The Time Unit Box System and the WARRENMUSIC Grid

The Time Unit Box System vs. Standard Notation (and Tablature)

In TUBS, the boxes of a grid represent equal units of time, consistent from column to column, and from row to row. This is how MPCs, MIDI sequencers, and many DAW piano rolls work today. If there is an event in a Time Unit Box, play it. If there is no event in the Time Unit Box, don’t play anything. The process is repeated for the next box, and so on, and so on.

As you can see, I struggled with this graphic.

In Standard Notation, with respect to Rhythm, musical events are represented by a combination of note heads and stems, as well as their respective rests which convey explicit note durations and silences according to the composer’s idea of what the performer should play. The composer instructs not just when music happens, but how long it should be when it does, and how long it shouldn’t be when it doesn’t. The performer is expected to read and decode the symbols and excel at it if they wish to have full access.

But what happens if the reader does not excel at reading and decoding? What happens if the reader has no access to the composer’s transcription?

I sought out an alternative.

In the first example, I have transcribed something breakdancers know and love, James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” in TUBS format.

In my transcription of this timeless break by Clyde Stubblefield, “o”s represent open hi-hats, “x”s represent rimshots, “…”s represent buzz strokes.

This how I think about Rhythm. This is how I organize what I am hearing, Melody and Harmony included.

In the second example, I’ve transcribed an old bass line from my middle school days by Cake. This is a modification of TUBS, where notes are instead represented by Scale Degrees, placed in rhythmic context without obscuring their melodic function.

In a throwback to the nineties, I chose to transcribe the bass part for “The Distance” by Cake, organized by song form and lyric. All Scale Degrees represent degrees of the E Minor Scale. The lyrics (not pictured) are shown line by line beneath.

In the third example, I’ve transcribed a classic chord progression from Bill Withers, placing his broken chords in their rhythmic context without sacrificing their harmonic function.

A snippet from my transcription of “Aint No Sunshine” by Bill Withers, where chords are shown as Chord Numerals. The dots refer to the broken nature of the chord, and the chord legend (not pictured) follows beneath the chord chart.

TUBS is an intuitive, fast, communicable, and modular alternative. It gives Clyde Stubblefield’s snare buzz strokes, each of Gabe Nelson’s (I had to look his name up) bass notes, and every Bill Withers bass note and broken chord a location on the grid, a kind of rhythmic address. The result, taking from what James Koetting and Philip Harland saw back in 1962–1970* making it a theoretically instructive and listener-centric alternative for our modern purposes, is what I call the WARRENMUSIC Grid. It’s my attempt to bridge the gap between the rich history of the Western European tradition of music, and the new music of today.

This is how I learn new songs, and how I share what I learn in a digestible way with others.

If nothing else, TUBS is simple, and unassuming. I would argue that it is more universal. After all, music has gone digital.

Where I use Scale Degrees for Melody, you can easily use Note Names instead. Where I use Chord Numerals for Harmony, you can easily use Chord Names. Now it’s yours.

Check out the full transcriptions, along with note-for-note MIDI clips and video breakdowns of four other songs I’ve selected, transcription exercises, visual aids, and more in my upcoming Rhythm Module.

WARRENMUSIC Series — Rhythm Module, Episode 03: “The Time Unit Box System and the WARRENMUSIC Grid”

Scale Spelling Wheel and the Circle of Fifths

Scale Spelling Wheel — Exterior: All Note Names, Interior: Degrees of the Major Scale

Table of Contents

When broaching the subject of the Circle of Fifths and other learning tools for music, it usually elicits two reactions: “Yeah, what about it? That’s basic,” or “I don’t get it at all, it’s super intimidating.” One crowd learned it a long time ago, the other managed to avoid it for as long as possible. As a music teacher, I live somewhere in between those two extremes every day: between those who are fluent in the language of Western music theory, and those with a sincere love for music but without the ability to participate in the exchange of musical ideas.

I certainly have my pet peeves with aspects of Standard Notation, a system we’ve inherited from hundreds of years ago from a dude named Guido. I find myself turning various ideas over and over every day: Are naming conventions for chords and scales too prescriptive? Do enharmonic equivalents help more than harm? Why do we still cling to the bottom number of time signatures when it doesn’t always mean what it says? But I still come back to it in the end; I recognize the immense value the Euro-centric tradition of musical deconstruction holds, and that bridging the gap between these kinds of thought and those who have successfully avoided them is worth the trouble. Ultimately, the ability to access, transmit, remix, and challenge musical ideas across different musical cultures inevitably leads to a net gain. And it may be a while before we see a much needed cultural shift in Western music education, but I digress.

My most recent attempt at bridging the gap has been to make the Circle of Fifths and the spelling of scales and chords a little more interactive. It’s a circular sequence of the twelve note names, and spinning it around and noticing how it lines up with what relationships are on the inside of the circle helps with visualizing the underpinnings of deeper concepts. I call it the Scale Spelling Wheel.

The full concept came as a result of working with students who were having trouble with a more linear approach to spelling out scales and accounting for sharps and flats (a common problem, especially for guitarists who came into music through chord shapes, positions, and tabs). It can break the Circle of Fifths down, as well as make names of intervals, scales/modes, and chords feel more intuitive.

