Timothy's Blog

Timothy's blog on dulcimers, music, nature and life!

Three features of Beatles ballads

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!

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Musical modes are the same as scales!

Sometimes we hear musicians say things like "That's a modal tune" or "That's in a minor key, but one note's different," etc.  Let's talk about what that means!

In the Middle Ages and earlier, music was essentially just melody and rhythm, with no harmony, and besides that the instruments could play in only one key.  (I find the no-harmony thing hard to imagine, but that's what music historians say.)  To get variety and color in the music, then, one thing musicians did was to set up a system of "modes" using that single-key scale.  And the mode system is used in most music today as well.  This is actually very easy to understand, and it's a helpful thing to know if you play music yourself!

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The scale, the melody, the chords, and time!

The scale, the melody, the chords, and time!

Often people think of music design as a mysterious, arcane art that can only be done by gifted geniuses who just have a special knack --- or, alternatively, that new music (improvisation or composition) can be made only by highly trained technical experts.  Not really!  There are only a few basic concepts that make it all come together, and here's what I've seen as a lifelong improviser:

1) Everything in normal "tonal" music is built out of a diatonic (do-re-mi) scale: seven scale steps in an octave, and nothing more.  In elementary school music or elsewhere I hope you've gotten the chance to hear that that scale is a "whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step," easily seen in the key of C on the piano.

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