Appropriation: Thoughts on world musics

Unless you are a composer, every musician is guilty of appropriation.

It’s the nature of our art: we take someone else’s music and make it our own. Indeed, the act of appropriation, and how well we absorb and interpret the music, is what makes a musician successful.

As a choir director, cultural appropriation (and by extension, misappropriation) is something I am always considering. It’s something I think about as a flutist, too, but it seems a more pressing issue in vocal music because of the added responsibility of interpreting words.

Two recent examples come to mind:

  1. As part of our celebration and reflection of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, my choir sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” This song is well-known as the unofficial national anthem of African Americans. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” became popular during the Civil Rights marches of the 1960s and continues to have resonance today. Would it be OK for a predominantly white choir to sing this anthem during a worship service about the Civil Rights Movement?
  2. Vocal Resistance, a social justice choir, wants to add a new song to the repertoire. Members are engaged in a robust debate about what songs we are “allowed” to sing. Under consideration were “We Shall Overcome,” closely associated with the Civil Rights Movement, and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” an African American gospel song. What are the implications for a social justice choir (with little cultural diversity) when performing songs from other movements and strongly associated with African-American culture?

For me, there are three tests for musical misappropriation.

Vocal Resistance appropriation

Vocal Resistance in performance

1. Respect context and intention.

It is our duty to perform a bit of research into the song’s roots. Who is the composer? Why was it written? When was the song first performed? What do the words mean? How has the song been used historically? If words are going to be changed, they must respect the composer’s intention. For instance, I have heard several groups add a verse of “gay and straight together” to “We Shall Overcome.” This seems appropriate for today’s struggles.

2. Perform with integrity.

If we can’t sing the song well, we aren’t performing it. Period.

3. Respect copyright, paying the composer whenever possible.

For songs not in the public domain, the choir is obligated to pay the composer and arranger. This means buying sheet music for all singers or buying the rights from the composer. Some composers have asked our choir to please make sure they are given credit in any social media mention or video.

If the choir is able to satisfy all three requirements, I feel confident programming it.

All musicians must be sensitive to appropriation in music. However, we can’t let the fear of cultural misappropriation prevent us from sharing great music. In order for music to be alive, it must be performed. If our choirs want to be truly inclusive, we have to sing music that is representative of everyone, not simply a reflection of the cultural heritage of the members currently in the group.

Here are some writings by others on the subject:

A Perspective on Music and Cultural Misappropriation

Cultural Appropriation in Pop Music- When Are Artists In the Wrong?

11 Songs Prove the History of Music Is All About Cultural Appropriation

What are your thoughts?

Music Making Sandbox

Come play in the music sandbox!

My flute student James told me about a new “music sandbox” website that provides mini lessons for the budding composer. James’ friend, Dennis DeSantis, was involved with the project.

These mini music lessons are perfect for people wanting to learn more about composition, especially in apps like Garage Band. My 12 year old son, who likes to work with loops in Garage Band, will enjoy these simple lessons. Lovers of electronic music will find this especially helpful.  The lessons are progressively more difficult so if you can skip ahead if it’s too simple. I promise you will find something in these lessons that will challenge the way you think about music composition, digital or acoustic.

I learned something new. As a classically trained musician, I understand tempo markings like “Adagio,” “Allegro,” or “Andante,” but I didn’t know these:

  • Dub: 60-90 bpm
  • Hip-hop: 60-100 bpm
  • House: 115-130 bpm
  • Techno/trance: 120-140 bpm
  • Dubstep: 135-145 bpm
  • Drum and bass: 160-180 bpm

Everything on this website is presented in a simple, visual interface that allows for discovery. There are parameters, but we are free to experiment. Music has rhythm and pitches, but the magic is made in the infinite combinations.

I enjoyed the section on writing bass lines. As a flutist, this is not something I have a lot of experience with!

music sandbox

screenshot on section about composing basslines.


Try it out and let me know what you think!

Silence: Exploring 4’33” by John Cage

Where Does Silence Begin?

Claude Debussy famously quipped “Music is the silence between the notes.”

Or consider this wisdom from an old Zen koan: “It is the silence between the notes that makes the music; it is the space between the bars that cages the tiger.”

Holding silence is difficult, musically and personally.

As a music teacher, I have noticed that the most common rhythm mistake is not counting rests correctly. We want to make the rest too short or add extra time. The correct silence, entered with intention and ended with beauty, is not easy.

In the headlong rush of our lives, creating space for silence requires effort. We turn on the TV or radio to create distraction. The noises of the house, office, people, and street are constant. Inward quiet is even more elusive.


