Please try this at home…


The book has many ideas devoted to getting you off the beaten track. This blog provides details of a musical portrait of the gardens at the Alhambra Palaces near Granada in southern Spain, which I visited a few years ago. The composition uses an unconventional source for its melodic and harmonic material, resulting in the need for a deterministic approach until familiarity with the idiom allows things to evolve more ‘naturally’.

I’ll begin my story at the beginning.

Greek philosophers and mathematicians knew of the close relationship between mathematical ratios and natural forms and we’re all aware of the formal similarity of music and architecture, especially with extended compositions.

For example, many organic forms in nature follow the ratios of the first summation series, 1 2 3 5 8 13….., also called the Fibonacci series. (The first summation series is one of many. Look them up.)

In music, these organic forms produce an organic effect. Try it out, they really do. (For the mathematically inclined reader, the Fibonacci series has symmetrical ratios.)

So where’s all this leading? Yes, it’s a fair cop. I’m involved in a fairly cerebral course of action, at least in the early stages of my musical portrait of the gardens.

Having chosen the first summation series, I wrote out a series of pitches so that 1 = semitone, 2 = tone and so on. Starting on C this gives C Db Eb Gb B G Ab F… I stopped at the eighth note since the more remote you are the more difficult it is for the ear to recognise associations. You will find that the range of these scales soon becomes huge. The seventh note in the above series is already two octaves and a minor sixth above the ‘root’ C, and that’s nothing.

Next, I rearranged the octave placement of the notes so they all fell within the span of one octave to produce a compressed melodic form, which I also wrote in its retrograde, inverted and retrograde-inverted forms. I also found out which triads, tetrads and pentads I had at my disposal, arranging them in intervals of both thirds and fourths (as described in the book). I made a subjective choice of six structures arranged in fourth intervals, based on their aural appeal, which I numbered 1-6 for simplicity. Some were too dissonant, unless that’s what you want. Chords based on fourths are reminiscent of guitar chord shapes. Already I could feel the Spanish sunshine on my face once more.

Next, I just had fun sketching out as many effects, melodic fragments, harmonic progressions as I could. Those I don’t use will go in my scrapbook. An Alberti bass version of my harmonic progression was written and divided between the violas, cellos and basses. Any melody used above will need to be very static rhythmically otherwise it might become incomprehensible. An alternative solution is to increase the rhythmic activity of the melody to the point that melody/harmony associations are no longer recognized (similar to the use of arabesque forms in counterpoint).

Simultaneous use of the original compressed melody and its inverted form, played by the high woodwinds and strings, using rhythmic diminution, produce hurried melodic fragments scurrying across the sky.

I mustn’t forget the percussion section. My gardens will need the glockenspiel, marimba and xylophone (if someone will loan me a van) together with harmonics and pizzicato from the strings to suggest the midday heat. The pastoral effect of the double reeds will be a must and I’ve produced some mirror inversion chords which are highly evocative of the fountains and long reflective pools surrounded by Moorish architecture. Cue the liquid sound of flutes and clarinets.

I’ll probably use melodic ‘couplings’, where each principal note is accompanied by another note below or, sometimes, above. This is a useful way of varying texture and adding colour without introducing harmonic complications. Thirds and sixths will suit the flutes and fourths might go well with the spikier sound of the double reeds. Low strings will get fifths and octaves, I think. A more exotic effect will result from using locked intervals; all major thirds, all perfect fourths, etc. Narrower intervals such as a tone can be used in a colouristic piece such as this, but not too low down in the orchestral range. Stay in the treble clef with these fellows except for very special, mainly percussive, stab effects.

My biggest problem is maintaining some structure to the piece, but I’m wondering if I need worry too much on this occasion. I might just wander around the gardens in which ever direction I please, after all, I’m supposed to be on holiday. Perhaps I’ll just ensure there’s adequate contrast between adjacent sections in terms of tone colour, range and mobility (and we don’t want excessive mobility, it’s too hot).

I might have a loose story board so that I’ll begin at night, with the twinkling stars, and move on into the dawn. There’ll probably be a crescendo as we first walk out into the gardens and the suggestion of brilliant colours and flowers bursting into bloom. The low, resonant strings will seem to be rooted deep in the soil.

At first, I thought the brass section would be in the nearest bar during this number, but I’ve decided they’ll be useful to suggest the blazing midday heat. They’ll understand.

The compressed scale is reminiscent of Arabian music, which is handy. I’ll exploit this in the opening bars with low, unison cellos and basses on their own playing a broad melody with much emphasis on the ‘minorish’ Eb and Gb. I’ve written a centrifugal form with everything going for my climax which peaks with the entire eight notes of my scale rearranged to give a sonorous vertical distribution, although still using the root C as the bass. Quite coincidentally, this big chord has a bitonal flavour.

