Musical Form; why do we need it and where does it come from?

Well, it isn’t compulsory, that’s a fact and when we journey out from the realm of European ‘classical’ (and other) styles we encounter more and more regions where musicians barely give the idea a second thought.

The book deals in some depth with form and the way in which other elements, particularly rhythm, are affected by a chosen scheme but I want to concentrate here on what form is and why (and if) we need it.

I have my own opinion about why form is important to some and not others but it involves an area wherein I have no expertise, so I’ll be brief:

I’ve observed a general tendency among white Caucasians to adopt a premeditated, or ‘strategic’, approach to problems. ‘OK’ we think. ‘We have a problem, so we’re going to do ‘this’ and ‘that’ and everything will be fine’. (The style is also associated with immaturity, especially in politics, where constant meddling in education and health is severely impeding attempts by specialists to effect improvements.)

The alternative ‘tactical’ approach is one I frequently noticed on the many occasions I’ve been invited to Asian weddings, most often within the Sikh community, where I have many friends. Here, people plunge into situations and react to events as they unfold, although they do enjoy a greater degree of support from their close community. This technique, I’ve noticed, is often the one adopted by those who succeed.

There are advantages and disadvantages with both methods.

The intensely premeditated, ‘Western’ approach presumes that we can always anticipate every possible eventuality from a massive list of outcomes – which we can’t, of course. Something always comes along to wreck our plans and we end up ‘thinking on our feet’ anyway.

On the other hand, the plunge-in-and-worry-about-it-afterwards approach can expose us to unnecessary risks and others will always be called in to bail us out.

The point I am making (I hope) is that musical styles will echo cultural attitudes, perhaps more than we realize.

Indian music is largely extemporized, although the melodic forms used are handed down to the musician to a large extent (I don’t want to go too deeply into that here).

In contrast, Beethoven, who I described in my previous post on here as being a supreme musical architect, constantly revised and reshaped his music until he achieved what he was looking for. This comment is not meant to imply that he was without ‘inspiration’, whatever that means. It’s difficult to listen to the ninth without feeling that he was driven by an unusually strong sense of ‘motivation’ (for lack of a better word).

 It would be easy to say ‘Oh well, the architectural approach is one that stems from a more civilized society’ but this idea fails when we consider that many cultures, that were civilized when we in the West were painting our faces and throwing rocks at each other, never developed the desire to adopt a premeditated approach. Music, to them, functions as a foil to the rest of their lives where there are always plenty of problems to solve, issues that they’d just like to get away from, once in a while.

Obviously, there are Indian composers who follow Western ideas just as there are European musicians who have experimented with eastern styles, which does complicate the argument a little, but I’m attempting a broad generalization here, which we have to do when attempting to rationalize ideas in any field involving millions of individuals.

I struggled for long periods of time during the six and a half years it took to write the book (and its revisions) but, when I described form in music, the ideas flowed smoothly and I still like the definition I chose:

When an artist has been concentrating on an area of fine detail in his picture *he can take a few steps back to obtain an overall view of the work. The more he moves away the more he perceives it to be a single, unified whole.

A composer faces a different set of problems. His composition may occupy a considerable period of time and he needs to develop specialized skills to achieve the same end. The controlled arrangement of the components of music to produce a balanced and unified whole as they extend through time is what we refer to as form.

I’ve read accounts that refer to the idea of pattern in music as being ‘borrowed’ from the graphic arts (I was also classically trained as an artist) but I think this reference is inaccurate. Music, too, has shapes and patterns but, because music is a temporal medium, these features are extended through time and can’t be assessed instantaneously. That’s the difference.

Without form, listeners will experience a sense of confusion as they struggle to assimilate a constant stream of changing stimuli and their attention will wander. But the matter is further complicated by the differing degrees of musical awareness, knowledge and experience possessed by various listeners.

Form may also cause us to feel right about ourselves, enabling us to derive comfort in a confusing and potentially hostile world. Repetition, and the re-working of previous passages, provide a reassuring effect, rather like being reunited with old friends.

In studying form we eventually encounter redundant definitions . ‘Fugue form’ is one example. Once a decision is taken regarding the number of voices and their scheme of entry, certain constraints are automatically imposed upon us so that further subdivisions of classification are, strictly speaking, unnecessary, although we may adopt them out of expediency.

