Sheet music
December 28, 2023

The best articles of 2023

Music writer Ted Gioia has made a selection of the best online articles and essays published in 2023, including ones on music topics. Goia, among others, recommends “I Started Playing My Sax Outdoors. Then the Fans Came” by Harvey Dickson from the New York Times, “The Origins of Creativity” by Louis Menand from The New Yorker, as well as “How Alice Cooper Cleaned Up and Became a Pop Star All Over Again” by Dave Everley from the Louder Sound.

Music writer Ted Gioia recalls singer-songwriter Nick Drake who would have turned 75 today. "Drake is now more than a music star, almost an emblematic figure. And I say with some sorrow, but with complete conviction, that his life and times remind me of so many people nowadays who have been cast adrift in our society—suffering in ways spookily reminiscent of what he experienced fifty years ago."

"When I first studied philosophy, the course began with Socrates—he was the originator of Western rationalist thinking, or so I was told. You can draw a direct line from him to analytic logic and the codification of a scientific worldview. But where did Socrates get the idea of philosophizing? Strange to say, he got it from music" - music writer Ted Gioia argues in his new book 'Music to Raise the Dead'.

Music writer Ted Gioia remembers one essential bit of advice saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre gave him on organizational theory. "He explained that musicians played better when they were happier. Now that was a word I’d never heard in organizational theory class. Giuffre continued to spell it out for me—surprised that I couldn’t figure this out for myself. Didn’t I know that people are always happier when they were with their friends? So group productivity is an easy problem to solve. In other words, if my three best buddies played bongos, kazoo, and bagpipe, that should be my group."

An amazing story by Ted Gioia, who has discovered, with a little help from other music lovers, a song that has over 50 different titles, and over 50 different writers credits attributed to it on Spotify. There were other instances of the same phenomena on other streaming platforms, with other songs as well (mostly short and lousy). What's going on? "Spotify may be working to switch listeners from songs released by major labels to generative music, which could be licensed at low royalty rates or even purchased as a work-for-hire. Under this scenario, a streaming platform could lower its costs substantially, and improve profitability—but with the result of less money paid to flesh-and-blood musicians."

The MusicMan
April 19, 2023

How musicians were the first heroes?

Music writer Ted Gioia shares a news section from his new book 'Music to Raise the Dead' about musicians being the first heroes, and songs as their superpower. He based his theory on ancient texts from Mahābhārata, the Bible, and others. How did it come to this? "Songs tap into a power that transcends representation... For many individuals, music is their only pathway into ecstatic mindstates. And even for the adept who has mastered the journey, the song is often the most important thing brought back from the trip—or, in many cases, music served as the engine that propelled it forward in the first place."

The music writer and romance expert is trying to understand and/or explain why do young people see jazz as romantic: "Romance has been rationalized in our lives, much like a factory process. All the unnecessary steps get bypassed. And from a purely pragmatic point of view, swiping through profiles on a phone app seems far more efficient than a slow, ritualized process of courtship and romantic bonding... There’s a death of enchantment in our culture—that’s the best term I can come up with for this phenomenon... In this situation, jazz starts to play an unusual role. It gets associated with the last generation that did romantic body-contact dancing on a regular basis. It’s perceived as the soundtrack for the ritualized apparatus of courtship. Just hearing it magically summons a nostalgic longing for a more romantic age".

Ted Gioia wrote a great obituary to jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, who died on Sunday aged 92: "Other musicians have changed the sound of jazz in various ways. But Ahmad Jamal actually transformed time and space. He opened up an alternative universe of sound, freer and less constrained than what we had heard before. The rules of improvised music were different after he appeared on the scene... Ahmad Jamal sat down at the piano, and just floated over the beat."

"Each chapter is filled to the brim with insights, new information, and powerful writing. McCormick clearly had high literary aspirations at this juncture in his life. I suspect that he was trying to capture something similar to Truman Capote’s 'In Cold Blood', the most celebrated ‘true crime’ book of the era. McCormick presents himself in these pages as a musical detective on the trail of the most elusive guitarist in history, and successfully conveys all the uncertainty and suspense of his investigation" - music writer Ted Gioia presents 'Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey', a book about the famous delta blues guitarist written by his friend Mack McCormick. The published book is the early version of the manuscript. The later version argued that Mississippi guitarist named Robert Johnson—admired all over the world today—didn’t actually make those famous blues recordings or anything really. Gioia explains.