Whereas the Circle of Fifths feels like an esoteric, inscrutable music axiom to many today, it was originally about making life easier for those writing and reading music. Ironically, it was a tool for empowerment. It helped students of composition — which is just a fancy word for songwriting — clear the mental hurdles surrounding sight-reading and interpretation, enabling quicker analysis and innovation, bringing it closer the speed of intuition. With the Circle of Fifths, writing the kind of music that went wherever it pleased and understanding all of the modulation — with accidentals flitting this way and that, shifting from tonal center to tonal center, dancing through evolving aural landscapes — was made more attainable.

The Circle of Fifths was a really clever diagram, initially seen as a composers’ tool. I love it. My former assistant even bought me one of these for a birthday gift, and when I saw it, I laughed like I heard a good pun. And then I immediately started criticizing the pedagogy behind its design to myself silently.

If I had to explain the Circle of Fifths to a complete beginner, without a visual, I would describe it as a diagram resembling a clock, but with twelve note names instead of the twelve hours. At the top, it starts with C in the 12 o’clock position, reads G, D, A, E, B, F#, and C# clockwise from one to seven o’clock, and reads F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, and Cb from eleven to five o’clock, counter-clockwise. The note names running in opposite directions join up again at the bottom with both F# and Gb sharing the six o’clock position, whereas the C# and Db co-habitate at seven o’clock, and the Cb and B occupy the five o’clock spot together.

Beginners, did that help? Whew, that was hard.

If you recognize the Circle of Fifths, you know that this is not the Circle of Fifths. Instead, it’s a way to flesh out what exists in between the Circle’s points. There are certainly a number of musical situations in which having the Circle of Fifths handy might be more helpful than this. This Scale Spelling Wheel is about something more fundamental. If you’ve seen the Circle of Fifths but never understood it, you might understand it better after playing with this Wheel.

Through eleven years of teaching music theory, I’ve encountered many I might describe as functional musicians; these are people who play music in their day to day life; they play guitar covers, improvise with pentatonic scales, play in a friend’s band, record basic solo material… but they don’t understand the nuts and bolts of basic songwriting. They’ve usually skipped over spelling out scales and chords entirely, and they were able to get by. The situations in which note name spelling came up were avoided. Situations like…

  • figuring out which notes to avoid in a given section,
  • working out which notes belong in a chord,
  • finding the right notes for a solo/melody, or
  • transposing a given melody or chord progression.

(This is to say nothing of the confusion surrounding why notes like E-sharp and C-flat exist and why they help us in the bigger picture of understanding music, but that falls a little bit outside the scope of this post*.)

I preach to my students that if they can mentally combine just two things, they’ll make a quantum leap in their musicianship, and join the conversation. If they can spell out scales, using only

  1. the twelve note names, and
  2. the relationships of the Major Scale,

they can not only spell out the notes of any key, any chord, and therefore, identify the notes they want to play or notes they wish to avoid in any given situation. They can even re-create the Circle of Fifths mentally using just their working memory.

Amidst the more common ways we approach writing and making music today, we entirely overlook or intentionally avoid stuff like the Circle of Fifths and the whole idea of committing theory concepts to memory in general.

We don’t expect Kurt Vile to give us sheet music (it would probably just say, “Play something that sounds really shimmery or hazy and mumble. Everyone will love it.”).

We don’t dare to dream of Dave Knudson coming to our doorstep to detail his thought process, step-by-step, for how he comes up with his whammy-pedaling, two-hand-tapping, melody-harmony-rhythm-all-in-one riffs.

We don’t imagine Thom Yorke handing us the recipes to his so-dark-they’re-basically-joyous sounds…

We’re not even sure the musical innovators we love write any of their methods!

Instead, we buy piano/vocal/guitar books written by a third party, watch YouTube tutorials (which are often just glorified tabs), and check Ultimate Guitar for the user submissions with the highest star ratings… after all, when it comes to merely mimicking our favorite songs, there’s nothing better, right?

But the hard truth is, that if gaining access to the insights of our favorite songwriters matters at all, then there is no denying that outsourcing our musicianship to others is a crutch. And people on crutches don’t run.

There is no substitute for identifying and understanding the musical ideas in the music we love for ourselves, a.k.a. “musicianship.”

When making music, the crutch is probably most clear when theory-avoiding, functionally-oriented musicians run out of ideas. Sincere expression comes out sounding like a cliché. In the same situation, the more ear-aware/theory-fluent musicians have a different problem: there are too many good musical choices I can make here, which one is best?

I’ll take the latter over the former any day.

My hope as a music teacher is really just about convincing you that musical fluency in music grows out of tiny decisions. Things like:

  • making a habit of identifying your favorite musical moments,
  • paying attention to the ideas embedded in them,
  • making connections to other songs/albums/artists/genres intuitively,
  • asking questions about broader songwriting principles, and
  • renewing appreciation for the ground already covered by our favorite songwriters (not to mention all of the timeless work already in the “canon”).

The gems of music theory and the beauty of musical expression overall shouldn’t feel like terraforming Mars; they should be within arm’s reach.

Nothing delights me quite like seeing a functional musician dipping their toe in, and developing themselves to be their own bridge.

Understanding what happens when we move between keys is a great start.