The book also attempts to disassociate form, in the abstract, from traditional habits regarding, for example, the distribution of climaxes and key relationships, although it does include a description of symphonic layouts etc. for the sake of completeness.

The function of music within a society will also have an influence on the chosen path. Music that has religious significance will naturally differ from that which is intended to entertain and, especially, impress, by becoming a vehicle for the composer to advertise his prowess.

Of course, the above mentioned differences cannot avoid the simple reality that what works for some won’t work for others. There’s no getting away from all that but, if I succeeded in steering young writers away from unhelpful and constricting stereotypes in writing my book, my efforts will not have been a waste of time.

*The book uses the male gender as standard to avoid complications that can ensue from attempts to achieve a fairer treatment.


Composers will occasionally pause to think about about what they do and why they do it and then get on with their daily business. Some will rarely think about it at all. But it can be interesting to assess current attitudes against the background of what has gone before.

For example, many years ago music was approached more in the spirit of craftsmanship than of art. Composers had more in common with plumbers and stonemasons, which was understandable when we consider that this is exactly how their patrons perceived them to be.

Composers were very often employed as organist or as the composer-in-residence at a royal court or palace. Aware that they were paying out money on a regular basis to someone who earned a living doing what most perceived to be more of a pastime than a job, patrons developed the habit of calling for services to be rendered as and when they pleased. There was also a vague notion of composing as being something that the talented could do almost without thinking, much as we all write a letter.

‘Please write me an oboe concerto by Friday’.


‘And I’ll write another dozen pieces for you next week’.

To cope with demands that made no allowance for ‘inspiration’ or ‘creativity’ composers regularly carried notebooks of unused ideas which could be used or even re-used, with modification. They also jotted down ideas before they disappeared forever. The reason for all this was simple; if they couldn’t meet demand they didn’t get paid.

This would have seemed strange to those who grew up in the post Romantic period. Whether or not people changed their ideas about these matters or, more likely in my opinion, began a counter-reaction (see footnote) to what had gone before, the idea of an artist or musician as being someone driven by divine, unthinking passion became the favourite conception.

Critics also embraced this idea because they could claim, not directly, but by implication, that they and their idols belonged to an exclusive club from which lesser mortals were excluded.

If you have to ask, you’ll never understand’.

Words such as ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ would have been used far more frequently, the idea being that the object of our worship is not merely someone who has lots of ability, like so many others (only more-so), but that they are a race apart, having certain attributes that are entirely missing in lesser mortals. The TV pop talent programs of today are a good example of how convenient it can be to assess people in this way and to leave it at that, especially where money can be made by perpetuating the myth. Time, as always, is the best judge of validity but with popular audiences being so fickle it can be difficult to be sure about anything.

Of course composers, like everyone else, come in all shapes and sizes and it would be ridiculous to suggest they all changed their ideas to fall in line with the prevailing good-think. In any case, it’s impossible to write a lengthy orchestral composition, with due consideration to instrumental possibilities and characteristics and with diligent attempts to ensure consistency of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic treatment without there being a strong underlying cerebral element to it all.

Even now, many will still believe that conscious attempts to get things going during a fallow period by ‘constructing’ ideas, especially where there’s a deadline to meet (and isn’t there always, one way or another?), are a crime.

Working methods have always varied widely from one composer to another. Witnesses recorded their astonishment at seeing Mozart writing swiftly and without hesitation. Listening to his music, it’s difficult to believe he hesitated over a single note. In contrast Beethoven, the supreme architect, worked slowly and laboriously, with much erasure. There would frequently be little resemblance, in the finished product, to the germ of an idea.

