Category Archives: Columns

Amplified Observations: Learning an instrument leads to creative freedom and deeper awareness

Everyone knows at least one “jack of all trades,” that person who succeeds in everything he or she strives for with seemingly minimal effort.

But for the rest of us, our daily supply of motivation is distributed amongst our few personal specialties. Whether it’s employing career skills, speaking a foreign language or partaking in a hobby, each day presents us with a set amount of time and energy to accomplish what we deem most important.

Although you might already be booked and restless, fitting one additional activity into your schedule proves worth the while by means of fulfillment and mindfulness.

Even if for five minutes a day, picking up any type of instrument and working toward its mastery offers a takeaway that hardly exists in the lives of many: creative freedom.

How much creative freedom is in your schedule right now?

Having what the French call carte blanche to do whatever you choose in whatever way you want is a liberating experience, especially in the company of an instrument.

Whether it’s a tenor sax or a tambourine, nothing feels off limits and nothing has to make sense to anyone but oneself. Just think of mistakes as a form of free jazz.

Creating sounds that would have otherwise not existed leads to an empowering and, at times, near transcendent state of mind. And since there’s an accessible instrument for everyone in spite of what the pessimistic part of the brain will say, no one is excluded from this opportunity.

Learning curves for some instruments are not as steep or intimidating as something like a lute. Bongos, a harmonica, a ukelele or a Chilean rain stick are all great entry-level instruments for those who don’t want to commit too much time. Although, the meaning of “too much” changes with skill level.

Learning an instrument is one of the loveliest expenditures of time because it gives you exactly what you put into it. You become aware of a new language with complex grammar and theory. And whether by sheet music, online tabs or by ear, understanding of how music works allows us a deeper comprehension of the natural world.

And when the natural world becomes too much, making music can act as an immediate comfort and distraction from the horrific goings on. There’s a meditative and therapeutic component to keeping a tempo or selecting a sequence of notes that blocks out the inner thoughts that wear away at one’s mind.

There’s a variety of different everyday escapisms to choose from, but music is one of the most constructive and purifying. Playing an instrument and taking part in this escapist pursuit is one of the few inherent solaces available to all humans, regardless of background or culture. On that basis alone, it’s worth clearing some time to give the glockenspiel a whirl.

Granted, every new endeavor comes with a certain resistance. But once you find yourself instrument-in-hand, I think you’ll find it difficult to not feel welcomed inside the doorway.

Amplified Observations: Bob Dylan cautious of media in acceptance of Nobel Prize

The wind stopped blowing and we finally got an answer.

Following two long weeks of speculative silence, Bob Dylan acknowledged his Nobel Prize for Literature on Saturday in an interview with The Telegraph.

He is quoted saying he would “absolutely” accept the award “if it is at all possible.” Had he not, Dylan would have been the first to turn down the prize since Jean Paul Sartre in 1964 who did not want to be made into an “institution.”

Prior to Dylan’s acceptance, hundreds of news articles and think-pieces invaded everyone’s social feed and occupied several niches of the press: music, celebrity and the almighty cold case. Why isn’t he talking and what will he say?

Sure enough, in Dylan’s long-developed mannerisms, he let the public and press sweat for a bit with his thumb and index figure on society’s air-conditioner’s knob. Dylan has long been wary of acknowledging the sacred cows of civilized culture, including time-honored awards.

Perhaps his extended reticence also emerged as a reaction to the firestorm created by the initial reaction. One party argued Dylan’s selection did not follow the traditions of the Nobel Prizes in Literature, which include William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez and Hermann Hesse. The other argued for the songwriter’s cultural contributions through his lyrics and themes (even though Dylan is no Hesse).

I fall into the latter camp and I guess so do the Swedish people on the prize’s board.

Over his half-century career, Dylan has remained wary of public attraction toward publicity stunts and ratings-magnets. The 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature might have been awarded earnestly, or possibly with an angle. Either way, Dylan let the medal cool down before reaching out for it.

But along with avoiding controversy, Dylan also caused “irritation and anger” among the selection committee. Perhaps he reminded them of the emptiness in their validation of him, which could have meant more to someone whose message had not yet been received clearly by the public.

