Measure For Measure: The Medium Is The Menace

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Friends and Foes of Creativity -– The Medium is the Menace

Back in the ’60s, decoding the cryptic sayings of social critic Marshall McLuhan was a popular parlor game, almost as popular as decoding the lyrics of Bob Dylan. As a guitar-playing teenager with an ear attuned to the Top 40, I was fairly adept at the Dylan game. Naturally I wanted to extend my skills to McLuhan, so I hopped on my bike and headed down to Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park on the San Francisco Peninsula.

Kepler’s was no Barnes & Noble. To call it “independent” would be a gross understatement. Founded by peace activist Roy Kepler, it was a countercultural landmark, where, from time to time, you might find Joan Baez and The Grateful Dead giving concerts in the parking lot (see John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said for more). If Kepler’s had charged rent for reading in the aisles, I would have owed them the equivalent of a year at Stanford by the time I was fifteen, which was how old I was when I parked my bike outside that day.

As I headed for the checkout line with a copy of McLuhan’s manifesto, Understanding Media, clutched in my hand, I noticed that Ralph Kohn, a friend of the founder, was behind the cash register. When I was twelve, Ralph had busted me for looking at a nudist magazine, and he’d never missed an opportunity to wisecrack about my reading choices ever since. He did not disappoint this time, either. “If you understand anything about media after reading this,” he said, “you’re a better man than I am.”

The irony wasn’t lost on me – Ralph was an “old guy” of at least forty, and I was in high school – but hey, what did he know? “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mister Jones?” I recited to myself as I collected the book and walked out the door. Unfortunately, Mr. Kohn was right. I bogged down in the early chapters and never recovered. Understanding Media went on the shelf and eventually vanished into the sands of time.

McLuhan himself seems to have suffered a similar fate, but one of his techno-Taoist epigrams still sticks in my mind, four decades and a computer revolution later:

The medium is the message.

Nowadays I can’t help but think of that every time I reach for the power button on my laptop. As McLuhan said, “Every extension of mankind, especially technological extensions, has the effect of amputating or modifying some other extension.” Cars, for example, relieve the need for walking, but walking culture dries up at the same time. Society and human consciousness change in unexpected ways.

So what about computers? What have they amputated? What are the unintended consequences? Cutting to the punch line, contrary to all the praise heaped upon them as educational tools, I suspect that they may be eroding our most valuable musical asset: our musical imagination.

First, let’s give the devil his due. Information appliances have ushered in what McLuhan christened “the global village” – and it’s a musical village. Thanks to the democratizing power of Pro Tools, webcams, and social networks, an unknown singer/songwriter can give a café concert to a worldwide audience on, or become an overnight sensation by posting a song on iTunes or a video on YouTube. As for me, I wouldn’t have a soapbox to stand on without my trusty laptop.

All well and good, but computers are also changing the way we think, and the picture isn’t all rosy. They have trained a new, download generation to expect rapid results without labor. To be fair, their parents and grandparents, the TV generation (talkin’ about my generation), were intellectually lazier than the WWII-Great-Depression generation that preceded them. I vividly recall one of my English professors at UC Santa Barbara – a prominent literary critic who had flown in a B52 over Europe during WWII – complaining that every new class was more poorly read than the one before it. By implication, we were practically illiterate, and it had nothing to do with computers.

My post-literate pride put it all down to the hyperbolic grumblings of a professional curmudgeon, but in retrospect, I think he was right. Ralph Kohn was right, Dr. Mudrick was right – so what about me? Is it my turn? My qualifications to weigh in don’t include degrees, but they do include twenty years of working on user-interface design projects with Jef Raskin, creator of the Macintosh, who was an acknowledged authority in the field of human-computer interactions. He was also one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever known. With our musical imagination at stake, I’m not inclined to be shy, so let me mention just two cyber-features that have McLuhanistic implications for us as musicians and songwriters.

First, computers amputate memory and assign it to a hard drive. The compactness of laptops – let alone iPads and even more miniaturized devices just around the corner – relieve us of the need to memorize. The effect, if any, should be especially pronounced on children, who must make up the world out of their everyday experiences, the music they hear, and the books they read. (Oops! Scratch that last one.)

The evidence may be anecdotal, but the youngsters I teach today do seem loath to memorize anything. When I think of how many of their tests are multiple-choice, how often they select from menus rather than dream up their own menus, how rapidly they can reference Google for minutiae on anything, or compose copy-and-paste reports the same way, I’m not surprised. There may be other causes, many other causes, but memory seems to be in decline.