I belong to a forum in which a young composer asked for advice on dealing with a ‘mind-block’. My reply, which drew a compliment from the editor, was as follows:

You’re probably relying too much on ‘inspiration’ (whatever that means). Please believe me the greats didn’t work like that and a professional with deadlines to meet can’t, anyway. I wrote my first arrangements in 1958 and have worked professionally at all levels (ever since I became good enough to, which took a while!). Although we have such things as ‘free form improvisation’ etc. the main stream of ‘conventional’ music involves a thorough understanding of the materials at your disposal. Play around with developing them harmonically, rhythmically, melodically and ‘ideas’ will come bursting out. You won’t use all of them (this isn’t ‘painting by numbers’). And that’s another point; you may be using too many ideas. I absolutely promise you that if you work in the blind belief that your own wonderful abilities will shine out for all the world to see your music will suffer, as mine did in the early days. Composition involves a delicate balance between craft, knowledge and art (and humility)…

Composing at the piano…or not

Another aspect of the composing process involves the question of whether to write at the piano or not. I learned a lot in the early days by transcribing compositions for jazz orchestras and big bands and found that being able to write down the melody, counter melody, lead part of instrumental sections and the string bass part, purely by ear, speeded up the process immensely. By the time I’d done all that, sitting in a chair with pencil and paper, I had a pretty good idea what the chords were doing, too.

But writing by ear and writing away from the piano are not necessarily the same thing. For example it can be very useful, especially in longer compositions, to sketch out ideas on large sheets of plain paper, indicating the rhythms and the general shape of the music in order to get a handle on things. Different colours can be used for clarity and the pitch and harmonies are sorted out later. Another advantage of this technique is that it frees us from inhibitions, especially where overlapping instrumental sections occur, something that cannot be emulated by a keyboard instrument. Having done this, we use our technique and knowledge to make the music work, changing the harmonies if necessary.

Composers always had differing views on this matter and I believe that the style of music they wrote influenced their thinking. In the time of the Bach family those who wrote at the keyboard were disdainfully referred to as ‘keyboard knights’ but it’s worth bearing in mind that Bach’s mechanical style of music lends itself to being ‘engineered’. Once you understand the contrapuntal interrelationships, the resolutions, the inertial properties and the importance of leading tones created, rhythmically, by anticipations, retardations and syncopation, it becomes surprisingly easy to emulate the style, if not the genius.

(This comment could get me into a load of trouble but I can only say things as I see them.)

 Stravinsky, on the other hand, liked to work ‘with the physical presence of sound’ i.e. at the piano.

And yet Delius, who had a remarkable ability to go directly from concept to paper (even when dictating his music to an assistant as his body was steadily destroyed by syphilis), dismissed the music of the European classical composers as ‘scales and exercises’, a view I have a great deal of sympathy with.

It will obviously require more effort and ability to mentally ‘hear’ music involving extreme dissonance or the use of unorthodox scales (especially when polytonal/polymodal) – where we can’t fall back on a familiar language that becomes second nature from daily repetition. But in making judgements about expected standards we will always be imprisoned within our own limitations; no one knows for sure what it’s like to be another person.

There is also the problem that, by placing too much emphasis on aural training, a composer will be constrained to write only that which he is capable of identifying aurally. I know people who are quite happy to spend their lives working in this way because they were taught to do this.

Two world wars and the growth in scientific knowledge heralded an era of positivism, causing many to question religious views, resulting in another counter-reaction, this time away from spiritualism and the related concept of divine inspiration. I recently discussed these matters with the vicar of my church and he made an interesting observation:

‘It always surprises me’ he said ‘that, at a time when we see dwindling church attendance, there’s a growth in spiritualism and the occult in film and TV scripts’.

I had to agree he had a very good point.


A good example of action/reaction comes from the world of jazz where musicians in the early ‘sixties, tired of the flirtation with legitimate forms and the sterility that sometimes ensued, developed the back-to-the-roots movement using a predominance of traditional gospel-type harmonies and a much earthier style of interpretation. The point, as I see it, is that these reactions occur because people get bored rather than that they wish to see evolution go in a certain direction. The problem is that there are few things worse than yesterday’s ‘trendy’.


Putting it across

The book has a section which deals with the importance of clear, ‘logical’ scores and band parts and makes an attempt to arrive at standardization – accents (usually) opposite the stems; instructions to the player, except dynamics,  above the stave (staff) etc.

Music written for recording and broadcasting will generally involve ‘sight reading’. Studio time is expensive and places an even greater responsibility on the shoulders of those who prepare the music on paper.

But this is just a small part of the wider world of communication and the need to ensure we make ourselves clearly understood. The matter is assuming greater and greater significance because of the increasing sub-division of knowledge which is an inevitable consequence of the growth in our understanding of the world we live in.