Madison McFerrin

"This is all about music discovery—and I’m excited to tell you about a few favorite artists you might not encounter elsewhere" - music writer Ted Gioia announces his list of 30 most intriguing new musicians. "It’s a cranky and deeply personal list", Gioia warns. Some of chosen ones are Hania Rani, singer-songwriter from Gdansk; Madison McFerrin, a pianist from a family of musicians; Sam Gendel - a versatile multi-instrumentalist.

"Capital punishment may seem an unlikely subject for a hit song. But a few hundred years ago, execution ballads not only circulated in society, but were extremely popular. The music business, as it existed in those days, depended on these bloody songs for profits. Countless examples survive in the form of broadside ballads—popular songs that were printed and sold and performed in public spaces. They were often sold at the execution itself. But they continued to circulate in the following days—serving as a combination of macabre entertainment, moral education, and daily news for people who hadn’t actually been in attendance" - music writer Ted Gioia argues how important and widespread execution songs were until fairly recently.

Writings on the wall
March 31, 2023

Ted Gioia: Where did musicology come from?

Derveni papyrus

Music writer Ted Gioia shares an extract from his new book where he's looking for the beginnings of music research: "Musicology originated as the study of magical incantations... From the beginnings of human history magic was embedded in songs. The most powerful magic is always sung or chanted... That was even true for the oldest hunter-gatherer tribes. We know that because the magical images on the cave walls are always located in spots with the best acoustics... The oldest book in Europe, Derveni papyrus... is actually a musicology text... Conductor’s baton was initially a magic wand... And we’ve encountered similar magical underpinnings to music in hundreds of other places, from shamans in Siberia to the lore of Celtic bards".

"Today almost every aspect of music-making, from composition to curation, is getting handed off to machines. But 60 years ago, just teaching a computer to sing for 30 seconds was a technological marvel" - music writer Ted Gioia goes to the roots of AI-assembled music. It was  IBM's 7094 computer that was taught how to sing in 1961.

  • "Everything gets faster. That’s why TikTok creators are speeding up their songs and visuals.
  • Everything gets shorter. That’s why song duration is shrinking—the 3-minute pop song has been replaced by the 2-minute pop song.
  • Everything new soon seems old. Trends come and go as users churn through novelties.
  • Everything gets dumber. Hey, just look around you.

Music writer Ted Gioia is longing for more substance in our lives in his latest newsletter, as opposed to shots of dopamine served on social media. He compares it to intermittent reinforcement - a theory based on an experiment with rats that showed that they could be manipulated more easily if rewards and punishments were sporadic and unpredictable. Gioia is hopeful - "most people crave something more enriching than a quick dose of dopamine from their handheld Skinner Box. Once they’ve tasted the real thing, a meaningful number of them—a decisive majority, in my opinion—will refuse to give up the riches of their music, books, movies, museums, and other repositories of glory and genius"

"Scott was one of the finest arts and culture writers in the country, engaged and passionate and capable of delivering insightful articles at short notice on almost any subject... Somehow he combined a deep earnestness and total dedication to his craft with a childlike innocence" - music writer Ted Gioia writes in the introduction of the posthumous collection of writings by Scot Timberg, entitled 'Boom Times for the End of the World', including texts about jazz, pop and classical music. "Here he still survives in the role he played best: the passionate and earnest culture writer".

"Starting about 12-18 months ago, something shifted in music consumption patterns" - music writer Ted Gioia takes notice of a change, underpinned by six recent studies showing an unexpected increase in classical music listening. How did this happen? "Maybe that old orchestral and operatic music now sounds fresh to ears raised on electronic sounds. Maybe the dominance of four-chord compositions has created a hunger for four-movement compositions. Maybe young people view getting dressed up for a night at the opera hall as a kind of cosplay event. Or maybe the pandemic had some impact on music consumption... And it’s true, the pandemic did cause a major increase in the purchase of musical instruments. People got serious about music—so much so that they wanted to play it themselves. Perhaps it changed listening habits too".

Sounds of silence
February 23, 2023

Ted Gioia: How long does pop culture stardom last?

