October 19th, 2023

ToneGym Hero: Scott Slotnick

ToneGym Hero: Scott Slotnick

Professor of cognitive neuroscience from Boston, Massachusetts, who is also a passionate musician and composer with a background in various musical instruments. Scott Slotnick is this month's ToneGym Hero!

Who are you, and Where are you from?

I’m Scott, The Greatest American TomeGym Hero, and I don’t have the instruction manual:

I’m 52 years old, and make $ as a professor of cognitive neuroscience. Although I don’t teach much, I spend much of my workday designing experiments (other people program and run them), crunching data, doing administrative duties, and writing scientific articles and books (including ‘Controversies in Cognitive Neuroscience’ and ‘Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory’).

Outside of work, I spend time studying music and making music, hanging with my daughter Sonya, a senior in high school, my wife, and my good friend Preston (another cognitive neuroscientist), along with exercising.

I was born in Southern California (LA) and grew up in Northern California (Oakland), Washington State (rural town, near Seattle), and Ohio (rural town, near Cincinnati). Most of my family are in California, and I love it there, so the short answer, California:

I’d be safe and warm if I were in LA, but since 2001, I’ve lived in Boston (Brookline, MA), where it is VERY cold in the winter (and most people are a bit cold too).

How did you get into music?

When I was a wee lad, I remember banging on our piano for years, but my mother (single-mom household) never thought (or didn’t have money) to get me lessons. She was an incredible singer though, and we sang a lot of old folk tunes as I was growing up including family harmony.

That’s still in there somewhere, which I can tell when I do the ToneGym vocal games (which are mostly easy for me). I played trombone in 5th through 9th grade, practicing diligently for at least an hour every day until the band leader said I had to join marching band or I would get the dreaded B for a grade – no thanks, so I quit.

I turned to my studies and didn’t touch music until teaching myself a little acoustic guitar as an undergraduate, and then in graduate school (studying cognitive neuroscience), I took all the acting classes available at UC Berklee, which involved my acting in many plays and even a musical where I sang a lot.

Cut to 20 years later, after additional scientific training and once I had job security, I started taking electric bass lessons at age 45, at a local jazz school (The John Payne Music Center), so my buddy Preston and I could create a two-man band (he plays electric guitar).

I ended up loving bass and joined a jazz ensemble about 9 months after starting, did that and continued to take bass lessons there for a couple years. I’ve been taking private bass lessons since then, for the last couple of years with an incredible instructor-Danny Morris-who teaches at Berklee Music School, in Boston (and separately took electric guitar and drum lessons during COVID for a couple years each, to understand the fundamental instruments in a rock power trio – also, it’s cool to be able to play all the instruments on a rock song - I usually program drums in Logic, because I can’t play really complex patterns).

A year after starting bass lessons, I started to get a deep interest in music theory, so I took Music Theory 101 at Berklee online, which got me into music composition, I loved theory and composition so much, I have now taken almost every class on music theory and composition that Berklee online has to offer (I’m currently on class number 16, Film Scoring 101). So, I’ve been making music, as in writing music, for a few years now, which I consider my main interest. It is like scientific writing, in that I’m creating something that wasn’t there before, which is very satisfying.

What do you like to do for fun outside of working on music?

I don’t watch sports and I don’t drink, so I’m boring that way. I watch TV with my wife and daughter (currently re-watching Arrested Development) and have always loved movies (and I’m always listening to the score, right). I enjoy exercising, usually every day, either running, weights, or karate.

My daughter got a job at a zip-line and climbing park recently, so I’ve been doing that occasionally for fun too.

What's your most useless skill or talent?

I’m big and tall, 6’5’’ and 240 pounds. Is that a skill?

I’m going to say it is. Very much like Big Bad John, who stood six-foot-six and weighed two-forty-five, and got crushed because of it… or Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, see he stand ‘bout six foot four, but a lot of good that did… or the dude from a land Down Under who was six-foot-four and full of muscle, and I would like to try a Vegemite sandwich.

In my day job and my music endeavors, being big does nothing for me. I tell my daughter, I might as well be a brain in a vat. It does help in karate because people often can’t punch my head, but at work, because I’m big, it is generally assumed I’m dumb, so it’s a wash. 

What inspires you to keep making music?

Music is endless learning, which is my jam (like science, and karate). You can also create something beautiful out of nothing, so it is art (the only kind of art I’m any good at). I also love it when I put music to a video, like a video game or movie scene (maybe someday an entire movie).

You can completely change the emotion of the watcher, the kind of feeling, and the depth of feeling they have, with the chords, melody, and orchestration that you choose. And if something doesn’t sound right, you tweak it, until it is perfect. It’s so powerful and satisfying. Nothing is more fulfilling than that.

If you could sit down to a session with any artist, who would it be?

Brian Wilson. My thinking process is unusual, so I’m regularly told (you should see the chord progressions in my songs), and so is his. It would be incredible to hang with him and compose a song.

Any habits you have before starting a session?

I like to play at least one song from my arsenal to get my fingers warmed up. Apparently, that’s what Eruption (Van Halen) was Eddie, a warmup, until someone hit record. I play a little slower (ha ha) because I prefer 60s/70s rock at a reasonable tempo.

For composing, I like to watch the video clip multiple times and typically start composing with my voice, the basic melody, before I turn to the piano to tweak it with the chords.

What have you been working on lately?

As mentioned above, I’m taking film scoring 101 class at Berklee online. That involves a weekly composition to film clips, solidifying the recently taught techniques (which are learned earlier in the week). It usually takes me a full day, sometimes more, to write a composition I’m satisfied with (they are typically several minutes long and free form).

This is part of the Composing and Orchestrating for Film and TV Professional Certificate, which I am excited to be working on.

If you could pick one, what would be the theme song of your life?

Watsky – Moral of the Story.

I work a lot, and I work hard, not always on my day job, but I’m always working on something. Even when I’m relaxing, I’m doing it in part so I can work hard later (Aristotle wrote in his book Nicomachean Ethics that the purpose of relaxation is to enable us to work hard later). That’s something my mom instilled in me. She didn’t care what grade I got in a class. She just wanted to know, “did you do your best?” I work hard and I relax hard.

What's your favorite musical instrument?

The electric bass is the most important instrument in the band. We define the low end and work with the drummer to give the music its foundation. I think everyone knows this is true : ) Specifically, I have a 2022 Fender American Ultra 5-String with La Bella flat wounds that produces exactly the sound I want. 

What's your favorite ToneGym feature?

I like the daily workout, as doing this makes me feel like I’m always improving my ears. For games, I like interval barks, because that’s how to really test intervallic knowledge, to be able to sing it. And, at level 138 now, it is pushing my range in both directions, which is unexpected and awesome.

Rhythmania is also excellent (I’m at a similar level), as it translates into better site reading of complex scores. I took a Rock Bass class last summer, and without Rhythmania, I would have been lagging, but I was leading the charge!

What does the future hold for Scott? 

Musically, I still have some things to learn about composition for TV and Film, including writing for the full orchestra. After I get that professional certificate, I’m also thinking about getting a master’s degree in interdisciplinary music studies to round out my music education.

I mostly listen to classic rock and alternative rock (nothing contemporary), and I would like to compose in those genres, but I like a LOT of genres. I still have a few years of education to get under my belt before I decide the direction(s) to go. Stay tuned.

You can follow Scott Slotnick on his (work) website and listen to his first cover song (His daughter made the cover-art!)


Comment on this post on ToneGym Community