Although absolutists regard programme music with some disdain, listeners respond to music much more readily when they can relate to the title. A composer may be forced to accept this if he or she is to avoid working in a vacuum.

What appeared to be a technical exercise has stimulated a very different style of music. A degree of cerebralism is inevitable in cases where there is no traditional hierarchy. Added to this, it will be necessary to maintain stylistic consistency by not introducing notes foreign to the scheme, unless they arrive as a result of geometric inversions, mirrors, transpositions, couplings, parallels etc. But is there really much difference between what I have described above and thinking, say, ‘I’m in E minor, right? So my dominant is B7 and most of my F’s will be sharp….’?

I emailed Lorenzo Bohme in Granada enquiring if there’s a Spanish name I might use since the title will sound better in Spanish. He kindly emailed back saying: ‘Jardines de la Alhambra. There’s no other name as far as I know. The gardens were all built in modern times so there’s no Arab name either. It’s also the title of a famous piece by Granados or De Falla, I can’t remember which.’

So the search for a title continues.

(A search online brought up loads on this region. Don’t visit southern Spain without going to the gardens, I absolutely promise you won’t be disappointed. I travelled across the surrealistic central plateau of Spain, the Maseta, with an overnight stop in Madrid. I called one of my pieces La Meseta, only to discover that it also means ‘the landing at the top of the stairs’. Kuh!)

I’m finding out that the self-imposed discipline of the material described in the last Newsletter is pretty tight, but I’ll persevere. I did in the end choose a loose ‘storyboard’ to hold everything together. It’s OK saying ‘this is just a trip around the gardens’ but the effect of too many seemingly random sounds in sequence was creating a very disjointed and untidy result. This isn’t background music.

The piece opens with a bell tree gliss into the ‘stars’ over a sustained, low, open harmony chord eight bars long from the second violins, violas, cellos and basses. Strings can provide long sustained notes by rapidly reversing the direction of bowing which can be done without a perceptible break, especially since they don’t all reverse the bow at exactly the same time. The lack of vibrato indicated on the score increases the feeling of stillness and calm. The dynamic marking for the strings is pp.  We could ask the strings to bow away from the bridge (sul tasto) to soften the sound further, or to use mutes, or both.

Stars are represented by a glockenspiel and piano in the high register. The eight note scale is split so that the piano uses one set of four notes and the glock the other four.

The piano and glock notes are subjected to serial permutations as described in the book and their figures are literally placed one on top of the other, in the same register, relying on tone colour to achieve separation. The nature of the subject also permits this due to the seemingly random distribution of the stars in the night sky. (Let’s not get drawn into that argument.) Staggering the permutation forms avoids parallel motion between the two melodic lines, which would occasionally occur in a truly random pattern.

It was originally intended to use an open key signature for the piece but this isn’t working. The notes b and c both occur in the scale I’m using, implying the need for six flats (b = c flat). The problem is that the ‘root’ of my scale is c, which insists on cropping up. Most instrumental parts would be full of accidentals in an open key so, purely out of expediency, I’ve decided on a five flats signature and I’ll write the b = c flat as an accidental wherever it occurs.

(When Mozart wrote a piece in three flats was it because he’d already been evicted twice?)

Two clarinets in a ‘locked’ distribution of major thirds swoop in the background, joined a couple of bars later by a solo oboe. There is something about thirds that suggests the moon. At this point, half of the first violins gather up to a divisi trill using a rapid divisi* seven note tuplet, again in major thirds, followed by the remaining first violins an octave higher. The right player at each desk customarily plays the upper notes. All the remaining strings switch to a bowed tremolo (rapid reiteration of the note) and everyone now bows closer to the bridge, which will also enhance the gentle crescendo. The chimes strike 12 on middle C, a choice of note that appears suitably unmusical in relation to the surrounding chords. C is actually the ‘key’ note, but it really isn’t that simple, as I’m finding out.


* Although ‘divisi’ (or Div.) is used in jazz writing to warn players they’re about to fan out into voiced harmonies after a passage in unison or octaves, it originally instructed string players with two parts on one stave not to play double stops. Using opposite tails should also get that message across.


After a brief crescendo the cellos and basses begin a low, brooding melody with a Moorish flavour, soon joined by a simple countermelody from the unison violas. The stars continue without any regard for melodic or harmonic associations. In colouristic effects of this kind the ear tolerates these transgressions.