To accept an award of elite validation is to give power to the validators, which is ultimately a personal choice. Dylan eventually accepted the award, but only after exposing the hollowness and vanity of the whole process.

And aside from a knighting by the Queen, music honors only look to confirm or validate what an artist already knew, especially one around as long as Dylan. The only one that seems honest in judging quality and innovation is the Mercury Prize.

With his silence, Bob Dylan intentionally or unintentionally showed that awards do not make us more human or more real than anyone else. Awards are nice, warm validation, but no one lives in a higher or lower state than anyone else because of them.

Committees and opinions would make it appear so.

Amplified Observations: Pitch-shifted singing started in 1960s, but did Frank Ocean recently perfect it?

The past year evolved the musical landscape in ways unimaginable in January.

Creative godhead Kanye West dropped a revolutionarily fluid album, The Life Of Pablo, back in spring and The Avalanches finally released a sophomore album, filling the 16-year gap from their acclaimed 2000 debut Since I Left You. Both of those masterworks are slightly overshadowed, however, by an album with a greater ambition and rarity.

In the wake of a four-year anticipation stirred by 2012’s Channel Orange, Frank Ocean not only returned this year with a proper follow-up album in Blonde, but also took one sonic effect to its musical zenith.

Blonde, released Aug. 20, utilizes pitch-shifted singing, a technique in which a sound’s original pitch is raised or lowered, in the most artistic way yet. A practice once used for exaggerated effects and chipmunk-like vocals becomes the vehicle of lyrical significance in Ocean’s work.

On the album opener “Nikes,” we find Ocean’s voice pitched up into a seemingly female-exclusive range. Since his breakout single “Thinkin Bout You” had been penned for a female artist, it isn’t unimaginable that Ocean sought a way to sing in this range.

Ocean even alludes to the high range on the album’s final song “Futura Free,” where he drops the term “castrati.” Castrati refers to male singers who retain a soprano range, usually through developmental deviation or bodily intervention. The fact that the obscure term is even included on the album might shed light on his approach.

Another album, released Sept. 30, also made use of upward-shifted vocal pitches. Bon Iver’s latest achievement 22A Million contains pitch-shifted vocal melodies on songs like the opener “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and the single “33 ‘GOD’ ” similar to that of Ocean’s pitch. Along with Blonde’s hour-long length, 22, A Million is worth every bit of its 34-minute runtime.

Although the most prominently featured, “Nikes” is not the only song on Ocean’s second studio album with manipulated vocals. “Self Control” and the aforementioned “Futura Free” also make use of the practice in sections shorter than the full verse on “Nikes.” All three of these songs embody overtones of life, love and struggling, three emotionally weighted themes.

The inclusion of contrast between male and female vocal ranges practically creates the illusion of a duet, despite all the singing being sung by a single voice. And aside from “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” from Kendrick Lamar’s breakout Good Kid, M.A.A.D Cityand the chorus tomfoolery on Vampire Weekend’s “Diane Young,” voice pitching has not been employed in this particular fashion. It offers a glimpse of innovation within Ocean’s long-awaited follow-up.

Unlike Kanye West’s method on 808s and Heartbreak, the effects did not correct vocal mistakes but instead opened a new frontier of possible melodies and multi-octave harmonies.

In the same manner Channel Orange redefined how a modern R&B record could sound, Blonde has the potential to open doors for the burgeoning musicians of today, showing them how closely technology has allowed musicians to recreate the visions first manifested in their heads.

Like several of the albums mentioned above, Blonde’s lyrical wealth and sonic innovation is likely to set a trend in the capabilities and direction of popular music for years to come.

Amplified Observations: Athens forms a musical experience unmatched by pre-college life

Living in Athens, Ohio, offers a formative musical experience largely unmatched by pre-college life.

You might have noticed the town and university both teem with melodies created by an abundance of means that work to engross its residents completely in musical attunement.

For many of us studying here, we’ve come from suburban environments, venturing to the closest city once in awhile but never long enough to become rooted into its heartbeat. Our high school peer groups consisted of fewer people and had fewer new ideas being thrown around. But from this sort of background or another, Athens only enhances a person’s appreciation for a musical environment.

