Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Pursuit of Tone and A Minor Event

Good week to you!

The focus has been on the key of "C." It's the only one out of fifteen keys that has absolutely no sharps and no flats. It's all the white keys of the piano, pure and uncomplicated. To a point. As promised in the last post, we get to the dark side of things now.

Quick recap - we number the seven notes of the Major scale, beginning with the root note or tonic, which is "C".

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

C - Dm - Em  - F  - G - Am - Bdim
I - ii - iii - IV - V - vi - vii°

Each of the seven notes can be used to build a chord or a scale. Because of the relationship between notes, scales/chords built from the 1st, 4th and 5th notes are Major; scales/chords built from the 2nd, 3rd and 6th are minor. The 7th note yields the mysterious-sounding diminished chords and scales.

It's because of this particular sequence of distances (or intervals) between notes that the Major scale has its up, happy and bright sound. Now, change the sequence and watch what happens.

If you begin this scale on the sixth note and use all of the same notes as the Major scale, you get the relative minor scale (also known as the natural minor or Aeolian mode.) Since the sixth note of the C Major scale is "A", then this will be known as the A minor scale (note the lowercase "minor" - this is important.)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

The order of notes has changed, yet it is still the same seven notes of the C Major scale. When played in this order, the steps between notes become altered slightly, which gives minor chords and scales a darker, more somber tone. Now remember - the point at which we begin on the scale has changed, so the notes have not. Which means that each of those notes retains its Major/minor/diminished quality. You'll just encounter them in a different order like so:

Am -  Bdim  -  C   -  Dm   -   Em   -   F   -   G
i  -   ii°   - III -  iv   -    v   -   VI  -  VII

Leading the way...

Chords have an interesting relationship with each other. Some lead to one another in a natural, expected way while others have a prickly sort of chemistry that seems forced and rough. It's the push and pull of these elements that creates musical tension. Our ears are attracted by (and spirits moved by) certain types of musical conflict and a good road map for that is this charting of chord progressions:

I chord leads to any chord
ii leads to IV, V, vii° chords
iii leads to ii, IV, vi chords
IV leads to I, iii, V, vii° chords
V leads to I chords
vi leads to ii, IV, V, I chords
vii° leads to I, ii chords

These rules were made to be broken, of course, and there's more down the road about borrowed chords and note replacement, but generally speaking, when moving chords through a piece of music - the above standards for western music apply.

So, in crafting a look at the world of the natural minor, I went totally overboard and composed a three-part arrangement for mountain dulcimer ensemble called "A Minor Event." Tuning is CGC. The file has individual pieces for the chords, lead and counterpoint as well as the .tef file for TablEdit users. Even if you don't have the registered version of the program, you can download the free TEF Viewer to listen to the piece.

First off - go to Play > Relative Speed and set it for 62. Experiment with different tempos and see how it sounds to you. If you're not familiar with multiple modules with TablEdit, take a look at the top right hand corner of the main screen when you open "A Minor Event." You'll see three green tabs with numbers. Each one of those represents a part of the arrangement. You can click each one to bring the tablature to the front (unfortunately, no way to watch all three at once, unless you print it out, but then it's not moving and scrolling and playing music, is it? No fun there.) Slowing down the playback will allow you to practice difficult passages.

The arrangement is a demonstration of chord progressions in A minor, how to grow melodies and harmonies out of those chords. A song should be like a little adventure that takes the listener on an exciting journey. Where did that come from? Where are we going next? The twists and turns with each new emotion draw us further into the journey and then, at the end, a logical conclusion, a resolving of conflict and tension to reach the root; our home. Just as long as this trip brings everyone back home, allow your song to roam the hills. Keep melodies moving in nearby clusters of notes - make it easy to hum.

Think of the root note as home. As you begin to chart your way from that root - certain paths will work better than others until you finally bring it home. Once you lay down the chord progressions - weave your melody out of the scales associated with each chord. When the chord changes to C, pick notes out of the C Major scale. When the chord moves on to D minor, concentrate on notes picked from the D minor scale. Of course, some notes will overlap between keys, but this is a good road map for creating melody, rules made to be broken again, of course.

