Tag Archives: theory

Getting Post-Tonal with Shellac


According to The Onion A.V. Club Steve Albini has stated that a new Shellac album has been recorded and will (hopefully) be released soon. Apparently, according to Albini, there are more songs finished than will appear on the new album. Out of the 10 songs that are finished 8 or 9 will appear on the band’s yet to be named follow up to 2007’s “Excellent Italian Greyhound.”

This is good news for Shellac fans, while at the same time news that will probably be ignored by everyone else. What I mean is that there are two kinds of music fans out there: those that are fans of Shellac (rabid, obsessive, die-hard fans of the Slayer ilk [and to that end, I would love it if people started yelling “SHELAAAAAAAAAACCC!!!” at each other when spotted on the street wearing a Shellac shirt]) and those that hate Shellac. I don’t think that I have ever met someone that just “sort of” likes them. They really aren’t that kind of band.

And the band really couldn’t care less what you think. That is the way that they operate. I don’t know why I am bothering telling you this because if you have read this far then you already know. And reviews of Shellac albums are irrelevant to Shellac fans. So the best I can do is just say “hey, a new album is on its way” and that will be as good as saying that it is the best album released this side of the industrial revolution. I will say, however, that I never developed a taste for “Excellent Italian Greyhound.” In my opinion the two longer tracks “The End of Radio” and “Genuine Lulabelle” (clocking in at 8:27 and 9:17, respectively) really sort of ruin the pacing. I’m much more a fan of “At Action Park” and “Terraform,” not to mention their newest album at the time I was introduced to them, “1000 Hurts.”

Keep an eye out for the new album sometime in the fall, or perhaps the winter, or maybe early next year. Just remember this is the band that held off releasing “Terraform” for (I think) a few years because they were waiting for the artwork to be just right.

The new album will be coming out on the barely-operating-what-the-hell-happened-to-this-amazing-label Touch and Go. I know that I’m looking forward to hearing that Shellac guitar tone. That is what really hooked me on the band in the first place, well that and this chord that appears in “Wingwalker” from their 1993 Uranus 7″, which is interesting for a few reasons.

First of all the song is in D minor, which could probably be explained simply enough in that most likely the guitar and bass have their low E strings tuned down a whole-step. More interesting, however, is the arpeggiated chord that appears over tonic:

Winglwalker final

The pitches are E-flat, B-flat, C-flat, G-flat in a simple arpeggiation that cycles through in 4/4 over the predominating 3/4 meter in the bass and drums, resulting in a cycling of the downbeat E-flat from beat 1 in the 2nd measure to the upbeat to 2 in the following measure and the middle of beat 3 in the next measure before the entire pattern is shifted down a whole step. This could be notated in 4/4 and the same cycling would (of course) occur. The main thing to note is that the E-flat quarter note in the guitar moves against the bass line and the beginning of both patterns only line up every 4 measures.

Listen to “Wingwalker” below. The arpeggiation in question can be heard at :57 – 1:15


If the chord that is alluded under this arpeggiation is tonic (we assume so, as the bass focuses on D) while the repeated E-flat cycles through the guitar making it a different focal point (in addition to the off-kilter rhythmic element), then what is even going on here harmonically speaking? An E-flat minor triad (E-flat, G-flat, B-flat [a half-step above tonic, played over tonic?!]) with an added C-flat is truly curious in this context. Within the chord itself it is the C-flat that really gives the chord its flavor, playing against the B-flat of the triad creating a minor-2nd that rings out between the G and B strings. This is typically a chord used more by jazz players than by rock guitarists. I think that, considering Albini is the dude that cut notches in his metal pick when he was playing in Big Black so that he could get a purposefully abrasive sound, the added 6th (and consequent minor 2nd ringing that occurs) is used more to obtain an abrasive and dissonant sound than toward any voice-leading or contrapuntal concerns.

This chord, if re-spelled, sounds (well…is) the same as a major-major 7 chord (C-flat, E-flat, G-flat, B-flat). You can think of this sonority as a major triad and a minor triad embedded in each other. The major triad (C-flat, E-flat, G-flat) and the minor triad (E-flat, G-flat, B-flat) therefore have identical intervallic content, but serve two very different purposes. It’s a deep subject, and not one that I intend to get into here. Though I will add one last tidbit: Albini must have also found something interesting in this chord because he uses the exact same chord 14 years later on the track “Boycott” from “Excellent Italian Greyhound.” The one difference is that in “Boycott” the chord appears over a B-flat in the bass. This means that there is, one could say, another (or at least a different) layer of dissonance at work here as the bass support isn’t all that supportive. The B-flat is, remember, one of the pitches that creates that unstable (dissonant) interval of a minor 2nd. This, of course, is not to mention that “Boycott” is nearly atonal in its construction, but that is a discussion for another day.

