Theory Musings

In attempts to get my thinking and writing gears going concerning music theory, I thought I might post some of my *rough* ideas here. This is a reflection on some readings by Benjamin Boretz I wrote last week. Love to hear any reactions you all may have.


The Valley Between Explanation and Comprehension: What is a Musical Experience

Douglas Welcome


Former New York Mayor Ed Koch once said, “I can explain it to you, but I can’t comprehend it for you.” With his recent passing, this quote has been recalled numerous times through different news outlets. Strangely, this idea has a very strong connection for me with today’s musings on musical experience and ultimately how music theorists write on this subject.


In any field of study, language is the primary medium through which ideas are transferred. Benjamin Boretz lays a perimeter around thought and communication mediums, stating, “Our capacity to think is delimited firmly by our capacity to invent modes of thought,” and if these modes are limited to a set of agreed upon standard methods of discourse, “then the context within which we are able to think […] has shrunk alarmingly…” (Boretz 1979, 175). However, Boretz does not wish to limited by this arbitrary demarcation. He is afraid that we might be deceived by the idea that, “What we communicate is what is communicable, leaving the rest for the higher sensitivities of pure intuition.” (Boretz 1979, 174) Boretz’s mention of “intuition” resonates with Koch’s idea of comprehension, yet Boretz’s entire project attempts to push beyond what is assumed as “communicable.” One such attempt suggests the need to invent new words to get to ideas that lie beyond the limits of existing language, just as a mathematician might invent new symbols to explain a new concept (Boretz 1979, 175).


There is a direct link between the possibilities of communication and the meaning of a musical thing. If our capacity to think is limited by the modes and extent of language, a musical thing can only be what we can define it to be. I believe music is more than the extent to which we can define or describe it in the English language. For as well all know, meaning is always lost or mutated somewhat through the process of translation, here from music to language. If we “comprehend” what we are experiencing, we must find effective ways to “explain” it. Boretz points to this motivation as “social considerations, as providing an accessible, shared medium of professional intercommunication, a medium whose very neutrality of form and expression conduces to the sense of maximally intersubjective cognitivity of content.” (Boretz 1979, 171)


The issue with a shared medium is that it is inevitably comprehended differently depending on the individual process of what Boretz calls the “Semantic Fusion.” (Boretz 1992, 274) This joining of fixed syntactical musical objects and the individual sonic stimuli results in what the music “is” for the listener. This semantic fusion is not so easily dismantled, and Boretz draws a parallel between the act of sex being broken down into its physiological mechanical operations as well as being separated from its “passion.” Ultimately, this cannot describe sex as a “fully organically involved expressive experience.” (Boretz 1992, 273)


I believe what Boretz is driving at is the attributive nature of ontologically describing music. The difficult task is developing a model to formalize the attributive ontological process. Boretz notes that a step growth model nor an action-reflection feedback loop model are effective in organizing the attributive process. This is process is not a linear-logical chain, but “as a sequence of autonomous states of being.” (Boretz 1992, 275) If one were attempting to describe one of these states, the last line of “Thesis” in Boretz’s Music, as a Language may prove to be a simplistic yet practical model. When asking what does a thing mean, Boretz proposes:


“to be: of; to be: about; to be: now; to be: is: to mean”


Collecting these autonomous states of being may be the key to closing the gap between a syntactical explanation and a shared comprehension of a musical experience.



Works Cited:


Boretz, Benjamin. 1979. “Language, as a Music.” Perspectives of New Music 17 (2) (April 1): 131– 195.


———. 1992. “Experiences with No Names.” Perspectives of New Music 30 (1) (January 1): 272–283.


———. 2003. “Of This and That.” In Being About Music. Vol. 1, Textworks. Redhook, NY: Open Space.