Composer John Cage has said that his most important work is 4’33”, an exploration of silence. In this composition, John Cage has written three movements of no music lasting exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The musicians simply sit on stage without playing instruments. The video below shows the soloist tuning her instrument and the conductor beginning each of the three movements.

The Musical Rorschach Test

How do you feel when listening to this piece? Impatient for it to be over? Curious about the sounds? Angry that people couldn’t be quiet in the hall? Perhaps you thought about the people at the concert who paid money to attend this concert.

I would argue that your perception of the piece reflects a bit of your subconscious. It’s like a musical Rorschach test. Everyone will see/hear something different. Your perception may change over time or with repeated hearings.

Rorschach test ink blot silence

Rorschach image

I first became aware 4’33” by John Cage in graduate school. A friend programmed it on his master’s recital. My reaction was, “That’s brilliant! Five minutes of music that he doesn’t have to prepare on his recital. Why didn’t I think of that?!” It seemed like a trick, a joke.

Now I am much more interested in the audience’s participation in 4’33”. In the video above, we hear noises during each movement and an explosion of sound between movements. This piece is successful because the audience has preconceived notions of what they are to do in a recital hall, ie. sit still and listen. But the hall is not silent. It never is. This helps me to remember that the audience is part of every performance. The audience creates an energy in a concert hall. Indeed, the audience is integral. Without an audience, the performance is just a rehearsal. Sometimes the audience is adding to the soundscape, as is made clear in 4’33.”

Finding the Stillness

In the days ahead, I challenge you to find some silence, realizing that it is never truly without sound. The beating of the heart, the hum of machines, are with us always. It is not necessary to silence the world, only to find peace among the sound. This is the spiritual practice of silence.

Find a stillness, hold a stillness, let the stillness carry me.

Find the silence, hold the silence, let the silence carry me.

In the spirit, by the spirit, with the spirit giving power.

I will find true harmony.   -Carl G. Seaburg (based on a Unitarian Transylvanian text)


Music as a Spiritual Practice

Since the beginning, music and spirituality have been inextricably linked.

Every culture in the world has used music as a spiritual practice in rituals for healing, connecting with the Divine, communicating with the spirit world, celebrating important events, and so forth. Ancient people knew the power of music and we do too. In the book Why You Love Music: From Mozart to Metallica- The Emotional Power of Beautiful Sounds, by John Powell, the front endpaper asserts

Music plays a hugely important role in our emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual lives. It impacts the ways we work, relax, behave, and feel. It can make us smile or cry, it helps us bond with the people around us, and it even has the power to alleviate a range of medical conditions.

This blog series will focus on how music can be used as a spiritual practice. Religious or not, all people benefit from activities that foster more compassion, more love, more generosity, more wholeness.

Look for the helpers.

How do you respond when something awful happens? Perhaps you feel sad or angry at first. But in the days and weeks that follow, do these events leave you feeling hopeless or are you spurred to action?

This week marked the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Once again, the news featured stories about the victims and about a world that was changed by senseless violence. However, alongside the tragic stories, the news this year also told about the people who were helpers.
Look for the helpers

The stories told about September 11 offer many examples of people who responded with generosity to the tragedy. For example, the people of  Gander, Newfoundland, didn’t seek out a charity project, but they offered generous support to the more than 7000 travelers who became stranded when American airspace was closed. Those travelers, after returning home, returned the favor by setting up a well-funded scholarship for the children of Gander.

There were many other hopeful stories too. Mental health professionals volunteered their time to talk with the first responders and attend to their emotional needs. Others went to NYC to help with the recovery efforts, risking their own health. And fire stations all across the country reported gifts of food, homemade cards, and other donations. I remember long lines at the Red Cross blood donation center in Boulder, where I was living at the time.

We have a choice when something bad happens: we can be paralyzed by fear and depression or we can work to make things better. Because we never know when we will called to be “helpers,” we have to be ready.

Be a helper.

I believe that the people who are best able to respond to a crisis are the people who are healthy – physically, mentally, emotionally. It’s normal to feel sad or angry when tragedy strikes, but I want to be the person ready to respond with action and love when called to help.

My goal is to stay balanced and spiritually whole enough that when the need arises, I will be able to respond immediately and generously. As a music teacher, I understand how important it is for me to be psychologically healthy when working with others. Music is my passion as well as my livelihood. It is also a source of strength when I’m not feeling grounded.

Music as a spiritual practice.