Violas soon take the lead, and the cellos and basses now play pizzicato couplings in major tenths (compound major thirds). Damped harp tenths double up on the pizz. The rhythm this bass part uses is 3 against 4 but I didn’t realize that at first. Still, it will probably be useful to know. Piccolo, flutes and clarinets scurry rapidly across the sky using the compressed version of the scale in original, retrograde and inverted forms in simultaneous pairs. The violins tutti (=all) take over the melody in rhythmic diminution and accented basses, cellos, bass trombone and tuba play the first three notes of the melody in augmentation underneath. The lower strings will use vigorous down bowings to match the trombone accents. The violins end on a high F trill, splitting into octaves to add strength and the stars stop twinkling. Below them the oboe, cor Anglais and two bassoons play a diatonically parallel figure in four part harmony, the unison French horns picking up on a restless alternation of B and C that occurs automatically in a harmonic passage that will follow. These (two) bars are repeated exactly.

The lead notes of this double reed figure are very characteristic and are worthy of a brief development/re-statement from entwined oboe/cor Anglais lines, solo. A solo bassoon plays a staccato bass pattern. This is followed by a lone clarinet accompanied only by a centrifugal harp gliss at the end of its solo. Coupled flutes/piccolo (major thirds again) in diminution over a solo cello complete this miniature set of variations.

The above double reeds chords are played again but without repeats this time, since we’ve heard it all before.

Now the strings in diatonically parallel four part chords begin a centrifugal crescendo picking up from the double reeds phrases and joined by almost everyone, brass included, to signal the rising of the sun. The bass instruments descend in contrary motion. They all end on a loud chord using all eight notes of the scale arranged in a sonorous vertical distribution. Following a thinned out portion of the piece, this loud ensemble is even more striking. Boy it’s hot here!

This is where we enter the gardens which stretch out before us. The landscape is represented by a continuity in four part harmony from the strings with bursts of colour (the flowers) from woodwinds, piano, xylophone etc.

Each chord of the harmonic continuity is numbered (how else can we name them?) and the notes of the master scale omitted in each chord are identified and listed under the same numbers to form a continuity of secondary four part chords for the purpose of creating the bursts of contrasting colour. These secondary chords are treated melodically by piano, as instrumental forms (see the book) by the xylophone and as rapid flurries and chordal trills from the woodwinds.

This treatment can only be carried on for a few bars and makes way for a melody constructed (for lack of a better word) from the notes of the secondary harmonies. The active rhythms used, with short note durations, avoid actual melody/harmony associations and the possibility of a conflict with the background. I’m thinking of giving the solo trumpet this part.

I complete the solo trumpet melody and it sounds very ‘tuneful’ despite the constraints, with desirable Arab inflections. I also decide to have two instruments play the melody in ‘relays’, one muted, the other open. This gives a feeling of space since the muted instrument will appear to be further away in the musical landscape, rather like an echo. It isn’t easy to perform in relays since each instrument in turn must pick up exactly from the preceding one, mimicking the interpretation, dynamics, etc. This really is an eye-opener to anyone convinced they are playing accurately.

In the next section of the piece, the string harmony reverts back to the ‘original’ note durations but this time the lower strings play a broken harmony form, pizzicato, and the violins play a simple melody in constant minims (half notes) with a fixed level of tension in relation to the harmony background. The treatment of the broken harmony (arpeggiated form) is noteworthy. As the melodic curve undulates up and down, each section of the strings takes over in turn, according to register. When played arco (or by wind instruments) this accumulating ‘bell’ effect is much more interesting than plain unison or octaves.

The background is in four parts and the melody supplies the 5th part of the diatonic sequence of five part harmony chords. An inactive rhythm had to be chosen over such an active background since it would otherwise be impossible to avoid undesirable parallels or false relations and still produce an appealing result. Melody/harmony relationships in the orthodox sense would also be obscured by my chosen treatment of the background. This short melody is played once and then coupled, once more in major 3rds, before being used in rhythmic diminution as a ‘run-up’ to another mini crescendo peaking with the woodwinds, which then falls away again in the approach to the next movement.

I’ve felt sufficiently happy with progress to date to begin entering the music into a sketch score in order to get a better overall grasp of things. It seemed a good time to press ahead with the second movement and flesh out the first movement later. What comes next will reflect back on all previous work, it generally does. I must certainly try to use more of the orchestra more of the time. Minimalism is fine at the right time and place but I’ve noticed that the music is disjointed and requires horizontal integration.

Perhaps we all try too hard to obtain the desired result first time. The ever self-critical Sibelius thought nothing of withdrawing and rewriting a score, even after it had been performed to an enthusiastic audience. While we’re on the subject of composers, Manuel de Falla, who lived in Granada and was lucky enough to have the Gardens of the Alhambra Palace as a back garden, was an intensely private person. It’s said that even the postman didn’t know where he lived.

