All posts by Dr Zack Moir

Dr Zack Moir is a Lecturer in Popular Music at Edinburgh Napier University. He has a strong research interest in popular music pedagogy, music in higher education, musical improvisation and popular music composition. Zack is also an active musician and composer performing in ensembles and as a soloist, internationally. Zack is one of the editors of the 'Routledge Research Companion to Popular Music Education', and the 'Bloomsbury Handbook of Popular Music Education: Perspectives and Practices'.

SWWYK SAFE

(This post is based on a paper presented at a conference on the subject of popular music pedagogy.  It is derived primarily from my experience of teaching popular music for music students, instrumentalists and composers (from primary school to university), and from experience of using popular music in lectures on music analysis and in aural skills classes.)

From discussions with music students of all ages (although primarily high school and undergraduate students) I have become aware that it is very common for there to be an interesting disconnect between students’ listening choices and the music they perform. Whether in school or in university, when asked about the type of music that students are interested in, the vast majority of students state that they choose to listen to popular music whereas the music they play is closely aligned with the repertoire historically associated with their instrument. Although this is simply anecdotal evidence, it suggests to me that there is something of an aural familiarity with many forms of popular music and it follows to suggest that such familiarity can be capitalised upon as a starting point for the development of aural and analytical skills, in addition to instrumental skills and theoretical knowledge.  Additionally, it is believed that listening to and engaging with popular music can be important in the development of students’ analytical listening, the contextualisation and enhancement of their understanding of traditional music analysis and in musicianship skills.

This observation serves merely as an example of the way in which understanding the prior knowledge of one’s students may be instructive in the design and delivery of learning experiences.  By embracing the current knowledge and aural familiarity of a group of students, it is possible to develop understanding and build strong links to concepts and skills central to the education of music students in higher education.  In this sense, the proposed philosophy of ‘start with what you know’ is particularly useful as it accepts and celebrates the considerable and diverse knowledge and experience that music students arrive at university with and encourages them to contextualise, develop and build upon this, in turn empowering them and making them feel valued as legitimate contributors to the collective educational experience of the group.  In considering the diverse range of knowledge and skills of undergraduate students arriving at university, it is also important to consider the changing and varied nature of: (a) high-school music education (b) the experience and aspirations of new first year students and (c) the music industry (in it’s widest sense), including the expectations and demands of other industry professionals.

The inevitable diversity inherent among  first year undergraduate students, in particular, poses interesting challenge to the design of learning activities and, in the wider context, the design of courses and degree programmes.  It is a multi-dimensional issue in the sense that it relates not only to the nature of students entering music degrees but also has strong implications for the attributes of graduates.  More specifically, the perceived nature of the music industry (in the most general sense) impacts upon the values and beliefs of learners to the extent that they choose to study music at university level.  However, in order to be admitted to study music at university and also, to be able to engage practically with the music industry there are certain ‘entry requirements’ related to musicianship skills.  The nature and development of such skills are based on education and experience and vary significantly (both in level and focus) depending on the nature of training and the aspirations of the student.

In an environment where motivations, values and knowledge are so diverse, it is difficult to conceive of absolute definitions of terms such as ‘aural skills’ and ‘musicianship’, for example.  Consequently, this may lead to focus on certain aural skills deemed most important/relevant by lecturers who inevitably have their own educational/professional biases and beliefs with regard to the requisite skills, knowledge and attributes of a music graduate.  It is believed, based on anecdotal accounts from students, that this may result in a situation where some elements of music literacy or musicianship skills may be considered ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘irrelevant’ in the current industry context or ‘inappropriate-for’/‘incompatible-with’ many contemporary forms of music including popular music. This is an important issue when we consider that engagement with such contemporary styles may indeed have been the motivation for university study and the aspiration for future employment or practice, for example.  Indeed, given the relatively recent advent of graded performance syllabi in rock music and jazz (e.g. Rockschool, ABRSM jazz exams, Trinity Rock and Pop etc.), many students undertaking music degrees may arrive at university with little experience of classical music beyond that which is covered in national curricula (e.g. Highers or A-Levels, for example).

I believe that it is, therefore, important to use and build on the (not inconsiderable) prior knowledge and experience that students have as this (a) helps them to learn the material more thoroughly (b) improves their self esteem and, (c) promotes engagement in self directed learning/practice by encouraging them to consider their own experiences and knowledge as valid and valuable.  Building on this allows such prior knowledge to be contextualised within certain fields and for learners to explore the area they are working in and the ways in which their knowledge, expertise and skills relate to wider disciplines, for example.  From my experience of teaching music in a range of educational contexts, for the vast majority of the students, prior knowledge and aural familiarity is generally built around popular music.  If popular music is that which is known, then the philosophy of ‘start with what you know’ dictates that popular music is a suitable starting point.  By building on aural experience and ‘hanging’ theoretical concepts on that which is already understood aurally, it is possible to begin to develop and introduce appropriate discourse that allows students to engage with theoretical and analytic concepts based on solid aural experience.