These two interactive YouTube videos are meant to help us navigate the sharp and flat side of the Circle of Fifths, respectively, and are just the first of several potential applications for it.

To interact with YouTube’s keyboard functionality, view these two videos on desktop.

Use your keyboard numbers from 1–7 to “spin” through the notes of the wheel, one ascending fifth at a time. In the top left, observe the key changing with each video skip. The corresponding number of sharps in that key is visible in the top right, and the specific sharp notes are identified in the center of the image. I traced a thin line between the sharp notes in the center and each new sharp note every time a new sharp is introduced. It was a bit of a struggle trying to work out what might be too little and what might feel like too much visual information. I welcome feedback. And yes, the font around the circle is the same font used on all Dharma Initiative labels from ABC’s hit show LOST.

Use your keyboard numbers from 1–7 to “spin” through the notes of the wheel, one descending fifth at a time. In the top left, the corresponding flat key changes with each jump. The number of flats in each key is now visible in the top right, and the specific flat notes are identified in the center. Note the thin line between the flat notes in the center and each new flat note every time a new flat is introduced. The new flat appears on the “4” of each key, rather than on the “7” in the sharp keys.

The Scale Spelling Wheel as I’ve made it arranges the note names, clockwise, from C to C (low to high), with all twelve tones in between, in a circle. It makes life easier by translating what was occurring in working memory into a visual.

As a wheel, it alludes to the cyclical nature of pitch; but in this application it’s about visualizing the pitch relationships represented by the different points around the Circle of Fifths. As useful as the Circle of Fifths can be, it doesn’t do anything for those of us without the fundamental skill of spelling out scales (recalling the note names in order from lowest to highest including the sharps and flats in their appropriate places) already in place. Without the context of notes existing in between the points of the Circle of Fifths, the cleverness of the original design (and charts that follow it like the ones listing relative minor scales) loses its meaning, and it becomes one more thing to which nobody relates, except for the ones who don’t need it anymore.

This Scale Spelling Wheel occurred to me when students exhibited particular difficulty starting from memory. I realized that with a “brad,” (also known in French as an “attache parisienne”) and some transparent sheets, this could help fill in for those moments our minds go blank, and we need a little boost.

Remember these?

With the Scale Spelling Wheel, one can actually interact with the concept physically, half step by half step. An otherwise functional musician can now get into the mind of a songwriter/composer, seeing which notes belong and don’t belong in any given key.

You can have one in your hands, too.

Here’s how it works:

(You can receive full resolution images for free when you opt in to receive my newsletter.)

1. Print this image out on white paper. It represents the twelve tones, enharmonic names in the double-rowed boxes, and the degrees (1–7) of the Major Scale running along the interior of the circle.


2. Print any of the following three images on transparency sheets or tracing paper (all note names, flat key note names, and sharp key note names, respectively):


All Note Names (except for E-sharp, B-sharp, C-flat, and F-flat which are relevant in F-sharp Major, B-sharp Major, G-flat Major, and C-flat Major, respectively)

Inner Row with Note Names relevant to Flat Keys

Outer Row with Note Names relevant to Sharp Keys

3. Superimpose the transparent layer over the white paper layer. You’ll get something that looks like this image below. You can then punch a hole through the middle and fasten the brad and spin your way to music theory enlightenment.

All Note Names with Degrees of the Major Scale

Instead of the Circle of Fifths, what you have is something more fundamental: a wheel with the twelve note names on the outside, and a wheel representing the permanent relationships of the Major Scale on the inside. Fix one, spin the other.

To spell out a scale, simply line up whichever key you want by spinning until the tonic (home note) corresponds to the “1”/twelve o’clock. For example, you can see I’ve lined it up with “C” at the top. This means that we’re in the key of C Major, with the subsequent scale degrees lined up to their respective note names: the second degree with D, the “3” of the key with E, the “4” with F, and so on.

This will work on any of the twelve tones. Read the outer row of note names to spell out the sharp keys, and read the inner row of note names to spell out the flat keys. Note how many sharps or flats there are, and note which sharps or flats show up in that key. Before long, you’ll be mimicking in your hands what composers/songwriters have been doing in their heads.

To visualize each point around the Circle of Fifths, you can spin it counter-clockwise so that whichever note corresponds to the “5” moves to the “1” spot. Each time you do this, you move along from point to point on one side of the Circle of Fifths, in this case, the sharp side. To move in the other direction, spin it clockwise so that whichever note corresponds to the “4” (which is a fifth down, instead of up like on the sharp side of the Circle) moves to the “1” spot. When you do this, you move along the flat side of the Circle of Fifths.

If you’ve got the interactive video pulled up, you’ll get additional info that isn’t in the layers just above, the kind of observations that you could make if you memorized it like it were a multiplication table. 

The inner circle from 1–7 indicates the Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half relationships of the Major Scale. And yes, the interior wheel with the Scale Degrees 1–7 could be swapped out so that the degrees follow any scale/mode you may wish to spell out in the twelve tone system, from the Church Modes (including the the Minor Scale and its variations), to pentatonic scales, or a chord definition, or any number of other concepts that require naming a note.

This is what I meant when I said this Scale Spelling Wheel is bigger than just the Circle of Fifths.

Happy Scale Spelling!