Hear “Boycott” below, and listen for the chord when it appears at :14-:24


So back to the song “Wingwalker.” We would normally think that the bass would support the chords, or arpeggiations or melodies that appear above it. For instance, if the bass is playing a D, and the song is in D-minor then one might safely assume that the chord over top could feasibly be tonic (D, F, A) or maybe the sub-mediant (VI = B-flat, D, F), or the subdominant (iv = G, B-flat, D)…or some other chord with an actual D in it. Instead, what we get is a chord that not only doesn’t contain the pitch that is supporting it, but the chord has pitches that clash with that supporting D. For example the E-flat is a half-step away, and the B-flat and C-flat create a split third sounding a major-third and a minor-third away from the D (though the C-flat would technically be an augmented 2nd, but is enharmonically equivalent, for those keeping track).

I haven’t even mentioned yet that an E-flat chord of any kind is not diatonic to the key of D-minor. Even if we consider it as a C-flat Major 7 chord instead of an E-flat minor add 6, there is still no C-flat anything in the key of D-minor. No matter how you spell the chord, or how you configure it, or what you consider a non-chord tone, there is no way to make this chord work in the context of D-minor.

It’s not some strange minor Neapolitan in root position with an added 6. This is for a few reasons: first of all, that’s just too odd, that never happens, and the reason that it never happens is because how would that chord even function? And speaking of function, a Neapolitan (normally a major chord built on the lowered 2nd scale degree, for those you that may not know) usually moves to the dominant, at least eventually. This chord moves to some other non-diatonic chord. The guitar never makes it to the dominant.

It’s definitely not a chromatic mediant of some sort. In order for that to happen you’d have to enharmonically respell the chord, which, fine, you can do that, I mean we are trying to look at all the possibilities here. Maybe it’s not C-flat Major 7, that is a bit odd, maybe it’s a B Major 7 chord. But if it was a B Major 7 chord that would mean in the context of D-minor it would be a Major 7 chord built on the raised 6th scale degree (#VI). No. Again, how would that function and that’s just too odd.

Lastly, what if we considered it as a secondary function? I mean, would it be satisfying by any stretch of the imagination to consider this chord as a Dominant chord with a Major 7 in the key of e minor (VM7/ii)? Well, no, because that would mean that the 7th of the chord would be the raised 4th scale degree, which would be some sort of Lydian mode type alteration.

This is all too complicated, and the purpose of music theory is to come to an understanding of how the music functions within its own context. This song, or at least this section of this song is not adhering to a tonal structure. It might be simpler to put this into the context of post-tonal analysis.

Remember how I mentioned above that the chords, no matter how you spelled them (either minor triad with an added 6, or a major triad with a major 7th) that they had the same interval content because they were the same pitches just in a different order? Well in tonal music the spelling of chords, and the classifications make all the difference. It’s all about the function of the chord. An altered pitch has a tendency, in the tonal sphere, to do certain things, to fulfill certain expectations. This leads to all sorts of great things like musical expectations and the thwarting of those expectations.

But how do we look at things if we find that the music is not functioning within a tonal realm; if these voice-leading tendencies are not considered in the context of the music? In that case we consider the similarities of the structures that are present in the music. Just like triads and 7th chords are used in the tonal language to contrast each other, collections of pitches that are built in a similar manner are used to give shape and meaning to non-tonal pieces.

Take for example a major triad. It consists of a note, a note a major-third above it and a note a minor-third above that. Now take a minor triad. It consists of a note, a note a minor-third above it and a note a major-third about that. So these major and minor chords have the exact same interval content, but in the context of a tonal composition they function differently, and because of other musical considerations (that are also within the context of tonal music) they sound different despite being essentially the same.

