10 minutes long, by Beethoven’s time, the early 1800s, they’d be stretching to 10-15 minutes, and by the end of that century, long movements could stretch almost to a half-hour. In the beginning of the 20th century, recording technology and then broadcasting became widespread and put a stop to all that.

Today and next time, we’re just going to listen to the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, which is probably familiar to you from either somebody’s ring tone or some snobby black and white commercial for a luxury car, diamonds or champagne. I swear it’s better than all those other things, and that the composer was no snob. I’m going to try to help you follow the way he lays it out – with two different musical themes and then a freewheeling combination of the two called the development. It’s not just Mozart who liked to start off symphonies with this two-theme/development form. Almost every single great composer for a hundred years after him did the same, and if you can get the hang of listening to it, it makes classical music a lot easier to fathom. Let’s listen.

The first time I tried to follow the theme of a symphony, I couldn’t figure out where it ended. In fact when you listened to the first minute or so of that first movement, you might have felt it was a bit of a run-on sentence. This run on sentence that keeps pulling you forward is actually quite desirable for classical composers – ending a musical theme too quickly or too neatly is considered really uncool, stiff, and in bad taste. Likewise, extending the theme in random fashion or changing it too extremely is considered sloppy, unintelligent and immature. In the video, I’ll show you how Mozart pulled it off.

Now that we’ve got theme number one locked down, I recommend listening to the movement again so you can pick it out. These themes always show up more than once, it’s just hard to find them  when you’re not used to hearing melodies that are so long. Next time we’ll take a look at the second theme and then the development section, the true test of a composer’s skill. Hearing something interesting? Have something to add? Let’s talk.

AuthorSteve Mossberg

You may know it as the huge instrument that you blow into that nobody seems to play. You may think of it as strictly polka, strictly old-world, or maybe just the punch line to a bad musician joke. Indeed, the tuba has seen better times, but it’s far from dead. This week on the Listenover Three, we look at the modern tuba in all its glory.

Before we could plug in our bass guitars and keyboards, it was hard to get a nice loud low note out of any instrument, and for this reason, the tuba quickly found its way into brass bands in the mid-1800s. After being made portable in such permutations as the sousaphone, tubaists could actually march around with them. Now that we have electric instruments, tubas may seem big or clunky, but their deep traditional roots and retro-novel sound keep listeners coming back around the world.

1.    “Amor Express” – Banda Sinaloense MS 2012

Northern Mexico is home to some of the fiercest, and perhaps the most listened to tuba players on the planet. In the immensely popular genre of banda music, the brass bands almost never use a bass guitar, leaving the contemporary tubaist to imitate all the intricate lines of an electric bassist and then some. Although bandas developed when a large amount of German immigrants brought (you guessed it) polka to states like Sinaloa in the 1880s, modern banda groups play all sorts of pop music using traditional instruments, and as you can hear in “Amor Express” it can often be quite soulful.

2.    “Day” – Jaga Jazzist 2003

The Norwegian band Jaga Jazzist set themselves apart by playing electronic music with a live band of jazz musicians. They sounded so fresh when they went worldwide that the BBC gave them an award for best jazz album in 2002. One of the most revolutionary elements in the group is the tuba playing of Line Horntveth. In addition to being an highly skilled player, the juxtaposition of her extremely old-sounding instrument with the hypermodern textures in the rest of the group is extra poignant. Make sure you plug in your headphones or use a big speaker so you can hear her.

3.    “War” – Hypnotic Brass Ensemble 2008

The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble looks, instrument-wise, like an old-school brass marching band, except that they use a funk/hip-hop drummer on their recordings. All the members of the band are brothers that grew up practicing in their dad’s living room. LT plays the vintage funk bass lines on the aforementioned sousaphone, a kind of marching tuba developed by the old marching band composer John Philip Sousa for his own compositions over a hundred years ago.


