Archive for music

Braille Music Notator

I’m thrilled to announce something new today that has nothing to do with Sparky the Music Theory Dog (though I’m sure he’d approve): Braille Music Notator, an online system I’ve been working on since early last year. It’s still in development — I’m calling it an “alpha” version because there are still a few features I’d like to add — but it’s at the point where I could use some more folks tinkering with it.

What is it? Well, there are a few utilities out there — free and otherwise — that will translate a music score from a program like Finale or Sibelius into braille music notation, and they work pretty well as far as automatic translation systems go. But even if a translation system is advanced enough to avoid sometimes hilarious mistranslations, the result still often feels clunky and inefficient.

The idea behind Braille Music Notator is to encourage us sighted folk to learn a little braille music — it’s really not that hard — so that we can create legible, well-designed braille scores from scratch. The utility provides a work area for you to build the score, but it displays the characters using familiar music notation rather than the raised dots of braille. (You can switch between viewing the characters as braille or as music symbols, if you wish.) So while no knowledge of braille or braille music is required to use the system, you will find yourself learning as you use it! Once you’ve constructed the score, you can save it to your computer to work on it later, or export it in a format which can be sent to a braille embosser to produce an actual physical score.

Although the system is designed for sighted musicians — the primary interface is very visual — it is also completely accessible to users who rely on a screen reader like VoiceOver on Mac OS or JAWS on Windows.

While I know that for some, existing translation systems work just fine. But my hope is that more sighted music educators will see the benefit of learning more about braille music notation — not just to make it easier to create materials for their visually impaired students, but to be able to teach more effectively and comprehensively.

Check out Braille Music Notator here! You can either dive in (I tried to make it pretty intuitive!), or check out the Users Guide first. If you rely on a screen reader, you may wish to begin with the Quick Start for Screen Reader Users. And above all, let me know what you think. Thanks!


Send In The Hemidemisemiquavers

Thanks to Australian composer, professor and fellow computer geek Matthew Hindson, I’m excited this morning to announce a version of my theory pages localized for British and Australian musicians! This is the first (and, admittedly, easiest) translated versions of Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People that are currently in progress, thanks to the efforts of an elite cadre of volunteers. If you’d like to help, we’d love to have you… let me know!

I’ve also posted a few corrections to pages in the original English (ahem… American) version. More pages to come soon!

Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People (British & Australian version)

Whoa I Guess a Lot of People Like Music Theory

Between appearing on Hacker News in October and on Classic FM last week, my theory pages have been getting quite a bit of attention, which has been fun. It made me think I should go back and make all those corrections and updates I’ve been meaning to make!

So I did… I fixed a bunch of errors on a ton of the pages across the board, and I’ve added a sheet on Species Counterpoint in Three Voices. So if you haven’t done so recently, feel free to download the latest version of your favorite page (or the whole collection so far).

More sheets are coming soon!

New Pages

I’ve finally gotten around to working a bit more on my theory review pages, and I’ve added three more pages in the Species Counterpoint section. I plan to add one more (Species I in three voices) and then I’ll move on to more twentieth-century pages. When will that happen? Maybe later today. Maybe next year! It all depends on when I can find time to do it. Hopefully soon… I really enjoy making them!

Another change is that I’m moving away from using Issuu to host the files. Issuu was the best solution way back when to host the things, because they provided unlimited bandwidth. They were a hassle on the user’s side, though, because in order to download the files you needed to create an Issuu profile and deal with their interface, which is designed more for perusing magazines and books than individual pages.

So the files are hosted on now, and I’ve left a note for Issuu followers to register here instead for updates. Maybe that’s you! If so, welcome to my incredibly underused blog!

Here’s the link: Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People

The Devil Went Down To Leipzig

In response and homage to Ryan Laney’s fugue of the same name, in which he used the famous fiddle riff from the Charlie Daniels Band’s famous song as the subject.

The Devil went down to Leipzig, he was looking for another soul
Had a date with a doc down in Auerbach’s… but he had time to take a stroll
When he ducked into St. Thomas’ church and slid down past the pews
And he came upon our boy Johann, lacin’ up his organ shoes.

“You may be surprised to hear this, boy, but I’m an organist as well.
Don’t play many hymns, but we get our grins on the pipes down there in Hell.
Now I’ve heard you play a mean Marchand, but I wager I can do you in
And I’ll stake your soul for these shoes of gold, ‘cause I think I’m gonna win.”

The boy said, “My name’s Johnny, and such deals give me pause,
But strap on your shoes, and prepare to lose, cause I’m the best there ever was.