The second movement of my composition came ‘out of the blue’ although what was originally intended to be the theme eventually turned into an extended introduction. The melody proper has an almost Mozartian elegance and is completely diatonic (to C major) apart from an inserted chromatic passing note in the accompaniment. After the exoticism of the first movement this diatonic purity is especially refreshing. The harmonic basis turned out to be the familiar I > VIm7 > IIm7 > V7 although you would never guess this because of the simple movement of the unessential notes.

The marking of the second movement is ‘andante’ (=walking) and the music seems to suggest the urbane European visitors walking around the gardens. They were mainly German and English on the day of my visit but an uneasy peace prevailed despite the fact that England had just beaten Germany 5:1 in a football match.

I’m already thinking ahead to the third (probably final) movement which, since I chose to have a programmatic theme to the composition, will have to suggest the approach of dusk, the departure of visitors and the return of night time. Or we might have hoards of Moors caught in a time warp as they were finally kicked out of Europe, in which case I’ll write a scherzo.

The second movement of my composition is sketched out and the promised improvements to the continuity of the orchestration have been made, with a few more to come later. Just as we avoid spending hours meticulously drawing eyelashes before the whole figure is sketched, so we pull back from many detailed commitments until the composition as a whole has more or less taken shape.

The second movement is similar to the three part song form (the more developed AABA form that is used by so many standard tunes, rather than ABA). The first A sentence mainly features second violins, violas and cellos in the middle register, whereas the repeat, A2, involves all the strings, the violins playing up an octave, with added woodwind figures. This simple variation is most effective and propels the music along nicely. Occasional semitone intervals between the lower octave doubling of the melody and its adjacent harmony parts add spice and poignancy.

The minor mode variation that constitutes the B sentence comprises a minor key version of the A sentence melody (beginning on the root instead of the third, causing a modal as well as a tonal shift) moving in tenths (cellos and basses, arco) beneath an inverted dominant pedal provided by the second violins. This B sentence has now become two, the second part being in the form of a harmonic continuity featuring melodic movement in the voices played by all the strings. They stay in the middle register again, for contrast with the second sentence. The double reeds and the clarinets double up on the parts for added colour and to give a thickening of texture, combined with a natural rise in dynamics (caused by the adding of instruments, more than by a change in dynamics as such). The harmonic basis is a simple diatonic (to C minor) cycle of 5ths progression, except that the customary dominant 7th is used instead of the modal minor 7th (to use jazz terminology). Passing notes, suspensions and anticipations are used resulting in four part counterpoint which, having a strongly defined harmonic basis (which counterpoint need not necessarily have), is nicely focused to give a smooth cadence back to C major, but not before the chimes ring out 6pm on the note g, the same pitch as the inverted pedal used by the second violins a few bars earlier. (This is blatantly programmatic but it really works.) The use of the dominant pedal was a classical standard during the course of a movement, whereas the tonic pedal was often used at the beginning and/or end. The scheme is often found in jazz arrangements of the past and present. (See the free score of ‘Cool City’ in the book.)

The A3 sentence of the second movement, 12 bars in length, comprises fragmentation forms of the introduction and main theme which are literally joined together in sequence (again, it works naturally and smoothly). A coda follows which, at 23 bars in length, is almost twice as long as the preceding sentence. I have a mental picture of people reluctantly leaving the gardens and someone has to be the very last to leave. A repeated phrase, again reminiscent of the first few notes of the theme, goes major/minor/major/minor after which the horns and celeste, followed by middle register strings, respectively play an inversion and retrograde inversion of the most characteristic chords of the theme, resulting in a change of tonality each time. This, too, threatens to be far too cerebral** as described on paper, but the result is the musical equivalent of glancing back over the shoulder, as people do when they’re sad to leave. A change of time signature to 3/4 now occurs and an increasing fragmentation (disintegration) is played by muted trumpets, literally collapsing in mid air.


**(This is an example of how devices such as inversions and retrograde forms, together with, for example, polytonality, are much more successful when they are integrated into the music as a result of relevance. Bitonality can say ‘meanwhile, back at the ranch…’, or announce the impending arrival of the villain in a film or opera. Once more, there are jazz applications for you to try. The music can refer back to a characteristic phrase played by the featured soloist or announce an impending modulation a few bars before it actually happens. Don’t forget that bitonality and polytonality can be simultaneous and/or sequential.)


The base (not bass) harmony eventually moves up a semitone from C to Db, raising the harmonic tension of the unchanging melodic fragments above. We could call these melodic fragments ‘ostinato’ (=obstinate) forms. Most ostinato forms are found in the bass, but they can go anywhere we put them and can be melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, or a combination of all three. Db is the nominal key signature of the first movement, but it really isn’t that simple because of the unconventional scale used.