*The F# Major Scale is spelled with a E-sharp instead of its enharmonic equivalent, F-natural. The C# Major Scale is spelled with a B-sharp instead of its enharmonic equivalent, C-natural. If you want to know why, study up on what music theory nerds call “enharmonic equivalent” notes.

P. S. — I can print a high quality wheel with transparent layers ready for assembly, ready for spinning. If you are interested, please fill out this short form so I can gauge interest and take pre-orders. Thanks!

OK Podcast

Since my last video interview with Prof. Brad Osborn (check that out here in case you missed it), I’ve been blocking out the noise and working hard on the Rhythm Module, a video course that introduces ear-training and music theory — a.k.a. musicianship — as it relates to Rhythm. It’s the third part of a three-part series (following the Melody and Harmony Module) that explores ways to build a lifelong bridge that connects The Music We Love with The Music We Make. Stay tuned for when that drops!

Today, I’m writing to share something I managed to squeeze into my incredibly tight schedule, which vacillates between dreading the release of my video series and complaining about the weather here on the East Coast: an appearance on “OK Podcast” by Sean Perrin of Clarineat.

Sean is a great interviewer with crazy podcasting experience as his other podcast on the clarinet has proven (it has listeners in 90 countries), and it shows. He’s also a huge Radiohead fan, and I was thoroughly amused to hear that he learned a few Radiohead songs from my tutorials.

So when he asked me to be the inaugural guest on his new podcast, I was super hyped and honored. Going at this YouTube thing now for 10 years plus, these kinds of things are still unreal to me (that people read and watch and listen to something I am shouting into the Void). But then I remember that, yeah… this passion we have for music connects us to something bigger than ourselves. Duh. Still pretty unreal, though.

Sean breaks down all of the topics we touched on in the podcast’s blog entry. Go check out OK Podcast and show him your support if you dig it!

Chord Numeral Flash Cards — Free Harmony Learning Tool

Chord Numerals - I, ii, iii, IV, V, and vi

There is a way to unlock the subject of Harmony, and that’s through Chord Numerals.

Playing chords and chord progressions by ear seems an unattainable feat for many. A dream never to be realized. But the truth is that you can learn how to play harmony by ear. How? Start with Chord Numerals.

Chord Numerals look just like roman numerals, but in the context of music, they represent the six most popular chords in human history; but most importantly, they do so in a way that combines how they sound with how they’re constructed. This is important. Combining sound with theory is the actual game-changer: chord names don’t do this (they de-emphasize functional/diatonic harmony, they promote absolute pitch and a static approach to harmony), guitar tabs don’t do this (they emphasize where you put your fingers over what you’re hearing and how chord progressions behave), and most guitar tutorials certainly do not do this (Why would they? You’re just there to learn one song, after all). The one exception in today’s music education landscape — sheet music — does combine sound with theory. But to use sheet music, one needs to learn how to read standard notation. And as ubiquitous as standard notation is, it is just as esoteric with its ledger lines, stems, noteheads, clefs, and jargon descended from Italian opera.

There is a better way to learn all of these real world chord progressions by ear.

Four Chord Song

Have you ever heard of the “Four Chord Song?” If you haven’t check out this hilariously funny and slightly acerbic comedic video.

The truth in this video is plain to see: many popular songs use a powerful chord progression.

The chord progression they call “1-2-3-4” in this performance is really I-V-vi-IV (pronounced “One-Five-Six-Four”). It just might be the most popular chord progression in musical history. It is the progression used in all of these popular songs, and many more:

  1. Journey — “Don’t Stop Believing,”
  2. James Blunt — “You’re Beautiful”
  3. Alphaville — “Forever Young”
  4. Jason Mraz — I’m Yours
  5. Mika — Happy Ending
  6. Alex Lloyd — Amazing
  7. The Calling — Wherever You Will Go
  8. Elton John — Can You Feel The Love Tonight,
  9. Maroon 5 — She Will Be Loved
  10. The Last Goodnight — Pictures Of You
  11. U2 — With Or Without You
  12. Crowded House — Fall At Your Feet
  13. Kasey Chambers — Not Pretty Enough
  14. The Beatles — Let it Be
  15. Red Hot Chili Peppers — Under the Bridge
  16. Daryl Braithwaite — The Horses
  17. Bob Marley — No Woman No Cry
  18. Marcy Playground — Sex and Candy
  19. Men At Work — Land Down Under
  20. Banjo Patterson’s Waltzing Matilda
  21. A Ha — Take On Me
  22. Green Day — When I Come Around
  23. Eagle Eye Cherry — Save Tonight
  24. Toto — Africa
  25. Beyonce — If I Were A Boy
  26. The Offspring — Self Esteem
  27. The Offspring — You’re Gonna Go Far Kid
  28. Pink — You and Your Hand
  29. Lady Gaga — Poker Face
  30. Aqua — Barbie Girl
  31. The Fray — You Found Me
  32. 30h!3 — Don’t Trust Me
  33. MGMT — Kids
  34. Tim Minchin — Canvas Bags
  35. Natalie Imbruglia — Torn
  36. Five For Fighting — Superman
  37. Missy Higgins — Scar

