Bruce Katz’s “The Breakthrough Blues Piano Method”

Breakthrough Blues Piano Method Cover

I have been working with jazz pianist Steve Nixon (http://freejazzlessons.com) for a while now, and I got myself the opportunity to work with his Blues piano mentor: the legendary Bruce Katz! This new piano lesson DVD called the “Breakthrough Blues Piano Method” features my detailed transcriptions of Bruce’s Katz’s techniques as well as examples of his own blues improvisations. So, if you’re interested in getting your blues playing to another level, go visit http://www.freejazzlessons.com/breakthroughblues/ to get yourself a copy of this course.

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How To Write Brainwave Entrainment Music

About four years ago, I was in a rather curious phase in my journey as a composer. I was involved in writing and producing music that had what’s called “brainwave entrainment”. The works that I wrote for such a purpose pretty much sounded like this:

Take note that it’s best to listen to this music with your eyes closed and with headphones on:

This particular piece that I entitled “Night Sky” was released under a record label that was called a7records and is now known as Roundwaves. Now, what the heck is the purpose of all this? Music written with brainwave entrainment techniques (a.k.a. binaural beats) is part of what we can call “functional” or “applied” music i.e. music that is not solely written for simple listening pleasure or entertainment. Such music includes those used in film, video games, animation, etc. If music for movies enhances the viewing experience to a whole new level (try watching films without music, they suck!), brainwave entrainment music is designed to put you in a particular state of brain activity. Why? The theory is that setting your brain’s electrical activity into a particular phase will help facilitate various functions such as eliciting sleep, improving concentration, helping you to relax, excite you, etc. As it is universally known, music is a very powerful agent for altering your state of mind. You feel pumped up when listening to speed metal as you go across the freeway. You kind of feel very cheesy when you hear David Pack sing “You’re the Biggest Part of Me”. You kind of what to bob your head up and down when you hear some kind of four-on-the-floor drum and bass hit. Music with brainwave entrainment built into it is kind of like that too.

Now, the question is how do we actually go about writing music that is theorized to have the effect of relaxation, sleep, and other effects? Here goes:

  1. Know what kind of effect you want to elicit first before you go write your track. Do you want your listener to just relax and chill? You need your music to elicit an Alpha wave response. You want them to go to sleep? Go Delta wave. Go ahead and read up on what these brain waves are and what they’re associated with. Start by reading this Mental Health Daily piece.
  2. We need to generate the basic backing track for it, and that basic backing track is something that has a binaural beat that is equivalent to the brain wave activity you are trying to produce. To do this, you need two sine waves, tuned to a barely audible bass or contrabass frequency, one panned hard left and the other panned hard right. Now, it is VERY IMPORTANT that the two sine waves are tuned in such a manner that the difference between them will create an oscillating beat equal to that of the frequency of the brainwave you’re trying to elicit. For example, the sine wave to the left is tuned at 50 Hz and the sine wave to the right is tuned to 38 Hz. The difference between the two is 12 Hz, the upper limit of Alpha waves. The easiest way to do this is to use Audacity to generate these sine waves that are tuned to the exact frequencies you need. The length of this binaural beat track (or tracks) depend on how long you want your music to be. Usually 8 to 10 minutes is enough.
  3. Make sure that the sine waves you use for your binaural beat is in key to the music you are going to write. This is plain musical common sense. Why? First of, you want to make the music as pleasant sounding as you want. Tune your sine wave to a root or a fifth. Second, anything atonal or dissonant will only irritate your listener. For instance, if my music is in the key of G and I want Alpha waves, my left sine wave is in 24.5 Hz (G0 if A4 is 440 Hz) and my right sine wave is 36.5 Hz (about a microtone below D1 if A4 = 440 Hz). 37 minus 24.5 is 12 so I expect my binaural beat to match Alpha waves. In some instances, you may have to adjust the pitch of your sine waves accordingly if your music changes to distant keys. The point is that your sine waves (more or less) have to be in tune to the music.
  4. As for the amplitude of your binaural beats, it should be kept to a minimum as possible. You bury it in the music and it should be more felt than heard. This is the reason why we usually tune our sine waves to bass frequencies.
  5. When your binaural beats are set, write your music over the binaural beats. Notating it first on paper (or your scorewriter) or improvising over it doesn’t matter as long as you get to have appropriate music over it.
  6. Make sure that the music is LONG. We are not writing a radio hit here folks! Not everybody can fall asleep, concentrate, relax in just under a minute or two.
  7. You can write in any genre as long as it is appropriate for the effect that you want. You surely won’t want screaming metal guitars on your sleep music, right? It’s just common sense.