In the interests of clarity, this approach requires two caveats.  Firstly, I am in no way suggesting that popular music is a ‘stepping stone’ or an easy ‘first step’ into a supposed ‘mystical’ or ‘complex’ world of Western classical music.  This particular use of popular music is as a result of many students indicating that they choose to listen to this type of music and that they are, therefore, familiar (aurally) with many aspects of it.  Secondly, when using popular music to teach students about specific concepts, examples should not be selected in an attempt to be populist and appeal to the musical tastes of the group; rather, any musical example should be stylistically suitable and genuinely represent that which is being discussed or explored and not merely bear a passing resemblance to a concept or compositional device, for example.  Popular music should be considered a valuable pedagogical tool for music students in the development of listening/analysis skills and theoretical knowledge; additionally, engagement with popular music encourages students to embrace other ways of listening to music and to attend to musical features that, (although not traditionally the focus of music theory and analysis), provide valuable and interesting information about the composition and production of the music.

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My Top 5 Songs of 2017:

This is becoming a bit of a tradition for me, having started this as part of an activity for the MOOC we wrote. I have done this in 2014, 2015, 2016, and now 2017.

I love getting to the end of the year and giving myself an excuse to dig back through all the music that was released and pick some favourites to share. There were some incredible records released this year, but here are some highlights for me.  If you are looking for the latest coupons and offers available online, in couponscollector.com you can find a wide range of coupons that you can uses to buy what you need.

Please do feel free to join in by posting yours in the comments section below!

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How Does This Work Then? (for solo cello)

The purpose of this post is to share a recording of new composition of mine for solo cello.

Whenever I get to play around with a cello or think about writing for it, I instinctively seem to see it as some sort of ‘orchestral’ version of the bass guitar – an instrument that I am more familiar with. As such, this music was composed to represent the exploratory, experimental ‘bass-like’ mentality I naturally have when thinking about the instrument.

Justyna Jablonska - Cellist
Justyna Jablonska – Cellist

When performed, this piece should sound like someone ‘discovering’ the cello through the lens of their own experience of playing the bass guitar. The performer should convey a sense of naïve, experimental investigation throughout, and should feel free to hesitate, become frustrated, and embrace any issues associated with exploring an alien, yet strangely familiar instrument.

The score can be downloaded here.

 

The following is a recording of the track (with animated score), performed by Edinburgh-based, Polish cellist Justyna Jablonska.

 

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‘IDDM’: Music from diabetes data

Introduction:

I have Type 1 (insulin dependent) diabetes.  Trying to manage this disease feels like a full time occupation, and it can be exceptionally difficult to try to keep my blood sugar levels stable enough to function properly sometimes.  Simple things like making sure insulin dosage matches my food intake, how much to reduce insulin to compensate for the physical exertion of exercise or even the mental exertion of writing/lecturing etc., can become difficult calculations and when they go wrong, can have some significant effects.  Too much insulin and I get hypoglycemic symptoms which can be anything from mild dizziness and confusion, to loss of consciousness and even seizures.  Too little insulin and blood sugars rise, causing lethargy, unquenchable thirst (coupled with the constant need to run to the toilet), splitting headaches, and ultimately damage to internal organs and other parts of the body.  I feel constantly as if I am performing a tightrope act and that any false steps have life-threatening consequences. All in all, it is not a great deal of fun to have a condition that can make you feel pretty rough a lot of the time.  I should make it clear that I am very aware that many people are far worse off than I am and, in the grand scheme of things, I’m lucky that my condition is relatively easy to treat.  I am not complaining – just setting the scene for the musical information that follows.

Continue reading ‘IDDM’: Music from diabetes data

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MY TOP 5 SONGS OF 2016:

For the last few years, I have created a list of my top 5 records of that year.  I do this for my own amusement, primarily, as it is nice to get to December and have an excuse to spend a while looking back over the year’s musical offerings and rediscovering things that may have slipped my mind.  However, it seems to be a nice way to get people talking about music and sharing their favourites so I thought I’d do it again this year. I normally wait until later in the month to do this but I am currently incredibly busy and, naturally, looking for any procrastination opportunity I can find.

(If you’re interested in the lists from previous  years you can check them out here: 2014 and 2015)

This year has been full of great music and the following is my list, in no particular order. Please do feel free to join in by posting yours in the comments section below!