An example? Take the cowboy chords – so-called because they were favored by Gene Autry, Ray Whitley, and other RKO Western balladeers. The cowboy chords are considered “easy” because they use open strings, while jazz and rock require bar chords, which are more demanding because the left hand has to clamp or mute all six strings at once. The cowboy chords are essential knowledge for guitarists. When I was in high school, most of us would have been ashamed if we hadn’t memorized all of them in a couple of weeks, maybe a month. Today it is routine for students to take six months to a year to learn them. Many fail to learn even a fraction of them in the same length of time. Now I could be the worst teacher in the world, but even if it were so, the change has been dramatic, given the abundance of lessons and reference material online. The desire, the aptitude, and the will to memorize seem to have withered.

Memorizing songs is a big part of learning guitar and music in general. Most noteworthy singer/songwriters – Johnny Mercer, Bob Dylan, Lennon & McCartney, as well as many others – memorized hundreds of songs, if not a thousand or more, by the time they were on the high side of their teens. Today’s crop of students has a thousand songs on their iPods, but not many in their heads. When I suggest they should strive to memorize, they seem puzzled or skeptical, as if I’m suggesting that it would be a good idea to learn how to shoe horses.

The erosion of memory probably predates the computer. It may even go back to the printing press, which took over the task of preserving books from medieval monks, who had to memorize whole volumes, using rhymes and songs and imagery as mnemonic devices. The Black Death had decimated the troubadours by 1350, but the printing press (1440) did away with their chances of a comeback as news carriers. Even if the trend began long ago, however, the personal computer seems to have accelerated its pace.

The second damaging feature of human-computer interaction may be found in video games, and to a lesser extent in email, YouTube, and social networks.

I’m not about to pound the pulpit and decry video game violence. The medium is the message, remember; content is less important. The features of video games that concern me are high-density detail, high-speed action, training in instant gratification, and the narrow range of relationships possible between the game player and the objects and characters in the game (a thought that occurred to me many times while designing such games for Broderbund and Electronic Arts). Together these add up to an imagination-destroying cocktail of distraction.

If you ask people what is more interactive, a book or a video game, most will answer “a video game.” But interactivity means more than firing a weapon a thousand times per minute. It means how the game makes you feel while you’re playing it and after you quit. Most (not all, but most) games induce an adrenalin rush by pumping fear and aggression. But when someone reads a book or sings a song to you, you must conjure up the whole world out of your imagination, an experience that is far more involving. In a video game, the computer does the conjuring for you, and thanks to CGI, it is overwhelmingly intense and detailed (stand aside, imagination). A song suggests, and memory and imagination do the rest. The emotional variations are infinite and can last a lifetime.

In 10 Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Anthony Esolen warns against the ill effects of video games on children’s imagination. He sees them as only part of a tableau of sinister, or merely stupid social forces at work. Interestingly, he also lists “the dismissal of the power of memory” among the top ten. I would add that just as some drugs “potentiate,” or multiply, the effects of others, the mix of imagination-killing forces noted by Esolen may be having effects far more profound than it would seem at first.

An artist relies on visual imagination. A singer or a songwriter relies on musical imagination. In the next blog entry, I will discuss the anatomy of musical imagination, why it is so valuable and yet underappreciated, and how computers and other electronic media harm it. Computers are not the only culprit. They are only part of a problem that has been around far longer: the average, ordinary music education.

Play-by-ear musicians and non-sight-readers, take heart – you shall be vindicated!

* * * * *

Theoretically Speaking – Testing Your Rhythmic I.Q.

Presumably you’ve been working on the dialog drills described in the previous two blogs for about four weeks, so let’s put your Rhythmic I.Q. (Rhythmic Imagination Quotient) to a test. Some readers have doubtlessly been wondering why they should bother with these exercises, so in the next Theoretically Speaking I will explain how they fit into my grand scheme to make you a better songwriter. For now, suffice it to say that almost everyone tends to rate their Rhythmic I.Q. much too highly. The following test will give you an objective measurement.

If you can successfully navigate the following series of challenges, then you’re ready to move on to the next level described in my book (Compose Yourself,, Lesson 2), which combines harmony with rhythm in various kinds of harmonic journeys found in pop music.

You can enact the rhythm in these challenges by singing, tapping, clapping, or playing a guitar (just mute the strings with the left hand). While it’s not strictly necessary, you should be able to count the rhythm at the same time you play it, or at least write it down later.

Challenge 1 – Improvise a One-Measure Motive and a One-Measure Echo

The following eight-measure exercise challenges you to improvise a one-measure motive and repeat it perfectly.

