What makes this song great? Rick Beato on “Roundabout” by Yes

Music producer and multi-instrumentalist Rick Beato has a great series on YouTube where he picks apart — from a music theory as well as a studio techniques viewpoint — iconic rock and pop tracks. He uses either the original master tapes or artificial separates so he can illustrate individual vocal and instrumental parts and how they fit together. For illustration, he will demonstrate individual guitar and keyboard parts himself.

The series is very well worth watching, even if you don’t care for each and every song.

This time it’s the turn of one of my all-time favorites, Yes’s “Roundabout”.  Enjoy!


Unreliable witnesses

Dave Freer on “unreliable witnesses” as a fiction writing tool — and in the hands of advocacy journalists.

Mad Genius Club

“It’s all a question of point of view.”

Back in the dark ages – 1980’s in South Africa the BBC Radio News reported on a labor dispute/picket protest led by the ANC aligned organizers in a fishing town up the West Coast of the Cape. The picket line had been savagely broken up by the police with dogs (the BBC reporter of the time was a passionate promoter of the anti-apartheid cause, and as his media was not within the country could report whatever he liked without any form of censorship.) The local Afrikaans press reported on the incident too. There wasn’t a lot to report on from one horse towns on the West Coast, and the Cape Town Riot squad dispersing a protest with dogs was news, if not big news. The one set of media carried it from their point of view as a bad thing, and the…

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Teaching the modes of the diatonic scale: another tack

I have made several attempts to explain the concept of musical modes to people unfamiliar with music theory. (This is not some arcane concept from medieval church music: folk, jazz, rock, pop, and even metal often delve into modes.) The video above, by “Signals Music Studio”, takes another tack and keeps it accessible.

If the Greek names are confusing to you, it may be helpful to just number them by the diatonic step that is the tonic (“home note”). [I personally used to number them by the number of flats they had in C, which is equivalent to numbering along the circle of fifths rather than by diatonic steps.] Thus you get:

  1. natural major mode (Ionian, classical major scale)
  2. “minor-lite” mode (Dorian)
  3. “uber-minor” mode (Phrygian)
  4. “uber-major” mode (Lydian)
  5. “major-lite” mode (Mixolydian, folk major scale, bagpipe scale)
  6. natural minor (Aeolian, modal minor scale, descending melodic minor scale)
  7. diminished (Locrian; not really used much because its tonic chord doesn’t even have a perfect fifth)

The Signals guy picks out “the characteristic note” of each: the note most keen to ‘resolve’, so to speak. That would be (assuming the tonic is C below):

  1. major/Ionian: the lead tone (B) which is a major seventh that wants to resolve to the octave.
  2. minor-lite/Dorian: the major sixth (A) which sets it apart from natural minor.
  3. uber-minor/Phrygian: the flattened second (Db)
  4. uber-major/Lydian: the augmented fourth (F#)
  5. major-lite/Mixolydian: the flattened seventh (Bb)
  6. natural minor: the flattened sixth (Ab)
  7. Locrian: the flattened fifth (Gb)

Note that, when improvising and unsure which mode the other players are in, the ‘poor man’s substitute’ of a minor pentatonic will work  with all three modes 2,3,6 (Dorian, Phrygian, natural minor), while a major pentatonic can fit all three modes 1,4,5 (natural major, Lydian, and Mixolydian)

Of course, the ‘flavor’ each mode has is intimately connected with the chords it implies. If you go by the major/minor character of the “three main chords” I (tonic), IV (subdominant), and V (dominant):

  1. natural major: C, F, G major triads
  2. Dorian: Cm, F, Gm.   Note that both tonic (I) and dominant (V) are minor, while the subdominant (IV) is major. Note also the major chords on the flattened seventh and third: countless rock riffs exploit cadences like Cm-Bb-Eb-Cm or Cm-Bb-F-Eb
  3. Phrygian: Cm, Fm, Gm. Note the characteristic major chord on the flattened second: cadences like Cm-Db just write themselves
  4. Lydian: C, F#dim, G. The most archetypical cadence in Lydian is however I-II
  5. Mixolydian: C, F, Gm. The major chord on the flattened seventh step just begs to be used, though, and you naturally get cadences like (in E) E-D-A/C# (AC/DC’s “Back In Black”)  or (in G) G-C-F-C (Rolling Stones, “Honky Tonk Woman”).
  6. Aeolian: like Phrygian, all three of the I-IV-V chords are minor. But here the IIIb, VIb, and VIIb are the major chords, so cadences like C-Bb-Ab follow naturall

Note that in common practice harmony as practiced in Western classical music, the minor chord on the dominant was more or less verboten, which led to the development of a melodic minor scale (often explained as ‘sixth and seventh not flattened when the melody ascends’) such that the dominant chord could be major. Throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods, it was still considered dissonant to end a piece on a major chord, so the final tonic chord of a piece would be turned major (a “Picardian third” as this was then known).

5/4: Dave Brubeck Day

Dave Brubeck’s probably best-known composition is the instrumental “Take Five” (for non-native English speakers: colloquial expression for “take a five-minute break”). Like the rest of the album “Time Out” (the first-ever jazz album to go platinum), it explores odd time signatures: in this case, 5/4.

Some jazz aficionados and music geeks, therefore, mark May 4 (or 5/4 in the US abbreviated date convention) as “Dave Brubeck Day”. Herewith, an original video of his quartet performing the composition.


Here’s to Dave. Take five!


Classical crossover delight: “Five” by Tony Banks

Tony Banks, keyboardist of Genesis for their entire existence and one of the band’s chief songwriters, just released a new album of orchestral compositions, “Five”. Somewhat unusually, he released videos of all five tracks on the album on his official YouTube channel. I posted earlier “Prelude to a Million Years” when it was released as a teaser: below are the remaining four pieces.

This is the third orchestral neoclassical album by Banks, and to me the strongest. Echoes of instrumental Genesis passages and of his own solo work are there, to be sure — but also of English Romantic composers (particularly Vaughan Williams), of Ravel, and of Rachmaninoff, plus film composers.

As a bonus, here is my favorite track from his first orchestral album. “Black Down” (named after a geographic feature near his home) was originally written for keyboard (string synthesizer) and then transcribed for orchestra.


Cato the Elder: ancient Rome’s broken record and his famous use of the gerundivum

Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 BCE), generally known as Cato the Elder or Cato the Censor, was a Roman soldier, senator, and statesman at the time of the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage.

He was famous (or notorious, depending on one’s point of view) for interjecting into every speech, regardless of the subject — even if it were the price of vegetables, so to speak — the phrase:

Ceterum censeo Carthaginem delendam esse

(often slightly ungrammatically misquoted as)

Ceterum censeo Carthago delenda est

In plain English: “Otherwise, I opine that Carthage is to be erased”. Countless Latin students remember this phrase, as it is a memorable example of the Latin gerundivum — a form of the verb that indicates necessity, timeliness, or desirability of an action. Another, more prosaic example: bibere = “to drink”, nunc est bibendum = “now it’s [time to] drink”.

The phrase “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage is to be erased) would be grammatical on its own, but in the original, the entire phrase is the direct object of the verb “censeo” (I opine, I hold, it is my opinion) and hence has to be in the accusative case.

People who barely remember anything about Cato or the Punic wars may remember two things about the era: Hannibal’s elephants and Cato’s “broken record phrase”. The latter is sometimes paraphrased in jest, as “Ceterum censeo ___ delendam esse” (substitute Barney the dinosaur, Hollywood, …)