So let’s look at the chord: E-flat, G-flat, B-flat, C-flat. I will cut out all of the very laborious, confusing (you’re probably confused enough as it is) and complicated post-tonal theory stuff and you’ll just have to take my word on some stuff. That chord and the chord that follows in the example above, the final 4 measures where the chord simply shifts down wholesale a full step…because all of the pitches are moved the same distance, nothing about the intervallic content of the sonority has changed. It’s the same as moving, say, an A-major triad down a step to get a G-major triad; same exact content, different pitches.

Now, if we take all the pitches, including the bass: D, E-flat, G-flat, B-flat, C-flat and then after the guitar moves down a whole step: D, D-flat, A-flat, A, F-flat…well, there are ways of measuring the intervallic content. Perhaps I will return to exactly how that is done in another post, I don’t need to go on for another 1,000 words here. But, those chords, despite not functioning in a tonal context, are actually found to be, how we say in the trade, “maximally related.” This means that those collections of pitches have a lot of things in common in an intervallic sense. Basically, many of the puzzle pieces that fit together to form one chord can be taken out and fit into the other chord.

I think that in later posts I not only want to come back to some more post-tonal analysis of rock tunes, but I also would like to specifically investigate the way that Shellac’s “Boycott” is put together.

Thanks for reading this far. I know that this is all very confusing for those that are uninitiated into the world of music theory, but stick with me. I’m going to do my best to bring you up to speed and take the scariness out of it as best I can.

Book Review: Paul Hegarty – “Noise/Music: A History”

Noise/Music: A History by Paul Hegarty
Noise/Music: A History by Paul Hegarty

One of the most complex and confounding questions for fans of music, and for musicians in general is also the most basic and deceptively simple question either could ask: “What is music?” The question extrapolates from Duchamp’s similar challenge presented to artists.

At a very basic level music is whatever one decides to call music. Found sounds can be (and are) considered as music. Electronic sounds are music. Any sound at all is music. Though, understandably, this may not be everyone’s view. One could go even further and say that music isn’t merely sound, but it is more specifically organized sound. So if one makes that distinction then one must be able to account for the organization behind what one considers music.

To that end Paul Hegarty’s probing philosophical exploration of the genre of noise music provides a thorough consideration of this very question. Not only does he consider the way in which noise music may be, and is, organized; he goes into detail about the implications of these organizations and how even the very word organization” needs to be questioned.

The book opens by exploring music with similar considerations as one would consider Arte Povera. As such it is explained that music would “stray far from the accepted, proper, artistic materials and conventions.” (pg. 27) In the 2nd chapter Hegarty introduces Derrida and Bataille into the conversation, taking a look at the philosophical implications behind the creation of different, or rather different, forms of music.

He begins with the birth of electronic music, in the late 1940’s by composers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, and how their “found sounds” were recorded and reproduced and then manipulated. The musical material became these fixed sounds that were then manipulated, and the world of music could never again be the same. While I was reading this section of the book what came to my mind was that incorporating found sound into music could maybe be compared to using the sound of a room in today’s recording techniques, in addition to, of course, the continuation of the tradition of the manipulation of found sounds.

The parallels between Schaeffer and Henry’s experiments with that of the questions that were implied by Cage’s 4’33” can be seen, and the answer to some of those questions are answered through the creation of noise as music. Music moves outside the world of sterility where “noise” of any kind is absolutely prohibited (Classical and Romantic era compositions have score indications, but nowhere is anything else supposed to be added to the music. People throw a fit when conductors do something as seemingly minimal as taking a piece at a slightly different tempo, or ignoring phrase markings. The perceived structure of the entire piece depends upon the correlation between the notes, the rhythms and the tempi, anything added or taken away threatens that very structure) to the real world where the incorporation of “noise” makes music more real, or at least more of the world in which it was created.

Creating noise as music sets out to discover the limits and nature of music itself, but not only that, it seeks to find what it is that holds it together. What can be added, and what can be taken away from a composition before that composition becomes another piece entirely? According to Hegarty, “Schaeffer wanted to expand the realm of music, and bring in sounds that were musical, even if not matching the expectations of being specific notes.”