Chord Numeral Flash Cards and You

Chord Numerals represent the six most popular chords from the Major Scale. Using these Chord Numeral flash cards, you can try any number of the following exercises to improve your level of fluency in Harmony:

  1. Chord Spelling — perhaps the most immediately useful of these exercises when it comes to improving your musical communication with others, you can use these flash cards as a way to challenge your ability to spell chords. Lay the flash cards face down in a random order, pick any key, and flip one over. Now name the chord, and spell the notes of the chord out. Example: Key of C, flip over card “IV.” What is your answer? “F Major, F-A-C.”
  2. Songwriting — Stuck when it comes to writing new chord progressions? You can create new (diatonic) chord progressions you haven’t used in your songwriting before. Example, vi-iii-IV-I sounds nice. In the key of C, that means Am-Em-F-C. Try it!
  3. Relative Pitch Training — the most musically beneficial skill to come from quizzing yourself in Harmony is most certainly the ability to outline a chord by singing it out loud without the aid of an instrument. Lay the flash cards face down in a random order, play any tonic, and flip one over. Now sing the chord out, relative to the tonic. Example: Key of C, flip over card “IV.” Your task: play the “C” to establish your tonic, then sing F Major (F-A-C) out loud without any help from an instrument. When you can hear the “1” (a.k.a. the tonic) but can sing “4–6–8” (a.k.a. the subdominant, submediant, tonic, or the subdominant chord) without any other reference pitches, you build your internal model of the Major Scale from that tonic. An internal model of pitch relationships is EVERYTHING when it comes to ear-training. I can’t possibly overstate it.

Why Should We Care About Music Theory?

What place does music theory have in songwriting? Can it be helpful? Stifling? Maybe both? Why are we looking at a picture of a pie?

In an interview I conducted last month, I had the opportunity to explore these questions with Prof. Brad Osborn, a music theory professor from the University of Kansas and the author of “Everything In Its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead” from Oxford University Press.

Prof. Brad Osborn, Music Theory Professor at University of Kansas and Author of “Everything In Its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead”

It was so great to steal Prof. Brad for a few moments between classes. As an independent music educator, I sometimes don’t know if I am crazy or just an alternative thinker when I talk to others about traditional music theory and methods of analysis. But I definitely learned a few things from Brad and felt deeply affirmed at the same time by our mutual appreciation for holistic musicianship.

I thought Brad would be the perfect person to ask this simple question: as fans of Radiohead and musicians ourselves, why should we care about music theory? At its core, his answer is really rooted in a deep appreciation for songwriting, and I think it’s worth a listen.

We touch on ideas like the “Euclidean Algorithm”/“maximally-even” rhythms, the idea of the “Goldilocks Zone,” and the concept of “Ecological Perception.” We ask aloud whether Thom Yorke’s opinion matters as it pertains to analysis and interpretation of Radiohead’s music. We wonder whether artists are trustworthy when they talk about their intentions. And it was quite the music nerd thrill.

What did you think about the interview? Would you be interested in seeing more content like this? Share your thoughts below!

You can read the article Prof. Brad Osborn mentions in the interview below:

“Nine most thought-provoking moments in Radiohead

You can buy Brad’s book “Everything In Its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead” at the OUP Store (no, he did not pay me to put this here, I just think it’s cool).

Everything In Its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead

And finally, check out this cool little web app for quickly creating Euclidean-style rhythms and start making some maximally-even rhythms of your own now.

E-909 Elements Euclidean Rhythm Composer

A week later, I am a madman.

This madman rambling blog post is a companion to my madman video here.

When Vox’s piece on “Videotape” featuring me went live, I had no idea what was coming.

First, some background if you’re just tuning in.

I was featured in a video from Vox recently, explaining how the main riff in Radiohead’s “Videotape” is syncopated, and that it’s so subtle, it’s basically hidden. When you realize how they wrote it, it presents a kind of audio illusion for your ears. It’s crazy.

The video in question:

A cover I made with a metronome track superimposed over it to help train your ears to hear the Hidden Syncopation as described in the video:

A week ago, I never could have imagined what would happen when 461K people on YouTube, 1.8M people on Facebook, and 1K+ upvotes on Reddit would descend on a video based on some of my original research about Radiohead’s masterpiece “Videotape,” and how there’s something hidden going on that, if you perceive it, changes the way you hear it forever. Or if you don’t want to make it sound all formal, it’s just an awesome fan theory, which argues that it’s the authors’ theory as well.

I should have known. It’s the internet after all.

But the response was wild. Estelle told me that with these kinds of things, there is one thousand times the feedback you are used to. And oh my, how TRUE that is.

People have been arguing with me left and right, dismissing the video, the concept, missing the whole point of it, etc. Lots of amazing, positive feedback, too! But as the person featured in the video, it was a whole new ballgame having my face attached to something so controversial and easily rejected or flatly denied out of hand.

But enough about my feelings. Let’s have something written to rebut the more common arguments I’ve seen.

Argument One: “It can’t be syncopated.”

This is the ironic bit. The idea that the song can’t be syncopated is actually what I thought in 2006 to 2010 or 2011. I managed to go a few years without ever detecting a hint of it this illusion.

Let’s dive in and hear an example of Jonny using Hidden Syncopation on “Idioteque” for the BBC. Listen for the downbeat. Try to clap along as soon as Jonny’s analog synth beat starts with these two beeps, one higher, one lower.