"I’ve long believed that 80 years is a typical span of pop culture fame for superstars. I’m referring to the biggest names—the lesser stars burn out in 80 months or 80 weeks or 80 days. But the top draws retain their fame for the entire lifetime of their youngest fans—and given current life expectancies of the US audience, that can’t be much more than 80 years. We already see the price of Elvis Presley memorabilia starting to drop" - music writer Ted Gioia estimates how long stardom lasts.

Not nothing - it's all
February 22, 2023

Ted Gioia: My lifelong quest for silence

"It may seem strange to hear it from a music writer, but I'm always looking for a quiet moment" - Ted Gioia takes a moment to appreciate silence and differentiate music from noise. "I always crave more quiet moments in my life. But I still love the music. Maybe I love it all the more, for having refreshed the ears with a dose of quiet before returning to that next song".

When the music's over
February 20, 2023

Ted Gioia: Why musicians can't retire?

"The more [musicians] get the acclaim, the more they start needing it. You might think that after all the big paychecks and standing ovations, they would eventually have reached some sense of self-satisfaction that would allow for an easy retirement. But that’s not true. In fact, the opposite is the more typical case. The more the artists are rewarded, the more they still want" - music writer Ted Gioia looks into the possibility of ending a career as a musician. "Sometimes it’s better to walk away when you’re still riding high. I greatly admire performers such as Audrey Hepburn or Shirley Temple, who happily launched second careers doing charitable works and good deeds. They used their fame for something different, something perhaps better. My view is that Madonna would have a much more powerful and positive legacy if she did something like that."

Music writer Ted Gioia shares a fresh chapter from his new book 'Music to Raise the Dead' - the results of many years of research into the most famous story in the history of the blues, namely guitarist Robert Johnson’s legendary deal with the Devil. Gioia goes deep into history and religious practices, as well as into the meaning of crossroads, and how it all provided an environment for Johnson's experience and music.

Planting seeds
February 10, 2023

Ted Gioia gives State of the Culture address

"What we really need is a robust indie environment—in which many arts and culture business flourish and present their diverse offerings. Let a thousand flowers blossom... That’s where the future is happening right now. By alt culture, I’m referring to things like podcasts, Bandcamp albums, YouTube channels, Substacks, and various other emerging platforms. Some of these aren’t just growing, they are growing exponentially" - music writer Ted Gioia points out in his State of the Culture address. There's also a place for major record labels or movie studios or non-profits in this new environment - "If they start helping out in our project to build an audience and infrastructure for bold creative work, we have a golden age of artistry and culture ahead of us." Let's go!

“I give people confidence. They give me money.”
February 02, 2023

Ted Gioia: ChatGPT - the slickest con artist of all time

Music writer Ted Gioia doesn't like ChatGPT, he doesn't like it one bit: "ChatGPT is hotter than Wordle and Taylor Swift combined... People love it. People have confidence in it. They want to use it for everything—legal work, medical advice, term papers, or even writing Substack columns... But that’s exactly what the confidence artist always does. Which is:

  • You give people what they ask for.
  • You don’t worry whether it’s true or not—because ethical scruples aren’t part of your job description.
  • If you get caught in a lie, you serve up another lie.
  • You always act sure of yourself—because your confidence is what seals the deal".

"Medieval Córdoba had more influence on global music than any other city in history. A thousand years before New Orleans spurred the rise of jazz, and instigated the Africanization of American music, a similar thing happened in Córdoba, Spain. You could even call that city the prototype for all the decisive musical trends of our modern times" - Ted Gioia proclaims in his latest post, about the culture hub which at the time had the largest population in the West - 450,000 inhabitants (much more than Paris, London, or Roma at the time). “This was the chapter in Europe’s culture when Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived side by side,” asserts Yale professor María Rosa Menocal, “and, despite their intractable differences and enduring hostilities, nourished a complex culture of tolerance.” It is that intersection of cultures that made it so impactful - "It is our single best example of how the West can enter into fruitful cultural dialogue with the outsider—to the benefit of both... The Córdoba Model still has something to teach us today. If we flourished by living together a thousand years ago, why shouldn’t it happen again now? The role model we need isn’t hard to describe—the rules are tolerance, connectivity, interaction, sharing, a welcoming attitude to new peoples and influences".