I suppose these steps should be enough to get you started in writing your first brainwave entrainment piece. If you all think I missed out on something, please leave your comments below.

Old Stuff, New Stuff

It’s been so long since I last posted something here as I was very busy with graduate school activities and work as usual. I find it refreshing that I got some time now to write something. This past week, I completed a 10-minute piece which I submitted to my composition teacher, Dr. Kristina Benitez, and got some useful feedback from her. This coming trimester, my new task is to expand that piece into a multi-movement suite. Expanding it into a suite is very doable since that piece has a lot of ideas going on. The next question now is whether or not I can get it performed or at least be able to record a good mockup of it. Because of that, I started to explore the Sibelius 7  Sound Library.

These past few days, I was occupied with testing out the Sibelius 7  Sound Library on my MacBook Pro, and so I decided to dig up my musical history. I’m not very fond of listening to the old stuff I’ve written and recorded since it feels very much like reading your high school diary (the thought of which makes me cringe). However, in this case I wanted to hear what it would be like to try out my old compositions on a new sample library.

I use a number of sample libraries in my music production in various formats like NI Kontakt, Apple EXS24, etc. and I also used to have the old Sibelius 5 sound library. I was quite fond of it when it came out (even though it was far from perfect), and so it was very exciting for me to use that new library for the first time. Hearing my old, old works on new sounds gave it new life. It still sounds far from perfect of course but the Sibelius 7  Sounds are usable to create orchestral mockups. The percussion and piano sounds were excellent although the tremolo is still has that slight machine gun effect. The other samples like strings, woodwinds, and brass are okay. As with many sample libraries, I found the guitar samples to be less than satisfying. The classical guitar samples could have been good except that it can be oddly squeaky because of the default fret noise setting. Imagine hearing playing single scale notes with every note being accompanied by a fret squeak, and so it sounds so unnatural. The solution to that would be to dial down the fret noise knob. Steel string guitar sounds are okay. The distorted guitar sound is probably the most awful of the bunch. It’s a good thing that I’m a guitarist as well and so I wouldn’t need to use those guitar samples anyway.

I said a while ago that I’m not fond of listening to my old recordings but I did find something good about that little exercise. I was able to uncover musical ideas that I would call diamonds in the rough. Bits and pieces of melodic and rhythmic themes here and there would make good material to expand for a variety of compositions that I could craft in the near future. I just hope that I get the time and patience to further explore them.

So, going back to my  graduate school composition work, I plan to expand that into a suite. I should probably start once the weekday hits, or maybe I should talk to Dr. Benitez first to plan it all out. After scoring it in Sibelius, I will tweak the hell out of the MIDI to make it somewhat realistic and then practice all guitar, iPad, and piano parts before recording. That should enable me to submit a good recording by the end of the term. Afterwards, it will be time to work on my graduate thesis. Seems like I should savor these light-load days as I will be very busy in the next few months .

Modes Made Somewhat Easy

One of the things that make many musicians scratch their heads are the modes. Let’s face it: They are so confusing yet in fact you need to learn and understand how to use them if you want to improve your musical skills and knowledge. We always hear how to use the modes in everything from writing songs to soloing over a complex jazz piece. In this piece, I’m going to show a couple of ways regarding how to understand modes.

Now, for us to understand this tutorial, we need to know what a major scale is and the names of the modes. Since we have seven notes in the major scale, we also get seven modes.

The Major Scale and it’s Relative Modes

Relative Modes_0001

We have this nice graphic above that shows our C major scale and its relative modes. We can easily play the each of the major scale’s relative modes by starting the same major scale at a different note and then we name the mode according to that starting mode. For example, if I want to play D Dorian, I just play the C major scale a.k.a. Ionian mode starting at D as a root. Sound-wise, you will notice that by starting the same scale at a different note, you rearrange the order of intervals. Add to the fact that you now consider the different note as the root note, you will tend to return to it every now and then, making you hear a scale that is very different from your original major scale.