“Music had become obsessed with form, Schaeffer argues, whereas rel interest could only come from material…paying attention to the stuff of music – sounds as themselves – would reconcile material and form ‘as a new immanent body’…this new music would still need organization” (pg. 33)

These considerations of form and structure continue throughout the book. Add to those consideration also that of motivation and conception. Adding Adorno and Deluze to his philosophical battalion Hegarty moves from electronic music to Throbbing Gristle and antagonization as noise, social disorder as noise, actual feedback (in the music of Derek Bailey) as noise and music. He talks about the birth of Punk as social noise, “punk precursors like MC5 reintroduced aggression and transgression, both in lyrical content and musical form…tired of extended solos and hippie culture that those elements came out of.” (pg. 68) He continues, “It is not enough to simply reject the long form, it is far more effective to wreck the purpose of it through the form itself.” (pg. 69)

The fact that anti-music is made through music is an interesting concept that sets up the remainder of Hegarty’s book. This is not not music. This is (if you’ll pardon me) not not not music. And progressive rock bands like King Crimson and Yes are reacting against that very reaction. He compares the motivations of King Crimson to Bataille where as Yes is more Hegelian, and therefore opposite of King Crimson. These inter-genre dissonances can be seen as another form of noise. He states that Yes’s (annoying, pretentiously and impossibly long) “Tales from Topographic Oceans” is noisy both lyrically and conceptually. If a philosophical quandary in the form of lyrics goes on for 75 minutes and nobody is able to make any sense of it, or relate to it….

The chapters continue to probe at the real core issue here, which has now gone from “what is music” to “what is noise and what can noise be?” He brings up ineptitude, ie if a music can only be created by musicians then what is a musician? If someone creates music then they are a musician, you can’t have one without the other. He also considers industrial music, the beat poets and their influence on music (hello Sonic Youth and the entirety of the early 80s downtown rock scene), power (“noise is not just volume, but the spread, dissemination and dispersal of its non-message”) Japan’s noise scene, and an entire chapter on Merzbow.

Hegarty approaches his topic both chronologically and in order of increasing complication because as time goes on art is reacting to itself faster and faster with each reaction creating sub-genre’s and therefore further expansions of music. His book is both philosophically challenging and highly readable. One does not need to be a music theorist nor a philosopher in order to follow the logic set down in this book. I would highly recommend that any fan of outsider music, experimental music and of course noise music, pick this book up and give it a thorough read and consideration. It is fairly popular and might even be found at your local library.


Purchase – It’s rather expensive as a hardcover, but paperback versions can be found for as little as $18 through certified Amazon outlets.

Crash Course in Music Theory: Modulating to distantly related keys with Titus Andronicus

I’ve been wanting to do a post like this for a long time. I think that periodically it will be fun to actually write about music theory stuff, considering that is what I am going to school for. I’m going to try to cover stuff that I find in rock tunes that I think is interesting, things that I would teach to my class. I’ll try to do this as clearly as possible. The main purpose, for me, is to maybe take some of the mystery out of music theory and also to help people possibly develop a little bit more of a critical ear.

The first song that I am going to use is “Arms Against Atrophy” from the first Titus Andronicus album “The Airing of Grievances” from 2009. Here’s the song:

Arms Against Atrophy

Now, the first guitar we hear is playing two Cs an octave apart, and the 2nd guitar part comes in playing an A-flat major chord. So we can visualize it this way:


Screen shot 2013-08-24 at 11.11.53 PM


Based on the chord progression through the verse, an oscillation between A-flat major and F minor, we can say that this section of the song is pretty solidly in the key of A-flat major. Notice the key signature of 4 flats (B-flat, E-flat, A-flat and D-flat) and that neither an A-flat major chord or an F minor use any accidentals outside of that key signature, because both chords are diatonic, in other words – they belong to the key. The A-flat major chord is built on scale degree 1 while the F minor chord is built on scale degree 6, so in theory terms we would call these chords tonic and sub-mediant respectively. Basically the A-flat major chord is the most important, everything leads back to it.

Now, when I say that the chord is “built” on certain scale degrees what I mean is that the scale degree, of which there are 7, serves as the pitch that the rest of the notes in the chord are based on. Chords are formed by stacking thirds. For example the A-flat major chord would begin with A-flat and then a third above that (staying in the key) is C, and a diatonic third above that is E-flat.

A-flat major scale
A-flat major scale


Above we have the A-flat major scale. Scale degree 1 is A-flat, 2 is B-flat, 3 is C and so on all the way back up to A-flat. So if we stack thirds on top of each of these pitches we have something that looks like this:

Diatonic triads of A-flat major
Diatonic triads of A-flat major

From left to right we have tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant, and leading tone triads. The ones that we are going to focus on are the tonic and submediant. I won’t bother going into Roman Numeral analysis here to try to keep things simpler.

