Tabletop drummer

Not billiard balls, but balls nonetheless!
Not billiard balls, but balls nonetheless!

This post is a further exploration of one of the tricks mentioned in a grain of sand: coming up with a rhythmic idea devoid of any pitch content.

There is a legend, quite possibly not apocryphal, because the game of billiards was indeed one of his hobbies (another apparently being the collection of bathroom graffiti while on tours throughout Europe which he detailed in letters to his father), that Mozart would sometimes use the rhythmic pattern of the clicking of the balls in a break as the generation of rhythmic motives.

But, unless you’re a billiards or lawn bowling player (hmmm… shuffleboard would work too, wouldn’t it?!), you’ve undoubtably given into the urge to spontaneously tap out a rhythm on the tabletop of a diner while waiting for a 2 a.m. breakfast, or, possibly scat sing one like THIS. For this discussion, we’ll use my vocalized motive heard in that example.

The next step can be tough for someone without formal ear-training–but it’s doable with some effort and free software–and that’s turning that improvisation into written music notation. Either of those methods, however, depend on one basic skill: memory. Develop the skill of remembering exactly what you just improvised so you can repeat it exactly, over and over until you’ve sussed out the notation of the rhythm.

Developing this skill has other applications, too. There’s a technique used in certain types of pop vocals where the artist overdubs tracks with themselves singing in unison with what they sang before. I’ve heard pros who could do this matching every slight inflection and nuance of their first track’s performance for a 3 minute tune. Memory is a valuable skill.

Anyway, back to the task at hand.

Once you’re certain you’ve got your riff (motive) deeply embedded in your memory, you’re ready to write it down using the techniques you learned in Ear Training 101…or, if you prefer the software method, record it on your cell phone, then open the mp3 in your free Audacity software. I use Magix’s SoundForge Pro Mac 3, simply because I’ve used it for so long and my fingers do their thing without me having to think about it, but Audacity is great. Get it. It’s cross platform. And it’s FREE! Whichever audio editor you use, you’ll see your waveform, like this:

Screenshot 2018-04-03 10.27.42.png

Now, I bet you “patted your foot,” either mentally or physically, when you improvised your rhythm. Breaking down this procedure a little bit further, let try to identify where those “foot pats” are in the waveform.
Screenshot 2018-04-03 10.27.42 A

The red lines in the above example represent where I felt the beat to be for my riff. That tells us a little, but not everything we need to know. To get closer, try tapping your foot exactly twice as fast as you listen to the motive. The blue lines in the following example show where those would fall.
Screenshot 2018-04-03 10.27.42 B

We’re almost there! Now, suppose we subdivide each of those in half. The green lines in the next example represent those subdivisions.
Screenshot 2018-04-03 10.27.42 C

Patience, patience, patience…almost done, almost done.

Now, suppose that the distance between red lines is a quarter note, then the four subdivisions would each be sixteenth notes, wouldn’t they? Mapping that out using music notation it would be 2 sixteenth notes, then a long note starting on the last sixteenth of that beat, then another short note halfway through the next beat, followed by two more sixteenth notes on the beat (like the opening). Looks like this in music notation:
Screenshot 2018-04-03 11.03.33

OK…that’s enough for now. We’ll continue this exploration next post by adding pitches, harmony, orchestration, tempi, and dynamics in Tabletop drummer part 2. We’ll also take a peek in a 3rd part at how this motive could be explored even further by developing into throughout time.

Look forward to seeing you next time.

Books about music

Foyles bookstore, London, UK
Foyles bookstore, London, UK

The Eastman School of Music Sibley Library is possibly the largest music library in the world, rivaled by maybe only the Library of Congress and the other world class state conservatories (Moscow, Paris, London). Despite its size I remember wandering around it as a graduate student and coming to the realization that damn few of the books about music had little to teach that was truly useful, or if they did, perhaps only a scrap or two of ideas in the whole book were of lasting value.

The collection of music scores and recordings (and live performances, of course), however, was an entirely different story. That, mostly, is where I learned what I learned, the music itself (including the musical examples in the books). If you have $10 bucks and a choice between a book about music and the music itself, buy the score!

