Here's part of "Tricky Living," copyright by Russ Walter, first edition. For newer info, read the second edition at


Many people spend lots of time trying to create music. Like basketball, music is fun & healthy but rarely leads to a successful career.

Music versus art

Americans treat music differently from art. The typical art class encourages kids to create their own art by using crayons, paint, and other media. The typical music class does not encourage kids to compose their own music; instead, the class encourages kids to imitate (perform) music composed by others. Kids are taught to slavishly “play the right notes,” not invent their own.

This miseducation affects our adult lives. While we’re chatting on the phone, we let ourselves do creative artwork, called “doodling,” but not creative music. In the shower, we try to sing correctly, not creatively.

Indian philosophy

At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, I heard a musician explain how to improvise on the sitar (a guitar from India). He said that if you play a “wrong” note, don’t get embarrassed: instead, consider that the sitar is talking to you. Play off the error. Play the wrong note again and again, on purpose, as if you meant it, as if you were purposely trying to surprise the audience and shockingly lead the audience into a new theme.

To be more sophisticated, repeat not just the wrong note but also the entire phrase that contained it, then make that phrase lead up to a climactic phrase that’s even more bizarre and exciting.

Famous music

Would you like to become a famous composer? Would you like to become like Beethoven or the Beatles?

If so, here’s something humbling to remember.…

What’s the most popular piece of music in the whole world, the piece of music that more people around the world know than any other?

No, it’s not by Beethoven, it’s not by the Beatles, and it’s not by Britney Spears (thank God).

The next time you’re at a party, ask your friends to answer that question. Then reveal the answer (“The Happy Birthday Song”) and sing it to the daily victim!

That song is known all over the world. Yes, even in strange countries — like France and China — they sing that song, with the same notes, in their own languages!

The original version of the song was invented in 1893 in Louisville Kentucky.

The melody was by a kindergarten teacher, Mildred Hill. The original words were by her sister, Patty, the principal, and went like this:

Good morning to you.

Good morning to you.

Good morning, dear children.

Good morning to all.

They were to be sung by teachers (and were published in a songbook called “Song Stories for the Kindergarten”), but soon the kids started singing it back to the teachers and changed the words to:

                    Good morning to you.

                    Good morning to you.

                    Good morning, dear teacher.

                    Good morning to you.

Much later, some wiseguy changed the words to:

                    Happy birthday to you.

                    Happy birthday to you.

                    Happy birthday, dear _____.

                    Happy birthday to you.

Those “Happy birthday” words were finally published in a songbook edited by Robert Coleman in 1924. Afterwards, the song spread by word of mouth, radio, movies, Western Union’s singing telegrams, and other crazy comedians.

Eventually, the Hill family sued for copyright infringement. Later, the copyright was sold to bigger publishers.

Now it’s legal to sing the song privately at family birthday parties; but you’re supposed to pay royalties if you perform the song publicly, such as in a restaurant or sports arena or —according to lawyers — at the following:

anyplace “open to the public” or where gather a substantial number of people outside a normal circle of “a family and its social acquaintances”

The current copyright owner (Time Warner) collects 2 million dollars per year in royalties, which it splits with a foundation established by the sister’s family.

Moral: if you want big fame and big bucks, write songs for kids!

I wonder how much money Barney generates by singing:

                                        I love you. You love me.

                                        We’re a happy family.

I prefer the popular parody:

                                        I hate you. You hate me.

                                        We’re a dysfunctional family.

So, kids, sing that whenever mom yells at you. Then you’ll really piss her off!

Beautiful simplicity

If you teach a class in music composition, play this trick on the students.

Tell them you want them to write a musical composition that’s hauntingly beautiful, also relaxing, yet so sad it can make even the toughest men cry.

Give them a few minutes to start working on the project, then say:

Oh, by the way, I want the composition to be short: no more than 25 notes.

Watch them rethink. Then say:

And I want no lyrics and no harmony. The melody alone must be the whole composition. Remember it must be “hauntingly beautiful, relaxing, and so sad it makes even the toughest men cry.”

A few minutes later, say:

Oh, by the way, one more restriction: you’re not allowed to use any sharps or flats. The whole composition must be playable on the piano’s white notes, without using any black notes.

At this point, some of the students will start cursing you as they rewrite again. A few minutes later, add:

Oh, by the way, one more restriction: you can’t use the notes D, F, A, or B. The only notes you can use are C, E, and G.

At this point, the students will probably start saying “You’re nuts,” “You’re crazy,” “Why didn’t you tell us that before,” and “It’s impossible.” A few minutes later add:

Now I’m going to impose a further restriction: the only notes you can use are middle C, the G just below it, and the E & G just above it.

You’ll hear more cursing, but some of the students will start wondering what the point of all this is, what game you’re trying to play. A few minutes later, if the students have enough patience, can add this command:

Now here’s a final restriction: after each note (except the last note), you must write a note that’s the same, or adjacent, or begins a phrase repetition. For example, after E, you must put E again or the G above it or the C below it or start repeating a phrase that’s been heard already.

Now everybody wonders how you can make a song that’s “hauntingly beautiful, relaxing, and tearfully sad” even though it’s so restricted (shorter than 25 notes, without lyrics, without harmony, restricted to the notes of a C chord around middle C, and without jumps except for repetitions). Say this:

Millions of Americans know a piece of music that has all those properties and restrictions. Do you know which piece of music that is?

If nobody guesses, start giving hints.

