ArtistWorks Blog

Thoughts on Turntablism by Alex Sonnenfeld

Hey what’s up folks - this is Alex Sonnenfeld from Berlin, Germany. Since 2011 I’ve been a Guest Professor at Qbert Skratch University and also have published around 400 tutorials on Turntablism which you can check out on my YouTube channel (Tonspielzeug). I am reaching out to the Turntablism community in hopes that some of you may be interested to work with me on some related upcoming projects.

After 15 years of research and practical training on Turntablism, in 2011 I published Bewegungslehre as a German eBook. I developed this 300 page thesis in order to provide the first musical analysis of Turntablism, based on a written system called “S-Notation” -  which follows the orthographical rules of classical music notation in order to be able to “communicate” with “traditional” musicians outside of Turntablism.

Pic 1: Drum Scratching pattern by D-Styles

drum scratching pattern by d-styles

For education and scientific purposes, S-Notation provides a base formula to transcribe all the different playing techniques using a turntable and fader in detail. Aside from the classification of these techniques, my analysis also addresses all parameters of music such as volume, panorama, and frequency. After all, instrumental process engineering with the sound quality and space movement are equal architects of the musical work which serve and lead to unexpected possibilities.

Another important content of this work is the acoustical analysis of crossfader techniques, as well as specific record movements on a turntable.

Pic 2: Excerpt of the thesis "Bewegungslehre" on acoustic analysis of fader techniques

turntablism theses alex sonnenfeld

My notation system and thesis can be helpful to teach Turntablism/DJing and make this form of art more transparent for others in the field of contemporary music.

In this open letter I would like to share with you some personal thoughts about the current state of Turntablism, hoping that some of you may be interested to work with me in the future.

In my opinion, Turntablism & DJing are some of the most influential trademarks of 21st century music culture. Many music genres (Electronic Music, Hip Hop, Dub, IDM) were formed and influenced by turntable musicians. DJs have been entertaining millions of people every night around the globe for decades, and although DJ equipment is a billion dollar industry, it is still not possible to study “the art of playing samples by hand“ at a traditional music university. I think this should be one of the next steps for Turntablism, and would be valuable for the music industry which is still in a fledgling stage.

One of the most notable experiences with college graduates or musicians who play other instruments is the aspect of socialization. This kind of interaction helps enormously to expand their general knowledge of music making and advance their playing skills in big strides. Learning how to integrate the different playing techniques of Turntablism (drumming, tone scratching, juggling, etc.) within the context of other music genres is necessary for the turntable to be perceived as a serious instrument for making music - and not just as a device to create “strange comic sounds” (which is unfortunately the view of many people when they think about scratching).

Turntablists who also have studied other classical instruments often gain excellent skills like timing and harmony of music as a result of their training (Example: 6-times world champion DJ Rafik). They can perform new patterns easily due to their musical competence, and this is a result of methodic training and professionalism. Therefore it would be an amazing enhancement for a turntablist to have experience playing other instruments (for instance piano or drums to build up rhythmical skills or scale-knowledge), or to formally study any aspect of contemporary music.

A rigorous education in traditional music disciplines (music theory, ear training, composition, producing, etc.) can break new ground of awareness for the player, which enhances their development of stylistic depth, creative maturity and professional competence to enter the contemporary music industry.

On the other hand, we need to keep in mind that a concentrated study of music is not only valuable for turntablists or DJs. It is likewise beneficial for traditional musicians to help straighten out the current view on Turntablism and to bring this form of art more and more into the public focus. Most of the non-scratchers are curious when they see a scratch performance – but then quickly get bored. One of the reasons is that they do not understand the practical conversion (rhythmical correspondence between record and fader motion) and due to this they can’t find a way to link the sound with the performance of the turntablist.

You know it very well that it takes a while to learn “how to hear scratching“ and most of the time this happens after you understand the basics of the corresponding gestures. But this lack of understanding for most of the people is a result of such a short history of Turntablism compared with more familiar instruments like piano or drums.

Nevertheless, on YouTube you can frequently hear super fast scratching performances, but a lot of the time they lack musicality and timing. These “sxratchnerds” start their education on the instrument by practicing complicated combos to impress others – without first taking the time to master fundamentals like stabs and record control. This is basically a result of unorganized / non-systematical training and wrong objectives. The same thing would happen if you went to a gym without knowing how to properly use the equipment - you will never get the maximum effect if you don’t know which exercises to do.

