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!

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.

• Learn more about Skype lessons @warrenlain on Skype.

• Get a private tutorial or chord chart made just for you —

Since 2007, WARRENMUSIC has existed to help people get the most out of the music they love. Through video modules on music theory and ear-training, to Skype lessons and in-person workshops, as well as custom chord charts and private tutorials, music students everywhere can learn to hear and think about music the way musicians do — more deeply, more simply than ever. Reach out today and take a step towards building the musicianship you always dreamed of having!


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I play a Carter|Poulsen G-Model:

“Lift” by VERYDEADLY feat. Warren Lain

A timely tribute given Radiohead’s upcoming OKNOTOK, a 20th anniversary commemorative album that promises the unreleased cult-favorite, “Lift.”

I rarely make music with other people.

“What? You totally did a few with your buddy Brian.” Yes. But he’s a childhood friend.

“You had a band.” Yes, and it was awesome. But so weird for me at the same time. And it really sucked when we disbanded. It troubled me for years. That was a rare group and a really interesting season of my life.

“But what about that Bon Iver cover with Vincent?” Have you seen Vincent? The dude is really chill. Huge props to him. But me? I was on edge the entire time.

Maybe there’s something wrong with me. Or maybe you can relate. But here are a few random facts about me you probably didn’t know:

  • For someone who likes to play guitar a LOT, I don’t enjoy playing “Wonderwall” or “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” “More Than Words” is okay.
  • For someone who likes to improvise, I am very uncomfortable with the idea of a jam session. Getting together with some other dudes casually while I pour out my heart musically is not my idea of fun.
  • For someone who is very outgoing, friendly, and confident in my own musical expression, I feel really weird performing in front of others, or even releasing my own music. (I don’t like being in the room when other people listen to my stuff.)

Making music — with sincerity — is a really private area of my life. I have a strange relationship to it. Am I the only person like this? I somehow doubt it…

So when Joel (a.k.a. VERYDEADLY) reached out to me a few months ago and asked me if I’d be interested in contributing to his cover of Radiohead’s “Lift,” I was skeptical.

I mean, who covers “Lift” and gets away with it? Naturally, the song choice had me intrigued: an unreleased Radiohead cult favorite, I knew a proper cover of such a beautiful song was, inherently, a tall order.

So I took a deep breath and clicked. And I’m so glad I did.

When I actually listened to it, I immediately realized that Joel possessed rare talent, as both a brilliant musician and a gifted songwriter/producer in his own right.

In a most serendipitous turn of events, we both learned that Radiohead themselves would finally be releasing their long-awaited studio version of “Lift” as well. I mean… talk about timing!

So it is our sincere hope that you’ll enjoy our little tribute in advance of what is sure to be a very cool, global listening party for Radiohead fans.

Huge credit to Joel for this beautiful track (on which I played only a small role), and for considering me in the first place.

And without further ado, I present to you:

A Sober Self-Assessment

Motivation, Musicianship, and Being Holistic About It.

This was taken from the 20th or so video I filmed for my recent cover and topical video on Radiohead’s “Videotape.”

Some days, I just get into a funk. I start to feel very un-motivated. When this happens for too many days in a row, I start to stress out, thinking about how little I’ve accomplished. Then, when I begin to look at my next task, I just shut down (even when the task is a small one). Simple challenges feel convoluted and impenetrable. And there I am. Stuck.

Call it anxiety, depression, frustration, writer’s block, procrastination, whatever you like. We all know the feeling. Anyone with a goal or hobby does.

Maybe you’ve experienced it while learning guitar, or writing a song, or recording an album. We know these pursuits are worthy of our efforts and time… but sometimes, we just get overwhelmed.

I’ve been in this place many times. Most recently, with numerous failed attempts at covers, challenges in the production of the WARRENMUSIC Series, and even the simple act of getting through the day in the wake of monumental changes in my personal life (I got married and moved across the country). Each of these things took an emotional toll, and together, molehills quickly became mountains.

I got the old band (Phonofield) back together. Ellen sang backing vocals!

