Music theory can be a difficult beast to tame – many struggle with it, and some musicians give up on it entirely. Fortunately, there are “public nerds” out there who have made it their job to make music theory accessible and engaging for non-musicians…
David Kulma has made a name for himself with Music Corner, where he creates humorous, fast-paced videos to help people learn music theory. With clear explanations, practical examples, and a healthy amount of jokes, Music Corner has helped countless musicians recognize that music theory can be exciting and relevant to their practice.
However, this is far from his only musical endeavour – he also holds two music degrees, has taught music at three universities, and currently composes solo and as part of Trystero, who are soon releasing their own unexpected spin on opera!
Musical U got the chance to sit down with David to find out about the creative process behind his unforgettable videos, how he found himself in various areas of the music world, and the meaning of being a self-professed “public music nerd”.
I’ve been trained as a classical oboist. I took piano lessons as a young kid and also played percussion in school before switching to oboe just before I turned 12. I listened to the Beatles almost exclusively while in middle school, but became focused on classical music as a teenager and decided to be an orchestral conductor before I went to college.
While getting an undergrad in oboe at Kent State University and studying conducting with my college orchestra director, I decided to take composition lessons. I had composed a little before then, but I found I really enjoyed it. After giving up my conducting aspirations and aborting a masters in the oboe at Boston University, I returned to Kent to get a masters in music theory, which ended up as a masters in music composition.
While there I taught a section of the freshman music theory classes for two years and expected to get a doctorate later. Since deciding not to continue my education, I’ve variously been a freelance musician of some kind. I’ve taught at various colleges and universities as a part-time adjunct teaching academic music classes (I’m currently finishing up my last semester at Winthrop University), I play oboe gigs as they come to me (opera, musicals, less and less church gigs), I compose some in my free time, and I perform strange avant-garde things with my friend Dorian Wallace when we have time together.
All in all, my journey as a musician hasn’t been anything close to what I planned while in school, but it has been a very interesting one!
I was watching the Vlogbrothers’ Crash Course series and CGP Grey’s videos on YouTube, and it occurred to me that I could make something like these about music. I started making those other videos to teach myself how to do it. I’ve always been searching for a way to connect people with musical knowledge, which our society has chosen to not teach our children.
When most people discuss music intellectually, they talk about lyrics, because they learned how to examine words. But most people in our society don’t know how to examine musical sounds.
Is there a way to speak to grownups and teenagers about music that is interesting and also somewhat technical that gets the ideas across? My videos are an attempt to talk to people more deeply about music.
My process is rather time-consuming – finding a topic is surprisingly hard. I’m trying to avoid the most basic of musical ideas, because plenty of other people have videos that are about reading bass clef, playing simple chords, and the like. So, I’m looking for something more exciting that meets people at a deeper level of understanding.
Once I’ve chosen a topic, I draft a script, which I then edit to within an inch of its life. I try to say as much as possible in a short amount of time, while still being understandable. Keeping the fast pace I’m looking for means that there can be no lulls. it’s time consuming. In fact, the reviews have been asking me to make videos faster. It hasn’t worked, because of how much listening time I need!
As I’ve said, I’m not aiming to teach the basics. I want to connect what I think are understandable ideas to larger, more important things. Learning music theory basics is extremely tedious and requires lots of memorization that even the music majors I teach choose to avoid.
So, “music theory” ends up being defined in our culture as literally learning the vocabulary and grammar of a language rather than what you would do with a book: read it and discuss ideas. As someone with a graduate degree in music, I know that music is just as intellectually and psychologically complex and as deserving of exploration as anything else one can study, but most people never get far enough with music education to talk about ideas. My experience teaching graduate students in music even shows how much musicians are hampered by our lack of extensive musical education. So how do we get to the ideas?
My “Smooth Chords” video is applying an idea: moving one note in a chord to make a new one:
It’s a simple one, but it’s rarely explored in our musical educations. This musical technique creates a lot of “uncanny” progressions that are often used for magical moments in 19th century music. I wanted to introduce people to a method that creates different sounds, and that are not limited to what usually gets taught. How can I break into the interesting stuff about music and how can we talk about it?
I start with an idea any adult could understand, and see if I can explain it in a way that doesn’t require them to know what a minor sixth is. And if it does, then I just give you as little as you need to get there. People have lots of intuitive musical understanding, but what they don’t have is the intellectual framework to discuss it. I’m trying to bypass everyone getting graduate degrees in music, to talk about what is cool about it beyond any lyrics.
