Surprising secrets emerge in conversation with jazz legend Gil Goldstein on music education, color and music, polyrhythms and more.
A few years ago, I met a man walking his two little dogs. We got to talking and he told me his name was Gil. He was a musician. Hey, me too!
Over time, I began to get a bit more information. Apparently, he was pretty well known in jazz circles! One day, I almost bumped into Bobby McFerrin as they walked together. Gil was producing Bobby’s latest project.
Later, I’m watching the Grammy Awards live on television and Best New Artist award goes to Esperanza Spalding. A jazz artist! The first ever to ever win this award! And, in her speech, she says, “I would like to especially thank Gil Goldstein.”
Wow! That’s the guy with the two little dogs!
Since then, Gil and I have been having brief music chats when we see each other on the street. I bought a copy of his book, the Jazz Composer’s Companion, which has some very deep thinking on music and gems of wisdom from many jazz greats.
I started sharing some of my Musicolor Method materials with him and we dove deep into the metaphysics of music!
Gil is not only an award-winning arranger, composer and artist; he is also a respected educator. He wrote a doctoral thesis on early childhood music education and has been on staff at my alma mater, NYU for years. Gil has a deep understanding of music, life and art.
I’m so grateful and humbled to have had the opportunity to interview him.
In this interview, we talk about the goal of music education, why music is important, healing with sound and a lot of the metaphysical aspects of music.
So before we get to his pearls of wisdom, let me give a bit of context.
All matter is vibrating
The table I’m sitting at, this laptop – these hard “inanimate” objects are actually moving. They are vibrating at different frequencies. Scientists can measure them and if you recall from high school physics, there is a periodic table of elements that lists each chemical element by the number of protons and electrons. These tiny things are spinning around constantly! There is truly describes what happens when we humans are exposed to a rhythm, pitches, and sounds that cause us to vibrate empathetically with the source.
So what does this have to do with music and teaching?
One of the first lessons I teach young kids is to observe a vibrating string, usually on a guitar or dulcimer. They can see, hear and feel the entire string vibrating. As we tighten or shorten the string by pressing on certain frets, the pitch goes higher. As we loosen or lengthen the string, the pitch goes lower.
Hertz and MegaHertz
Each pitch can be measured as a frequency of number of cycles per second. Hz and Megahertz is a measurement.
The spectrum of frequency that we can hear is limited by our human sense of hearing from about 20 Hz to 20000 Hz. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t feel it or sense it.
The Cosmic Spiral
In the Musicolor Method training, our first unit is about the connection of sound, frequency and vibration. It can be described in a mathematical series called the Fibonacci series and forms a shape found throughout the cosmos: the spiral. We use the metaphor of the “growth spiral” as this shape can also describe the path of learning from simplicity to complexity, novice to mastery.
A Continuum of Vibration
Music is just one portion of the entire frequency spectrum. This spectrum begins with “solid matter” all the way to rhythmic beats to pitch and musical tones to light and color all the way to wifi, radio and x-rays, gamma rays and beyond.
So without further ado, let’s hear from the maestro, Gil Goldstein.
What is music?
Well, I think music basically grows out of the development of the overtone series, and somehow our history of music has traced the overtone series in terms of unfolding along those lines that the first things were kind of unisons and simple rhythms, and then we move up to octaves and then to fifth and fourths and third.
It’s no secret that the overtone series has influenced and continues to control the path that music history has taken, from simple vibrations to more complex. That an octave and perfect fifth occur in the first two unfoldings of the series is so important and shows us that mankind didn’t invent these things, we have discovered it and that is very important. And if we want to evaluate and predict the future of musical expression, we need to be aware of that and educate ourselves and students in those natural laws.
Is there good music and bad music?
Good music is, I think, music that comes from your unconscious, and your unconscious is, if it’s really the real unconscious music, is informed by those laws.
You’re unfolding according to those laws, which is hard to teach. You have to think of the overtone series as a kind of belief system, and dedicate yourself to it, in order to compose and play music that “feels” to be a response to this governing law.
I had a teacher also that started me thinking about this named Otto Luening who was an early electronic composer, and a good great modern composer in all aspects. He said everything he composes is based on acoustical harmony, so that everything he does, he’s thinking, is this resonating somehow in the overtone series?
Every chord, melody and rhythm relationship has to pay homage to the overtone series if you want it to resonate in the air and, mainly, if you want humans to respond to it. If you begin this process and you start to identify when it does work like that, I think you’re a better composer, arranger, and musician.
Should everyone be taught music?
Well, I would even go as far as to say that we are all musicians if we can just go, “Okay. It’s in you. Locate it, and start expressing it.”
I did my doctorate in early childhood education. The name of my dissertation was The Music Inside.