Did you notice how the downbeat shifted away from where you initially thought it was? That’s because Jonny messed with your head. Intentionally. He gave you something (I like to call it a “deceptive” or “false” downbeat), knowing your brain would hear it as the beat of the song. But he is thinking differently about the true downbeat; it occurs in between those initial beeps. And he reveals the context of that new downbeat rather quickly.

“Have you listened to their live BBC version of Idioteque? Listen to the downbeat in that one!” -Dude on YouTube

This link and the quote here were actually shared by a dissenting commenter on the Vox video. It’s absurd humor to me, because what he said actually supports my view as described above… But I’m glad he shared it anyway, because not only did it validate what I was saying in a new way, it also helped me process what the experience of hearing an example of Hidden Syncopation is like for the first time listener to a song that utilizes it. That process is something like this:

1. You hear something which suggests a downbeat to you. Maybe you start bobbing your head or clapping.

2A. Then you hear something new which sounds fine, it just adds context.


2B or 3. At a certain point, your hearing experiences some disorientation when context is added. A “new” downbeat has presented itself, and your ears struggle for a moment in confusion as they re-orient to the (same) timing relationships, but relationships that now sound totally different.

3B or 4. Your ears settle into the new downbeat, and you either realize Jonny did something amazing or you just felt disoriented momentarily, but are still rocking to the beat.

The reason the Hidden Syncopation (I keep capitalizing this concept because in my view it isn’t talked about enough in music analysis) in “Videotape” is SO HARD to hear is because of the following:

Points 2B/3 and 3B/4 above never happen for some people. Without points 3 and 4 you never even hear it that way. Phil’s simple backbeat pattern (same as “Bodysnatchers” beat) in 2006 was been transcribed by a PhD student for me. His transcription indicated he heard the backbeat as… well… not a backbeat. What the band (I argue) hears as eighths, he heard as sixteenths, with snare hits emphasizing the “a” of 1 and so on, and so forth. It blew my mind that a PhD student of music also didn’t perceive it. And also sparked my Twitter fingers… And I would think to myself: “Am I crazy? Is this guy right? Did my original research and subsequent argument amount to mental gymnastics and absurdity — WAIT HOLD ON FOR A SECOND.”

Then I remembered.


Evidence of my hearing at the time. I replaced the old avatar with my new brooding profile pic, but this comment is really from 2010.
The secret rhythm behind Radiohead's "Videotape"

A secret rhythm completely changes how you hear Radiohead's "Videotape." (We suggest you turn your sound on for this one.)

Posted by Vox on Friday, August 4, 2017
Comment from “The secret rhythm behind Radiohead’s ‘Videotape’”

And yes I can argue that the keyboard is playing off the beat throughout every version of the song based on a very syncopated drumbeat that last for 45 seconds in one version of the song. That’s exactly what I’m doing.

(People mostly approached with the “Death of the Author”-style philosophy/musicological arguments to say we shouldn’t use context like performance cues or interviews or quotes from the band at all in our music analysis.)

Another problem raised was the transcription Vox provided, which seemed to change tempo/subdivision. I’ll explain:

A professional clarinetist came out strong on Twitter.

Great debate we had there, by the way. We almost did a live debate but she conceded eventually that my view was consistent with itself, though Vox’s choice (with my blessing, too) set her and other musicians up for a bit of a bumpy ride. She had a bone to pick with Vox (and therefore, me) because Vox wrote the piano as four quarter notes on the beat, and then proceeded to explain how the piano was actually not that. But Vox did not explain until the addendum they had me add at the end (at my request) that the band actually hears the tempo twice as fast because of the 909 hi-hats and rim knocks on the backbeat, or 2, 3, 4. This led to some confusion with sincere and smart musicians who tore into it right away. But the problem is that Vox HAD to present it as four quarter notes (at half the tempo) because it was an introduction for the listener who didn’t know the song to be introduced to the song’s false downbeat. They had to. And if they showed the “correct” transcription in the beginning (they did later, unfortunately to more confusion) the video wouldn’t have made sense because the piano literally has nothing surrounding it to give it that double-time context! The Vox video (with such great animations and high level story structuring, I have to say) was also 10 minutes long, and somehow people there still whinged that it was TOO LONG to explain syncopation.

Argument Two: “Syncopation? It’s obvious and easy. This video is a waste of time.”

Syncopation wasn’t the point, guys! I see you xisumablackhole or whoever you are. The point was two-fold:

  1. that “Hidden Syncopation” is a real thing, a composition technique/clever songwriting trick, and that
  2. it changes the way you hear “Videotape.” It’s a big change!

It’s possible that it was too much to expect from Vox’s audience (which is full of musicians and non-musicians alike, Radiohead fans and non-Radiohead fans, and especially western-classically-educated musicians who are trained to disconnect songs from their context and authorial intent for the sake of analysis), they they would not only know the song but understand both arguments and hear the song in its new context all because of a 10 minute video.

But if you are one of those who did get it… you know now that the song goes from a slow mournful dirge to a trance club freakout. And that’s an incredible feat of songwriting that I ascribe to their intentions 100%.