AuthorSteve Mossberg

When I was a teenager and showed some talent and ambition on piano, my musician friends all started telling me I should be listening to jazz. Having never really encountered that music before, my mind went to this vague idea of what jazz was. I envisioned an old movie scene in a smoky nightclub with the drummer in the corner going “ding-dinga-ding-dinga-ding” on his cymbal. I was likely wearing sunglasses and snapping along and saying something about how hep it was, daddy-o.

I think a lot of people have a similar concept of what jazz is, and as cartoony as it seems, we’re actually pretty close to one of the most crucial elements in the jazz tradition – swing. That “ding-dinga-ding-dinga-ding” that the drummer in the imaginary nightclub is demonstrating the feeling that sets his music apart from so many other styles.

Picture a similarly cartoony troop of soldiers marching down a road. In front of them, the drill sergeant is calling hup-2-3-4, hup-2-3-4, and hear how rigid the marching sounds. Jazz musicians use the same 1-2-3-4 as the soldiers, but within each beat, they add a bit of swagger. The resulting, swoony feel is heard as swing, and the more deeply they swing each beat, the more natural and unforced the music sounds.

Today we’re listening to the pianist Thelonious Monk’s famous composition “Straight No Chaser.” It uses chord changes from the blues (see the piece on Robert Johnson) and includes improvisation in a head-solos-head layout (see the piece on John Coltrane’s "Cousin Mary"), but what’s really handy is that the drummer, Art Blakey, is doing an awesome job impersonating the drummer from the imaginary scene we just discussed, and you’ll hear him do it right at the beginning. Let’s listen.


Hopefully you’re hearing more of a smoky club and less of an army training routine in the way the group is playing. The sound is natural, swinging and free, but the way the musicians accomplish it is a bit tricky. In most kinds of music, when musicians play notes faster than the beat of the song, they just take the beats and split them in half – twice as many notes. When playing jazz with swing, the musicians don’t split them right in half, but shoot for a gray area somewhere closer to 2/3 of the way through the beat. It’s impossible to write it out exactly, which is why I’m going to show how it sounds in this video:

The great jazz composer Duke Ellington once wrote a song called “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” and it’s almost true. When the swing is missing, or played too exactly, traditional jazz does sound a bit off. The more I can feel swing in the music I listen to, the more I can enjoy it when musicians are doing it really well, just like when a comedian tells a joke with expert timing or when the spices in a bowl of chili are just right. Is there a song that swings extra hard for you? Let’s talk.

AuthorSteve Mossberg

There’s no cut-and-dried formula for writing a successful pop song – if there were, everybody would be doing it. The main ingredient is that melody or groove that sticks in your ear, seeming timeless and novel at the same time. It’s perhaps to most mysterious intangible in the world of music. However, beyond that magic bit of inspiration in the ear of the artist, there’s a lot of calculated work that can be done to make sure a potential hit sounds just right. That’s why most of the big singles on the radio today are not done in a single stroke of genius, but are written  by crack teams of three or more songwriters.

            Today, we’re listening to “When I Was Your Man,” sung by Bruno Mars. The song was released in January and has sold over three million copies in just the first half of 2013. It’s no exception – Mars wrote the song with his regular three-man team, the Smeezingtons, and brought in composer/producer Andrew Wyatt for more help along the way. Clearly, at least three million people, including myself, have no problem getting into and enjoying this song so after we hear it, we’ll break down a few of the features that make it so memorable. Let’s listen.


And now to highlight some of the strong points of the song:


1. Darkness and Light – From the beginning of the first verse, the song moves in a constant cycle of climbing up to dark minor chords and landing on brighter major ones – every other line. This creates a sense of emotional push and pull. Every time the chorus comes around, and Mars begins apologizing, the piano gets more gentle, and the singing sweeter. At the very last chorus, this is particularly evident, as the notes become lower and the vocal style particularly muted, mirroring the resignation of the song’s character as he ultimately gives his lover up.

2. Well placed “oooh” – In the part right before the chorus, Mars goes wordless, briefly. The “oooh” doesn’t just work as a contrast to the lyrics; it’s one of the songs catchiest melodies in and of itself. In this way, the songwriters get two hooks instead of one. If you didn’t get the part about the flowers stuck in your head, you’re bound to walk around throughout your day going “oooh.”