And so, to figure out…

…the Ionian mode, we start our major scale at the 1st note (it’s just the same major scale, duh!) (I).

…the relative Dorian mode, we start our major scale at the 2nd note (ii).

…the relative Phrygian mode, we start our major scale at the 3rd note (iii).

…the relative Lydian mode, we start our major scale at the 4th note (IV).

…the relative Mixolydian mode, we start our major scale at the 5th note (V).

…the relative Aeolian mode, we start our major scale at the 6th note (this also happens to be our relative minor scale) (vi).

…the relative Locrian mode, we start our major scale at the 7th  note (vii).

Easy, right?

Figuring out the Parallel Modes

Parallel Modes_0002

Figuring out how to learn and play the parallel modes (e.g. C major, C locrian, C Phrygian, etc.) is a trickier thing. There are a number of ways to do it. The technical way is to analyze our relative modes, check the order of intervals, and then apply that order of intervals to a particular root note. For example, I know that the Ionian mode/major scale follows the order of whole step (W)-W-half step (H)-W-W-W-H pattern of intervals. By looking at, say for example our E Phrygian in our relative modes section, we find out that the pattern is now H-W-W-W-H-W-W with a flat 2nd. So, let’s say I want to know what Bb Phrygian is, I figured out that it is Bb-Cb-Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab. I can do the same procedure for the other modes. Quite taxing, isn’t it?

What if we put it this way instead? We can categorize each mode as major (if it has a major 3rd) or minor (if it has a minor 3rd). By figuring out the formula for each mode, I now have this shortcut:

Major modes = Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian

Minor modes = Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, Locrian

All I have to do next is figure out which interval is different from that of our standard major and minor scale. Now, let’s assume that we already know that the major scale (Ionian) has a major 2nd, major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th, and major 7th. Let’s also assume that we know our natural minor scale (Aeolian) as having a major 2nd, minor 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, minor 6th, and minor 7th. It’s time for us now to figure out how our other modes are built:

Dorian = Minor scale with major 6th instead of minor 6th

Phrygian = Minor scale with minor 2nd instead of major 2nd

Lydian = Major scale with augmented 4th instead of perfect 4th

Mixolydian = Major scale with minor 7th instead of major 7th

Locrian = Minor scale with with minor 2nd and diminished 5th

Still too difficult to figure out by this method? Okay, by doing it this way, it does involve some time to study. However there are easier ways.

We can use the relative mode order in order to figure out how to play a mode correctly. All you have to do is know what order does a particular mode appear to know the sequence order of the root note of that particular mode in a particular major scale. Confusing, right? Here’s a concrete example:

Let’s say that I want to play a D Mixolydian.  Now, from the study of relative modes, I know that Mixolydian is the 5th mode and so its root note is the 5th note of a particular major scale, which I find out to be G in this case. And so, all I have to do play D Mixolydian is play the G major scale but start with the D.

Let’s also say that I want to play Ab Phrygian instead. Since Phrygian is the third mode, Ab is the third note of the Fb major scale. Now, you might say, “What the hell, Mark! There’s no such thing as Fb major.” Relax, I’ll explain it for you. From a strictly music theory standpoint, there is. But for the sake of practical use, it is just the E major scale, and so now we think of Ab as G# and then play the E major scale starting at G# to get ourselves the Ab Phrygian mode. I think that this is the simplest way of learning and playing the modes.

As for actual use in songwriting, composition, and soloing using modes, there are plenty of resources on the web for that. Anyway, you can always drop a line or two at the comments box if you have questions regarding modes and other stuff. Thanks.

The Key to Understanding 12 Bar Blues is in Lance Vallis’ “Blues Guitar 101”

Blues Guitar 101 by Lance Vallis

One of the ways of understanding how many songs work in today’s contemporary context is knowing what exactly is a 12-bar blues. The latest project I was involved in is a GuitarZoom course called “Blues Guitar 101” by Lance Vallis. This new course features the basics of playing a 12-bar-blues, the form of the 12-bar blues, and a variety of ways of how to play both melodic parts/solos and rhythmic accompaniment.