(I cannot think of how Radiohead could have made it any more obvious if they wanted to maintain the subtlety of it, without simply re-recording the 2006 version in the studio — in which the piano is NOT syncopated to some ears — but I digress.)

To me, “Videotape” is a masterpiece that is beautiful, no matter how your ears hear it. And every way of hearing it is correct. I just think more people need to know how the band hears it and the fact that musicians and non-musicians alike have discovered it too, either independently (possibly because they already listen to songs where this technique is employed? who knows, I asked them if they heard the 2006 version and they said no, they just heard the syncopation very quickly and they don’t know why), or with the help of an internet forum or video essay like this one.

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I play a Carter|Poulsen G-Model:

“The Secret Rhythm Behind Radiohead’s ‘Videotape’” — Vox Pop: EARWORM Premiere

I had become obsessed with one of the craziest songs I’d ever heard.

I listened to it on repeat in the car, at the gym, while grocery shopping. Even when I wasn’t listening to it, I thought about it. I played it on the piano, I played it on guitar. I sang, I hummed. I sequenced its 808 drum samples, recreated its synth bass recipe. I superimposed a metronome over it so I could learn how to count it. And I still have some difficulty counting it.

I sought out live performances. 2006 Hammersmith Apollo. 2012 Kindl-Bühne Wuhlheide. The 2005 solo performance, From the Basement. The drummer-less Scotch Mist version. The Mephisto Mix. Each version and its various idiosyncracies were burned into my brain. I shook my head dismay when I saw misguided attempts by cover bands; there was just too much going on in this song.

2012 Kindl-Bühne Wuhlheide, originally uploaded by YouTube user Ollie Fabeck (since removed). Look at Colin’s face! He’s reacting to Clive playing a hi-hat on Beat 1 (or what much of the audience thinks is Beat 1), but we know now that Clive was playing on the “& of 4,” and that this delighted Colin.

I read the message boards. AtEase. Mortigi Tempo. /r/radiohead. The Wikia discussion page. I was amused at the fervent claims that the 2006 version was the best, and enthralled by the controversy over the syncopation that remained in the album version… or did it?

I read more interviews and quotes, and dug even deeper. Phil couldn’t find Beat 1? Thom was inspired by a post-rave trance track? Colin kept dancing in their live performances during a slow song? It was bewildering, exciting, and frustrating. I was on the edge of a huge abyss… and it felt like there were only a handful of people discussing the intentionally buried treasure. You might even say it was purposely hidden.

It all culminated when I posted my cover, along with a video essay on “The Hidden Syncopation of Radiohead’s ‘Videotape,’” and hours, weeks, months, and years of thinking and playing and talking about this simple, yet utterly mindblowing song finally found their outlet.

Amazing responses followed.

But I never anticipated a response like this next one.

An amazing storyteller and illustrator behind awesome videos like this approached me because, apparently, she too had connected with my story.

The creator behind videos like this one, Estelle Caswell!

Estelle (who is now being nominated for four Emmys) emailed me a few months ago and had this crazy idea to re-craft this story centered on two things: what the hell was going on in this song musically, and why it was so cool to me. I was on board immediately. Call it the music appreciation train, the theory train, or whatever you like. But she was passionate that there were other viewers out there who needed to hear more of the insights behind some of the best music out there today. And I am proud to say that I’m featured in the first episode of this upcoming series.

Now a YouTube channel with two million subscribers will be exposed to this awesome concept buried deep within one of my favorite songs, along with my face and voice. Uh. Yikes. Woo.

Anyhow, it’s been such a crazy journey. Thank you for being here and supporting me along the way.

Now go watch it! And when you’re hungry for more…

Dive deeper into the Hidden Syncopation.

See the rhythm breakdown I created for Vox:

Can you think of any other songs that use Hidden Syncopation? Hint: Radiohead has at least two more from The King of Limbs era…

Hear it for yourself.

I put everything I had into this cover. Three live drum tracks, piano, synth bass, vocals, guitars, claps, and some live 808-style sequencing and tweaking. But while you were hearing one thing, I was listening to another. I was listening to my own metronome track in my earpiece, just like Thom Yorke has in his ears when performing this song live.

Um… what?

Confused about rhythm? Don’t despair. My upcoming Rhythm Module will cover rhythm in depth; it’s going to be awesome.

A Musicianship Series

What if someone could walk you through the process of becoming a better musician, step-by-step? What if you could gain something more valuable than a tab or a tutorial, or even hundreds of tabs and tutorials? What if there were a video series that went beyond playing songs and could give you more? And what if it were more affordable than a private teacher, available to you 24/7?

I’m looking to launch a music theory and ear-training series. The more I think about it, the more it grows… like the series to end all series. I think about it every day, sometimes every hour. I talk and write and dream about it because I believe that there is a revolution waiting to happen in the lives of so many students of music. When someone who has been looking outward only to see fixes that are temporary in nature looks inward instead and begins developing their own ear and their own understanding of music, a radical shift occurs. It is a shift from passively listening to the music they love to being able to play that same music by ear, being able to identify what’s happening in it, and do new things with it. It is a shift from feeling stuck in familiar patterns, unable to break through a ceiling to feeling continually renewed by a stream of fresh musical insights and challenges in a cycle that never ends. I’ve seen this spark of inspiration occur again and again during my workshops and private lessons firsthand, and observed similar light bulbs come on for students through the online interaction surrounding the content I’ve been putting out on YouTube, etc. over these eight years, and I’m convinced that it is time to bring more people into this deeper conversation on music.