I’ve been fascinated with creating music through setting up a structure and then filling it in. I wanted to create something fast and exciting that was constantly changing, but also kind of spinning its wheels. It’s more about setting up a universe to live in, rather than a narrative of tension and release:
So to do this, I have to come up with a few numbers to define when the music will change and then decide what changes occur when each number happens. Once you’ve set up the parameters, you really just sit and write the piece down. Now, I generally know what the result will be, and the music still has my own particular voice because of the notes I limit everything to, but it involves very little of my intuition. My intuition would prefer to tell a story and have climaxes. To create a universe, I have to take a step back and consider everything more abstractly. Either way, I think the virtuosic piano sounds of Blink work really well for the purpose of zapping in and out of my fast-paced videos.
Dorian and I as a duo call ourselves Trystero, where we perform a melange of strange mixtures of spoken-word-like singing and free improvisation alongside other things as we see fit. Our collaboration is based around making each other’s ideas more unusual and singular. For example, Dorian had us write a 24-hour meditation piece:
We also wrote a weird album in my living room in two days. Our work together is always outside of what either of us could do separately.
I also have been working on making my own videos, which have variously been educational, silly, or artistic. For a couple of years I was making short videos I called Surreality, and I made one a day for 500 days straight. This had me writing a surprising number of weird songs and various kinds of soundtrack music. I worked on creating my own solo spoken-word, animated videos where I made everything myself (which I hope to make more of!) called Broken Links. Both of these are on my personal YouTube channel. The still-continuing project is the educational one, Music Corner, where I talk about music. Most of these have been animated music theory videos. The most recent four are album reviews.
Most people don’t know the composer Robert Ashley. You don’t need to know his magnum opus, Perfect Lives, to enjoy my work, but you do if you want to understand where I’m coming from.
Perfect Lives is an opera for television Ashley and his amazing collaborators made back in the late 70s and early 80s. Ashley speaks, intones, and cajoles his own text over a largely improvised musical accompaniment by “Blue Gene” Tyranny and Peter Gordon to surreal video made by John Sanborn. It’s about a bank heist, but only tangentially. Dorian and I have performed this work live in full twice where I perform the text from memory. It’s a ludicrous, yet deeply moving spectacle where even I don’t even know what is going to happen!
Dorian has wanted to us to write our own television opera out of this since we started working on Perfect Lives back in 2011. After a few false starts where I became the default librettist, I finally managed to write the 2 ½ hour text for Stories from the Microchasm, which is meant for YouTube.
There will be 12 ten-minute episodes, 6 one-to-two minute shorts, and 6 songs. Dorian and I have performed a few chunks from it, but more importantly the amazing video artist who worked on Perfect Lives, John Sanborn, came into our lives and is directing the opera. Dorian got some money from Experiments in Opera for us to create the pilot, the short, and the song. It was screened at the Anthology Film Archives, which was reviewed by the New York Times and the New York Observer.
The plot comes down to a character I play called “The Fabulist” who is telling a bunch of confused and disconnected stories about how weird and strange our technological world is. The audience we performed it for laughed at many of the jokes, so I think it’ll work. I look forward to finishing the opera when Dorian has finished his music therapy licensure.
Q: Now that’s how opera should be done!
Aside from your vast experience writing music and making videos, you have also made great contributions to the academic side of music. How did you get into writing textbooks?
I wouldn’t say I got into it. I’m not at all involved in the industry that makes money off the backs of students. I helped write the textbook for Kent State’s freshman music theory classes, because while I was a graduate assistant teaching there, my teaching partner Meghan Naxer (who is now a professor at Kent) talked our professor into letting us (including Jason Clark and Krystal Kuhns) write a new textbook.
Kent has its own second year theory sequence that goes chronologically from the Middle Ages to about 1975 or so. We were trying to use the Kostka/Payne theory book in the first year, which is built for a two-year sequence, but we skimmed across the top of it in one year. It was a ludicrous, but very helpful experience to learn how to build a course from the bottom up and have to then design our own assignments.
Since I knew how to do that, when I was teaching at Winthrop and getting very frustrated with the Roig-Francoli book that we used, I decided to create my own online resource, which is similar to a kind of textbook, since I already learned how to do it.