Compound time signatures such as 3/4 are interesting. It’s impossible to avoid associations with physical experiences around us, which evolve from one era to another. In engineering, threes, sixes, nines and twelves of anything are smoother since, when we divide the circle into equal segments, there are no points in direct opposition. (This is why six cylinder cars, especially straight sixes, are inherently smoother than fours and eights.) Of course 6/8 is a compound duple and 12/8 a compound quadruple, which means they’re hybrid time signatures with two and four beats to the bar respectively.

The truly ‘rotary’ feel of the 3/4 time signature as used in the closing bars of the second movement is reminiscent of the spinning wheel of an overturned carriage, which continues to spin until the angular momentum dies.

The final movement is still very vague and I still don’t have a title. I also hear someone at the back of the hall shouting ‘pep it up a bit, will ya!’. Why should I care? The truth is, I do care, so a scherzo or fantasia may do the trick, in which case my composition would be in four movements.

My indecisiveness regarding whether to use a 6 or 5 flat key signature caught me out, causing one or two accidentals to be omitted from the interim short score from which the final full score will be produced on computer. I had used an open signature in all the rough sketches, naming all notes manually, so it was easy to sort the mess out.

One area where I was in danger of not practising what I preach involved the question of formal considerations. Conventional wisdom is sometimes difficult to un-think and I felt obliged to follow in the footsteps of the Greats and write a 3rd movement to pep things up a little before returning to a recapitulation of the original. I was concerned that the piece required a livelier interlude but it’s important to bear in mind that a single item in a program is part of the entire live performance (or sequence of tracks on a record, tape or CD) and the individual pieces will be arranged to provide contrast and variety. Selecting a program order is the final part of the compositional process. Possibly the very last part of the process is the two-way response generated by the audience/orchestra interaction which actually shapes the music at each performance.

I’ve decided that, since the piece is unashamedly programmatic and the European visitors to the gardens have drifted away, we merely need the return of the night. But this time it will be different. The effect of starlight created by the glock and piano will begin sporadically, in the way that stars gradually appear in the evening sky, brightest ones first.

Although the effect will appear to be sporadic it will be achieved by a systematic serial scheme of reducing rest values between melodic fragments, gradually returning to the constant note values used in the intro as the sky darkens sufficiently for the faintest stars to be visible. This will take place above the sustained strings as in the intro, dying away to a barely audible pianissimo, perhaps accompanied by the restless clicking of claves. The percussionist using the claves could be off stage somewhere, an old trick used with horn and trumpet soloists sometimes.

Brief snatches of the piece will be heard, corresponding to the memory traces we all carry with us, and the original low brooding melody in the strings will appear once more as a violin solo, edited down in length.

Returning to the formal aspect of my piece, the book stresses the need to consider unorthodox formal structures, for example starting loud and gradually dying away to nothing. This is how my composition will end. Audiences don’t always know when to start clapping since they’re used to a formal end such as a sustained chord. It would help if the conductor turned and bowed immediately as a good clue. In the case of my piece it may be a case of turning and ducking, who knows?

So there you have it. I began with a desire to experiment with the Fibonacci note series because it creates an organic feeling. I wondered if this was too cerebral. I hesitated over the formal structure and key signature. I made mistakes. Now I’ve got to find an orchestra to play it. I can do this easily enough but will it join the large number of musical wallflowers gathering dust on shelves? Some of these are taken out for a first airing on the radio, often years after their creation, and turn out to be very good indeed.

I’ve begun the computer score which is tiled in two horizontal A4 sized pages one above the other in the music program page set-up. With a short run such as this, it isn’t viable to use a print shop so the two halves will be tacked together with a low tack glue stick, neatly copied onto A3 vertical sheets printed both sides, and bound (one way or another). I’ve decided to disregard the US letter size which isn’t a problem except that parts that are slightly taller than the rest of a band’s book are more likely to become dog-eared. I always use 100gsm paper for band parts and scores.

I’ll use three staves in the score for the percussion: one for the piano, the other two being shared by glock, cymbals, timps, xylophone, vibes and chimes. Double staves won’t be necessary. To make the piece a practical proposition only two percussion players are required, unless we include the piano as a percussion instrument (which it is). All percussion instruments will appear on each of the two parts which not only cues everyone in but also allows the performers to choose the instruments they are happiest with (or own).

I’ve given the harp a double stave at the bottom of the score, a location which is especially appropriate in my composition since the harp spends a lot of time doubling the pizz cellos and basses. It also uses non-arpeggiated chords, indicated by the usual square bracket, punctuating woodwind accents.