There are as many paths to the divine as there are people. Just as practicing yoga has multiple benefits, so too the study of music offers many spiritual lessons. For example, listening to music can help regulate our emotions. Participating in an ensemble can help us commit to something larger than ourselves. Practicing a musical instrument teaches us how to be comfortable when alone and how to listen deeply. Performing makes us confront negative self-talk. Vocalists must take a deep dive into the words, transforming text into something meaningful.

music and spiritual practice

music at NUUC

In this blog series, I’ll discuss ways to integrate music into a meaningful spiritual practice. I’ll offer some exercises and share my experiences as a performer, teacher, and church musician. I’m aided in this journey by my wonderful choir at North Unitarian Universalist Congregation. We have made it a priority this season to explore the role of music and spirituality in our lives and in our community.

How does music play a role in helping you become the person you want to be? Please respond below with your thoughts.

Healthy Brains Need Stimulation and Variety

Healthy Brains Need Stimulation and Variety

It seems that the field of neuroscience is exploding with research about how we learn, what our brains need to stay sharp, and how we can avoid memory problems as we age.

Everyone wants to have healthy brains. For many years, crossword puzzles and sudoku were the favorite pastimes of older adults. Music lessons, together with a healthy lifestyle, might be even better.

Consider this article:

Neuroscience says these five rituals will help your brain stay in peak condition

  1. Frequent small victories. Find ways to feel you have accomplished something – no matter how small – several times a day. I like to keep a to-do list but always include simple items that I can easily check off. Instead of writing “do laundry,” I will have smaller tasks on my list, like “gather laundry from kids’ rooms,” “start load of darks,” “hang laundry on line,” “take laundry off line,” “sort clothes,” “fold and put away.” Studying a musical instrument gives you the opportunity to make small gains everyday.
  2. Physical activity. The brain is healthier when our whole bodies are healthy. Take a walk, do a yoga video, ride a bike to the store. The exercise does not have to be intense or lengthy. Just 20 minutes is enough to keep the brain happy.
  3. Learn something new. The brain needs constant use to maintain its edge. This is why learning an instrument is extremely helpful for adults. Music study uses the whole brain. See blog posts “Brain Imaging on Musicians”  and “Practice Builds Better Brains” for more info.
  4. Consider your posture. An upright posture allows for more oxygen and has a subconscious positive effect on our bodies. Hunching, rounding the shoulders, and slouching in a chair inhibit learning and make us feel inferior. Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk on this subject is fascinating. Most, if not all, music teachers will encourage good posture when playing a musical instrument.
  5. Get plenty of sleep. Our brains need time to recharge. Researchers have two hypotheses about why sleep is necessary. Some have suggested that rest is necessary for the brain to organize the day’s experiences. Others argue that the brain needs resting time to flush out toxins. The book “How We Learn” also asserts the value of good sleep habits.

You’re never too old to begin music study. My most mature student was in her 60s when she decided to take up flute. If you are already a musician, be sure to change up your practice routine and learn something new every day. Healthy brains equal a long, productive life!

healthy brains

stimulation and variety – he usually plays piano but decided to try the bass flute.

Chrome Music Lab – Acoustics Sandbox

Chrome Music Lab

Check out the Chrome Music Lab, a virtual playground for learning about acoustics.

Chrome Music Lab – Fun with Acoustics!

acousticsClick on something – anything – and interact with the pictures on the screen. There are no explanations, no words even. Jump into the musical sandbox and see the spectrogram of a flute.. or a harp… or even your own voice.

The interface is so simple and visual that people of all ages can learn about acoustics. You don’t need to be a musician to enjoy this website.



The Chrome Music Lab reminds me of The Exploratorium in San Francisco. It’s a giant building full of science experiments. My family spent an incredible day there several years ago with our kids, then six and four. I remember one exhibit in particular – it had a motor that was exposed and operational. Our youngest liked turning the crank and seeing all the parts move. I had a “lightbulb moment” about magnets and energy. Husband, who is a pro with small engines, was fascinated by some detail I didn’t begin to understand. All of us learned something new by playing with the exhibit.

The Chrome Music Lab is like this too. Playing with the monkeys and drums, I was reminded of the ethnomusicologist’s way of notating non-Western rhythms. My kids liked clicking on the silly monkeys and hearing the different sounds. Others might observe the visual spacing of the rhythms, as if the sounds were placed on a ruler. Each person will have a different understanding of the activity and unique insights.