Spending any amount of time in Athens leads to hearing sub-bass through dorm walls, bro-country down the street (accompanied with engine revving) or world music while walking along the bike path. Sometimes house parties blast music so loud the vibrations from the bass appear to cause disruption in the house’s material. I can’t imagine being the roommate upstairs trying to sleep.

Every now and then, the Marching 110 illuminates Peden Stadium, and piano keys echo through Baker Center’s central atrium.

Around the holidays, the streets of Athens are literally accompanied with Christmas music.

And for the rest of the year, there’s that small group of songs that house parties and bars always play like Travis Scott’s “Antidote,” Drake’s “Back to Back” and Kendrick Lamar’s “M.a.a.d City.” These songs play the traditional role of music in helping us to bond together as a common community. They soundtrack Friday and Saturday nights along with the ensembles of street musicians aligning Court Street.

Sometimes Athens’ sonic effects can be as simple as hearing two guitars peacefully harmonizing from an adjacent apartment.

There are also several great venues to catch live music in town like Casa Nueva, The Union Bar & Grill and Donkey Coffee and Espresso. Not to mention, Donkey Coffee plays a great selection of music itself. It might be the only place Uptown where you can hear Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” on a Saturday morning.

Haffa’s Records and Blue Eagle Music only add to the town’s versatility with LPs and instruments.

The number of people wearing headphones on and off campus shows, what is otherwise an invisible desire for music, floating above the seventh floor of Alden Library.

Whether student or parent, local or visitor, Athens invokes a sense of liveliness and rhythm that never seems to stop. It’s a town packed with ideas and cultures that influence our idea of daily life and how we live it. A significant part of that influence falls on the music we come across, on purpose or by accident.

Athens’ musicality might not be apparent at first. But with an ear to the air, you’re bound to hear something new.

Amplified Observations: Long songs need structural, conceptual support

Long songs are like suspension bridges. If there’s not enough support they collapse into troubled waters, taking with them everyone on board.

But if the cords manage to hold and the concept and engineering is strong enough, the bridge delivers its travelers safely to the other side.

Songs that indulge in themselves must be engrossing enough to the listener as to dispel the feeling that the listener is wasting precious time crossing a bridge to nowhere. They must make a connection to the listener, through storytelling, relatable experiences or stirring riffs and chords. Sometimes one of these is enough and sometimes it takes all three.

This primarily applies to rock songs ranging from seven minutes and longer. Since most jazz and classical works rely on movements and improvisation, they’ll have to wait in traffic until this column is over. There’s no way to establish movements or improvise without taking your time, but things could easily fall apart just as well.

Storytelling, the simplest of these three methods, captures the audience using narrative suspense like in Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” or George Thorogood’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.” Everyone enjoys a good story and if the tale draws us in, we usually find out what happens in the end.

Other artists use powerful phrasing and relatable sentiments to hold attention for long stretches. My Morning Jacket’s “I Will Sing You Songs” and Yes’ near 19 minute opus “Close to the Edge” achieve this effect quite well.

But it’s most impressive when these two techniques are combined with a display of sheer musicality. When the melodies are memorable and the riffs are rockin, no one will want to tap the right double arrow.

Examples include Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird,” Yo La Tengo’s “Night Falls on Hoboken” and, of course, Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”

Sometimes musicians cheat a little bit and stitch two compositions together into one long track like Elton John’s “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and Grand Funk Railroad’s “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home).” But whatever you call it, the changeup is effective at shaking off boredom and listener fatigue, a pitfall to song length.

It’s difficult to recall specific songs that fall apart after a certain point, probably because culture forgets them or they lack inventiveness. But it would be accurate to say that sometimes boring riffs go on for too long and lyrics sound uninteresting and soulless at a certain point (“Revolution 9”). Not every song has to be as long as Sufjan Stevens’ 25 minute album closer “Impossible Soul.” I would prefer if they weren’t.

But long songs tend to be worth the effort, even if some might bring wasted time. They have more space to convey a moving atmosphere and make a sonic connection.

It’s all about staying in the slow lane of that suspension bridge and enjoying the scenic view. It’ll distract you long enough to realize that you’re already on the other side.

Amplified Observations: Making an acoustic guitar sound psychedelic is hard, but some artists make it look easy

This week’s column is about to open your third eye. But not in the traditional way.