Busking Day 1

I worked up the courage to put myself on the line this morning. I went down to Union Station and busked for about an hour and a half. I didn’t make much dough, but I had a blast doing it. More to come as the story develops…


No, I am not starting my own kickstarter project (yet). If only this worked for all projects though…

Cigar Box Guitar Finished

I put the final touches on my cigar box guitar prototype this week and finally made some videos yesterday morning so you can hear how she sounds. I have been building this instrument in preparation for the instrument building workshop I will be teaching this summer with the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. There were two goals with this project. One, that I keep the cost below $30 per instrument and two, it be easy enough for kids 8 and up to build. I am positive I succeeded on the first. As for the second objective, I am fairly positive the kids will be able to accomplish everything on the to do list. For the more difficult parts, primarily the specific cuts that are involved, I may bring a few power tools in and cut them for the kids. This will ease our times constraints as well as my concern for safety.

Here’s a list of the materials required for this project:

-Maple or Poplar board for the neck

-Guitar tuners (Purchased from

-2″ bolt with head cut off for nut

-Acoustic Guitar Strings

-2″x4″ scrapes for various bracing pieces

-Cigar Box

-2″ bolt and nut for bridge

-2″ Hinge for tailpiece

-Wine bottle (For Slide)

-Optional: Wiring, 1/4″ jack and piezo pickup (these parts cost about $10 additional to the original $30)


I couldn’t have finished this project without the tools I used, so I will list those here:



-2 Clamps


-Sandpaper (High and Low Grit count)



Some people have asked what tuning I use. Most classic open tunings utilize an open chord. In the case of the videos, I think it was the key of D. Previously, I had tuned it D-A-D-F# (adjust for whatever key you decide to play in), or 1-5-8-10 in intervals. Unfortunately, through all the loosening of the strings to check the top, add the pickup and other adjusting, I broke one of the strings. I moved the F# string down one spot and added a high D on top. It is really interesting to try different strings and tunings, not only so that the chords strummed can sound very different, but the resulting lick possibilities are altered as well. Some tunings are more conducive to more traditional riffs, and while I like the high D on top, I think I will probably go back to the first tuning once I put a new set of strings back on.

Without further adieu, here’s the vids:


And here it is amplified:

How to Practice Open Chords

One of the biggest hurdles young guitar players struggle with is mastering their open chords. If you want to know why these chord shapes are so important, head over to my friend Joe Walker’s spot on the web, His article on open chords is very helpful in understanding what they are and how many songs can actually be played with just a few open chords.

But this post isn’t about why these chord shapes are important. This is about how practice them. When my students are first learning their chords, the first question is always, “How many times do I strum this chord until I change to the next?” This is the wrong question. What students should be asking is, “How many beats is this chord being held until I need to play the next chord?” The fundamental skill students must first develop is to hear the chord change in the song, then be able to make the shape change in the left hand accordingly despite what the right hand is strumming. I often have students practice the shape change in the left hand without strumming in hopes their ears will align with their hands.

I often make a musical pun joke in private lessons (which tends to fall flat on younger audiences) using Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.” Rather bore you by explaining it, just give it a listen:

The point here is this: Over and over, I hear young players fumble around trying to get to the next chord, causing this hiccup, or “hesitation,” in the rhythm of the song. Ah, now you get it. I know, I know, bad joke. This is why I play music, not tell jokes.

In trying to figure out a way to get students around this hiccup, they need to understand that the next chord must land on the downbeat of the next measure (or wherever it should be, depending on the song), no matter what it takes to get there. The playing should not interrupt the rhythm of the song. To teach this, I have students pick two chords they want to work on, say G and D. Then, in 4/4 time and with a metronome at about 60 BPM, strum once and begin to move to the next chord shape. Their goal is to get to the second chord by beat one, and this single strum allows them three beats of rest. Once the second chord is strummed once, move back to first. Visually, it looks like this:

| G     (rest) (rest) (rest) | D      (rest) (rest) (rest) |

|1       2      3       4       | 1      2       3       4       |

The student repeats this ad nauseum, using the three beats of rest as transition to the new chord shape. Once this becomes easy, the student replaces the second beat of rest with a second strum, providing the remaining two beats of rest to make the chord shape change:

|G      G       (rest) (rest) | D     D       (rest) (rest) |

|1       2        3      4       | 1      2       3       4      |

And so on and so on, until the student is strumming on all four beats. Then you can gradually increase the metronome marking in increments of 2 or 4 BPMs until you reach the speed of the given song where the chords are being applied.