Johnny, open up the swell box and play like never before,
‘Cause Hell’s broke lose in Leipzig and the Devil’s keepin’ score.
And if you win you get these shoes with plates of gold
But it you lose, the coffee’s goin’ cold

The Devil sat down to the manuals and said, “This here is how it’s done.”
And he pulled out the stops and made the pedals drop and contest had begun.
That band of foul demons rose up ‘round from the abyss,
And fire belched from the flues as those golden shoes lit up the pedalboard like this.

[The Devil’s organ solo]

When the Devil cadenced, Johann said, “‘Twas an admirable display,
But you’ve had your ride. Now move aside and let me show you how to play.”

“Sacred Head now Wounded.” Play, Bach, Play!
The Devil’s in the chapel on Whitsunday.
Children in the narthex singin’ “Go, Pops, go!”
Beer and sausage later and a bauernbrot roll.

The Devil cast his head down for he knew that he’d been bested.
And he paid his dues for the golden shoes down by the bench now rested.
Johnny said, “Now come on back, you hear, if you ever have just cause,
But prepare to be stunned, you son of a gun, ‘cause I’m the best there ever was.”
And he played:

“Sacred Head now Wounded.” Play, Bach, Play!
The Devil’s in the chapel on Whitsunday.
Children in the narthex singin’ “Go, Pops, go!”
Beer and sausage later and a bauernbrot roll.


As many of you know, I’ve been in the process of applying to other schools for a tenure-track teaching position. Because of this, I’ve been putting off making some changes to the way I teach my classes, figuring that upon moving to a new school, I’ll likely need to make some significant adjustments anyway.

Well, as I approach another final year here at UNC, I decided I should stop putting them off, and so students who have had me for theory or aural skills in the past will notice some fairly significant differences beginning this semester. I’ll go over these on the first day of classes, of course, but since you’re reading this, you’re obviously pretty bored, so I’ll give you a little (okay, maybe not-so-little) preview of what’s to come:
Music Theory: A Revised (But Not Really) Late Policy

As I understand it, I am fairly well-liked by students at UNC. Though I’d love to credit my rugged good looks, I know it has more to do with my homework policy, which allows students to turn homework in late and redo any and all assignments for a higher grade. The irony of this is there is enough proverbial rope there for students to hang themselves pretty easily; without the sharp teeth of an unbending deadline, students often get lazy and end up procrastinating their homework submission to the point of failing the class.
Now, I could certainly adopt a no-late-assignments allowed policy, but I don’t feel good about punishing a student because he or she happened to forget to bring a completed assignment… or (more likely) forgot the assignment was due today and neglected to get to it. I gave this a lot of thought this summer, and I think the way to solve this issue is to simply follow my own syllabus. See, this is what my syllabi say about late papers:

Homework must be turned in at the beginning of the class period on the date which it is due. Late assignments will have their grade lowered by two (2) points for each class period it is late. Assignments will not be accepted later than six (6) class periods after the due date. Exceptions will be made for unusual circumstances at the instructor’s discretion.

The thing is, for the past I-don’t-know-how-many years, I haven’t assigned late points… and I’ve allowed students to submit assignments as late as the last day before Finals Week. The reason I’ve done this has to do with bookkeeping: with papers coming at me from all directions, it’s hard for me to keep track of when something was turned in. But after yet another semester of getting close to half of the homework for the semester on that Friday before Finals Week (and none of it particularly high quality work, having been procrastinated and completed under duress), I’ve decided to solve the bookkeeping problem with technology:

I’ve always loved stamps, so bring able to justify the purchase of one of these bad boys is awesome.
So starting with this semester, homework that is submitted on the due date gets no penalty, homework turned before six class periods have passed (that’s three weeks!) gets late points taken off, and homework turned in after six class periods will get a zero. I’ll still grade it, so students can at least prepare for the final. Homework can still be redone up through the last day before Finals Week, but the late points stick.

I’ll make sure students are warned about impending due dates; I’m envisioning a chart showing due dates and late points that I’ll post online and bring to class. The goal of all this, of course, is to discourage procrastination… whether or not it helps, time will tell.

Music Theory: No More Keyboard Labs

Oh, I’m sorry, I should have made sure you were sitting down before you read that.
Keyboard Labs — computer-graded tests which involved applying theoretical principles to the piano keyboard — have been a part of the curriculum since well before I arrived at UNC. Waaaaay back when, they were given by the instructors in their office: students would come in one at a time and suffer through transcribing progressions while the prof sat there and graded their proficiency with it. When technology allowed it, these tests were moved to the Piano Lab, proctored by lab monitors, but hated only a little bit less by the students. (Probably because they could cheat on them easier. What, you think I didn’t know?) Over the last five years, as the UNC Theory Faculty has almost completely changed (Dr. Ehle and I are the only two theory faculty who were teaching here six years ago), fewer and fewer instructors are incorporating Keyboard Labs into their classes; in fact, I believe I was the only one doing them last semester.
On a practical level, I think it’s silly to pay lab monitors for an entire day of proctoring to serve only one professor’s needs, even if that professor is me. On a curricular level, our Class Piano curriculum includes most of the skills covered in these tests, and so I think it’s time to bid this long-standing institution a perhaps-not-so-tearful adieu.