3. Killer Bridge – The bridge is the part of the song that usually comes but once. The songwriters use this one as the “When I Was Your Man’s” emotional climax. The chords creep upwards, the melody rises, and Mars finally blurts out “I was wrong!” at the top of his vocal range. By matching music to feelings to words, the effect is greater than the sum of its parts.

4. Ear-catching Arrangement – Often, the big hit singles use instruments in a way that isn’t being heard much at the time. Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” had a big ukulele part, Snoop Lion (nee Dogg) had the clicking tongues on “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” and “When I Was Your Man” has piano. Just piano. Clearly, the song is sung from a vulnerable place, and the sparse accompaniment matches the sentiment perfectly. It’s so open that if you listen with headphones, you can hear Mars suck the air in before every line he sings.

Naturally, we haven’t solved the mystery of every hit song today, but hopefully we’ve been able to zoom in on a few of the things that work for this one. Maybe when the next big hit comes out we’ll be able to get a little closer to figuring it why we love it. Or hate it. Let’s talk.

AuthorSteve Mossberg

This post marks the first Listenover Three, a regular series in which we'll hear three pieces of music that allow us to look deeper into one corner of the world of music. 

When Will Ferrell pranced around the recording studio as an over-enthusiastic percussionist on Saturday Night Live, “more cowbell!” became a comic catchphrase to a generation. This musical meme-before-there-were-memes was unstoppable. There are “more cowbell” t-shirts, “more cowbell” calls at concerts, even a “more cowbell” website. But what do we really know about the humble cowbell? In this week’s three, we take a look at a trio of unforgettable cowbell moments.


1.  “Don’t Fear the Reaper” – Blue Oyster Cult  1976

            This is the song that started the joke. While Ferrell’s cowbell is way out front thanks to Christopher Walken’s yelling in the studio, the actual cowbell part on the recording is quiet enough that you may need to listen twice to catch it. What makes the song interesting is that it lays in the period of 1970s hard rock when it was totally acceptable, even favorable, to bring mix elements of 60s psychedelia and the melodramatic classical touches of progressive rock into a hit single. Listen for the epic moment at 2’38”.


2. “Grazing In The Grass” – Hugh Masekela 1969

            Though Hugh Masekela had an upbringing in the rich brass music of his native South Africa, we here in the west know the trumpeter mainly for one song. His 1968 jazz-pop hit "Grazing In The Grass" is funky and catchy and has been deemed sample worthy by rappers Nice & Smooth and pop band Sugar Ray. In this case, cowbell is the first thing you hear, and every time it comes back it adds more to the rhythm than a corny reference to cows, the actual grass-grazers in question.  Masekela takes a great, soulful trumped solo for the whole second minute of the track.

3. “Ran Kan Kan” – Tito Puente 1955

            Tito Puente, the Juilliard-trained percussionist that helped bring Afro-Cuban rhythms to the United States was known as “El Rey de los Timbales,” but because the small pair of Cuban drums almost always has a cowbell or two sticking out between them we can may be able to call him the king of the cowbell as well.  “Ran Kan Kan,” one of his biggest hits, is all about the sound of the instruments and how great they are. This live version offers a great chance to see how nimbly he strikes the cowbell in the middle of his drumming.

AuthorSteve Mossberg

When people first find themselves listening to classical music, they often find it challenging to pick out a melodic voice to follow. This makes a lot of sense; most of the music we hear from day to day has a strong lead “voice” the pops right out of mix. Add to that the fact that the “voice” itself is usually an actual human vocalist singing memorable lyrics, and its no surprise that we’re often baffled about where to look when listening to something different. 

I find that one of the most exciting sounds in music is made when a composer takes two or three or even more voices and figures out a way for them to exist beautifully at the same time. It’s a technique called counterpoint, and it’s not easy to do well, and can take a bit of getting used to for the listener. It was popular a very long time ago, starting in the Renaissance and remaining pretty common through the mid-1700s. Though its usage has declined since then, it pops up regularly in the works of great classical composers, Dixieland and Cool jazz, and in some memorable rock examples (you know that prim-sounding piano solo in “In My Life” by the Beatles?)