Measure 1: Improvise a one-measure rhythm in 4/4 time (four beats per measure).

Measure 2: Repeat measure 1 perfectly.

Measure 3: Without pausing, improvise a new rhythm.

Measure 4: Repeat measure 3 perfectly.

Measure 5: Improvise a new rhythm.

Measure 6: Repeat it perfectly.

Measure 7: Improvise a new rhythm.

Measure 8: Repeat it perfectly.

Challenge 2 – Improvise a One-Measure Motive and a One-Measure Variation

In the following eight-measure exercise, improvise a one-measure motive, and then improvise a one-measure variation. Do this four times in succession without pausing.

Measure 1: Improvise a one-measure rhythm in 4/4 time (four beats per measure).

Measure 2: Improvise a variation on measure 1.

Measure 3: Play the measure 1 rhythm again.

Measure 4: Improvise a new variation.

Measure 5: Play the measure 1 rhythm again.

Measure 6: Improvise a new variation.

Measure 7: Play the measure 1 rhythm again.

Measure 8: Improvise a new variation.

Challenge 3 – Improvise a Two-Measure Section and a Two-Measure Echo

The following 16-measure exercise challenges you to improvise a two-measure section and repeat it perfectly, and continue improvising new sections a total of four times in a row without pausing (“section” means a two-measure rhythm):

Measures 1-2: Improvise section 1

Measures 3-4: Repeat section 1 perfectly

Measures 5-6: Improvise section 2

Measures 7-8: Repeat section 2 perfectly

Measures 9-10: Improvise section 3

Measures 11-12: Repeat section 3 perfectly

Measures 13-14: Improvise section 4

Measures 15-16: Repeat section 4 perfectly

Challenge 4 – Improvise a Two-Measure Section and a Two-Measure Variation

The following 16-measure exercise challenges you to improvise a two-measure section, followed by a two-measure variation, and repeat this four times without pausing.

Measures 1-2: Improvise section 1

Measures 3-4: Improvise a variation on section 1

Measures 5-6: Improvise section 2

Measures 7-8: Improvise a variation on section 2

Measures 9-10: Improvise section 3

Measures 11-12: Improvise a variation on section 3

Measures 13-14: Improvise section 4

Measures 15-16: Improvise a variation on section 4

Challenges 5 and 6 – Phrase-Length Echo and Variation (Optional)

Repeat the “echo” and “theme and variation” challenges using four-measure phrases. This requires 32 measures for each challenge. This is not an easy exercise.

Grading Yourself

Congratulate yourself for finishing, and grade yourself pass/fail as honestly as you can.


Responding to rhythm from the outside is easy. We all do that and enjoy it immensely. But creating rhythm from within and expressing it with confident consciousness of past, present, and future is a tremendous challenge. It also happens to be one of the most critically important achievements on the path to fluency in the musical language. All of the outstanding musicians I’ve known have had a high Rhythmic I.Q., and virtually none of the amateurs. The good news is that you can acquire it. The bad news is that, like everything else worth having, it takes work. You have to decide whether you want it, and then go for it – or not.

The next Theoretically Speaking will explore the “rolling wave pattern,” an especially important rhythmic pattern in the pop melodies of today. Stand by for musical enlightenment.

Biographical Notes:

David Alzofon grew up in the musically-rich San Francisco Bay Area during the 1960s, in the neighborhood immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. He started playing trumpet in grammar school, but got hooked on the guitar in high school at the age of 13.

In 1972, he graduated from the College of Creative Studies, UC Santa Barbara, in Fine Art, and immediately returned to school to study music. In the mid- to late-‘70s he began to study jazz guitar and assisted Musicians Institute founder Howard Roberts with HR’s popular jazz improvisation column in Guitar Player Magazine.

In 1981, his first book, Mastering Guitar, was published by Simon & Schuster. Shortly afterward, he became a full-time editor for Guitar Player, where his duties included editing multiple instruction columns and writing book reviews and album notes.

In the mid-1980s, he became User Documentation Manager at Information Appliance, a small start-up company founded by Jef Raskin, creator of the Macintosh. Jef, who had been a music professor at UC San Diego before coming to the Bay Area, eventually provided the composition lessons that formed the basis of Mr. Alzofon’s second book, Compose Yourself!, which was published in January, 2011.

Among other projects in Silicon Valley, he has written electronic novels and over 11,000 capsule movie reviews. Over a two-year period, he researched and arranged the most memorable parts of over 2,000 hit songs for a software game resembling Name That Tune, an effort that contributed to ideas contained in Compose Yourself.

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