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Conservatory of Music


They begin with a note, a chord, the tap of a button, or the triggering of a loop: through progressively layered textures, samples, and extended performance techniques, solo cover songs on YouTube often construct themselves piece by piece before the viewer’s eyes and ears. Combining virtuosity and novelty in a package ready-made for viral online popularity, this recent and rapidly growing internet phenomenon draws together traditions old and new, from the “one man band” of the nineteenth century, to the experimental live looping of 1980s performance art, to contemporary electronic music. Building on a number of recent studies that examine the affordances and restrictions of writing and performing music on various instruments, the case studies in this article explore how these YouTube performers use theoretical and instrumental expertise to convey complex textures through a minimal collection of musical materials. In each case, the instruments themselves are arranged, modified, or even created in order to make these performances possible. These videos often incorporate looped or layered elements, arranged to take advantage of a song’s harmonic or rhythmic structures; and they frequently feature customized, self-created, or otherwise unconventional instrumentation. Through their sparse, economic construction, these intricate arrangements are each the end product of a careful analysis of each song, and they have much to teach us about the harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic structures of popular music.


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This item appeared in Music Theory Online in Vol. 28, No. 3 on November 15, 2022. It was authored by William O'Hara (, with whose written permission it is reprinted here.