Musical Space

Makers of pop music have always engineered their songs to sound big and loud. Motown records, for instance, have a legendary, huge sound. Sometimes, though, loudness can be overdone, and this problem seems to be getting worse.

The technology behind this is a device called a compressor. Its job is to keep a volume level consistent. This is great when you want, say, a vocalist to remain audible above the other instruments.

For two decades now, Beck Hansen has been keeping his music fresh and compelling by never letting it be defined by genre or convention. He gets his listeners to rethink pop formulas by deconstructing, combining and transcending them. Every release by Beck is different from the last one; previous albums have merged and reexamined rock, hip-hop, latin and folk styles. With his latest release, Song Reader, Beck has outdone himself.

freakgirl / flickr

“Happy Birthday to You” is one of the best known songs in the world, but one rarely hears it in a movie or on TV.

There is a monetary reason for this: “Happy Birthday To You” is copyright protected, and to use it can cost a producer as much as $30,000.

It is incredible to me that the song is not in the public domain, but this is one of those strange stories born at the intersection of popular music and copyright law.


The tune was written for a song "Good Morning to All" in 1893 by Louisville kindergarten teachers Patty and Mildred Hill.

Musical Space: Merch

Feb 5, 2013
Split Lip Rayfield

Now that CDs aren’t making money, more of a musician's income is from selling "merch" - merchandise: T-shirts, stickers, guitar picks, etc.

Merch might not be the main part of a band’s revenue stream, but I think it has become a bigger part of the musical experience since the beginning of the digital age.

Merch is essential for the true fan. An MP3 is a transitory and abstract thing; a concert T-shirt on the other hand is tangible and enduring.

John Cage, one of the most influential and revolutionary composers of the 20th Century, was born almost exactly 100 years ago. He was very well schooled as a composer, but it seems as though his mission was to reject nearly every compositional technique he was taught, and instead push the boundaries, even the very definition of music. His results were, to say the least, interesting.

American musician Raymond Scott was one of the most important composers of the Twentieth Century because had a knack for constant innovation and writing music for emerging media. I can’t think of any other composer who was so ahead of his time while also being so recognizable.

In the 1930s the Raymond Scott Quintette played original novelty pop tunes that combined experimental textures, frenetic tempos and appropriated jazz riffs. He played regularly on radio and film; selling a lot of records in the process.

As jazz continues to evolve, what becomes a standard in the jazz repertoire has also changed.

One of the most remarkable things about jazz in '40s and '50s was how musicians could appropriate a popular song and turn it into a jazz composition. It was a beautiful artistic juxtaposition - someone could hear a song sung in a film or on a Broadway stage, and then the same night hear that song turned into a bebop tour-de-force in an after-hours jazz club.

Musical Space: Amateurs

Nov 27, 2012
Reverend Guitars

I'm told that a century ago the average American could sing 300 folk songs. Not too surprising, since back then, if you wanted music, you probably had to make it yourself.

Marcin Wichary / flickr

For a thousand years, there has been a division between musicians who could read music and those who played by ear. Both skills are essential, and so the music industry has become a strange world in which the literate and illiterate coexist.

Music reading is useful because it is so efficient. When the music is written down, composers don’t have to take the time teach their music to the musicians, and musicians don’t have to rely on memory to play their parts.

Musical Space: Auto-Tune

Oct 30, 2012

Auto-tune first appeared in the late 1990s and quickly took hold of pop music with its use in Cher’s 1998 hit, “Believe.” She, and other artists, such as T-Pain were responsible for its popularity, its synthetic voice effect in electronic dance music and hip-hop.

Scary, though, is the more subtle use of auto-tune to correct the performance of a less-than pitch perfect singer. A great vocal performance can be accurate and expressive; electronics can often get in the way.

Pages