I stayed away from Manuel de Falla’s musical portrait of the gardens since I feared influence. A day or so after I finished my piece, his turned up on the radio and the comparison with mine turned out to be interesting. They couldn’t be more different. Like many composers, Manuel used the folk music of his native country in his work. Unfortunately, the use of Spanish imagery by popular composers and film writers causes poor Manuel’s piece to sound like a series of clichés of a kind they serve up to the tourists. It wasn’t conceived this way and he’s just another victim of the cruel way the passing of time distorts values. At the end of the day, Manuel’s piece has been played on the radio. I’ve a feeling I’ll have to wait a long time to hear mine.


Instrumental Style

This week we look at instrumental style – the importance of having respect for the character of the instruments we write for, not merely their range and capabilities. Ideally, we would not regard this as a separate aspect of our work since composers generally conceive in instrumental terms at the outset, unless they are re-arranging a piece, for example orchestrating a piano composition. (I spent quite some time writing for a radio orchestra that had everything but the kitchen sink – even an early synthesiser – but no brass.)

The book has a comprehensive section on instrumental characteristics. The following comments contain hints that are based more on common sense than knowledge.

Saxes are more fluid than brass. They are most at home playing expressive melodies (‘cantabile’) where the wide range of the full section can be exploited, together with its legato capabilities. Percussive, rhythmic playing can be achieved but without the projection and crispness offered by trumpets and trombones. Saxophonists have to work slightly harder to achieve precision and in lesser bands there will often be a machine gun effect across the section as the players strike a note. Staccato playing requires extra effort, too. Contrary to what many brass players think (the grass is always greener…) sax players do suffer fatigue but the section is more tireless than the brass due to the fact that the brass mouthpiece restricts blood supply, even when minimum pressure is used.

The weakest register of the clarinet is right in the middle, the ‘throat’ tones, and players have to work hard to provide an even transition through this area. Clarinets are surprisingly resonant right down to their lowest notes (blending well with the marimba) and can cut through anything in their upper register.

Rapid changes in dynamics are less appropriate for the oboe and English horn (which is an alto oboe). These instruments also honk a little on their bottom notes. It’s conceivable that someone, sometime, may wish to use this very effect for its own sake (the book often warns against dogma). The resulting music would be very spikey. You want spikey? Or paint a musical picture of three witches at a cauldron? Well that’s how you could do it.

The brass section has more presence than the saxes which is why, in the ensemble, we achieve the effect of brass ‘softened’ by saxes. Brass players can achieve a variety of attack styles, combining different markings (such as accents with a dash etc.) with more success. Staccato playing is more pointed and the overall sound of the brass will expose sloppy playing more ruthlessly. Trumpet players can use alternative fingering to maintain valve, rather than tongued, legato and trombone players must move from near to far positions of the slide without the expected time delay becoming apparent. Trombone legato can only be achieved with clever tongue work and with lip slurs up or down through the air chambers. Extremely rapid double and triple tonguing in the lower middle and low registers requires skill and hard work. A slide trombone player almost always needs both hands, so leave enough time for inserting mutes, if you use them with the trombone section (which I rarely do). In extreme cases trombonists have to hold the mute and support the instrument by holding the rim of the bell, both with the left hand, to win precious seconds inserting the mute. This makes accurate placement of the mouthpiece difficult and is visually bad, if not comical.

Obviously, the slide can be used to provide smears, the trombone equivalent of glissandi. Within certain limitations, the whole section can ‘gliss’ in harmony. The invaluable diagram in the book illustrates what can and can’t be done where this much misunderstood instrument is concerned. It also shows the notes produced in first position, where a player can hold the instrument with one hand on a sustained note.

All brass instruments require greatly increased physical effort to attain their top register. This brings with it the effect of tension and, at volume especially, a feeling of aggression and power. Because of this, it is out of character to write delicate or pretty music in the high register of the trumpet. Compare this with the violin, which is able to play delicately in any register. It is the instrumental characteristics, not the pitch, which produce the differences.

Sweet trombone playing in the high register requires great control and was never encountered before jazz and swing players showed us all how. Trombones were always the artillery of the orchestra. There is still a distinct difference between a tough-but-tender trombone and a flute in the same register.

The piano is a percussive instrument and, regardless of the articulation marks, always uses a hammer striking the strings to obtain the note. The felt pad that is inserted between the hammers and strings when the soft pedal is used furnishes another level of attacks. The piano has limited powers of sustaining notes, something our ears have developed a tolerance for. Long notes have to be broken up with fills, repetitive rhythms or tremolos. The sustain pedal, which keeps the dampers off the strings, helps a bit, but as soon as a note is struck on the piano, it immediately begins to decay. There is a distinct difference between piano and organ style, partly for this reason. Modern electronic keyboards are capable of a far wider variety of attack forms due to the synthesis of the ‘sound envelope’ which shapes the attack.