Here’s a hint: what musical instrument plays only a C chord?

If still no answer, give further help.

What’s the saddest thing that can happen to somebody?

If still no answer, give further help.

What’s the most relaxing thing that can happen to somebody?

If still no answer, give further help.

What government organization dominates the lives (and therefore the music) of millions of Americans?

If they still have no clue, just give up and say, “Now I’m going to play the music that meets all those criteria.” Then play “Taps” on a bugle.

To end the lesson, give the class this moral:

The art of writing music is to put restrictions on yourself,

then successfully maneuver within those restrictions.

How to improvise

Try this experiment.…

Make the piano cry Walk up to the piano. Press a key near the middle of the keyboard. Then remove your finger from that key. Press the key that’s immediately left of the key you pressed before, regardless of color. (For example, if you pressed E before, press E flat; if you pressed C before, press B.) Notice that this second key sounds slightly lower than the first. Keep doing that: keep moving down to the left, pressing each key, regardless of color. (For example, if you started at E, press E flat, then D, then D flat, then C, then B, then B flat, then A.) That’s called going down the chromatic scale. Keep doing that, until you’ve played 8 notes altogether.

Now start at some other key on the keyboard and go down the chromatic scale from that new key, so you’ve played 8 new notes. (Now you’ve played 16 notes altogether!)

Hop to a third key on the keyboard and go down the chromatic scale from that key, so you’ve play 8 further notes. (Now you’ve played 24 notes altogether!)

Going down the chromatic scale makes the piano sound like it’s crying: oh, such a mournful melody!

To increase the effect, get several friends to join you at the piano: all of you play simultaneously, so each of you goes down the chromatic scale simultaneously. (If you don’t have any friends with you at the moment, try making your two hands pretend to be two people.)

The person who’s farthest left is called the bass. For best results, have the bass player play twice as slowly, so he goes down one note while the other players go down two notes. Those long notes in the bass create a steady, sticky “glue” that holds the composition together.

Break free To avoid monotony, let each player be free to “break the rules” occasionally. For example, instead of taking an 8-note run, try taking a 4-note run or a 2-note run. Try letting the bass player play even slower — while the other players play even faster.

To avoid making the composition sound too depressing, let each player occasionally go up the scale instead of down, to create a glimmer of hope — before resuming the doom of going down.

Let each player be free to occasionally play any note or pattern. For example, instead of going down in boring scales, let your fingers wander in both directions (up and down), like a staggering drunk who’s indecisive about which direction to walk in. (That’s called a random walk.)

Add teamwork Let each player occasionally stop to listen to the other players (silence is golden!) and then imitate their patterns (so the group sounds like an attentive ensemble doing teamwork, instead of a disorganized mess).

Folk music To create folk music, play just on the black keys (that’s called the pentatonic scale) while doing a random walk.

Chinese music To make that folk music sound Chinese, make each non-bass player do this: instead of pressing one black key at a time, press two black keys that are fairly close together (so just one black key is between them). That’s called pentatonic parallel thirds.

Mozart To create Mozart music, do Chinese music but play on the white notes instead of the black (that’s called diatonic parallel thirds), so each non-bass player is playing a pair of white notes that are fairly close together (and just one white note is between them). Then try this improvement: when playing a pair of notes, if the top note is a C, make the pair’s bottom note be E instead of A.

Warning: when producing Mozart music, use fewer players than with other types of music, so you keep your composition as simple as a music box and avoid clashes.

Debussy On the keyboard, the black notes come in clumps. Some clumps contain 3 black notes. Other clumps contain 2 black notes. Try this restriction: let yourself play the 3 black notes that come in a 3-black-note clump, and also let yourself play the 3 white notes that are near the 2-black-note clump. Restricting yourself to those notes is called the whole-tone scale, which sounds like the impressionist harp music composed by the French composer Debussy. For best results, go up that scale instead of down (except for variety).

Best classical music

Many musicians feel that the best classical music is chamber music (music for a small group of instruments). It tends to be purer and cleverer than orchestral music and opera, which often get too bombastic. To taste the finest classical music, treat yourself to these examples of chamber music and beyond (listed by the year they were composed):

1791, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A (K. 622), as performed by Benny Goodman (humorously!)

1794, Haydn’s Piano Trio #1 in G (including the “Gypsy Rondo”)

1809, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #5 in E Flat (Opus 73, nicknamed “the Emperor Concerto”)

1810, Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B Flat (Opus 97, nicknamed “the Archduke Trio”)

1887, Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A (Opus 81, romantic)

1899, Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag (this is the composition that made jazz become popular)

1924, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (jazz), as performed by Leonard Bernstein (who can control tempo!)

1940, Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet (Opus 57), as performed by Shostakovich himself (authentic!)

1944, Bartok’s Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin, as performed by Ivry Gitlis (who’s intense!)

For 1960’s fun music based on classical feelings, listen to collections of music sung by The Beatles (fine melodies), The Supremes (fine rich harmonies),
The Mamas & The Papas (fine fun harmonies), and Tom Lehrer (fun words).

Was Dr. Seuss the first rapper?

I wonder whether rap music was influenced by Dr. Seuss. The beat’s the same:

                       As I think about the music that is driving me insane,

                       And I wonder if I blunder when I call it such a name,

                       And the oink-oink little piggy blew the house down — such as shame! —

                       I’m a rapper and a crapper playing Seuss’s little game.

                       Da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da da-da-da-da da-da-da!