To account for the portion of the course grade taken up by Keyboard Labs, I am increasing the Daily Work portion of my theory course grades to 50%, and I am going to try to have a few more graded in-class assignments to balance things out a little.
Sorry, still don’t believe it? It’s true… Keyboard Labs are dead. Yes, that means you don’t have any scheduled theory-related things on Friday! Yes, between practicing for these tests and taking them, that means you have a little more spare time than you used to. And before you get too far in planning what you are going to do with that extra spare time…
Aural Skills: Homework

Okay, wait, just hear me out on this one. Believe it or not, my goal with adding graded homework assignments to Aural Skills is to actually improve the students’ life, rather than make it more painful.
The thing with Aural Skills is that there’s only one way to get good at it, and that’s individual practice. I could spend every minute of every class period on ear training exercises and it would do very little to help the students. Why? For several reasons. First, the in-class stuff has to be targeted at the median skill level, so there are inevitably going to be some students who are bored stiff and others who are frantically trying to keep up (and spiraling into frustration). Second, there is no way to spend time on everyone’s weakest exercises; some students may need more practice with rhythmic dictation, while others may need more time on chords. Third, in-class exercises have to be rushed, and often students don’t have time to go through the entire thought process they need to before being given the correct answers. And having the answers given, no matter when it happens, makes the student approach it differently (“I’ll try this and see if it’s right” as opposed to “I better focus and really try hard so I can get a good grade”).
Of course, practicing outside of class has always been expected… I implore my students on a daily basis to this end, but let’s face it: most students don’t spend the time outside of class that they need to. I don’t take this personally — I know that most of them really do intend to spend more time on it — but college students are crazy busy, and individual aural skills practice tends to always be a weak point.
So then that brings us to the idea of somehow requiring aural skills practice for a grade, and that often takes the form of MacGAMUT or something similar. I won’t go into my gripes with MacGAMUT here (as an aural skills teacher I applaud it but as a computer interface designer it gives me wildly violent convulsions), and most other software I’ve seen tends to get pretty limited especially with the higher-level chromatic stuff. Plus, working with any of these programs is about as fun as watching paint dry. Like, really boring paint.
So what I’m going to try is homework that might be marginally fun to do: transcribing popular music. It’s going to be pretty restrictively guided transcriptions… for example, dictating the melody of a song using solfege, or notating only the rhythm of some other song. I’ll provide answer blanks that guide the student through it pretty carefully, with lots of instructions, and I’m choosing songs very specifically to match the skill level of the class. Sure, they’re going to be challenging, but it’s music people enjoy. The Beatles. KT Tunstall. Muse. Owl City. And I’ve found out how to make the music itself available through Blackboard, so there shouldn’t be any need to spend gobs of time in the lab or Music Library to do the homework.
And my intention with this homework is not to create more work, but just to structure the existing work a little more. Doing these transcriptions counts as time spent practicing your aural skills… heck, it’s the way I keep my own skills honed.
Aural Skills: No More Gigantic Exams

The other big change — and this is probably the biggest one — is getting rid of the one thing the students and I both hate the most about Aural Skills: these monumental, hour-long exams that blast into the scene like Godzilla at midterms and finals. For the students, it’s pure, concentrated pain — before, during and after the exam.
So, you know what? Bam. They’re gone.
Well, of course, I still need to evaluate the students, so it’s not that testing is going away, but why have it all crammed into one day? Fatigue plays a huge part of student’s trouble on these exams, and having everything on one day makes for a ton of preparation. Plus, if that particular day is your off-day, you’re hosed.
So I am breaking the evaluation into 9 smaller (10-15 minute) tests over the course of the semester. Each one will be over one particular skill (for example, melodic dictation) and will have a more casual feel to them. Between these tests and the four sight-singing tests we always have, every Thursday will have some sort of evaluation, but I think having everything spread out will be less overall stress (remember, no midterm and no final!) and more chances to improve one’s grade.
All Classes: More Blackboard-y Goodness