The word ‘tremolo’ is used to indicate a rapid reiteration of the same note (or ‘notes’, where chords or harmonic intervals are played). It is often used to indicate vibrato which, to my mind, is incorrect. However, we do refer to ‘fingered tremolos’ in string playing which is similar to a trill but employing notes a minor 3rd or more apart (otherwise it’s called a trill on stringed instruments also). Singers may also sometimes use ‘tremolo’ to mean ‘vibrato’.

The guitar can only play legato within the span of the left hand (right hand with left-handed players) on one string at a time when plucked. Each time the hand position changes or another string is used the note must be plucked again. It is possible, especially with the bass guitar, to play single note melodies or bass lines without plucking by fingering the notes and allowing the ambient noise level to cause the strings to vibrate over the pick-ups. This style produces quite a smooth effect. I recently did a gig with a good bass guitarist who had lost the use of one arm. The human spirit is magnificent.

Drummers in a big band setting will often play a simpler style than small group players, eliminating some of the detailed embellishments which are lost in full ensembles. Players can have a hand free to change sticks or release snares etc. without too much disruption of the continuum.

Virtually everything a xylophone plays will be staccato, although different materials are used for the mallet heads, sometimes depending on whether the instrument uses synthetic or rosewood note bars. The illusion of sustain is achieved by the rapid reiteration of the notes (tremolo).

The prominent strike tone causes the xylophone to sound an octave higher so that it is usually regarded as being written down an octave, except in France, of course.

Conditions for the marimba and vibes are similar but the vibes can alter the nature of tremolo available with its variable fan speeds and the instrument also possesses a damper bar – plus soft or hard mallets.

The timpani will always ring on unless damped, another commonsense consideration. There are enough of them available to tune to every note in the chromatic scale but rapid melodic passages would be difficult to handle. Nevertheless, there is scope for some interesting effects, including chords.

Strings can be written in any style, but the most characteristic involves 3, 4 or 5 part open harmony with melodic movement in the parts and unessential notes of one kind or another. Because of the extra weight given to each voice by the large number of instruments on each part, smoothness in the voicings is important. Prolonged divisi writing in the ‘brass section’ style soon becomes tiresome and players will have to co-operate in smoothing out the sometimes clumsy effect of block scoring for strings. The book gives examples of string styles. The larger the string section the more luxurious it sounds. A small section can sound like a vaudeville band even with good players, but recording techniques can compensate to an extent. A solo instrument can be made to sound like 2 or more instruments playing in unison.

Personally, I don’t like pizzicato bass solos in jazz, but the players deserve a say, I suppose. There are some astounding players around. Strings are capable of fairly aggressive attacks when a vigorous down bow is used.

Writing for voices is similar in many ways with the added problem that some melodic intervals are more difficult to pitch than the equivalent instrumental parts. Or so they say. It really depends on how good the singers are and once more, jazz singers and writers have expanded the range of possibilities. You need the ears of a cat, I really admire these dudes. Nothing improves a horn player’s intonation more than singing the parts mentally. If you can’t conceive it you can’t play it.

The durability of the conventional orchestra, with its brass and wooden tubing and pipes, stretched skins, wooden boxes and taut strings, is truly amazing. It leans heavily on the adaptability of the human mind due to conditioning. If we lived in a world where the sky was green and the grass was blue, blue would have the same calming effect that green now has. The piano’s lack of sustain is an example.

We might have expected electronics to have taken over by now, but it isn’t happening and performing musicians are still in a job. With ‘performers’ music such as jazz, we have to achieve the minimum interruption between the mind and the fingers or hands, so musicians need to be able to interact with their instruments by blowing, bowing, plucking, fingering or striking. ‘Composers’ music, on the other hand, can benefit from computer origination, using synthesising and sampling techniques, which are becoming increasingly prevalent. Reasonable brass and saxophone sounds are now possible with expensive gear and many film scores never get to see the real thing. Even when an orchestra is provided, the composer will often present a home-made demo that is very close to the finished sound.

Music is dead. Long live music!

Why is it that some composers find it necessary to abandon us all and move exclusively into the so-called ‘avant-garde’ while others still get the same kick out of their old jazz records as they did the first time they played them? We can’t avoid evolution and I agree with the suggestion that music written hundreds of years ago can’t fully satisfy contemporary ears – there is a limit – but I begin to have problems when I hear people say that ‘conventional’ musical resources are exhausted. I wonder if they are bored with music because they were never really into it in the first place. Every time I hear the first three notes of Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day’ I get the same buzz, and they are just the same note repeated three times over different harmonies.

Try the following experiment: play the F major chord as an arpeggio: f,a,c,upper f, and then come back down again, c,a f. Next, start on the c again and go down to the f and back upwards c,a,f,a,c,f. What do you get? The American National Anthem, of course. Even the next note, the ‘a’ above, is still part of the F major triad. And the reason it all sounds so monumental in character is because it’s so fundamental. In music, as in any other area, economy of means is linked to fitness of purpose.