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Continental Drift: 50 Years of Jazz from Europe

In July of this year I was part of a team, along with Dr Haftor Medbøe and Prof Chris Atton, that organised and hosted the international conference ‘Continental Drift: 50 Years of Jazz from Europe‘, in association with the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival.

We were delighted to welcome a broad range of delegates from around the world, including academics, musicians, industry representatives, and educators. Through a programme of panel discussions, research presentations, and discussion sessions, the conference was a wonderful weekend of informed and lively debate around the ontology of jazz in Europe, the nature of jazz in the region at present, and a look towards the future of the music in this area.

We now have video footage and audio recordings of the event, and I would like to share them in this post.  For audio recordings, you can subscribe to the podcast using iTunes by clicking here, or visit the blog feed here. Please see below for a range of videos of the event.

We are looking forward to working in association with the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival again next year, and we will be distributing a call for papers in the next few weeks.  If you are interested in participating, or even just attending, then please get in touch or comment below.

Enjoy the video content – we’d love to hear your thoughts!

Continue reading Continental Drift: 50 Years of Jazz from Europe

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Writers’ Block

Introduction:

I have writers’ block, when it comes to composition.  I have had it for nearly two years. I have not written a full piece of music that I have been happy with in a long time.  It is starting to stress me out…

What is writers’ block, though?  Many people say that it doesn’t even exist, and that it is just a combination of procrastination, trepidation, and fear of artistic commitment.  That’s probably true , using the term ‘writer’s block’ as some sort of catch-all term for one all encompassing monolithic problem is probably not helpful or appropriate.  Regardless, it feels like an appropriate term and the notion of ‘blockage’, is particularly apt in my case as many of my problems seem to stem from not being able to get close enough to this type of work to develop any ideas or to encourage any artistic ‘juices’ to flow.

When I sit and think about my dearth of ideas and what seems like a crippling lack of creativity, I feel like I can see a number of reasons why this may be the case.  While this is, in some ways, useful as it helps me to see the potential causes, it also has a compounding effect as I know how difficult it will be to try to get past some of the hurdles.  This leads to a spiral of worry about the potential of being in this position permanently and leads to bigger and more important questions such as:  What effect might this have on my teaching?  How might this impact on my musicianship? What on earth can I do to get over this?

The following is my explanation of what I think the main problems are:

Continue reading Writers’ Block

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My Top 5 Songs of 2015:

Last year, having spent a bit of time thinking about the way that people like to make lists of ‘top 5 records’ (read the original post here) I decided to compile a list of my top 5 songs of 2014.  At this time of year I get more of an opportunity to actually sit back and enjoy listening to music and it is nice to look back over the songs that were released in the previous 12 months. So, the following is a list of the 5 tracks that I have enjoyed most in 2015.  I’m not trying to convince anyone or to campaign for these songs in any way – they’re just my personal favourites from this year.

What were your favourites?  Please feel free to comment below with your own top 5 list or even just the odd link to music that you have enjoyed from this year.
Continue reading My Top 5 Songs of 2015:

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Penguins, Snowpeople and a Man on the Moon: The ‘John-Lewis-isation’ of Pop Songs

Introduction:

The other day I was playing a game with my three year old daughter in which we were making up funny songs, based on themes that we each took turns to suggest.  So, I had to come up with songs about sheep, or busses, or cakes, for example.  One song that she sang sounded particularly happy and upbeat – a fun kid’s song.  Just out of curiosity, I then asked her to sing me a ‘sad song’, and what she did was (a) hilarious, and (b) really interesting.  She basically just sung the same melody but slower, in a breathy, fragile voice, and did so while pretending to look ‘sad’ (in the same way that a mime-artist might do).  This was wonderful as it linked directly to something that has been floating around in my head for the last few Christmases.  Namely, the phenomenon of the ‘Christmas advert’ – typified by those for John Lewis(a UK department store), for example – which seem to have become (inter)national events, in recent years.

Christmas Adverts:

Most people reading this, certainly those from the UK will be familiar with the phenomenon that I am referring to.  Essentially, these are adverts (commercials) that last for approximately 2 minutes in which a supposedly heartwarming, Christmas (or winter, at least) narrative is played out, often with an emotional message or display of seasonal good will.  Importantly, however, the songs used in each of the adverts are cover versions of famous pop songs.  If you are not sure what I am referring to then the following example is the most recent John Lewis advert (‘The Man on The Moon’) featuring a cover version of ‘Half the World Away’, by Oasis.