I’ve seen it in my students, too. They get down on themselves after flubbing a few notes or chords, as if it were a mark on their character. They beat themselves up when they can’t finish writing a new song, and start to backpedal on their intention to write new material. They feel frustrated at themselves for “wasting” our time because they didn’t practice that week, and cancel their lessons. In the worst times, they even bail on their musical goals entirely. We usually recover and move forward, whatever it is, and quickly. But sometimes, when warranted, we go deeper; we really explore the problem, and work together to describe the real issue, the thing that’s keeping them from moving forward. And it almost always comes down to one thing: their view of themselves — the ways in which they (don’t) feel up to the task, or the ways they see the setbacks as evidence of the underlying negative view they have of themselves.

Lots of cancelations. Some of them from feeling burnt out.

I know both from personal experience and from working with students over the years that ignoring setbacks or dismissing negative attitudes does work… for smaller tasks. Writing a song with soul-baring lyrics or putting together an ambitious live set, though — or even pursuing any project that comes at significant personal cost, for that matter — is difficult work in part because it flows from the intangible depths of one’s emotional world. And so, casually brushing aside a more persistent feeling of incompetence or overlooking a pattern of getting stuck when it comes to more significant musical goals is a mistake that can even worsen the issue. Hoping to gloss over deeper issues is only natural, to be sure, but ignoring a lack of motivation only delays and deepens the problem.

What is needed is a sustainable solution. Something holistic. A sober self-assessment.

Forlorn Ambition

Last night, a student told me about a $1500 acoustic guitar he purchased on Craigslist. A vintage guitar of about twenty years, it was being sold for half its original price by a gentleman who was clearing out his garage. In his garage, there were other musical possessions he had accumulated. They seemed largely unused. When asked if there were any problems with it, the seller confessed to having picked up the guitar a total of three times for the three guitar lessons he took over the course of twenty years. He confessed that he couldn’t get over his fingers hurting and realized that it wouldn’t be as easy as he initially thought. And so the gentleman considered it a forlorn ambition, and my student became the beneficiary. When he told me this story, it struck me as one of the most sadly mundane stories I had heard about learning the guitar.

1264 guitars for sale… how many sales are the product of forlorn ambition?

Without knowing more about Craigslist Guy, I surmised that he simply didn’t have the motivation to get over the hump, and sniggered arrogantly. As a guitarist, I felt a strange mix of happiness that my student got a great deal and stab of pity for the guy who never got to experience the joy of playing guitar. But when I turned it back on myself, I had to wonder: Am I so different from this guy? When it comes to the tasks I find overwhelming, don’t I also put them aside, take a break, come back, go at it, get frustrated, stress out, and quit for a longer period?

In Search of a Solution

I’ve listened to podcasts from successful people, read fitness blogs, talked to entrepreneurs, and even consulted faith leaders in search of a more sustainable and holistic solution to the motivation problem.

I loved hearing that people who were aspiring marathon runners that struggled with motivation started their training by making their goals easy, like sleeping in their running clothes, or putting the alarm clock on the other side of the bedroom. “Yeah, that’s good stuff,” I thought.

I learned about S.M.A.R.T. goal-setting (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely); I debated punishment vs. reward as conditioning for behavior (there was no clear winner); I made “Just Do It” and “‘Done’ is better than ‘perfect’” my motivational mantras.

I laugh at these motivational posters, then ponder their messages deeply, then laugh at them again.

I remembered another story about a fitness blogger who instructed his friend to make a donation to a hate group on his behalf if he didn’t publish a new blog post every week. “Too extreme,” I thought.

I turned to friends and asked them to hold me accountable. I tried being more transparent with customers over email. I posted publicly about my goals.

But none of these things brought relief. I would eventually fall back into the awful cycle. Productivity would grind to a standstill again. And through all of it, I found my view of myself and what I was capable of sinking under the weight of it all.

A Sober Self-Assessment

It was at this point (well, multiple points, really) that I realized that I had a big problem with how I was viewing myself.

Whenever I had a rough day of writing, I found myself wondering whether I could really accomplish this video series I had in mind. Whenever I saw that sales had slowed down, I felt myself getting hesitant about my goals, and whether they were truly attainable. Or whenever I read a negative comment on a video of mine, I noticed a sliver of doubt over whether my community could really be relied upon for support. I became less and less certain of my abilities.

Warren Lain’s identity had gotten tangled up with WARRENMUSIC.