There is as much technology involved in the tread on our car tyres (tires) as there was in building the entire Model ‘T’ whereas, in Leonardo Da Vinci’s time, it was considered quite normal for someone to be scientist and artist. There wasn’t so much to learn.

I’ve been mulling over this problem for some time but an experience this very morning prompted me to put fingers to keyboard.

Two of us spent around half an hour trying to find the link on my wife’s new Google page to download her emails but without success. Eventually, more by accident than analysis, we found it on the first page we encounter when we click on the Google logo in the Favourites bar. It’s a small link top right.

Google is a good example of the increasing difficulty of ‘keeping up’. Some people I’ve spoken to find Google+ unbelievably difficult to follow, and I find that understanding Webmaster Tools requires a great deal of time and effort, although I manage in the end.

 As knowledge increases, those ‘in the know’ forget what it’s like to be ‘normal’. In many cases, they probably couldn’t write for the novice if they tried to.

Websites, particularly those representing large corporations, are also guilty. Trying to find the link you require can be a nightmare. More than once I’ve been compelled to use the search facility, if there is one.   

I also worked in advertising and PR which is all about ‘putting it across’. We had a rule that the onus is on the communicators to make themselves understood. We always imagined that the recipient of our message had a ‘blank sheet’. We never thought

‘Oh, of course they’ll know this, or that’.

 Advertisers are generally after your money and usually make a greater attempt to ensure they’re reaching us, backed by market research. Where money is involved people really click into gear.

To be completely fair, it’s reasonable, in more esoteric circles, to assume a certain level of competence; you can’t teach ‘down’ to a subject. That would seriously impede progress and, in any case, we all need to read up on an area that’s new to us. But there has to be a limit.

There are ominous implications here: those at the top of society are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the Status Quo. As a result, being able to hide behind an increasingly esoteric level of verbalism, will make it easier for them to achieve their sinister aims.

‘We told you! Don’t you read the small print?’.

Words. Damned words!

Stop the world, I want to get off!

I’m grateful to a fellow blogger for a comment he made regarding an earlier blog in which I discussed writing for the rhythm section in jazz.

The book has a section dealing with the ‘hardware’ of music – band parts, scores etc. – that used to be so badly presented by some publishers. I often had to enlarge brass band parts printed on small-sized paper with as many as 14 bars to a line! Thankfully, standards have improved, partly because of computer music notation programs which enable composer/arrangers to produce professional results on paper. This is important because, not only does presentation matter in all aspects of commerce but, in music, clear, professional parts with due attention to accents, dynamics etc. will cause players to take a composer’s work seriously and spur them on to greater effort.

In the book there’s a ‘bonus’ section thrown in which deals with problems I encountered during the working day, trying to use earlier notation programs. The mistake I made was to include information that would date so rapidly because I failed to anticipate the rate of progress. Recent program updates enable, for example, multiple repeat bars (the division sign at 45 degrees), which are a common feature of drum parts, especially, to be compressed into groups of bars without losing the bar-numbering scheme. They also offer dynamic editing, where amendments to the score are automatically reflected in the band parts.

Of course, although consistency is essential, we don’t always want scores and parts to be identical in all respects. (Cueing-in instrumental parts in small cue notes can be a useful aid to musicians, with complex, ‘staggered’ entrances, especially in rubato passages.)

Having said all this, many musicians will still use slightly older notation programs (I do) partly because they are, after all, tools and it’s our job to hock with what we’ve got and what we’re familiar with. Added to this, there’s usually a steep learning curve involved with new programs which will deter writers with deadlines to meet. The added features don’t always work perfectly, either. An enharmonic change feature can produce weird results.

One feature that is useful is the ability to swap from single to double staves (staffs). Piano parts in the jazz rhythm section, for example, often spread over multiple pages so that, where chordal work only is required, single staves will obviously take up less room. Elsewhere, it might be desirable to write in full notation (e.g. during ensemble passages) or to cue-in the melody or vocal part in a separate stave.

Most of us will have experienced the difficulty of keeping up with program and computer updates. A huge investment in time is required which is less damaging to larger corporations where groups of employees can be trained in ‘batches’. It’s another example of what people in the USA call ‘small-team vulnerability’.