Though he was neither the first nor the last to write music this way, the undisputed king of counterpoint was Johann Sebastian Bach. The German Baroque composer of the early 1700s was fiercely intelligent and prolific and an absolute demon on the organ and harpsichord (pianos hadn’t really been invented back in his then). He was respected by his musical peers, but derided by a large portion of his audience for being a bit brainy. Fortunately, along with his more complex works, he wrote some pieces called inventions that were intended to teach students how to apply his difficult techniques. Beginner piano players still learn this one all the time, and as you can hear, it’s far from a boring educational piece. Here’s the two-part invention in D minor. Let’s listen.


            Obviously, there's a relentless stream of notes all the way through this short invention. After the first two measures of music, both voices are going at the same time, and it can be hard to follow. Every time a new melody enters the piece in one hand, the composer has the other one playing supporting notes. If one voice is using long, slowly spaced notes, the other one contains rapid successions of short notes, and vice-versa. This creates a dense texture for most of the piece.

           As you listen to the invention again, see if Bach’s lines become less tangled in your ears. His intentions were not to confuse you, but to dazzle you with the interplay of the voices. Composers and musicians of all genres like to come back to Bach and listen because his craftsmanship is so delicate and ornate that it tends to impress them again and again the more they hear his counterpoint. What do you think? Let’s talk.

AuthorSteve Mossberg

The blues, particularly the old delta blues, appeals because its characters, real and fake, are as gritty as the old lacquer recordings themselves. The image of the wandering musician doing dealings or trading blows with the devil on a moonlit country road pops up in songs, from the Charlie Daniels Band’s country hit “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” to one of the raps in Run-D.M.C.’s “King of Rock.”  The lone, scratchy-voiced bluesmen of the early 20th century were the original “bad boys” of American pop music.

As a young jazz musician, who spent his teenage years listening to very flashy, aggressive, rock music, I had a hard time getting into the blues upon first listening to it. There’s a false, widespread belief that the blues is a precursor to, or even a type of jazz, and when I listened to it from that viewpoint, I found it too repetitive and simplistic. The blues does lend its chord changes to many jazz compositions (see my article on John Coltrane’s “Cousin Mary”) but its true musical child is rock and roll. So, I adjusted my ears and listened to blues players like I was listening to rock guitarists, but compared to the blisteringly fast, standout solos I heard on my heavy metal and progressive rock records, the guitar playing seemed totally secondary to the lyrics and singing. If these old guys were supposed to have sold their souls to the devil for supernatural playing technique, it sounded to me like they got a raw deal. It wasn’t until I really examined how the music was put together that I could appreciate both the mystique and the actual sound of the delta blues.

Today, we’re going to hear what’s so great in the guitar playing of Robert Johnson, the quintessential delta bluesman. He’s the musician most associated with the Faustian devil-deal, on account of his short life, mysterious death, haunting voice, and ability to sound like two guitarists playing at once. The recording is from 1936, two years before his unsolved murder at the age of 27. The lyrics to “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” come from folk sources, and are a bit lewd, but that’s part of the blues appeal. It’s only Johnson, his guitar and a microphone in the small Texas studio. Let’s listen.

Apart from the obvious soulful singing from Johnson, and universal theme of desperation in searching for a lost love, the great beauty of the song lies in the accompaniment, the way Johnson is acting as his own backup band. If it seems hard to follow the rhythm of the song at first, I recommend focusing on the “chugga-chugga” boogie-woogie figure he’s playing on the lowest strings of the guitar. In between the lines he sings, Johnson playing high “ding-a-ding, ding-a-ding” patterns, like the lead guitarist in a rock band would do decades later, or maybe as the right hand of a pianist might do while his left-hand keeps time. The amazing part is that Johnson is playing in two different areas of the guitar’s range, using two clashing rhythms, and is doing that haunting singing at the same time. Hence, the illusion of two musicians instead of one, and the myth that he sold his soul to the devil in order to do so.