Here are a few ideas for interacting with the Chrome Music Lab:

  • Try to guess the piece on the “Piano Roll” before hitting the play button.
  • Find the octaves in “Harmonics.”
  • Use “Arpeggios” to accompany yourself while singing simple songs like “The Wheels On the Bus” and “Twinkle Twinkle.”
  • Notice how the tune changes as you draw in “Kandinsky.” Art becomes music. Change colors for different sounds.

(Thanks, James, for the link.)

Music and Math: Three Concepts for Understanding Rhythm

Music and Math

My job as a music teacher is to help students understand the basic elements of music. Rhythm is the most difficult of the “right-or-wrong” music elements (the others are articulations and pitches.) Mastering rhythm often requires multiple approaches. Connecting music and math is one approach.

We all have different learning styles. One model of learning suggests that we have a preference for visual, auditory, or kinesthetic experiences. Understanding where your strengths are in the visual-auditory-kinesthetic spectrum can direct you to helpful systems of learning. Here’s a link to the  VAK Learning Styles Survey .

Some students resonate with a kinesthetic understanding of rhythm. They need to feel the beat in their bodies. In the studio, we may use marching, bouncing balls, and/or conducting the music to help students internalize the beat. For kinesthetic learners, Dalcroze Eurythmics is helpful.

Other students prefer to hear the rhythms. These are auditory learners. The blog post “Rhythm Silliness” talks about the words I like to use to help students learn rhythm by ear. We use words like “Mississippi,” “peanut butter” or “R2D2” for sixteenth notes. We do a lot of playing rhythms together or I’ll play one measure and the student will play it back.

Visual learners often prefer a more analytical approach to learning rhythm. Charts and visual aids are helpful to folks who have strong visual skills. If you are one of these people, read on! This blog post is for you.

This blog post will show three mathematical concepts and how they contribute to a deeper understanding of the division of the beat.


5th grade math and music

math workbook

My son brought home his fifth grade math book last night. This is from an introduction page to a unit on fractions. This page clearly shows the relationship between music and math. It even points out that the time signature looks like a fraction. By adding the note values at the bottom of the page, students can figure out where the barlines are supposed to be.

A word of caution: I have observed that younger students can be confused about fractions. They think that if a pie is divided into two parts, there must be more pie because two is more than one. For this reason, I don’t use fractions with young students until they have studied them in math at school. I have had the most success using rhythm words to teach rhythm to young students.

However, once a student understands fractions, the concept is easily applied to music and deepens the student’s understanding of how the beat is divided into equal parts. Notes that are tied together become easy math problems. (1/4+1/4=1/2) Students who understand fractions have an easier time subdividing the beat, as they have to do when the eighth note is the value that gets one beat.


I love to cook and sometimes I have to double of halve a recipe. This calls for an understanding of fractions and ratios. Take a look at my measuring cup:

music and math in the kitchen

measuring cup

If you look closely, you can see that there are lines for 1/4 cup, 1/3 cup, 1/2 cup, 2/3 cup, 3/4 cup, and the top is one whole cup. Imagine that this one cup of flour is a quarter note. That note can be divided in many different ways. Three 1/3 cups = 1 cup in the same was as a triplet will divide a quarter note into three equal short notes. I like to think of the image of this measuring cup when working on rhythms that switch between eighth notes and triplets. I have a clear mental image of how triplets in one instrument and sixteenth notes in another will line up.

Music and math makes great cookies!


Daniel Buckvich, professor of music at University of Idaho has an innovative system for teaching rhythm, which he calls “Measured Music.” I became familiar with his ideas as an undergraduate student at The Ohio State University. It was one of those great “AHA!” moments when I opened the book and saw for the first time the visual representation of my mental concept of rhythm. Buckvich’s “Measured Music” system begins with a ruler, something with which we are all familiar. (I should note that this ruler is in inches, so if you are a metric person, this might not be as helpful.)

music and math

from Measured Music

A ruler has whole numbers (1, 2, 3, and so forth) that indicate inches. The inches have smaller divisions also. The longest line is at the half-inch mark. Shorter lines indicate the 1/4 and 3/4 inch. Finally, the smallest lines divide the 1/4 into 1/8 (and sometimes 1/16).

Buckvich’s system also uses small circles, like mini pies, to show the subdivision of the beat. Sometimes the smallest subdivision is 1/2, other times it is 1/3. In the above example, you will see that it is 1/4 or the sixteenth note. Below is a page from later in the book showing complex rhythms. I love how visual this music and math system is.

music and math

another page from Measured Music

If your brain isn’t wired for this kind of math, that’s totally fine. You likely need another system for internalizing the pulse and subdividing the beat. As I mentioned earlier, there are other systems for teaching rhythm that are good for kinesthetic and auditory learners.