I recently suggested that, perhaps, too many updates in too short a period of time might be counter-productive but I was immediately slapped down by an IT expert.

‘They’re already slowing it all down’ he said ‘so that you can keep up!’.

Writers on a tight budget might consider MuseScore, a free notation program with playback that works really well. The standard soundfont has been chosen to suit all computers but recent machines will cope with bigger file sizes easily. There are links in the online manual to various fonts but 1.44 sf2 seems to be the best. I tried larger soundfonts but, although strings and piano worked well, the brass and sax sounds were worse, not better. There will be many other fonts but I just haven’t had time to look for them.

MuseScore’s transposition feature is very stable and never produces silly results.

Playback in this program makes certain assumptions (e.g. that an F tuba will be used, whereas the Eb tuba is often used in the UK) so that, no matter what instrument is notated at the beginning of the line, the default sound will emerge. There are work-arounds for this: duplicate the score and transpose the affected instruments to produce a play-back version. It will look wrong on paper because of the automatic transposition facility. If, for example, a trumpet line is copied and pasted into a horn part, the program does the transposition and still plays back at the correct ‘concert’ pitch but it can only do this for instruments that already exist in its list. Nevertheless, MuseScore copes with full orchestral parts with ease so such problems are rare.

The program also offers the facility of sharing scores with others and is open to the insertion of added filters produced by enthusiasts. Upgrades are available on a fairly regular basis.

It saves as Wav., PDF (etc.) and automatically saves an MSCZ version of each file. This, as everyone knows, is the general format used to share with other notation programs. I use a free online facility to convert the Wav. Files to MP3 ready for uploading, which dramatically reduces file size.

So what IS Art?

I’ve had a number of interesting conversations on here where ideas stray into the realms of philosophy. As a composer/arranger/trombonist ­– and I was also classically trained as an artist – I’ve never spent too much time dwelling on ideas that are better handled by musicologists who specialize in them. I usually have little time to spend on such problems, either.  Nevertheless, it still troubles me that I spend so much time in the realm of art production without knowing what art really is, if anyone were to ask me.

Years ago an exhibit in my local art gallery featured a pile of building bricks. The matter was featured in a local news report and the next evening, standing in the bar at my local pub, I overheard a conversation between two young men who were expressing their views. The style and content of their comments would be unfit for publication here so let’s just say they disapproved.  Strongly. They especially resented the large sum given to the artist. This pub, managed by an Irish couple, served the best Guinness in town so my thoughts were on how many pints of Guinness the imbursement would have paid for.

I imagine the artist’s idea went something like this: when a pile of bricks is thrown into a heap there’s an interesting arrangement of shapes and facets, with the contrast of the smooth and the rough (decorative) side of the bricks creating varied textures. The exhibit had been placed near a window where the light flooding into the gallery enhanced the effect, with dark shadows adding to the pattern value.

Is this art? I would say ‘yes’ because the artist had noticed something that many of us would pass by and he wished to share his excitement with us. It worked. I mentally admonished myself for having been hitherto so blind and I’ve never looked at a pile of bricks in the same way since. Of course, there had been no attempt to shape the display and, even if there had been, it would make little difference; a pile of bricks is a pile of bricks. It was therefore a very efficient way of creating something but we can’t blame the artist for that. Not a bad hourly rate, either!

Years ago, Lithuanian/American artist Ben Shahn published a series of his lectures in book form entitled the Shape of Content. His left-wing views made life more difficult than it otherwise would have been living, as he did, in the USA. (Years ago, on a trip to Los Angeles, I was compelled to sign a form as I hurtled through the stratosphere declaring that neither I, nor any member of my family, had ever BEEN a member of the Communist party, whereas I could stand on a soapbox in London and openly encourage people to join the Party if I wished to do so, which I don’t, and no one would take a blind bit of notice.)

Ben’s book impressed me and his ideas still shape my thinking.

He states that art and entertainment are different things although (my words) each will contain elements of the other. For example, it could be argued that the wearing of evening suits (tuxedos in the USA) by members of a symphony orchestra has entertainment value, no matter how purely musical a composition might be, because their attire has little effect on their standard of playing. It might have some effect by encouraging musicians to get into the right frame of mind but I don’t wish to pursue this here. Added to that, the possibility of any form of art being purely musical or, for that matter, abstract is something else I’ve been involved in discussing on here. No one seems to know the answer just as no one knows what gravity is, yet.