Looking at the diatonic triads we can see that the pitches in the A-flat major tonic triad are A-flat, C and E-flat; while the pitches in the submediant triad are F, A-flat and C. We can see that both of these chords have two pitches in common, the A-flat and the C.

Thinking back to that opening guitar line, the 1st guitar part that strums the C octaves in eighth notes. That C is a common pitch shared between both chords that appear in the verse, which allows the 1st guitar to keep those eighth notes constant throughout the verse. This is important to how the song is going to modulate.

When we say that a song modulates we are saying that the song is changing key. The most common modulation for a song that begins in a major key is to modulate to the dominant. One of the reasons that this is so common is because the keys are so close to each other, in a manner of speaking. The key signature for A-flat major, for example, is 4 flats, as we have seen above. The key signature for E-flat major (the dominant key) is 3 flats. The tonic chord of E-flat major can be taken directly from the key of A-flat major without changing anything, it remains E-flat, G, B-flat. We would say that these keys are closely related because they are next to each other on the circle of fifths. 

Without going completely off course here, the circle of fifths is the way that we think of key relations. Basically this means hopping from one dominant to the next. For example A-flat, E-flat, B-flat, F, C, G, D, A, E, B, F#, C#, G#/A-flat …that is the complete circle of fifths beginning on the key that we are looking at here for this song. The further away from your home key, the more distant the relationship between the keys and the more chromatic alterations are necessary to maneuver between the two.

A modulation to a distantly related key, i.e. more than 2 steps on the circle of fifths, can be accomplished a few different ways. Again, I’m not going to go too far into it, because things get complicated pretty quick. One of the ways that you can, however, is through the use of a common pitch that exists in both of the keys. “Arms Against Atrophy” modulates to the key of C major in the bridge (2:20). Thee’s that C again.

Let’s compare the two scales, A-flat major and C major:

A-flat major scale
A-flat major scale
C major scale
C major scale

Note that the C major scale is lacking flats (or sharps, for that matter) in the key signature. This is because it is 4 steps away on the circle of fifths. Tonic of C major, C, is the same pitch as the mediant of A-flat major. Remember how A-flat, C, E-flat and F, A-flat, C made up the two chords of the verse, A-flat major and F minor respectively, with that C common between the two? Well the bridge here moves to a C major tonic: C, E, G. We know that it is a modulation and not just using the mediant triad because of the chord progression that follows that establishes the pitch C as the focus, or tonal center. Think of it like the center of gravity that all the pitches are drawn to. The chord progression in the bridge moves from tonic to dominant to subdominant and back to tonic again. We say that this progression establishes the tonic because it basically (simplifying again here) moves toward the dominant and returns to what is now being called tonic.

We would say, then, that “Arms Against Atrophy” by Titus Andronicus modulates from A-flat major to the distantly related key of C major through the common pitch of C. You can even hear the shift that happens, listen to the very beginning of the song. Hear those opening Cs, and then hear how they fit into the chords that guitar 2 introduces. Now go to 2:15 and listen to those very same Cs and hear how guitar two comes in now.

As a quick conclusion, you may be asking, “well the song returns to the verse after the bridge so…how do we get back to A-flat major tonic? I don’t hear the C-octaves again.” Well, first off I would say that it is true. Hey, you can’t keep doing the same thing over and over, right? The final chord of the bridge is F-major, or the subdominant in the key of C major and is made from the pitches F, A and C. Notice that this is only one pitch away from the F minor chord (F, A-flat, C) that was 50% of the verse. The last line of the bridge “…and she’s got the nail clippers at my throat,” (3:04-3:07) is where we are preparing to move back to A-flat major. The F major chord is used underneath “…and she’s got the nail clippers at my” and then they drop the A of the F major chord down a half step to A-flat on the word “throat” to create an F minor chord. That pitch, A-flat, then rings (3:07-3:17) alone until the verse picks up again with an A-flat major chord and we are up and running again, establishing the original tonic again. To be more technical this is referred to as a chromatic mediant relationship.

I hope that you were able to follow along here and that I could help you to understand the way that this song works and how music can work in general. This is only one tiny subject of many so I expect that I’ll be doing more of this in the future. Thanks for reading.