So we need a professional instruction course on music theory (knowledge about the DNA & “muscles” of music …lol) in which you can choose exercises for particular needs. This guarantees a standardized and consequent level of playing strategies on record & crossfader in which you can work focused on gaining strength in your movements.

I know some of you may think this could be the end of improvisation or death of the soul of scratch music … but please give it a second thought. We deal with music here which means that the “theory” part constitutes nothing more than the essential knowledge which is a basis for effectively communicating with all types of musicians on a level playing field.

Opponents of any notation argue that the best method of analyzing and memorizing a scratch is by studying the audio; in such a case one might use waveforms to indicate the acoustical result of a pattern in detail.  But S-Notation is a language to describe the motions on the turntable/mixer for the purpose of faster comprehension. You could spend hours analyzing videos on YouTube, or you study this document which breaks down all scratch techniques.

Pic 3: Chronology of Turntablism (download @ http://k-urz.de/1eb1)

Beside this stark simplification of the learning process and understanding the practical application on the instrument, S-Notation provides a systematic classification of all the possible playing strategies on the turntable and fader, which are essential to use in a teaching curriculum. In other words: if the combination of a mixer and record player is considered to be a musical instrument in modern music, then it should be theoretically possible to define all basic courses of action in a similar and exact method, as is possible with traditional musical instruments.

Additionally, should the immeasurable variety of all known (and yet to be discovered) Scratch techniques be from the same functional connection and decoded from a single technical formula? Of course it is theoretically possible, like in mathematics, to form derivatives for (all) new Scratch techniques or even combos. Since the physical action on record players and mixers is basically the same, the correspondence of rhythmic movements and procedures on the record players and the sliding controls of the mixer are also the same. Therefore this instrumental process engineering must be subject to an order, the principle of which should be possible to understand, used and applied correctly!

What types of results can we expect by including Turntablism in music universities? Besides gaining a universal and professional education in music theory, it could be a tremendous possibility for turntablists that could lead to opening more doors to work within music. Whether it’s working as a music teacher, music scientist or as a skilled musician in a band/ orchestra – they would be able to communicate and add value to the creative process.

I know many guys (me including) who spent so much of their lifetime obsessed with Turntablism, then at some of the point the day comes when you have to financially handle your private life and pay bills for your kids & family. That is one of the reasons why many fantastic turntable musicians leave the scene when they become older, due to the lack of prospects to turn their scratching passion into payable projects or steady jobs. This is a loss that I think can be avoided.

One of the most popular and common ways to deal with that problem is to win a DJ Championship. In such case you have big chance to sign with a good booking agency and get some lucrative engagements as a club or tour DJ. But there are lots of amazing talents out there who are not specifically battle cats or party DJs and still make beautiful music using turntables as their instrument.

A degree in musical studies of Turntablism could open new possibilities. We would see new qualities in turntable music making, and it would facilitate collaborating with traditional musicians, thus providing a counterweight for the currently prevailing commercial focus of the culture.

My thesis is not a panacea but rather a specific suggestion to define Turntablism in the context of contemporary music science. Unfortunately, this 300-page book is only available in German at the moment. I am planning to translate an abstract of 30 pages from this book for different purposes as listed below:

Pic 4: Thesis, “Bewegungslehre“

thesis by alex sonnenfeld on turntablism

  • Public relation activities (reviews music science magazines, websites)
  • Contact to Music Universities worldwide to build up course of studies 
  • Speeches/Workshops/Tutorials on Turntablism
  • Translation into other languages based on the English version
  • Educational material for DJ schools worldwide

My question for the Turntablism community is:

Who would like to help me out with the translation and visual design of the English version? My English is not good enough to do it myself, but is sufficient to work-out a rough translation of the German abstract. It would be really great if you could revise the document once drafted.

Once finished with creation of the document, maybe some of you would be also willing to get in contact with music universities in your country and give speeches or workshops on Turntablism. I would be help you in this process and provide with required valuable input (demonstration videos, notational examples, thesis, etc.).

For all who are interested, please check my YouTube Channel or the S-Notation site and have a look on the different contents of my work and what I have already done.

Also please check the interviews I have done with ArtistWorks:

For further information don't hesitate to contact me on Facebook or via Email: [email protected]

Thanks for your time and many greetings from Berlin.  - Alex

qbert skratch university logo

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