According to Ben artists express themselves in the fervent hope that there will be someone ‘out there’ to connect with, so that the two-way process of art appreciation, or communication, can actually take place, but they will not attempt to ascertain the needs and desires of a target audience and then create something that is tailored to suit; that is the entertainer’s job. (Ben, a Jew, might have known a thing or two about tailoring suits!)

He also claimed that art should possess something beyond the merely decorative; something he called content. I think I know what he meant. Free-form jazz might fail in this respect. It doesn’t seem to matter where the stylus is placed on the vinyl (bear with me on that, please). What happens (in my opinion) is that a group of musicians indulge themselves at the expense, both literally and figuratively, of the audience. The repetitive pattern on wallpaper is another example. Nevertheless, a great building will possess elements of decoration in the stonework and elsewhere that, together, contribute to the building becoming a work of art.

It has also been argued, by whom I can’t recall (perhaps it was me), that Ben’s ideas about artists involve introverts whereas the entertainers, as Ben saw them, are extroverts. I’ve noticed that extroverts often make more money than introverts, which is one piece of evidence I hope to be able to use one day, somewhere. Here, I’m using the words introvert and extrovert in the correct (?) sense. Extroverts require more stimulation of their pleasure centres to achieve the same ‘amount’ of pleasure so that an introvert isn’t necessarily a sneaky geek who reads poetry all day. There’s more to it than that.

So where does all this lead us.

This is how I see it: we all possess an inherent need to share our experiences and, by so doing, impress the value of our worth on others. It enables us to feel needed; to be a part of the great scheme of things. We never really know what another person thinks or feels. We can only guess and our perceptions will always be prejudiced, one way or another, by misjudged assessments of body-language. When I flash my headlamps on a motorway to coax a truck driver out in the lane in front of me, the driver generally raises his hand in a kind of salute as I overtake. I’ve often thought that we do kind things because they reflect back on us; the recipient of our kindness will like what we did and, hopefully, like us, too. But the truck driver wouldn’t know me from Adam. Our timelines just crossed at that point in spacetime.

Similarly, music and art have the potential to connect us with other humans. When someone responds to something we have created, and vice versa, we feel we really are here and that someone has recognized us.

Just to wreck the atmosphere, creation is yet another term we use thoughtlessly. Nothing, we are told, can either be introduced into the Universe, or totally destroyed, either. It will always exist in one form or another, whether recognizable or not. Having said that, the Universe itself has been described as ‘the ultimate free lunch’.

Taste: a dangerous area for the unwary…

My book was never intended to become a philosophical work. Nevertheless, I believed it to be important to establish a common ground regarding objectivity because I was aware that ideas about music and art are often hopelessly subjective.

Here’s a quote from the part of the book dealing with ‘Composition’, where the detailed studies of the preceding chapters are finally brought together.

Individuals often protest ‘I know what I like!’ To what extent is this point of view valid as a form of objective appraisal? If an individual regards anything he produces as being automatically of artistic merit, simply because he created it, then all schools of art and music, together with the whole idea of development and improvement, become redundant. As we develop, our sensibilities become sharper and more discriminating, with the result that we obtain more pleasure from what we like than an individual with a less highly developed awareness. (It is quite common for an arranger, having analyzed and transcribed a piece of music, to find that he has developed a greater appreciation of its appeal.)

Even this belief is a hazardous one to hold. Since the purpose of art is to provide pleasure, then are we necessarily better than our neighbours simply because they require a constant stream of trivial sensations as opposed to our predilection for a more substantial diet, both methods providing a similar amount of pleasure? Philosophers, and oppressive regimes, have striven over the centuries to devise a basis for the appraisal of art based on morally or socially acceptable values. All of these attempts have failed and if we condemn on moral grounds many of our great artists would have their finest work reduced to ashes on the political bonfire.

Of all the musical styles that have emerged over the centuries, the most extraordinary development occurred in the USA at the turn of the last century with the birth of Jazz. Its black-African roots grew in a mixture of European-style harmonies spiced with the more angular, percussive rhythms influenced by Spanish colonialism, played on redundant military band instruments from the Civil War.

