Phish-y inspiration? Real-time Musical Analysis

up arrow doodleFrom Dr. Jan Miyake, Professor of Music at Oberlin College and Conservatory, a post about music analysis, using the popular music group Phish as an example. Inspiring stuff and would make a great assignment for a music course for non-majors too.


I’ve been stuck on this video from the New York Times, called “How to Draw a Phish Song.” This musician, Mike Hamad knows Phish’s style ridiculously well. He is a virtuoso when it comes to real-time analysis of form, pitch collections, and styles. I especially love his clear delight in nuances, which is evident in his use of font size, underlining, and caps. I would love for my students to develop that kind of delight in the pitch, collection, rhythms, meters, timbres, and gestures of music that they listen to.

What is real-time formal analysis?

For me, real-time formal analysis requires recalling formal and harmonic paradigms, and being cognizant of my emotions, as I take notes in time with the recording. I write down unusual moments or my visceral reactions to a timbre or rhythm.

With classical music, it’s easy for me to do a real-time formal analysis. It was the subject of my PhD dissertation and is the source of many of the musical examples I use in class.

Is it helpful to teach to my students? Yes, I think so.

If students know musical paradigms well enough to be able to focus on the ways composers challenge these paradigms, then they have a command of nuance, style, and knowledge that will benefit them as musicians.

How might I go about helping them to develop it?

up arrow doodle 2I would encourage students to engage with the particular genres they are most comfortable performing. Singers could perhaps focus on aria forms, string players on quartets, wind and brass players on symphonic first movements. The applications of un-notated musics could be huge since mapping them could reveal all sorts of interesting things about the musics and the performers, such as patterns or styles. This work could take place in a private reading, an aural skills class, or an upper-level music theory class. Winter term could also be an effective time to explore this.

I can imagine testing real-time formal analysis. Provide only a 11×17 paper and one recording of an expected genre. See what they come up with. I can also imagine students building a small portfolio of “schemas” that they are proud of.

But, most of all, I can imagine them becoming deeply engaged with music.

Can’t wait to give it a try!

This blog post has been adapted from a post which originally appeared on Jan Miyake’s blog, Teaching Matters, on August 1, 2014.
Jan Miyake
Jan Miyake is an Associate Professor of Music Theory at the Oberlin Conservatory. Her pedagogical goals include cultivating the skill of asking musical questions that lead down paths of inquiry requiring nuance, concentration, and attention to detail. Her current research explores issues of sonata form in late 18th- and early 19th-century works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. She has presented her work at numerous regional, national, and international conferences, and is published in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, Theory and Practice, and Essays from the Fourth International Schenker Symposium.

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