If you have been following what I’ve been up to awhile you’ll know that there have been hints and even false starts since late 2012. It’s both exciting and scary to think about what it might become, and what it might take to pull it off. It has even been overwhelming in its scope at times. This has made me realize that I really need your help to make it get off the ground! I need your support, your insight, and your constructive criticism. I am looking for an inner circle of WARRENMUSIC friends.

Does this describe you? If so, join me on this journey. Like this post, sign up for my mailing list above, find me on Skype/Instagram/Twitter @warrenlain. And consider: what would a series like this be worth to you? What would it look like? What topics would you want to see covered in it? I look forward to your input.

Preview the Harmony Module!

Harmony for all.

Playing chord and chord progressions by ear is not just for the select few.

It’s available to you now, if you want to work for it.

Playing by ear and knowing what you’re hearing… why, it’s worth more than all the tabs and tutorials in the world, combined And you can extract the chords from a song you love yourself… if you know the way.

Episode 04 on Vertical Harmony shows the way. Using explanations that just make sense, that don’t rely on technical jargon, with fun homework, and audio examples of popular songs, take your ear and understanding of chords to the next level. Watch now below.

Download high-resolution WARRENMUSIC Chord Numeral flash cards here, completely FREE.

Buy the entire module now, without risk: if you aren’t satisfied, you can ask for your money back.

Here’s the breakdown of the entire module:

*To interact with the Visual Aids and Homework I’ve created, just click “File,” then click “Make a copy…” then voilà! Enjoy the entire Harmony Module today.

Get to the next level.

Playing by ear and knowing what you’re hearing… that’s musicianship. And musicianship is what enables me to do what I do. To break apart Radiohead, Bon Iver, Minus the Bear, James Blake, Sigur Rós, and all of my favorite artists’ music into bite-sized, easy to manage chunks. Musical fragments and ideas that I can use to re-create the song, re-contextualize, or do new things with.

That’s what it takes to get to the next level.

To translate raw sound into tangible scale degrees, chord numerals, and units of time. It can be done.

And I’ll show you how if you let me.

If you give this series a shot, I promise, it won’t let you down.

Purchase the Harmony Module today for $99.

  • Skills you can use to work out real world chords and chord progressions by ear
  • Working knowledge of Diatonic Harmony via popular songs, fun demonstrations, and digestible music theory breakdowns
  • Introduction to Chord Numerals expanding The WARRENMUSIC Grid**
  • 10 in-depth episodes ranging from 10-40 minutes in length
  • Lifetime access
  • Visual Aids
  • Audio Examples
  • Worksheets (Song Puzzles)
  • Interactive Tools
  • Access to Members-Only Harony Module Forum
  • Direct help from fellow learners and Warren

The Harmony Module is complete!


I’m extremely proud to announce we just finished uploading the final cut of the Harmony Module. Watch the teaser for it right now.

The Music You Love, and the Music You Make… Bridging the gap between the two is now more possible than ever. Take control of your musicianship in a whole new way, all while working at your own pace, and be among the first to preview the entire Harmony Module today.

Thank you to those of you who pre-ordered the Harmony Module for making this possible with your early support.

The next iteration of the website is nearing completion. Update your bookmarks: we have moved to as a permanent home for the series. Each video has its own page and comments section to feel more seamless.

Until then, watch this blog, your inbox, and/or your YouTube subscription THIS WEEK to enjoy the first four episodes, completely free. Here is the Module breakdown:

*To interact with the Visual Aids and Homework I’ve created, just click “File,” then click “Make a copy…” then voilà! Watch here/your inbox/your YouTube subscription for the release of the next episode!

This is, by far, the most ambitious project I’ve ever attempted. Bigger than my YouTube covers, my now-defunct band, perhaps even greater than my solo album, which is still in the works. But as challenging as it’s been, it would be an even greater burden to keep quiet about this whole thing. To help you get more out of the music you love has become one of my life’s dreams! To help you go beyond tabs, beyond tutorials, and… inward? Yes! Inward, to developing your own ear. To establishing your own understanding of music.

Purchase the Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm* Modules today.

If you hit any roadblocks, know that I’m right there with you, pushing myself to my limits, too. Not only with the scope of this project, but every day with my ear-training, and my understanding of music as well.

All the best,


P.S. Remember, you can also find me on Skype for private tutoring, or learn your favorite songs with me via custom tutorials and chord charts.

*Rhythm Module is available as a pre-order. Melody and Harmony are available for access today.

  • Skills you can use to work out real world chords and chord progressions by ear
  • Working knowledge of Diatonic Harmony via popular songs, fun demonstrations, and digestible music theory breakdowns
  • Introduction to Chord Numerals expanding The WARRENMUSIC Grid**
  • 10 in-depth episodes ranging from 10-40 minutes in length
  • Lifetime access
  • Visual Aids
  • Audio Examples
  • Worksheets (Song Puzzles)
  • Interactive Tools
  • Access to Members-Only Harony Module Forum
  • Direct help from fellow learners and Warren