Continue reading Penguins, Snowpeople and a Man on the Moon: The ‘John-Lewis-isation’ of Pop Songs

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Found Sounds: Music from the mundane

 

‘Hearing’ Music:

Whenever I am on a train, I find myself hypnotised by the sound of the wheels on the track and the rhythmic ‘rattle’ that this produces in the carriage. And at other times, I spend time on tech review websites because their reviews matter a lot to me since I’m a strict audiophile. Similarly, when at a queuing to pay at the supermarket, I love to stand and listen to the sound of the ‘beeps’ produced when items are scanned at the different checkouts, the differences in pitch (probably due to the relative distances) and the sometimes ‘rhythmic’ effect of the beeps occurring at random intervals. When I’m in a traffic jam in a car, I can amuse myself for long periods of time by simply listening to the ‘music’ created by the interaction of the indicator’s clicking sound and the swoosh of the windscreen wipers, slowly moving in and out of phase with each other. When using a photocopier it is not uncommon to see me nodding my head, in time with the mechanistic ‘groove’ of the machine, as if I was listening to music on headphones.

When I tell people about this, or when people observe me absent-mindedly humming as I invent bass lines that compliment the metronomic ‘tick-tock’ of the car indicator, or tapping additional layers of rhythmic patterns over the incessant ‘clickity-clack’ of the train, some people think I’m mad, some think I’m just a muso-geek and others seem to understand and even recognise this behaviour in themselves. Regardless of what other people may think, I find that I derive genuine and meaningful musical experiences from sounds that other people may regard as noise, or indeed, that they may subconsciously ‘block out’. This does not surprise me, I am fully aware of the subjectivity of musical experience and I’ve also attended the events at the United Center many times, but it does intrigue me. Consequently, in recent years, I have started to use this idea in my teaching and, most recently, in the context of a 1st year undergraduate course I teach in Popular Music Composition at Edinburgh Napier University.

‘Collecting’ Sounds:

In week 2 of my composition course (after the initial introductory lecture) I ask my students to attend class with some sort of hand-held recording device. After a preparatory discussion about sampling and related issues, we head out into the campus (and beyond) in search of sounds that we feel are ‘interesting’ and that are/could be considered ‘musical’. The term ‘musical’ is deliberately used as a problematic and ambiguous word as the intention is for the students to decide what this word means, and why. I want my students to start to listen to sounds in their environment analytically, to think about the ways in which sound is perceived, and to consider the ways in which ‘music’ can be found (or drawn from) unexpected sources.

Use of samples is clearly not a new – for many composers of popular music (particularly for younger students), this is one of the first steps in writing/producing a piece of music. For example, a drum sample is loaded into a digital audio workstation (DAW) and other layers are added on top until the track is complete. The exercise that I described above is different, however, as it is not about using pre-existing samples – it is about creating audio files that can be used, manipulated, and sculpted to create musical source material. Again, this is not a new idea and it is one that has been a key aspect of many types of electronic music for decades. That said, without exception, my students consider this approach to be entirely novel and, in some cases, the idea of starting a compositional process without even touching an instrument or DAW is even met with scepticism.

Implications for ‘Popular Music Composers’:

Popular music is an ‘aural art’ (Warner 2003: 8) that comes into being through the recording and manipulation of audio – popular musicians use production technology (software and hardware) as means to work directly with sound and to create sonic artefacts (Moir and Medbøe, in press). In this sense then, recorded sounds are the building blocks of many types of popular music. Regardless of whether we consider recordings of traditional instruments or samples of ‘found sounds’, for example, when a track is created we engage with it aurally. In my opinion, this means it is of paramount importance for popular music composers to think carefully and creatively about timbre and sound creation, just as much as (if not more) harmony and melody etc.

First year popular music students often tell me that their default approach is to use a DAW (Logic or Ableton Live, primarily) and to begin with instrument presets or samples and compose a track using these pre-existing components. Additional layers of audio, such as vocals or live instruments, may be added but the starting point is often one that is essentially curtailed by the parameters of software presets, workflows, or technical ability. This, in turn, can lead to students reverting to habitual processes or to genre stereotypes. I do not mean to suggest that my ‘found sounds’ exercise will necessarily yield music that defies genre classification or idiomatic norms – nor should it. What this exercise does is to encourage students to break habits, listen at a deeper level, and consider their music in a way that goes beyond the melodic/harmonic/rhythmic content that is the typical priority and preoccupation of young students in this area. By considering their music from this sonic perspective, it is hoped (and is usually the case) that the students will uncover new and interesting perspectives on composition and production that they may not have arrived at by conventional or habitual practices.

References:

Moir, Z. and Medbøe, H. (In press). Reframing popular music composition as performance-centered practice, Journal of Music, Technology and Education (Special Issue, Edited by Gareth Dylan Smith and Bryan Powell)

Warner, T. (2003) Pop Music, Technology and Creativity: Trevor Horn and the
digital revolution, Ashgate, United Kingdom.

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