Now that you’ve seen all the parts played on a piano, I recommend listening the unique way Robert Johnson combined them on his guitar. Are you hearing why he was feared and revered by generations after him? Let’s talk.

AuthorSteve Mossberg

The first time I put on a jazz record, I found myself tapping my foot and shaking my head in disbelief at how fast the musicians played and how smart it sounded. The problem was, although I was able to follow the melody for the first minute or so, I lost it pretty soon afterwards. Modern jazz (and I mean most jazz from the second half of the 20th century) is all about improvisation. That’s not to say that there’s no room for cool compositions, of which there are very many, but you’ve got to figure that 80% or more of whatever you are listening to on any given is getting made up on the spot – hence the challenge for the listener.

I’ve been to some pretty ritzy jazz clubs, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of the audience there were feeling the same challenge. Often, you’ll see a sax player step up to the mic, play something really clever and fast and when she steps back, the audience applauds. Then maybe a trumpet player will do the same and get the same treatment. Then the piano player plays a really impressive solo, and nobody claps. Why? The audience doesn't hate piano – they just can't tell where the improvisation stops and starts without the visual cue of a soloist stepping up to a mic and then walking away when he’s done.

One of the reasons for jazz’s wild lack of popularity is that hearing a solo well can take some practice. However, I believe that a listener can get a lot more out of a jazz recording with some prep and mindfulness, and it should only take a few minutes to do so. We’re practicing on “Cousin Mary” by the John Coltrane Quartet, recorded in 1959, and featuring Trane (as the too cool like to call him), on tenor sax, Tommy Flanagan on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Art Taylor on drums.

When playing modern jazz, musicians generally get the whole melody, or head, out of the way first, and it’s often quite short. In this case, it’s 13 seconds long. The group is going to play it twice, and then they’ll take turns improvising. What makes this layout compelling is that the musicians have to play by some challenging rules. While Coltrane plays the head, the rest of the group, also called the rhythm section, supports it with a series of chords that match it. These are called changes. When taking a solo, each  improviser needs to play notes that match the same  changes in the same order they were played during the head, and the rhythm section needs to outline those changes in a fresh way each chorus, or cycle of changes. After everyone gets a turn at improvising, the group plays the head twice more, and the song is over.
Let’s listen.


Hopefully, you were able to tell the instruments apart and might even have a sense of how the melody goes during the head sections. The real fun, however, begins when you can hear not just the order of events, but the chord changes themselves. Remember how each improviser needs to remember those changes when taking his solo? You can follow them by humming the melody to yourself while they play. The next time you listen, hum along with the head at the 1” and 13” mark. Then when you get to the solos, keep humming or at least thinking of it. Since John Coltrane plays for ten choruses, you’ll be able to hum it ten times before he finishes. You’ll hum it six times for Tommy Flanagan, three times for Paul Chambers, and, since the tenor player just can’t restrain himself, three extra times for Trane.


Jazz Chart.jpg

Don’t sweat it if you lose your place or just decide to stop. The point of this exercise isn’t to get you to memorize and sing along with every jazz song you hear, but to help put you in a place where you can follow and appreciate what the musicians are doing most of the time. Listening mindfully to Cousin Mary today, I was really struck by how Coltrane brings the blues into his solo at 1’06,” how Tommy Flanagan interrupts the flow during the 3’28” chorus with gospel chords, and the overall human voice-like quality of Paul Chambers’ brief improvisation. What did you hear? Let’s talk.

AuthorSteve Mossberg
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That’s what I often hear when I start really talking about music. Music is a very magical, personal force and I often encounter in others the fear that it will somehow lose its power if we figure it out. The last thing I want to do is take the magic out of people’s favorite songs, but what about one that they avoid because they  “don’t get it?” If a listener can recognize just a few things in an unfamiliar piece of music, they have a something to hold on to. Who’s to say that the new song couldn’t become a favorite as well?

