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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This is not the first day of spring!

Don't believe your calendar!  This is not the "first day of spring."

Alright, I'm just making a soapbox speech here --- but it bugs me that people call this day what it isn't.

Today is the Vernal Equinox, or the Spring Equinox: the sun is at a particular midpoint in its ecliptic in relation to the equator, and the sunrise and sunset are exactly twelve hours apart.  "Equinox" literally means "equal night" in Latin.  

Spring is a climatic season that varies every year and at every location; it's not a specific calendar time!
I have no idea who thought he or she had the authority to pronounce that today is the first day of spring, and I don't know why calendar publishers do what they do, but let's face the facts and question that unidentified "authority"!

Let's rightly call it the Spring Equinox!


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The beautiful sound of a hammered dulcimer's triangular shapes

Do you walk past your hammered dulcimer sometimes, deciding not to play it because you feel that working on a tune would just be more work than you need right now?

Then don't work on a tune! Just mess around with beautiful sounds without a definite plan! The hammered dulcimer is perfect for that!

Three-note chords on the dulcimer come in triangular shapes. The only simple skill needed to get a gorgeous sound is to coordinate your right and left hammers into a simple shape, say, R on bass bridge, then L on right side of treble bridge, then R just above that, then back to L on the same course it had just done --- thus the only movement is the R hammer, and the L is playing the same note in between the R notes. Repeat over and over on those same notes for a while.

A specific example of a regular chord would be the notes D-F#-A-F# (R-L-R-L). If you repeat this for a while it gives you a beautiful D major chord. But don't think specifics! Think shapes! A major or minor chord shape is the triangle described here, but there are also lots of other shapes.

If you make the triangle more acute by playing courses right next to each other on the treble bridge part, it sounds "natury" and impressionistic (like G-D-E-D); if you spread that part of the triangle farther apart, it sounds more hollow and stark --- say, if you play all marked courses, like the notes G-D-G-D or any shapes of that kind.

Then try all sorts of other triangular shapes and listen for the interesting sounds.

You may want eventually to develop one of these explorations into a finished composition that you come back to and maybe you'll even perform it for others! BUT what I want to encourage you to do here is to to break away from a project-driven mentality and develop a sense of freedom and joy in the moment --- and you can do it at any time with no sense of pressure, thus you will be playing your dulcimer and enjoying it at any time!

Don't walk past the dulcimer!

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Recommended Classical recordings

Recommended Classical recordings

[Photo: George Szell in the 1950s]

Throughout my life I have listened seriously to Classical music recordings, trying to absorb the structure, beauty, depth and expression of the greatest works as played by those who appeal the most to my own tastes and passions. As a result, during the time since about 1955 I’ve come to the conclusion that the following recordings are among the most inspiring, and for reasons that I can delineate if asked! This is not at all a comprehensive list of the only great works or the only great performances (and there are varying degrees of greatness among these) --- but here’s a starting point for ideas I’d like to share with you if you’re interested! (I must add that over time Bach and Beethoven have become my most favorite composers --- I believe there’s a real reason they’ve been so popular for so long!) I invite any comments of your own.

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