That said, there are books that I keep beside my desk, even in this world of the Internet in which we keep the sum of the world’s knowledge (and quite a few lies) in our shirt pocket. This is my list. If you can find them and afford to buy them, I recommend them. A few were only of value to me when I was young, but most still help me, and I reach for them often when working.

Next to each book, you’ll see some of the ideas that spoke to me most in that book.

ORCHESTRATION

The Study of Orchestration — Samuel Adler Everything!
The Technique of Orchestration — Kent Kennan Everything…much less info than the Adler, but sometimes that’s just what you need.

ESTHETICS

What to Listen for in Music — Aaron Copland
A Composer’s World — Paul Hindemith
MODAL COUNTERPOINT
Counterpoint — Knud Jeppesen This is the primo modal counterpoint book. If you’re one of those who believes in “the two-voice framework” modal counterpoint is essential
Polyphonic Composition — Owen Swindale While the Jeppesen is practically a primary source, the Swindale actually teaches you how to write points of imitations and motets and such…that’s why it’s named what it’s named.
FORM
Form in Tonal Music — Douglass M. Green Each of these books covers the same material, but each has its own unique observations and techniques of showing them.
Form in Music — Wallace Berry
Musical Form — Ellis B. Kohs
TONAL COUNTERPOINT
Essentials of Eighteenth-Century Counterpoint — Neale B. Mason As Swindale does for the 16th Century, this book does for the 18the Century. It teaches you how to actually compose in its contrapuntal forms.
Counterpoint — Walter Piston An early, but important, counterpoint book, although not as authoritative as the Jeppesen is to modal counterpoint.
“MODERN” HARMONY
The Craft of Musical Composition — Paul Hindemith His unique theory and approach to step progressions (that melodies have skeletons) and his classification of harmonic dissonances make this important; later theories (Heinrich Schenker, for instance, took Hindemith’s step progression theory way too far until it became meaningless. Hindemith keeps it reigned in.)
20th Century Harmony — Vincent Persichetti Not valuable for me any more, but as a high-school student it gave me entry into something beyond J. S. Bach (I was an organist).

TRADITIONAL HARMONY

Harmony — Walter Piston An early, but important, harmony book. Its weakness is, in a way, its strength: it’s only concerned with the order of traditional harmonic progression.
The Contrapuntal Harmonic Technique of the Eighteenth Century — Allen McHose McHose’s approach to analysis was entirely statistical, based on rigorous statistical analysis of important Classical composers. What I like about his approach, other than this statistical grounding, is his chart of traditional harmonic progressions that I will present in my own simplified form at some point in this blog.

I know, I know, I know: yes, I’m betraying my very old-fashioned training; yes, each one of those books (except the Adler and the Kennan) may only contain a few fragments of ideas that are valuable; yes, some of those books are so old they’re probably not in print any more. NEVERTHELESS, they’re my favorites (was raised on ’em) and I was surprised to see that even something as obscure as the McHose is available, used, on the Internet. The Hindemith Craft of Musical Composition is even available in downloadable PDF. So…hunt around, you can find them, and probably pretty cheap. Keep them in your knapsack.

Olivier Messiaen’s “Technique of my Musical Language”

Books by historically significant composers on composing are few and those that do exist are uneven in their approach. My favorite, probably, is Olivier Messiaen‘s book, Technique of my Musical LanguageYou probably won’t find it for sale anywhere and if you do, it will be prohibitively expensive. But, you do occasionally find it in major libraries. Also, most university libraries can get it for you on interlibrary loan from somewhere like the Eastman School of Music Sibley Library (I notice there’s a link on that page to interlibrary loans). Note, the copy at the Sibley Library (Eastman is where I got my master’s degree) is the traditional two-volume version (text in one volume, examples in another) — be sure to get both volumes.

What I like so much about Messiaen’s approach is how thoroughly practical it is. He doesn’t justify anything. He just describes what he does. It’s quite literally about how he composes. He only describes some of the things he, himself, does, certainly not everyone. It’s the most honest book on composition I know. It is completely without pretense.

