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I love theory

I mean music theory, here. It is funny that what goes by the name music theory would be, in literature, the equivalent of prosody and plot c...

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

I love theory

I mean music theory, here. It is funny that what goes by the name music theory would be, in literature, the equivalent of prosody and plot construction, not "theory" as it is known to literature folks. (And not in the third sense of a scientific theory meaning a strong and empirically testable explanation that accounts for a set of phenomena in the natural world.) Although classical performers study theory in conservatory, many of them find it unexciting. To write or improvise music, though, you are always thinking about what the chords are. I am constantly making duh discoveries, like the fact that the pentatonic minor scale will have the same notes as the pentatonic major scale of the relative major. It seem kind of obvious, but I just discovered this this week. I also discovered that I was using pentatonic scales in melodies without knowing what it is I was doing.

I like working in Dflat (five flats) for some reason. I think it is because it has chords unrelated to C, so that if I combine those two keys, then I have about 20 chords under my fingers, if I include modulations to other keys related to these two keys, tritone substitutions, secondary dominants... I don't have to learn 12 keys really well; I can have about 3 or 4 I know pretty well and I have most if it covered.

Someone was asking how to memorize all the chords. You don't memorize them, you learn them in relationships to other chords and keys. You know them. If you tried to memorize them by rote out of all context it would be much harder.  A harmonic context distant from C major is simply a different context, where things have a different meaning, but where the relationships are completely commensurate.

A musical composition has to make sense to me, melodic, rhythmic, structural, and harmonic. I have to work on it until it all fits together. The surprising thing is that I know how to do this, that I knew how from my first song, and that more sophisticated harmonies do not make my songs necessarily any better. They are just fun to compose in their own way.  

Everyone who listens to music knows what melody is and can recognize one or have one stuck in the head. There is no actual criterion for what a good melody is except for one that someone responds to subjectively as a melody.  We can say objectively that some music is more complexly organized or longer, but can we say that the Beatles's "Michelle" is better or worse than some other melody that a lot of people like as much? There are melodies from Bach I don't think are great, and others that are.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


I don't base a melody on scale. What I do sometimes is choose one note and play it against chord progression.  It will have a different function depending on what the chords are underneath. Then I can see where that note wants to go at various times, and how it wants to move rhythmically.  If you are thinking of a scale then you are thinking of a chord as statically there for a long time allowing you to create scalar patterns with it, but the chord progression is always moving, even when it is not. Melody has to move horizontally, even when it repeats the same note. I've watched some youtube videos and they say: "don't do this" [plays a scale from top to bottom or bottom to top].  Well no. That's obvious, though of course classical composers do that sometimes.

  If you play a pentatonic scale though it is almost automatically melodic [plays first line of someone to watch over me]. That means leaving out the 4th and the 7th. You can put the seventh back in as a passing tone and you have all you need. You can melodize all day long and never have to use the 4th.

What I feel missing in discussions of melody is the idea of lilt.  This is not up or down, or down then up or up then down, but an engaging "up-down" contour that catches the ear at a certain angle.

Take Ornette's "Latin Genetics" in the last post. The A sections of the tune consists of a series of 7 chords arpeggiated in a downward movement to the same five note rhythm, with another down-up phrase at the end, played twice.  It has a nice lilt to it and part of this is the lack of movement in the first three notes of the motif.  The other part is you never know whether the next phrase will start or end lower or higher than the previous one.  The tune sounds both simplistic and unexpected.

Ornette Coleman - Latin Genetics

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A trick

Take a Bb minor pentatonic scale

[Bb Db Eb F Ab]

Now play these over a progression in the key of Db major. You will find that these notes work well over the chords I IV V ii and vi.  Probably iii and vii as well, though I haven't explored these as much. There is some tension in the tritone sub.

If you play an F minor pentatonic you also get a good set of notes to play in this key.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


What bugs me about this is that it is an application of English-language concepts of gender to a word in Spanish.

So in Spanish you would say: "literatura latina." That would be literature written by Latinos and Latinas: the adjective modifies the noun, which happens to be feminine in gender. The x is a way of neutering the gender. If the noun happened to be feminine, then you would say "feminismo latino."

From the perspective of speaking English, gender is only applied to persons and animals with a designated sex. So people think of Latino / Latina as only applying to people. Hence you need to say "Latinex" to keep things gender neutral. The word was invented by someone who doesn't think in Spanish.

Monday, November 27, 2017

La La Land

I saw this movie about a jazz pianist, La La Land. There wasn't a hip jazz piano lick in the whole movie. It was a highly acclaimed movie and won awards for its music--which sucked to high heavens.

Razor's Edge

 As part of my project "razor's edge" I outlined my goals as related to music. As you can see, it is not just "get to be a better piano player," but a good deal more than that. I basically want to retire to being a songwriter, as my full time hobbyjob, in 10 years time. I started this project in Sept. 2015, without knowing that it was the start of something. I figure need to be about 80% of where a truly good pianist is, though that is a nebulous concept because 80% of what, exactly?  For me it might mean playing tastefully and tastily within my particular technical limits. I'm about 30% now, realistically. Writing out these goals makes me realize that I need to focus on one thing, like mastering Sibelius, that is holding me back from other things.   

Overall goal:

Be a songwriter able to play and sing my own songs in public and to record own cds. 

Specific Goals

Play piano and sing at 80% level
Compose at 90% level
Record cds of my music

Steps already taken

Write songs  
Take voice lessons
Take piano lessons
Establish piano practice routine
Learn to read lead sheets / basic jazz triadic voicings
Acquire keyboard
Join choir and participate in performances
Experiment with recording self in library
Perform in talent show
Begin to improvise walking bass lines and “rhythm changes”
Use phone app to notate leads sheets of own songs

Next steps

Master Sibelius software
Go to open mics
Improve reading / sight-reading
Work on lyric writing / have lyrics for at least 5 songs

Further Steps

Learn quartal voicings / jazz comping at a fluid level
Improve ear and listening ability
Improvise at high level
Play more with other musicians 
Learn arranging / more sophisticated compositional techniques
More advanced and detailed knowledge of harmony
Write for SATB or other formats 
Lose fear of other recording technologies