This was written for an orchestra of mountain dulcimers, with several playing each part, but it can be done with just three instruments. With the chords - I've just indicated the fingerings for each one in whole notes. You can either play it just like that, one strum every four beats, or you can apply a bit of rhythm in the form of quarter notes, maybe arpeggiate through the changes. I've tried to create movement mostly with the other two parts - so the whole notes, while not entirely interesting, allow those chords to breathe. Play the tablature as written - so the lead part is sometimes played on only one string at a time. The lead harmonizes with the counterpoint, which also serves as bass for this piece. None of these parts played by themselves is much of a head-turner - it's how they interweave, dance and pronounce the movements of the chords, as mirrored by melody and harmony.

If you don't have two other people to play this with - try recording it! (They have an app for that. And if you're reading this blog you probably do have some kind of digital audio workstation. If you don't, you probably want one and know where to look.)

Instead of hanging out in the key of C and its relative key of A minor, we're going to travel through the different keys and continue to explore how it all works together. Next - we're getting sharp with a look at the key of G.

Tools Of The Trade-Off

I've been living in a cave on eBay for the past few months, carefully implementing a plan that would step up my game a bit here at the studio. Living in the city is hell on recording studios and my modified car port wasn't designed to be sound tight. Since we won't be moving to the country anytime soon, I decided to make a huge sacrifice and invest in a major upgrade for both my recording and live performance rigs.

Jae and I love to watch HGTV for all of the shows about people buying and selling homes, re-designing and decorating, adding on, etc. With an eye towards better space management in the studio, with the side benefit of fund raising for one of the upgrades, I began selling some of the mountain dulcimers from my personal collection. Dulcimers with names like Nikki, Bridget, Kamalani and Helen. Each with their own stories, sometimes caught in a moment and posted on a Facebook page somewhere, some of the instruments used to write and record albums, they went flying off the shelf to some eagle-eyed folks on eBay and now, I can almost see the chromakey blue of the walls.

A few people seemed surprised that I would part with a part of my musical history so easily. Taking a page from the great Pixar film "Toy Story 2"; great instruments were meant to be played and enjoyed. These instruments have now gone on to places where they will be a vibrant, living part of the melody of love instead of stored in a dark case for most of the time.

The money doesn't hurt either. Needed that.

Here, on many different levels of importance for doing the dance that is the dance with music, some of the gear-head stuff that I've been embracing to step it up.

Genius App

Music Theory Pro can be addicting and, for an application that is basically drilling pure music theory, that says a lot about its draw. A real bargain at 99 cents, this application is sort of like having a set of digital flashcards with you at all times (or as long as you've got your smartphone around.) Four areas concentrate on Note Names, Key Signatures, Intervals and Chords, allowing you to set certain parameters to customize your learning experience (include just triads or other chords as well?)

The fifth area focuses on ear training in the areas of Tempos, Intervals, Scales and Chords. Right answers are greeted with approval ("Great Work!" "Keep Going!" flash at you like electronic cheerleaders) while incorrect answers are gently corrected ("You guessed Bb I'm sorry the correct answer is E" Polite, even.)

While you wander through the various pop quizzes, seconds whiz by at the top right hand corner. A gauge in the top left corner keeps track of how you do. Accuracy and speed pay off in high scores that can then be posted on a global ranking viewable through the app and on the website. Cool. Whoever added the competitive angle was a genius. Nothing like seeing someone else's score and thinking "I know C# in bass clef better than them!"

The customization aspect is also great. Play speed rounds of ten questions or marathons of five hundred. Drill on major and minor keys or add sevenths, diminished and augmented. You'll find yourself running through the quizzes whenever you've got a spare moment. The repetition is fantastic for putting into practice what you've just learned - so much so that you can jump in without knowing your way around and then begin to figure the rhyme and reason as you continue to play. Great all-around music theory app - I use this even more than Karajan now, though that app is far superior in terms of keeping data on your strong and weak points (!)

Even though you may not know what you're doing with it right away - ear training is an invaluable tool for playing and understanding music more fully.

Next: Let Me In The Sound

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