Any perceived flub of my brand became a stain on my person. Any setback in my project made me wonder if I had aimed too high.

You would think that someone who is constantly in the business of motivating others might recognize the same problem in themselves. And you’d be wrong.

So I began to ask myself questions that I was almost afraid to ask:

Did my work suddenly change and become more difficult? Are my goals really so unattainable? Did my community, my base of supporters really desert me? Did I somehow become less capable?

The answer to these questions was a resounding, “NO.”

It wasn’t the work that had changed in my periods of high and low productivity, it wasn’t the goals that were somehow too lofty, it wasn’t a fickle community of supporters around me that had come and gone, it wasn’t that I had somehow become less capable.

By any objective measure, none of these things changed. What had changed, and changed very subtly, was my perception of myself. I found that I was in need of some sober, self-assessment.

Keep It in Perspective

I’m just one guy. But I am a unique mix: I love explaining things, I love deep analysis, I nerd out over music theory, I am passionate about making music, and it energizes me when I see the light come on for others. All of these things are true. I also struggle with deadlines and organization, I obsess over tiny details in my creative work, I find it incredibly difficult to be brief, and I go numb when looking at raw numbers. All of these things are also true.

Being fair-minded about it, I am a normal person with strengths and weaknesses. Naturally, my brand will reflect those things as well. But what can I do about my weaknesses without punishing myself for them? How can I see my weaknesses more clearly, and not regard them with suspicion, as if they make me less of a person? And how can I celebrate my strengths without getting cocky? And what can I do to structure my working habits so that they highlight them?

I’m still looking for the answers to these questions. I’m trying new things. And while I still have a ways to go, I’m encouraged… because I don’t feel stuck anymore. And I think that’s what’s different. I can draw a harder line between my setbacks/failures and who I am as a person.

Though it took a much deeper level of self-reflection, I find I am more able to move forward, and try something different. I feel more free to try out new ways of structuring my work, new ways of approaching a project, new ways of strategizing for business. Setbacks and failures are starting to lose their sting. But I am still the same music theory nerd who obsesses over details.

Are You Progressing Well Enough At the Guitar?

…If your long-term goal is to improve as a guitarist and more generally, as a musician, just be sure to include some music theory in there, and get your ear involved. You’d be surprised how many people learn to play songs, but never learn to play music!

Find out how well you’re progressing on the guitar and read my full response on Quora.


To Learn Music Theory, Or Not To Learn Music Theory?

A great question was asked on Quora: “What is the major difference between the musicians who learn the music theory and the ones who have not learnt any of that but still are brilliant?”

I suspect that many out there are skeptical of music theory, or at least intimidated in a way similar to how many might feel when confronted with learning a new language.

I hear the same criticisms repeated all the time… some of which have merit, some of which do not. I’ve even addressed a few of them.

But what is the big difference? Do musicians really need theory? How about standard notation? Well, the real answer is, it depends.

Read my full answer and follow me on Quora.


What Is a Diatonic Chord?

“…most musicians expect to perform a number of musical tasks that might seem extremely daunting to the layman: transposing chords and chord progressions, improvisation/soloing, arranging, re-mixing, navigating alternate tunings (guitar), analyzing the harmony of a song they love, re-harmonizing a song, and the list goes on. Knowing what chords are diatonic and what chords are non-diatonic gives musicians a huge boost in thinking about and approaching these tasks. Most musicians already know the diatonic triads in every major key, if not by simple memorization, then probably by rote, over time, which can help when trying to learn to play a basic chord progression by ear.”
View my full answer and follow me on Quora.

What Is Harmony?

Kendrick Lamar vs. Radiohead

“Have you heard Kendrick Lamar’s album? There’s this one song…” he said.

”‘How Much A Dollar Cost?’” she replied.

“Yeah that’s the one! How did you know? Hah. Yeah, there’s just something great about it.”

“It’s a great song. Love the beat. But that piano part… I think that’s what makes it. So rich and beautiful. It reminds me of Radiohead.”

“Uh… Wow. I never thought of it that way. But I think you’re right. The piano makes that song!”

“Yeah, I actually think it has the same chord progression as ‘Pyramid Song.’ Let me see… [plays both on piano]. Yup. It does.”