I felt like if you can get kids to get one spark of what they’re hearing in their head, and they express it. Supposedly Bill Evans, the jazz pianist, said that “I just thought of playing a B flat and D flat, and it wasn’t written. I just heard it, and I played it,” and he went, “Ah, I just improvised. I thought of it. I improvised, and now I understand the process. I thought an idea, and I played it.”
That led him to all the great improvisation he did, but it was, he really connected the idea. He knew the musical language well enough that he could speak music. I would recommend that everybody watch this thing, “The Universal Mind of Bill Evans.”
In the first two minutes, he says something that is very profound.
“I believe that all people are in possession of what might be called a universal musical mind. Any true music speaks with this universal mind to the universal mind in all people. The understanding that results will vary insofar as people have or have not been conditioned to the various styles of music in which the universal mind speak. Consequently, often some effort and exposure is necessary in order to understand some of the music coming from a different period or a different culture than that to which the listener has been conditioned. I do not agree that the layman’s opinion is less of a valid judgment of music than that of the professional musician. In fact I would often rely more on the judgment of a sensitive layman than that of a professional since the professional because of his constant involvement with the mechanics of music must fight to preserve the naivety that the layman already possesses.” – Bill Evans
What do you think the goal of music education should be?
Students have to already have a spark to start learning, and then we have to be able to guide them in a way that leads them along these paths that they can contact themselves, use their instinct. That’s something that, when I was in school, I didn’t really know you were allowed to do, really, just use your instinct. I thought it was things you all had to learn, like … You had to learn the rules.
I was feeling like I had to. Even when I learned counterpoint and Gregorian, I thought there were so many rules. I never thought to just let my ears go and use my ears and my instinct to create music because there were so many rules. In the end, we want people to use their instinct, but their instinct can’t be unruly. They have to use their instinct, and in a way that it’s moderated by the overtones and guiding principles in music.
I still think it comes back to the overtone series, that there’s a variance in tension and release which sounds obvious, but once the musician starts to understand that and they can unfold in that way intuitively, but you kind of have to let them go but still you want them to use their instinct but you want to still have to guide them.
I think in addition to music, I think our bodies are kind of in some sync with those rhythms, too. I think that the seven chakras, that generally locate as [points to parts of the body] one, two, three, four, five, six and seven, to me should somehow simulate an increase as the chakras get higher. They do write about that, but in a lot of books they come up with very simplistic ways of describing the relationships. Everybody can have their own idea of that. I kind of like to think of it as two against one as an octave, and then three against two as the fifth. If you can feel your body in tune with those things, I think we’ll be healthier people.
Two against one seems very simplistic, but not to say that it’s simple to play two against one because somebody that can really like … That you have faith that, okay, that’s a half, that’s a half. It feels organic. That’s hard to do.
When I ask students to play, “Can you play polyrhythm?,” it’s, “Yeah, I can play three against two,” and they always go like [demonstrates a polyrhythm badly] it feels terrible, stiff, and they’re kind of rushing and they’re not feeling the lengths and the actual numbers of it… that you really sink into the magic of this rhythm to feel it’s importance.
This is also inspired by a guy that I met that lives on our island in Florida named John Beaulieu who has a placed called Biosonics where he does sound healing with pitch, tuning forks and these principals.
I asked him once, “I have a friend that’s sick. What are some sounds we can use to help him?”
He says, “Three against two is the most healing vibrational rhythm and pitch.” He can put that into somebody’s body and set the body into that rhythm, and they will get well.If you can set the body into a good and healthy vibration, it can start to heal itself.
Rhythm or Pitch?
Well, three against two, if you speed up three against two, it becomes a fifth in music.
The two pitches in a fifth are related to one another vibrationally by a speed of 3 to 2.
The top note is 3 and the bottom note 2.
Joseph Schillinger had a thing called the Rhythmicon that started that. It was one of the first things that if you played that rhythm, it will become actually a fifth.
Once the vibrations get fast enough, this will become the sound of an interval. All the intervals relate to each other like that, as rhythmic ratios. Once you realize this idea, all musical learning becomes connected, I believe.
Sound Becomes Color
If you speed it up. I never quite went up that high, but, yeah, that’s true that they would become a … I don’t know what the fifth relationship of colors are, but there is…the rainbow.
ROY G BIV
That’s where it all ties together, and somewhere in there is where music is. The more we’re in tune with that, the more musical we are, and the more we can respond musically.
Gil talks much more about his perfect pitch, his sense of color to pitch and his favorite piano technique book. You can read the entire transcript and hear the recording in our Musicolor Members area. Not a member? You can apply here.
Visit Gil’s website, or read his book. And here’s a polyrhythm app that Gil recommends.
Here’s a wonderful video of Gil performing an arrangement of his with Bobby McFerrin.