This exercise can also be applied to songs that the student is learning. The student needs to find the beat, then figure out how many beats the chord is being played. He or she can then strum on the first beat of the chord and try to get to the next chord by the time the song does. This breaks up the monotony of the metronome exercise, but still drills this fundamental concept.

I hope this sheds a little light out there for those parents wondering how they can help their kids practice at home. And for the older beginning student, this is a great drill to get those shapes under your hands in no time flat. In fact, I use this exercise daily to drill new and more complicated chord shapes! Feel free to comment or email me with any other suggestions or questions regarding practicing chord shapes and happy shedding!


Kick Out the Jams “Brothers and Sisters”

This week marks the start of rehearsals for “Garage Rock,” a show I will be directing for the School of Rock in Silver Spring, MD. People have been asking me, “What qualifies a band as a garage band?” I admit, it is a pretty loose term, but the wikipedia page sheds a little light as to what the term means from a historical perspective. Terry Mattingly of the Washington Journalism Center put it best when he compared garage rock to Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscene material in the Supreme Court case Jacobellis v. Ohio: “I know it when I see it.” Sure, I could try and compile a list separating what is and what isn’t garage rock, but I think to do so would go against the idea of the style itself and make a pretty worthless list.

In my quest to compile a list of bands/songs to use for the show, I have learned about a number of groups I had never heard of before. One of these bands, MC5, just made HuffPost headlines this morning as their bassist, Michael Davis, recently passed away. I wanted to include their tune “Kick Out the Jams” to the list of tunes for the show, but I decided against it mainly because any recording I could find started out with vocalist Rob Tyner shouting, “And right now… right now… right now it’s time to… KICK OUT THE JAMS, MOTHERF***ER!” Probably not a great idea for a family friendly show. I instead decided to go with “Call me Animal,” a little less profane and hopefully a safe introduction to MC5.

Here’s a safe intro to “Kick out the Jams”:

This is the primary dilemma I keep running into with using rock as a medium for teaching kids music. At what point do you cross the line between clearly adult themes and showing kids “cool” music. For the moment, I don’t have any hard and fast rules about what is appropriate and treat each new song on a case by case basis. This being my first show with School of Rock, it will be interesting (especially with some of the bands I have selected for the show) to see if I run into any issues with parents. If I do, I guess I will have to figure out a solution on the spot. Until then, I just have to use my best judgement and get the kids to “kick out the jams.”


Tree Ring and Brita

Sorry for the onslaught of Cage videos lately. I have been been deep in a few projects and haven’t had much content to post, so if I can at least make myself laugh, that’s good enough.

On to more important news. Last November I jumped on a plane and flew back to San Diego to take care of two goals. One: complete oral exams for my MM at SDSU in Jazz Studies. Check. Two: perform in the forest with my band, The Tree Ring. See, we are part of this thing with Brita Water Filters called FilterForGood Music Project. Our goal was to perform a concert in the woods and everyone had to hike in to check out the show. It was a wonderful afternoon and I am so excited about the film our friend Destin Daniel Cretton put together. It was shown during the Sundance Film Festival and now you can check it out. Also, an extra perk of the excursion were my parents. They came along and my dad took some really neat photos. It was a wonderful chance to create memories with my friends and family.

Check out some photos:

And of course, the video:

Cage all the Rage

More Bends

Who knew circuit bending could be so cool.


Nicholas Cage Day

Rose and I made it out last week to catch bluegrass night at SOVA and had a really great time. The band By and By really did a bang up job, but Rose and I couldn’t help but notice the banjo player looked a lot like a famous celebrity actor. Cue the Nicholas Cage videos:

Meet The Man Inside The Nicolas Cage Costume