Superficially, it was just another example of folk music and eventually became the popular music of its day. But there were important differences. Jazz musicians made no attempt to create something consciously designed to have selective appeal. The musicians were involved purely in self-expression, although they were aware of the factors governing their own successes and those of their ‘competitors’ across the street and so, it might be argued, were commercially-minded, up to a point, at least. Their sometimes extended, improvised solos produced a charged, kinetic form that existed in time and space, virtually without programmatic references, although the music is not abstract. Its melody/harmony relationships can be formalized without too much difficulty.

Another remarkable characteristic was the way musicians pushed progress, firstly by extending the capabilities of their instruments to achieve undreamed of levels of virtuosity and then by using harmonies and orchestral styles that had never been attempted. These innovations broke many of the ‘rules’ and those committing these sins never paused to consider whether or not they were doing anything wrong and wouldn’t have cared anyway! Previously, folk music had been content to be just that. It wasn’t long before ‘serious’ composers began to take notice and incorporate jazz influences into their work, a sure testimony to the artistic validity of the vulgar upstart.

Of course, they weren’t really breaking rules. What music educators referred to as ‘rules’ comprised a catalogue of the habits and preferences of established composers, a tendency that prevailed until quite recently. It’s incorrect to say that certain rules apply to certain styles. Any worthwhile rule would apply to music past, present and future. My own approach in the book is to help readers understand the rules behind the rules. When composers truly understand musical resource – when they speak the language – they can shake themselves free from unhelpful constraints and compose by working with the very forces that shape music. The only criterion that matters is the existence, or otherwise, of a clearly defined, strong artistic purpose. You need to know what you’re trying to do and to know how to do it!  

Viewers of popular TV shows designed to showcase the talents of the ‘boy and girl next door’ (and to make millions for the men behind them) will be familiar with the formulated styles that have arisen. Many years ago an argument raged in the readers’ letters columns of a popular music publication regarding whether or not radio DJ’s were creating trends or merely following them by reflecting popular taste. I’ve no doubt money changed hands on occasion – if things can happen they generally do. But the main issue here is the matter of ’taste’, especially where the general public is involved.

It’s fair to mention that popular music, too, has added to the range of musical possibilities, especially with the emancipation of the rhythm section. Flirtations such as jazz-rock and the virtually seamless bond between jazz and Latin American styles bear witness to this.

So what’s the problem?

Here’s a quote from one of my earlier blogs:

Jazz is in danger of becoming a caricature of itself from the outside looking in, with bluesy riffs and raunchy ensembles all too often taking the place of the truly innovative work of the best writers of the past. Many contemporary arrangements for the big band sound as if they were all written by the same computer. In many cases, the music is reduced to becoming a fashion statement for the clientèle of bistros and cafés.

In other words, it’s easy to play and easy to listen to.

To be fair, the majority of jazz orchestras are staffed by players who can’t earn a living purely by joining the band. They don’t always have time to master the unfamiliar to the extent that the level of facility of execution does not mar the experience of the listener. Some music has to be played perfectly to work at all.

Nevertheless, a listener’s imagery is permanently locked into life after dark in the big city, with the odd TV cop-car chase thrown in.

In my opinion, great art succeeds because it is bravely different. Having said that, ploughing a straight furrow requires tenacity. Poor Stravinsky experienced a mass exodus of angry audiences when his works were first performed!

Returning to my comments, above, regarding the emergence of jazz, it is therefore particularly disappointing to witness so many jazz artists and writers descending into predictability. But there are exceptions. A friend and colleague of mine recently introduced me to the Paris Jazz Big Band, an organization I was not even aware of, as I buried myself in my own concerns. This band manages to achieve startlingly original music without losing its hardcore approach. The standard of playing is also something that will astonish anyone seeking this band out, if they haven’t already done so.

Of course, since I don’t rely purely on music sales to earn a living, it’s easier for me to say all this. Or, perhaps it’s the other way around; because I don’t always compose the kind of music others like listening to, I’ve never had the chance. The biggest money earners for me were orchestrations for broadcasting and musical shows.

