When in 1995 I composed ‘Sky Through the Pines’ (originally ‘Such a Gift’) I envisioned it as a sung song with guitar or as an instrumental ensemble piece with guitar, hammered dulcimer, flute, and other instruments; both versions were recorded, in 1996 and then 2002, and the latter was released on the album Sycamore Rapids.  But I never imagined playing it as a solo --- and was frustrated that I couldn’t play it again except on a CD player!

In 2000 I began developing my new stylized method of separated-hand solo hammered dulcimer playing, and at first limited it to quite simple tunes to keep it manageable.  Then the occasion came, for a couple of weddings, to arrange Beatles pop ballads in such a manner.  Many of us agree, I think, that some of the finest of the pop ballads are by those guys, and they have a sort of pure simplicity that ought to go well with my separated-hand technique!

Well, it turned out instead that ‘I Will’ (I used Alison Krauss’s interpretation) and ‘In My Life’ were exceedingly difficult pieces to arrange and play.  There was a lot of nauseating struggle involved, but I limpingly got those two gems done for the wedding settings (and have hardly played them again since the mid-2000s). 

Then several years ago I resolved to try to develop a solo arrangement of ‘Sky Through the Pines,’ and I ran across very similar difficulties, so I looked for reasons!  I found three factors that operate simultaneously throughout this piece as well as the Beatles’ ones, and I think this three-fold combination is a large part of what makes the pieces appealing to me (and worth the trouble, at least in the case of my own compositions)!

1)   Big jumps in the melody at many points.  Rather than progress naturally through motions that follow the scale and/or chords, as many melodies do, there are charming leaps upward or downward, such as from the 3rd scale step up to the octave, or from a high 3rd step to the 5th step in the octave below.

2)   Constant chord changes.  Instead of remaining on one major chord for a measure or two, there is a continual shifting back and forth from chord to chord as well as the use of numerous minor chords in a major key.

3)   Lots of syncopation.  The melody and accompaniment continually work rhythmically off each other; for the most part the chording (in the right hand on the dulcimer) is nailing the downbeat, while the melody is purposely coming in at comfortable but sophisticated moments other than the downbeat.  I think the typical timing for the melody is just a bit early, before the beat, yet at some important points it joins the beat.

So this simple analysis has helped me understand one way to make music interesting and charming!  Hard work can really be worth it at times if a context like this makes it understandable.

If you want to see what I’m talking about, take a look at this solo version of ‘Sky Through the Pines’ and search for these three elements as they intertwine!