Tip #9 – Fun with Retrograde

Want to do something sonically and acoustically creative, but not exactly sure on how to develop a melodic theme? Try using retrograde techniques!

As the name implies, retrograde means doing something backwards. Think of it like a mirror copy of the original. For example in practice, take a small (or large – whatever you prefer) melodic idea:

Now, copy and write the new melody in the following measures as if you placed a mirror across the bar line. Notice how the pitches and rhythm reflect over the bar line in backwards to ow it was originally written.

While retrograde typically involves repeating backwards the phrase on both levels of pitch frequency and rhythm, a composer can experiment by dropping one of them. What if we took the rhythm factor out of retrograde, and just had the pitches go backwards? It would look something like this:

And now the other way around: only keeping the rhythm in retrograde.

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Tip #8 – Finding That Melodic Pair with Contrary Motion

Have you ever noticed that when we ask a question, our voices tend to wander higher in pitch? Even as you were reading that pervious question, the voice in your head must have had direction in their tone, contour, and phrasing. When someone answers a question, the voice goes in the opposite motion and lowers in pitch.

Sure, can you find examples where this does not happen? Yeah, but it is a phenomenon of a natural occurrence of contrary motion in contour.

Say you have a melodic fragment, and idea, that needs some kind of “answer” to it. First, observe the melodic intervals, direction, and shape of the melodic line.

Now, flip that shape upside-down in your head. For example: if it went up, have the melody go down now in roughly the same interval area. This adds a complemental structure to the melody.

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Tip #7 – Extreme Dovetailing

Continuing with the idea of alternating between instruments, there is the technique of dovetailing. As the definition already goes, dovetailing is when things interlock with each other at some joint area. Melodically in music, dovetailing is when a relatively incomplete music idea is carried out by another voice starting from where the original voice ended. Typically, there is usually at least one note of overlap, but these rules can easily be diverted from – so long as there is a sense of flow instead of alternation.

Inspired by the guitar technique of “chicken picken’ ” where a guitarist plays a chord or melody between alternating sounds of pick, mute, bend, cluck, etc. – we get this extreme for of dovetailing that can be applied to any music ensemble.

Take an original melodic line:

Now, look at the ensemble. Find where their ranges overlap. You might need to transpose the melody to a shared octave so that there are no jumps between voices. After doing so, break up the melodic line between the different members of the ensemble. Remember, having some melodic overlap is okay, in fact, probably even better. However, this example does not do so. Finally, experiment with having each instrument do different techniques. It would come out looking similar to this:

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 2.) Understanding Dynamics

When you are listening to your favorite music on your device, you increase the volume if it needs to be loud – and vice verse, decrease the volume when it needs to be quiet.

In music notation, there are dynamics, which are symbols used to indicate to the performer how loud or soft to play. Below on the grand staff, or the treble and bass clef connected by a curly brace, you will notice letters underneath the notes. Those are the dynamic symbol abbreviations used to tell how loud/soft an instrument is to play until the next dynamic is mentioned. Typically, they are to always go below the staff (or in the middle of a grand staff); but for situations involving vocalists or for separating the upper stave of the grand staff, they should be put above.

The most commonly used dynamics symbol abbreviations (going from softest to loudest) are: pianissimo (pp), piano (p), mezzo piano (mp), mezzo forte (mf) forte (f), fortissimo (f). Piano meaning “soft,” and forte meaning “strong.”

In the rare case you need to go beyond and hit the extreme ends of volume, add an “issi” to it and another letter. Ex.: pianississimo (ppp)

If you want to notate a gradual change in the volume, try using these shapes:

A cone/hairpin with the open end on the right is a crescendo that tells the performer to get louder. If it was facing the opposite direction of ” > ” instead of ” < ” then is it a diminuendo/decrescendo that tells the performer to gradually decrease in sound.