A perfect example of the power of advertising and the media to shape public taste occurred a few years ago. I had spent almost three days at a meeting of the American Auto Club. The organizers were so keen they refused admission to European and Japanese cars. Having been surrounded by the American-built product for so long it came as a profound shock when I drove out on to the main road to begin the journey home. The sight of so many blob-shaped, slant-eyed vehicles was an affront to the senses and yet these cars are still in great demand, despite the fact that many of them are intensely, almost deliberately, UGLY. Few vehicles present more practical design constraints than the design of modern fighter aircraft and yet the rich variety of forms reveals there is still scope for producing things of beauty.

Similarly, when an audience is exposed to an unfamiliar style of music, it will need time to adjust and time, in this context, comprises the duration of a live performance. It’s unlikely anyone will purchase and absorb anything that doesn’t immediately grab them. There are simply too many other priorities in life.

‘The King is in the altogether…’

A view from the trenches…

Musicians spend a huge chunk of their lives sitting at rehearsals and paying attention to instructions from the MD. In my experience, MD’s have generally been fairly competent. What I’d like to do here is to provide them with a little feedback; a view from the trenches.

My early experiences were with various big bands and jazz combinations but I currently spend a great deal of time working with English-style brass bands. As most people will know, many of these bands achieve stunning levels of competence, made all the more remarkable by the fact that very few players are ‘professional’.

We’re in the contest season again, where bands compete, firstly, in their local regions. The top three bands in each group ­– Championship, 1st., 2nd, 3rd, and 4th – then go on to the Nationals.

I have mixed feelings about competition in the arts but it has always been with us and probably always will. On the one hand, rehearsing a piece of music over and over again, each time digging further and further into the subtleties we hope will bring us success, improves a band technically and, especially, teaches us to pay attention to dynamics and other markings. On the other, beating the living daylight out of a composition to the extent that we still hear it in our sleep isn’t what I had in mind when my father loaned me the money to buy my first (second-hand) trombone in 1957 (£7 and I had to pay him back).

I’ve played in brass bands at all levels – it’s very satisfying for me, aged 74 years, to be called into one of the top bands – but most of my time is spent in a local 4th section band. It’s always a pleasure to walk into the rehearsal room and be greeted by so many friendly faces. There’s a bar, too! We performed in a local contest Sunday 9 March and were placed 13th out of 20. At least it was an improvement on last year.

A typical problem involves having to make a ‘tactical’ choice between playing a piece the way we’d like to play it and/or providing the subtleties the adjudicator might be looking for. At the start of our Thursday 6 March rehearsal, the cornets sounded gorgeous. I wondered if I’d strayed into the wrong rehearsal. But they were slightly louder than the dynamic marked on the score. When they dropped the volume they lost their sound. Playing down to stalling point means players can lose the note and they can’t sneak back in. You think no one will notice little you, but they will (especially the adjudicator).

This is the point (as I see it, of course): when a performance is imminent, whether paid for or not, the rehearsing stops and we concentrate, instead, on the finished result. We’ll get the criticism we deserve at the next rehearsal. In any case, surely we will lose more marks for an inferior sound than would have been lost because we played slightly louder than we should have done? Added to which, dynamics are relative; it’s the range of dynamics that is important (volume is also linked to the size of a venue or when playing outdoors, and one human being = 1 sq. metre of acoustic tile). Whenever I sit with a top band the first thing I notice is how unbelievably loud the loud bits are. One of Stan Kenton’s musicians once commented that, when you play with Stan, you have to wear your virility on your sleeve!

My remaining comments refer to practical problems encountered during rehearsals:

Playing bass trombone I often have to take in a huge gutful of air. So there I am, lungs exploding, and the MD brings the band in. Then he stops, to make a point he’d omitted. I then have to expel this air and breathe in again. Before this process is complete I find myself half way through another count-in.

A similar problem involves mutes. It works both ways – mute in, mute out – but let’s say I’ve removed a mute because the succeeding passage requires an open horn. Then the MD decides, at very short notice, he’d like to repeat the section just played and starts counting in again, immediately. My mute is back on the floor at this stage.

And that reminds me: Arrangers please note that the trombone requires both hands on the instrument, most of the time, so please allow enough time for inserting mutes.

There’s nothing like a good moan.