If the above music and math concepts work for you, great! Use them to deepen your understanding of the division of the beat. Visually overlay a ruler, a measuring cup, an apple pie over difficult rhythms. Continue to explore how the fractions can be overlaid and be prepared for some “Aha!” moments of your own.

Music is a beautiful, mathematical marvel. If you liked this post, you may also be interested in learning about the math concepts behind the harmonic series, music theory, acoustics, and instrument design.

Essential For Being Human

Music is essential for being human.

Scientists are learning a lot about how music effects the brain, how it changes our cognition (see blog posts Better Brains and Brain Imaging). But that’s not the whole story. There’s something much deeper going on with music. It is central to every culture across the world and across history. Music is enjoyed by people of all classes, gender, and age. Those who do not play an instrument still love listening to music.

Leonid Perlovsky, visiting scholar at Harvard University, writes

Billions of people enjoy music; many feel that they can’t live without it.


It’s a question that has puzzled scientists and philosophers for centuries. 2,400 years ago Aristotle wondered, “Why does music, being just sounds, remind us of the states of our soul?”

In the 19th century Darwin tried to decipher if our ability to create music evolved by natural selection. Of all human faculties, only music seemed beyond understanding; flummoxed, he came to the conclusion that “music is the greatest mystery.”

Perlovsky has conducted research on the “greatest mystery” and believes the answer is that music helps us resolve cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is psychologist-speak for the emotional discomfort caused by believing two things, despite understanding that they cannot be true at the same time. The classic example is a lawyer who must enter a “not-guilty” plea for a defendant, even though the lawyer knows the person committed the crime. Cognitive dissonance effects us on a deeply emotional level and if not resolved, it can be paralyzing.

Read the whole article here: How Music Helps Resolve Our Deepest Inner Conflicts ( the piano

Tom Barnes writes about Perlovsky’s research in this article:

Science May Finally Have Found Out Why Music Is So Important to Humans  (

Barnes cites research that implies music has played an essential role in human evolution, especially in the following areas

  • Resolving cognitive dissonance (Perlovsky’s conclusion)
  • Modulating mood
  • Reducing anxiety and stress
  • Promoting social cohesion
  • Developing language
  • Physical healing

I’ve often wondered why so many songs are about love and heartbreak. Revisiting a painful breakup through music somehow feels good, but that doesn’t make any logical sense. I don’t enjoy thinking about the time I suffered from shingles. That was painful too, but I’m not going to write a song about it. The difference, of course, is that love is emotional. Love and heartbreak are two sides of the same coin, as are life and death. At the center of our existential angst is the knowledge that we have to embrace the duality of being human.

Music makes it easier to get out of bed and face the world every day.

Brain Imaging on Musicians

As brain imaging technology improves, so does our understanding of music’s effects on the brain.

Listening to music makes the whole brain light up. Playing music causes the neurons to fire even more brightly and faster. It’s easy to understand how musicians use the visual and auditory parts of the brain as well as the places that regulate motor coordination. However, musicians must also tap into the emotional, logical, and creative centers of the brain.

brain scans

brain imaging

My kids and I have enjoyed watching the cute, informative Ted ED video titled “How Playing An Instrument Benefits Your Brain” by Anita Collins.

Did you know that every time musicians pick up their instruments, there are fireworks going off all over their brain?

As I was watching the video, I started to wonder if all of the arts engage our brains in similar ways. Anita Collins says that scientists have discovered that

the artistic and aesthetic aspects of learning to play a musical instrument are different from any other activity studied, including other arts.

It seems clear to me that all children would benefit from learning to play a musical instrument. Sure, many kids learn how to toot “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on the recorder, but that’s just scratching the surface. Neuroscientists now know that kids’ brains are changed when they practice and perform a musical instrument.

Playing a musical instrument is good for kids, and it’s good for adults too.

In my private studio, I teach many adult students. Many of them report better mental acuity since beginning lessons. Older adults are encouraged to do keep their brains active by doing activities like crossword puzzles or keeping a journal. Brain games are thought to ward off memory disorders like Alzheimer’s Disease ( I wonder if playing a musical instrument might have even better results. Reading and writing activate discreet centers of the brain; the whole brain is highly activated by playing music.

Do you want your kids to excel in school? Perhaps your money is better spent on music lessons than a math tutor.

Do you want to stay mentally sharp? Dust off your old clarinet or learn a new instrument. It’s like taking your brain to the gym.