If you get a chance to look at this book, I recommend it to you. It may give you some ideas.

Here’s a YouTube video with score of Book Two of his Catalogue d’oiseaux.

You might discover you don’t like his music, but you do like some of the ideas in his book. That’s okay. That can happen! Don’t let prejudice against his style blind you to what valuable ideas you might discover in his book. And, you never know…someday you might find you like, at least, some of his music. I know I do.

A grain of sand…

2017-06-24 08.36.35 copy

Sometimes you get an idea for a piece and then you begin to write with absolutely no problems. You’re on fire and the music flows from you like images from the end of Walt Disney’s animated paint brush. Sometimes the ideas may be there, but it’s an uphill slog every step of the way, each measure bought by blood sweat. For what it’s worth, that’s how it usually is. But, other times, you may need/want to write a piece but you have absolutely no ideas. Those times can be problematic. There are some ways to deal with drawing a blank.

  • One way is to create just a rhythm without regard to any pitches. This often gives rise to highly energetic, motivic music. Use the rhythmic motive as a vehicle to explore chord changes or key changes.
  • Often composers will devise a series of pitches without regard to rhythm and then explore different rhythmic treatments of that. I’ve never seen the evidence myself, but I remember hearing that Beethoven did this. Apparently, his sketchbooks show him experimenting: sometimes applying different key signatures to the same basic note names, sometimes changing the clef but keeping the general intervals intact (this changes the mode of the melody), sometimes giving different rhythmic values to a given series of pitches.
  • Another way is to take words–and this can be prose or poetry, prose or free verse often seems to work best because of its irregular rhythm–and use the natural rhythm of the words to suggest melodies and the syntax of the sentences to suggest phrase structure.
  • You might create some sort of game with dice or a spinner (Mozart did this!) to come up with rhythms, or a series of pitches, or content of a section, or the length of a section…any aspect of music. The key to this technique is to not be in thrall to it! Feel free to abandon any detail of what you’ve come up with. This is approach is just to serve as a prompt. It should not be cast in concrete.
  • Sometimes it will be just a chord progression that is created first. This is a somewhat dangerous approach because it lends itself to predictable harmonic rhythm, especially the kind that changes on every measure’s downbeat. So use this carefully, trying to pay attention to creating a not-too-predictable harmonic rhythm.
  • The common thread in all these examples is that one aspect of music was isolated and an idea was generated for only that one aspect. Trying to think of too much at once can sometimes stall getting started.
  • After you’ve created your “grain of sand,” then you start applying other aspect ideas to it, just as an oyster overlays organic material. If you had a purely melodic “grain of sand,” try overlaying different rhythms. If your “grain of sand” was a rhythm, try pouring different pitch sequences into it. On and on…it’s just working with the materials, one aspect at a time.

By the way, this technique can be applied to everyday writing. You don’t need to save it for when you’re completely bereft of ideas.

Who You Were Meant to Be

Who You Were Meant to Be
A Guide to Finding or Recovering Your Life’s Purpose

Lindsay C. Gibson, Psy.D
New Horizon Press
Far Hills, NJ
Copyright @2000 Lindsay C. Gibson

You may wonder why I begin a blog about being a composer with a book about “Finding or Recovering Your Life’s Purpose.” First and foremost, you are a human. Somewhere down the line–nowhere near the top of the list–is a description of what you do, one of those things perhaps being composing. But way before the technical stuff comes the human stuff, including your purpose, your why. That’s what this book is about.

This book may be the most underlined and full of marginalia of any book I own. Something about this subject and her approach to it touches my soul deeply. She could easily have made each chapter a separate full book. I wish she’d do that. I would buy them all.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone who feels that one’s inner and outer life are not in sync, or simply doesn’t know what one should focus on, or simply want to better understand one’s choices.

She helped me in many ways and some of her suggestions I remember to this day and use. It’s an old book, and I doubt you’ll even find it for sale used, but if you do, snap it up. It’s the kind people don’t take to the thrift shop. I’m hanging on to mine!

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