Lastly, I’ve spent the last two or three weeks really trying to work with my arch-nemesis, Blackboard (why UNC would choose an actual supervillian to provide online course management, I’ll never know) and I’m happy to say that we have come to a slightly better understanding of each other. As a result, I am not only beefing up the amount of stuff I’m posting on Blackboard (as I mentioned above, all the Aural Skills homework, with recordings, will be up there) but I have also figured out how to export my gradebooks into Blackboard without needing a ton of extra effort. The Grade Center in Blackboard will now have individual assignment grades as well as overall averages, so students will be able to see exactly where they are at, gradewise (including which assignments have yet to be handed in). I should be able to update the system after each grading session, so it should stay pretty current. Really, the only thing Blackboard’s Grade Center won’t have is the Tuition Wasted Through Absence column… but you can check with me personally if you’re worried about that one. (That, or just not skip class.)
Once More Unto The Breach
To be honest, this may be the most prepared I’ve been for a semester for a very long time, but with all these changes, I fully expect something to go haywire and need to be revised on the fly, so bear with me. Either way, I look forward to 15 weeks jam-packed with theory and aural skills goodness… starting Monday. See you all then!

A Small Gift to My Students

My dad told me a story once about when he was a boy growing up in Kansas City. One of the neighborhood kids had found out that he was related to Daniel Boone. Of course, at the time, Daniel Boone was a superstar and coonskin caps were a frequent sight in any group of kids. This boy took every opportunity to bring up his famous relative, leaving the other kids wishing that they had a famous ancestor.

Now, this particular neighbor kid eventually moved away, and after seeing the moving van drive off, my dad pointed out — for probably the hundredth time — that the boy was related to Daniel Boone, and wished aloud that he had a famous relative. It was at this point that my grandmother decided to tell him that he was, in fact, related to President Abraham Lincoln, which out-awesomed Daniel Boone by a factor of ten or twelve and which caused my father to utter in stunned disbelief, “You tell me this now?” My grandmother’s reason for withholding this precious bit of information was just what you’d expect it to be, if you had ever met my grandmother: she wanted my dad to live on his own merits, not those of some famous relation. (And that’s just as well, considering there are more than enough rogues and crooks on my father’s side to more than balance out whatever Honest Abe’s family contributed to the bloodline.)
Fast forward to seven or eight years ago, I found the source of my grandmother’s information: the obituary of my great great grandmother, Abigail Stover (neé Nave), which stated that President Lincoln was her great uncle. Unfortunately, for Lincoln to be anyone’s great uncle, he would have to have a sibling with grandchildren, and President Lincoln did not… his younger brother Thomas died at the age of three, and his older sister, Sarah Grigsby, died while giving birth to her first child, who also did not survive the birth.
My dad: “Well, they tended to embellish things a bit back then.”
So, on to the gift: another type of genealogy. The connection here is not blood, but learning. My faculty advisor for my Masters and Doctorate was Dr. Evan Copley, who retired a few years back. He studied at Michigan State University with H. Owen Reed, who studied with, among others, Bohuslav Mårtinu, on whose third piano concerto I wrote my own dissertation. Reed actually studied with several other composers of note, and of course they each studied with other great musicians, and so on.
Now, this genealogy comes, quite literally, from an afternoon spent on Wikipedia, which means 1) you can trace my steps if you like, and 2) well, the information is as reliable as anything else on Wikipedia. It is, of course, woefully incomplete; I’ve studied with many other professors, as has Dr. Copley, and so forth and so on. If this type of thing interests you, think of it as a “start.” Most importantly, don’t put much stock in this; it’s not going to mean anything on a resumé, and bringing it up to others will just make you look pretentious. My main point in doing this is to show you that it’s actually a pretty small world, and that the masters we study existed in the same world we do, even to the point of affecting us more directly than we may have previously considered.
So I give you my “Professorial Lineage”; and if you’re a student of mine, I commend it to you for further expansion downward.

(PDF, 15.9 MB)

Homeward Bound

I’m heading back to Greeley today after spending the weekend with my parents in sunny Los Alamos, New Mexico… the premise for my visit was actually to attend a rehearsal of the Los Alamos High School “Encore” Choir, who will be performing a piece I wrote in 1992 on their October 30th concert.

They sound fantastic, of course, and the concert should be wonderful; I won’t be attending, though, since that’s the week my wife is due. They have promised me a recording and I will post it here when I get it.

John Williams is Your Master Now

I am going to be giving my presentation on the Music of Star Wars on Thursday, September 20, 2007 at 3:30 pm in Frasier 90 (“Studio B”) on the UNC Campus. Admission is free!

If you haven’t already seen it, the presentation includes music and video and shows a bunch of cool stuff you may not have noticed before… in fact, the most common response to the presentation is “Oh, man! I need to go watch those movies again!” So keep Thursday evening open just in case.
If you have already seen it, then hopefully it will bring back happy memories for you. You’ll never know if you don’t come!