That’s because it’s about a sleeper genre that never seems to get discussed: acoustic psychedelia. And although that might not be a “documented” genre, it’s at least what I use to identify this specific trend.

Psychedelic music is almost synonymous with trippy guitar effects, echo-chamber-like reverb and wild, oscillating vocals. But pull the plug out of the socket and what are you left with? Surprisingly enough, more than a handful of good tunes.

Psychedelic rock, pop and folk are not limited to Strats and fuzz but can also be achieved effectively using the basics: a guitar, a voice and an enticed imagination.

Around the highwater mark of psychedelia in the late ’60s and early ’70s, several artists released acoustic records chock-full of naturally occurring weirdness and mysticism. Musicians such as Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkel, George Harrison, Tim Buckley and others took to a softer side of the substance-fueled sound, focusing on the fantastical and mystical elements underlying much of what had already run its course.

Even Townes Van Zandt, the celebrated country singer, dabbled psychedelic acoustic music with his 1972 cut “Silver Ships of Andilar.” Andilar is almost as mythical of a place as what Neil Young describes in his 1970 song “After the Gold Rush.”

That approach might not seem to be a big deal, but in essence, those musicians attempted to elevate the capability of acoustic instruments to possess an aura of psychedelic wonder. I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s an impressive feat.

It was a particularly strange moment when I realized Simon & Garfunkel’s largely acoustic 1968 album Bookends also incorporates psychedelic lyrics and effects. How else could you explain songs such as “Punky’s Dilemma” or “Voices of Old People”? Other songs of theirs such as “The 59th Street Bridge” also illustrate a groovy sonic landscape.

Nowadays, we think of psychedelic rock as sounding garage-y or with more effects than an alien spaceship. However, although absent in the main genre, acoustic psychedelic might have found a home in musical places such as freak folk or psych folk with bands such as Mount Eerie, Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens and Akron/Family.

But either way, music from the initial wave like Love’s “Alone Again Or” is still easily accessible and as vibrant as ever.

If anything is important in the wider picture here, it’s that an approach like acoustic psychedelia only illustrates the true capabilities of musical creativity and the strange desires of the human spirit.

Amplified Observations: Heatmiser’s earlier version of ‘Christian Brothers’ is superior to Elliott Smith’s acoustic version

Everybody loves the music Elliott Smith created.

Or, at least they would if they listened to a couple albums, preferably his 1995 self-titled and 1997’s Either/Or. But I digress.

Music like Smith’s is more profound in depth than just chords and notes.

Thoughtful songs are often cooked up in the unconscious part of the mind and materialize from emotion or experience rather than just from the chromatic scale. It then becomes a challenge to the musician to find what timbres and progressions fit best with a song’s meaning and mood.

Simple differences like the amount of watts used on instruments dole a significant impact to the final product. In the limited space of this column, take for example, “Christian Brothers,” a well-crafted, intense cut from Elliott Smith’s excellent 1995 self-titled album.

The title of the song is a reference to a brandy that gives the narrator of the song the courage to confront his father using some fairly strong language — as a warning.

In either version, the songwriting is top notch with both heavy, original lyrics and masterful guitar sequences. But, the more recently released version of the song recorded with Heatmiser, a band Smith fronted, has the advantage of being electric, which better captures the anger and brooding of the song than merely an acoustic Yamaha FG.

The vocals are a bit richer in the electric version, able to compete in the mix, which I like, but some might understandably prefer the ones on the acoustic version. With the wholesome texture, it’s easy to get lost in the feel of the song, with everything balancing out from a full band experience. Unearthed only in 2013, it feels faster and livelier than the acoustic but still as haunting.

For songs that dig deeper than the surface of songwriting, the tiniest changes might steer a tune in a new direction or possibly a new perspective. And recognizing these intricacies makes listening to well-crafted songs that much more rewarding.

But it also raises questions like if the right decision were made for a song, which only makes music that much more of a mysterious sonic void of endless possibilities.

It’s the songwriters who climb their way out of that chaotic void and harness musical precision that are the ones who create the most timeless, unparalleled music. And regardless what version you prefer, surely Elliott Smith stands among those few.

Luke Furman is a junior studying journalism at Ohio University. What is your favorite Elliott Smith song? Let Luke know by tweeting him @LukeFurmanLog or emailing him at