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Thinking Out Loud – Using Classical Music Theory in other Genres of Music

I have been recently thinking about this argument posed, of which that claims how we cannot approach other forms of music (pop, rock, jazz, Latin, folk, etc.) in theory & analysis the way we approach classical art music. Reasoning behind is that it doesn’t take into account, or it essentially overlooks, what makes that particular genre different from the rest. That by putting the square pegs of other forms of music into the round hole of classical music – we would scrape off the edges and miss the understanding of what that kind of music is.

While I can entertain the idea that using the rules of strict school book-taught classical art theory to compose other genres of music is not a wise decision, I do believe that it is okay to use classical theory to understand – pick apart – and fundamentally analyze other kinds of music.

What needs to be reminded is that music theory & analysis is just like any other form of science; from psychology, to anthropology, to biology, etc., they all do essentially the same thing. They observe, group together, and name special occurring phenomenon to be used later in order to understand other properties of the subject.

Instead of advocating that every form of music needs its own theory, there should be more of an educational push to encourage music theorists to approach with the lenses and vocabulary of their desired theoretical base (whether in classical, jazz, pop, etc.), and make new rules to understand what makes a particular genre sound that way.

This is long-standing problem in the academic field – where colleges neglect, too, that there can be many music theory “lenses” to viewing a piece of music. Too many times has a person with a background of not reading music, but understanding it through their own way, become discouraged of pursuing music because they are branded “stupid” for not adopting the viewpoints of classical art theory. And teachers fear that unless a student knows how to use classical theory – classical music can’t be reproduced.

If you buy a table and you have to assemble it together, but the instructions are in a foreign language – do we say that the table is incomprehensible? No, it is a table for goodness sake. It can still be built despite not knowing how to read the instructions that came with it.

So instead of demanding that a form of theory has to stay with a particular genre, academia and scholars should instead approach all kinds of music with the understanding that they have already, and make new discoveries to the unique acoustic phenomenon of different kinds of music.

Just thinking out loud.

Bryan M Waring
Bryan M Waring

Tip #6 – Incorporating Melodic Alternation Interplay for Variety

Well, that title certainly is a mouthful. But it is just a fancy way of saying “call & response.” Everyone has probably experienced some form of practicing call & response, as it is used in blues, camp songs, jazz improvisation, polychoral music, and more. One voice (or group) plays one thing as the “call,” and the other voice plays something back as the “response.” While the “response” can be an absolute copy of the “call,” this tip post will feature different opportunities of contrast.

First: different registers. It is a bit easier incorporating this when you have a large ensemble; but even with a single instrument try bouncing between the two low/high extremes of the voice range.

Second: different intervals. Simply put, one theme can be all stepwise in motion, while the other uses leaps.

Third: different contours. Contour is the shape of the line. So, one can go in one direction while the other goes in the opposite.

Fourth: different instruments. Every instrument has their own timbre, or color of sound. Alternating between the voice-like sound of a high-registered cello and a breathy low-voiced flute can be a beautiful contrast.

Fifth: different techniques. Not only do instruments have their own unique timbre, but they also have their own techniques, too. String instruments can both be plucked and bowed, and alternating between the two possibilities in a call & response format can bring beautiful contrasting colors as well as highlights to the melody.

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Tip #5 – Finding the Right Chords for your Phrygian-Dominant Scale

Or vice versa! Maybe you already have the chordal harmony, but are looking to see if playing a lead line over in a phrygian-dominant mode is appropriate.

The phrygian-dominant scale is a mode based off of starting from the fifth degree of the harmonic minor scale. So, to remind, a harmonic minor scale looks as such:

And if you were to start from the fifth degree, it would not look like this, becoming the phrygian-dominant scale:

Notice that the scale degrees are | 1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7 1 | and what chords can be derived from them. The strongest chords built when playing in this mode are:

Harmonic movements between I – bII , and I – bvii are good indicators to the ear that you have now dove into the world of phrygian-dominant.

In the case that you are in a regular major/minor kay, but want to incorporate the phrygian-dominant, look to add chords like: 7alt , 7(b9b13) , V7/III , and V7/VI . These best fit the pitch collection of the mode. Also, a VImaj7 chord can possibly work if the melody has a raised sixth being approached from above.

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