Timothy's Blog

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

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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Two musical schools of thought in any genre

Music making (and listening) can take two vastly different directions. Which one do you tend to prefer?

One way that is taught and listened for is to play the notes very clearly and consistently and beautifully. (Beautifully, that is, if it's what the genre calls for --- there are exceptions, of course!) If your instrument has vibrato or tremolo, as the flute does, this view calls for a very steady vibrato coupled with an even tone. There is a strong emphasis on the integrity of the melody, and accompaniment may be considered a sort of "wallpaper" for the featured lead instrument. Any ornamentation is to be carefully planned and incorporated.

Notice that I said "play the notes" --- a clue that that isn't my approach --- because the second school of thought is not to "play notes" but to play music! This second view takes a melody and its accompaniment and attempts to reach into the heart of the music behind it, personalizing it and unifying it into a perhaps passionate outpouring that involves countless variations of detail in volume, tone, vibrato, speed, ornamentation --- with the intended result of making it somewhat spontaneous and larger than life and having it move the souls of players and listeners alike.  Each performance of the same piece may seem to be a whole new experience of the music.

Really, it's not even "playing an instrument," this other approach: it's using the instrument to play music!

I would hasten to add that I'm not just advocating self-indulgence, merely using the music to promote or satisfy yourself or the listener; there can (and should) be full respect for the source of the music, hence the careful wording I used above: "reaching into the heart of the music..." and "using the instrument to play music" --- in a sense making yourself a living extension of the original intent of the composer, as an alternative to merely reconstituting the music as exactly as possible (if that is even possible). Two of my favorite Classical musicians were perfect examples of this idea: George Szell and Rudolf Serkin. Serkin even went so far as to say at the height of his fame as a pianist that he didn't even care much for the piano, or himself as a musician, but that he was just trying to get the piano to bring the music as perfectly as possible out into the air! And, surprise, the personal power in his and Szell's playing are great --- not self-serving but tapping into the ultimate meanings more thoroughly.

There actually is a strong element of risk in this approach, since it calls for moment-by-moment personal judgments to be made --- somewhat scary at times, and sometimes causing imperfections from "dwelling at the edge" --- yet music can truly come alive because of this risk!

Two different tastes of Heaven! Consider which you find to be your own mode of expression and interpretation!

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Free improv on the hammered dulcimer or whistle!

Yesterday I posted a blog about using the black keys of the piano to come up with your own music in the common pattern of a pentatonic scale.  But this can be done on any instrument, you know!

My two main instruments are the hammered dulcimer (ancestor of the piano but laid out very differently) and the flute family, which includes the whistle (tinwhistle, pennywhistle), so for players on those instruments let me adapt the idea and you won't have to go to a piano!

The piano's black keys, though they're all flats or sharps, have exactly the same relationship of scale steps as "Do-re-mi, sol-la," or "1-2-3, 5-6," or G-A-B, D-E.

On hammered dulcimer, then, just find the notes G-A-B, D-E and have fun exploring!  Just make sure you stay on those notes (any octave) and don't try any others till you've become sure of how the pentatonic pattern sounds and looks.  You'll find that all the ringing of the hammered dulcimer causes a very pleasant windchime effect with that set of notes!

On whistle (and also on concert flute or bamboo flute, for that matter), you just locate the same set of notes!  I find that the motions of the pentatonic scale are very natural for the fingers, and I can sound very virtuosic when doing something very simple!  D and E are at the bottom of the range of a whistle, but G tends to sound like the main scale step (the "tonic" or "root").   For the note D you put all six fingers down on the holes, then lift the rightmost one for E, lift two more fingers for G, then one more for A and one more for B (now only one finger is down), and start mixing and matching these fingerings and you'll find yourself coming up with real music!

Please try this!  It is one of the most freeing and quickly satisfying skills you will ever have!  Why, you can carry a whistle while hiking in the mountains and pull it out during a rest break and listen to the pentatonic scale reflect off the trees, or pass by the dulcimer in the living room and grab the hammers and fill the room with beauty for a few seconds...

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You can improvise --- yes, you! Free Improvisation on the Black Keys

Even if you don't know anything about music, you can be a musician immediately --- really!

There is a very common idea out there that says that only people with special gifts can make music, and that only extremely rare folks have that added mystical ability to compose and improvise music that has never been done before.

Well, there is a certain measure of truth in that, as there is about giftedness in all areas --- but I disagree with the word "only"!  Music has a structure that will do all sorts of things for you if you just let it.  And the simplest introduction to this is something I still enjoy after a lifetime of improvising:

Look at a piano keyboard.  You'll see that the black keys are arranged in a repeating pattern of twos and threes.  If you play all the twos you'll see that they're all the same two notes, just different by being in higher and lower octaves.  The same is true of the threes, too.  Well, combine a set of twos with a neighboring set of threes, and you'll get a nice-sounding combination of five notes that happens to be the most universally popular scale of all time --- a "pentatonic" (five-note) scale.  (Some very famous tunes use that very scale, such as "Amazing Grace.")

Now you have the structure of music at your disposal, and you can make nice music without knowing anything else!

Pick three or four notes (technically we call this a "motif"), say, the bottom of the group of three keys and then the two of the two-key group.  Play those three notes twice in a row, then repeat them in the opposite order, then back to the first, then add one of the other notes you hadn't played yet, or change one of the notes, and just start wandering around on the black keys and occasionally returning to the first set of notes you played.  You will probably start hearing a new free-form melody emerging!  It may even seem surprisingly organized, and very likely quite pretty.

Keep experimenting:  Try a new set of notes, or a new rhythm, a new speed, whatever you feel like.  Maybe two different notes at the same time.

I'm aware, too, that some people are expert musicians who have, say, played wonderful Chopin on the piano all their lives but have never tried a single note that's not from a master's written page.  This concept is just as freeing for them as for novices!

And now for one last idea: Can you, even at this stage of new improvising, make music that says something special, that creates a certain mood, that moves your very own soul?

I do think so!

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