“Whoa. What are you, some kind of musical genius? My jaw just hit the floor.”

“Nah, the notes in these chords all have the same basic relationships. That’s all.”

“I wish I understood harmony like you do.”

“Well, it takes some time and effort. But if you understand melody, you’re halfway there,” she said.

Understanding Harmony

In the conversation above, “she” is a figment of my imagination. But everything she said is true, but perhaps more importantly, attainable when you have a foundation in Melody.

If Melody can be thought of as a line, Harmony (i.e. chords, chord progressions) can be thought of as colorful structures.

Structures can be stacked up high like skyscrapers, or built up low, like one-floor homes. They can be plain and simple, or vibrant and complex. They can be dark and ominous, or light and pleasant. And they can be viewed and enjoyed from many angles.

Chords As Vertical Relationships

On a fundamental level, to build these structures in theory is to understand chords, chord progressions, and Harmony as a whole.

Chords are built when you have two or more notes that occur at the same time. They relate from low to high, and how they relate… well, that’s pretty much all you need to know about chords.

Whereas Melody deals with relationships between notes horizontally over time, Harmony (at least initially) can be thought of as dealing with multiple, simultaneous notes relating a vertical fashion.

“That’s a major triad!”

“I think that’s just a power chord there.”

“Oh, this sounds like a tricky one. Have you tried a fully diminished 7th chord? The root is on the #V (‘Sharp Five’).”

Recognizing chords begins NOT with tutorials and tabs, but with understanding chords and being able to hear them for what they are: vertical tonal relationships.

When you get to know chords in a vertical way, you start recognizing them everywhere. You get familiar with them, you develop a history with them. You get Kendrick on a whole new level. You understand Radiohead.

These unique relationships can be described and organized in such a way as to be useful for you now, and for every chord or chord progression for every song you ever want learn or write in the future.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Don’t waste all of your precious time on learning one song at a time from someone telling you where to put your fingers. Instead, invest it into learning Music. And from there you’ll find how closely songs become, how much more they fall within reach.

In the second installment of the WARRENMUSIC Series, we’ll be tackling all of above head-on and at great depth: how chords are built, how to hear what’s happening in harmony, and so much more.

You can pre-order Harmony and the rest of the WARRENMUSIC Series here today.

Now go listen to some music!

  • 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

Pianu — Fun, But Does It Do the Job?

I really like this little app I saw on Reddit, but as a music teacher, I have one serious critique.

I don’t understand why the designers change the keys used to trigger the scale degrees (1–8) of C Major when a song uses fewer notes.

For example, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” only uses six tones, so Pianu makes the 8th scale degree (the octave, or high “C”) “6” on your keyboard. But for “Chopsticks,” it makes use of keys 1–8 because the song calls for all eight tones of the C Major Scale, and the 8th scale degree becomes “8” on your keyboard. Huh? So you have the same tonal relationships (an octave), but two different combinations of keys to create them? How does this make any musical sense? In this way, Pianu is not like a real instrument. It actually distorts the way a piano as well as musical scales in general are understood. And a piano is a very easy instrument to understand… Left is low, right is high, and every key has an equal pitch distance (perceptually speaking) to its neighbor key.

When one plays a real instrument, one expects a low note to sound low, and a high note to sound high, and for the degree of highness or lowness relative to the other notes not to change from the same key combinations/distances/frets.

Until this tool connects tonal relationships to consistent degrees of highness/lowness (scale degrees is the easiest way to do this on a computer keyboard), I wouldn’t recommend this to my students for learning theory and ear-training, and certainly not for learning piano. I would however, recommend it for five minutes of musical fun.

In the meantime, this Interactive YouTube Piano is a nifty solution I’ve created:

It’s really only a thin but crucial layer of theory on top of a C Major Scale. A simplified, virtual piano, if you will. What it does (that Pianu doesn’t) is fuse the sound of the instrument and music theory in a way that connects back to the physical instrument itself.

Still, Pianu is aesthetically pleasing, gorgeous even. I hope the creator keeps making more cool stuff like this. It’s, at the very least, a beautiful, somewhat musical game. It has serious potential to bring in the visual aspect of playing a piano to augment the aural.