Most of us are unable or unwilling to speak articulately, even in very basic terms, about what’s happening in a piece of music. When I express an opinion on a song, I’ll often hear someone say, “I’m not a musician like you” or “I’m not that talented” or “that’s too technical.” Let’s a take a step back. I’ve never heard anybody resist a debate about who makes the best pizza in town because he himself is not a pizza maker. Nobody’s going to be told they’re “too technical” for arguing that Armando’s uses too much sauce and not enough cheese, or that Marco’s has the best crust but is too greasy when you get a slice of pepperoni. The basic vocabulary allows for the discussion, and helps you decide which pizzeria you like the best. We shouldn’t be afraid to be articulate about music either.

Without looking into how music works, we tend to go with what we “get,” but the truth is that nobody just “gets” music.  We, as listeners, have a terrific capacity for understanding things that we listen to repeatedly. Even the most self-effacing lay person is in fact a highly sophisticated listener to a certain kind of music. I’ve met many heavy metal enthusiasts with tons of knowledge in the area. Ask a metal-head friend and you’ll probably find they can rattle of a huge list of bands, albums, and song lyrics. They may even be able to sing complex guitar solos or accurately play air drums to a fast song. Likewise, devoted indie rock fans often display the ability to know exactly what’s on the edge and what’s passé. I have some real hipster friends that have developed remarkable ears for finding the next cool thing.

Today, let’s try hearing something that we probably don’t “get.” We’re listening to a short piece of classical music. Although the French composer Claude Debussy was considered edgy, the audience in his time was very good at listening to the kind of impressionist music he was writing. They probably had some words in their vocabulary to describe it too, but they were unlikely to use them from day to day. This is because they heard this sort of thing all the time and “got it” as a result. Just like a country music fan might need a little help learning what to listen for on a rap album, we, one hundred years out from Debussy’s time, could probably stand to have some guidance.

La fille aux cheveux de lin sounds sexier in French, but English-speaking listeners know it as “The Girl With Flaxen Hair.” Debussy wrote it in 1909 or 1910, and it’s about two and a half minutes long. This piece sounds great in the background. Throw it on casually and it should be soothing and relaxing, and if I’m cooking or reading a book I sometimes do just that. I however, find it even cooler when I pay attention to it. Let’s listen.

One of the things you might have noticed about the piece is that seems to wander. You don’t get a catchy repeated section that sticks in your ear like the chorus of a song. You may, however have found that the very first phrase the pianist plays seems to poke its way into the mix a lot as the music goes on. Debussy actually built the entire piece on fragments of that first short melody. In doing so, he made a lot out of a little, an approach that is highly valued in Western classical music, and as the person who found the perfect cheese slice will tell you, in pizza as well.

When Debussy’s key motif is played at the beginning it sounds very exposed – a string of single ringing notes, almost like a child singing a nursery rhyme. When he brings it back for the second time at the 24-second mark, the melody is written higher, and this time with a sense of hesitation in the chords below it. Instead of stopping where he did before, the composer extends the last three notes and falls downwards, before sending off cascading waves of the same pattern at the 46-second mark. That little phrase comes back as an anthem at the one-minute mark and builds non-stop for thirty seconds. When the pressure comes to a head, the original motif returns back with delicacy, this time played more richly, with a second harmony voice. The mood eventually descends, letting go of the tension of the middle section, and that pretty little melody becomes totally isolated again, leaving as quietly as it came.

I recommend you listen to the piece again, trying to trace the motif’s progress. I do not, however, advocate trying to find every little thing I mentioned above, or you really might risk ruining the music. The goal here is not to cut the piece into bits and analyze it death, it’s to allow you to hear Debussy’s work like a casual listener in his time would have. If you can get your ears into that zone, I think “The Girl With the Flaxen Hair” is pretty approachable, and if you do approach it several times, you may notice how impressive the architecture is – and maybe that it’s pretty catchy after all.

Let’s talk.


AuthorSteve Mossberg