Flippin’ Theory! was specifically designed to help my own teaching as a supplement to Harmony in Context, so that I could better explain concepts and focus my students’ attention. Sifting through an academic textbook for important information is difficult if you’re the person teaching the class; students have an even harder time. I can save a lot of heartache by writing it up myself.
I actually always had trouble remembering how to spell it myself, and after grading enough quizzes and tests where there aren’t enough G’s or P’s, or missing the I, I figured that creating a song video would work well. I found myself singing over and over the melody I came up for spelling the word, so I had an earworm. Then I sat and animated it to make a video. Now I can always spell it right.
This is a recent change to my website bio. I’ve been trying to find ways for a long time to talk to nonmusicians about music, while keeping it intellectually stimulating. I specifically designed a class on rock and popular music at Winthrop so I could teach nonmusic majors, and I’ve been making these videos practically for free for a while now. So, it appears I’m interested in being a public intellectual, but I wanted a more interesting term that would better fit my weird persona. I’m a nerdy white guy with glasses, so I’ve had to be willing to own my nerdiness.
Musicians don’t need walking music encyclopedias, regular people do. Is there a way to make learning about music as fun and necessary as learning about science? Neil deGrasse Tyson is a person I think about when I define a “public nerd.”
To be more straightforward about your question, I think there is a need for people who can connect musical knowledge to the wider world, because most of the people who know about this stuff end up preaching to the choir. Bass clefs and part-writing are important, but will only get you so far. How we got bass clefs and why we still part-write are far more interesting riddles.
On preaching to the choir, NewMusicBox is a wonderful webzine where “new classical music” practitioners talk to each other. I want there to be people who talk to everyone else. I’m personally ambivalent about me being this person, but in a way most of my work is an attempt at reaching people outside my bubble.
Q: Considering the importance of musical education, it’s so important to make it accessible for “non-musicians” and the wider world!
How do you see the present and future of contemporary classical music for composers, musicians, and audiences?
The present is so multifarious that I can’t get ahold of everything. There is so much music that it’s impossible to know what everyone else is doing. This is a good thing in many ways, but it also means that when you go to a concert of “contemporary classical music,” you have no idea what will happen. You have no grounding as an audience member. Every single musical style that has been created since Wagner still exists as a living tradition. I make music in a post-John Cage aesthetic that sounds nothing like Cage.
It’s hard to draw aural connections. So, I can’t predict the future, because I don’t know the present!
In lieu of that, I’ll give you what I wish. I wish that people still argued musical ideology. There are many ways that the current stylistic tolerance is wonderful. Everyone can “do what they want.” But this obscures the ways that we all disagree over how music should or should not be made and what role it should play in our society. As composers and “contemporary classical” musicians, we have to do the work of inviting people who don’t necessarily look like us into our circles, and more importantly, being open to changing our culture and music so that they will stay and thrive. Inclusion that doesn’t involve musical stylistic change is just tokenism, diversity initiatives, and yearly Martin Luther King Jr. concerts. We have to be willing to change the music to build a better society.
The number of people who have a career in composing is infinitesimal. Everyone I know does something else to make money. Even John Adams and John Williams conduct as a means of getting their work out! As a person who composes for their own pleasure and does what I can to get by, I can’t really tell anyone there is such a thing as a career in it. Bach had to teach Latin to his choir boys as part of one of his jobs. Real life is too complex to build a life doing only composing.
I don’t really like advice in terms of me telling you what to do with your life. I’ve been an adult now for 14 years and I still don’t know what to do with my life! I’m about to move from South Carolina back to Cleveland, Ohio so my wife can take over a musical instrument repair business, so I find myself at a crossroads.
In the end, here’s what I can say: make decisions that you believe are the right decisions for yourself, so that when they blow up in your face you can tell yourself that you did what you thought was best. If they work, you can celebrate. Every time I’ve made a life choice where I relied too heavily on other people’s opinions, I was really upset when things went wrong. And when they went right, I wasn’t sure I still wanted to do it.
Be honest with yourself and know that a lot of stuff won’t work. It has taken me years to figure out what kind of artistic work I want to make, and I still question this every day. I’ll leave you with a line from a beautiful John Lennon song that I can’t get out of my head these days: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
David’s willingness to try new things, go with his gut, and experiment have resulted in a rich, fulfilling music career. Take his advice, and make the decisions you feel are right with respect to your music journey – even if you don’t end up where you thought you would, you’ll have learnt some valuable lessons for the future!