The good, the bad, and the band
January 25, 2023

Ted Gioia: How a single person changes a culture

"At the lowest levels in a corporation, those analytical STEM skills help you get a promotion and a raise. But at the highest levels of management, your creativity, imagination, and core values are tested constantly. When you face the biggest decisions, there are so many trade-offs that no spreadsheet or algorithm can guide you—everything from worker motivation to community support can be at stake. You can’t even quantify those things, let alone calculate their trade-offs. You need something deeper. It’s more a matter of values and creative insight than math" - music writer Ted Gioia writes in favor of putting creative people to run big companies, even someone like Miles Davis. Gioia is inspired by changes happening recently at Barnes & Noble.

"Las Vegas wedding chapels recently received an unusual letter. It contained a cease-and-desist order—demanding that they stop using Elvis Presley impersonators to conduct marriages... I won’t get involved in the legal niceties here, but I seriously doubt any law firm is powerful enough to stop Elvis impersonation. Fake artists are as old as music itself" - Ted Gioia writes in his latest memo. Greece and Egypt are the earliest examples, with the blues being the fresher one. "You might even say that this practice is what made the blues a genuine tradition—artists preferred to take something pre-existing, and maybe change a few tiny details, rather than invent a new song from scratch. And we can’t really complain, because this is what allows oral traditions to last over the generations. Many of these blues songs would have disappeared if somebody hadn’t stolen them".

Despite all the hype, vinyl album unit sales only grew 4% in 2022, after a 95% growth in 2021. Those numbers are a HUGE disappointment - Ted Gioia argues. This is what the music industry did, according to his opinion, to cause it:

  • They hate running factories—which is hard work. So they tried to outsource manufacturing instead of building it themselves. Chronic shortages resulted.
  • They refuse to spend money on R&D, so they stayed with the same vinyl technology from the 1950s... In the year 2023, even bowling alleys, bordellos, and bookies are more tech savvy than the major record labels.
  • They want easy money, so they kept prices extremely high. That was bizarre because their R&D and catalog acquisition costs were essentially zero, and they could have priced vinyl aggressively. Instead they treated vinyl as a luxury product.
  • They love hype, so they focused on high visibility vinyl reissues, which look good in press releases, but couldn’t be bothered to make back catalog albums available. After a decade of the vinyl revival, they still hadn’t taken even basic steps in offering a wide product line.

"The real leverage point for AI is cost savings. That’s because the music itself isn’t very good. Sure, there’s a certain novelty factor here—but that will wear off very soon. The real hook is that AI works for cheap, it’s almost like slave labor in the band" - music writer Ted Gioia argues in his latest post about AI-created music. His point for the perfect circle in the text - "that’s how these shifts happen. New tech enters the marketplace as a cheap alternative, and gradually becomes the preferred alternative—because the ‘ears’ of the audience have changed".

Ted Gioia writes an hommage to harpist Therese Schroeder-Sheker who has "devoted her life to performing music for the dying. She has done this on countless occasions, and has accumulated a huge body of knowledge, wisdom, and practical skills that she generously shares with others... This life story would be impressive under any circumstances, but especially so when you consider that Therese Schroeder-Sheker had a brilliantly successful career as a recording artist and concert hall performer. She could have spent her entire life as a music star, but instead put her primary focus on serving those in the most dire and hopeless situations... She is the antithesis of a pop star. Therese is an exemplar of compassion, caring, and contemplation".

"There’s a long history of feared or conquered foreigners as musical innovators. But their new musical styles are initially attacked and suppressed, although they eventually enter the mainstream. This seems to be the case with the Aztec zarabanda... The chaconne, too, probably originated in Latin America before showing up in Spain in the late sixteenth century. Early source documents describe the dance as Peruvian, although some believe it came from the Caribbean coast areas of Mexico. As with the zarabanda, the chacona was viewed as sexy and disreputable" - music writer Ted Gioia goes back centuries looking for the roots of chaconne and sarabande, now examples of European classical music popularized by Bach.

Music writer Ted Gioia made a list of his favorite online articles and essays from 2022 on music, arts, and culture - "if the article is good enough, I include it, no matter what the subject". Interesting pieces about heavy metal’s fascination with Roman emperors, the connection between Mozart na J Dilla, using music as torture, and many more.

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