Since I’m the one who had the task of transcribing most of the stuff that Mr. Vallis plays throughout the video, I do have some form of bias with regard to my opinion. It’s a very good blues course that features a lot of material that demonstrates Mr. Vallis’ prowess in improvising blues lines. He also offers a number of useful licks and phrases that you can instantly use in many blues jam situations.

If you want to get into the blues right away, I would suggest getting this course by clicking on the “Blues Guitar 101” graphic above. After mastering the various concepts presented, I suggest moving on to Steve Stine’s 96 Blues Licks.

Steve Stine’s Songfire Now Available

Songfire

GuitarZoom, one of my long-term employers, has another very useful course for anybody who’s interested in learning new songs on the guitar in a fast and intelligent way. This new course is called Songfire. Written by GuitarZoom’s guitarist-in-residence and professor of modern guitar at North Dakota State University, Steve Stine, This new course offers a no-nonsense approach that could enable any guitar beginner into hearing how most songs work and then eventually learn them in the process.

Now, for those who think they can become instant virtuoso players with this course, you are mistaken. This course is NOT about gaining virtuoso technique in an instant (it takes years of hard work and practice to gain that). This course is more about being able to play many of the songs you hear and enjoy on your guitar in a fast way. This course is not about being able to play your favorite songs note by note, but it is more about being able to understand the underlying harmonic structure (chord progressions, etc.) based on what you hear. Upon finishing the course, you’d be able to listen actively to many pop and rock songs and be able to play through its chord progression in a matter of minutes.

Okay, maybe some will be disappointed that virtuoso guitarist Steve Stine released a non-virtuoso course. Well, that is not the point of Songfire. Songfire’s intent is to give learners the ability to hear music as a whole and be able to at least play a semblance of it, following along the chord progression WITHOUT reading notation or tab. B ear in mind that seemingly simple, sort of entry-level topics like those in Songfire could easily lead any beginning guitarist to be stimulated into getting deeper into the workings of music, eventually figuring out what most of us would consider virtuoso technique. The positive and pleasurable effects of being to successfully learn a new song can always lead to bigger things, musically speaking.

If you want to get access to the course, just click on the Songfire image above. As usual, sheet music and text by none other than yours truly.

Answering the Call

It’s was the first Saturday of the year that I had formally worked with both the choir and worship band of UCCP-Makati Church of Christ Disciples. It was tough and challenging yet at the same very fulfilling. I have seen the logistical challenges that I would face should I try to unite both choir and worship band. The task seems daunting but I hope for the best. I am really hoping that I’m being of any help to that rather small community of believers.

Just this morning was the time that I would call testing the waters. Although I had played with the worship band a couple of times, it was the first time I would be at my most active. I was directing the band while playing lead guitar. I played with the church’s regular pianist and choir conductor through a number of songs. I was trying very hard to demonstrate that there need not be a divide between a traditional piano-and-choir-group and a contemporary worship band. In my mind it should just be a single worship group that is engaged throughout the worship service. Next Saturday I will be hauling again a number of items from my home studio to the church, teach music theory and instrument technique in the afternoon, rehearse with both choir and worship band.

As things go at this time, it seems that the worship band isn’t ready yet for the rather technical aspects of playing the kind of music featured in the anthem section of the worship service. I aspire to be able to pass down whatever skills I have to the band and the choir so that every musical aspect of the service could be covered by both as a single unit. It doesn’t have to matter whether they are singing traditional hymns or covering the kind of stuff that Don Moen and Ron Kenoly would play. I am optimistic that this will happen given training and patience.

Like my studio persona, I am a teacher, equipment technician, musician, and music director rolled into one package. It’s tough work where I do not expect any remuneration of sort. What lies ahead of me are more challenges from both a personal and professional perspective. Why would I be crazy enough to put out such effort every week? It’s because I am answering the call of The Lord. I have no other justification for it. God has called me to use my skills for his purpose. I will abide by what I believe is my calling and purpose in life. So it has begun, my life as a volunteer music worker.