Nothing illustrates the extraordinary nature of music more than a simple demonstration of this kind. It explains why you sometimes get a fragment of an arresting tune come into your head and find to your dismay that it has vanished for ever before you get time to make a note of it. You may even remember the intonations but, because the added subtlety of the rhythm and accents, or emphasis, is lost, so is the essence and flavour of the tune you just thought of.

So what’s the bottom line here? Simply that any suggestion ‘conventional musical resources are exhausted is nonsense. Pick a pentatonic scale (there are scores of these, in addition to the one resembling the black notes on the piano). Simply by using notes of the scale (*’diatonic’ to your chosen scale) you can arrive at 120 melodic forms of 5 notes each. Please note that your chosen pentatonic scale can comprise absolutely any set of five different pitches. Of course, in real music, some notes would be reiterated, adding further to the variety of forms. Now, consider the added variety furnished by adding rhythm and accent to your palette, as demonstrated by the F major example above.

*The exact meaning of the word diatonic is uncertain due to disagreement regarding its Greek origins. In the book the word is used to indicate that melody and/or harmony use only the notes naturally occurring in a scale (any scale). The word is often used to imply the use of the conventional major and minor keys only. Hybrid forms can also occur. For example, the roots of the harmonies may conform to the diatonic scale, but a free choice of structures may be chosen (or vice versa: the chords may be diatonic but with a selective scheme of root progressions).

7 unit scales are our bread and butter. There are hundreds of these, but our requirement for a scale of 7 different pitches, each with a different alphabet name, limits these to 36 (x the 12 root names of the chromatic scale and their enharmonic equivalents). This is because we require the expanded version of each scale to furnish major or minor 3rds for the purposes of chord formation (or 4ths of one kind or another, as described in the book). Only around 4 of these 7 unit scales are in regular use. Composers should consider the use of the appropriate key signatures with unorthodox scales, which may involve mixing sharps and flats. Computer notation programs can’t cope with this so that it might be necessary to type the signature in as a text object or use an open key, with individual accidentals in all the parts.

Obviously, with more pitches available to us in 7 unit scales, the possibilities for melodic forms are increased considerably (5040 x 36). There are also 6 modal variants of each scale (there will always be 1 fewer modal variants than there are notes in the scale), and we haven’t touched on chromatic melody notes at all, or those commonplace temporary modulations within a tune. On top of all this, what about the different harmonies that can be used? Notice how some of the most expressive standard songs are written almost entirely, or entirely in some cases, with diatonic notes, whereas the harmonies can be as rich as you like. Some fake pianists play these songs on the white notes and fit one of a series of standard “vamps” underneath, relying on the fact that a few chords can, as a desperate measure, be hammered into fitting any tune. The people in my local bar don’t seem to mind a bit.

Please note: modal variants of some of the 36 x 7 unit scales, and other 7 unit scales in their original form, are often identical. The process is still valuable for tonal variation in a composition as, for example, the commonplace change from major to minor, which is a special case of modal transposition in general. The book gives us the power to make use of a far more adventurous range of opportunities.

On the subject of harmony, bear in mind that each scale, whether it is a 3,4, 5, 6 or 7 note scale, furnishes its own set of diatonic chords, which can be arranged in various ways. The 7 note scales discussed here can be arranged consistently in 3rds or 4ths (and 5ths etc., but not usually) with none of the letter names omitted, or skipped over. When using scales other than the familiar major and natural minor modes (Ionian and Aeolian respectively) there will be a tendency to use diatonic melodies and harmonies to ensure that the individual character of the scales is not obscured. Unessential notes will have a marked tendency to be diatonic also (for the same reason). Chromatic figuration is tonally neutral. The Dorian mode was a favourite with the modal players of the 60’s and featured diatonically parallel 7th, 9th and 11th chords arranged in riffs. The only non-diatonic note that fits without special treatment is the augmented 4th (=raised11th).

As stated earlier, we can’t avoid evolution, but style in music is an elusive quality. When I listen to the writing of young composers I am often struck by the difficulty of identifying what it is that makes the music sound so fresh. There is less reliance on the well worn cycles of progressions, but the book deals with many ways of escaping such tyranny. One thing is certain – their music doesn’t rely on recording the contents of a trash can being thrown down stairs for its effect. The King is in the altogether…


Just to bring things closer to Earth, I have noticed that the ‘unessential’ in harmony plays an important role in a lot of contemporary music, especially film music. Basic, and often triadic, harmonies are transformed by the use of anticipations, retardations, single, double (etc.) passing notes and auxiliary notes. Many of these devices can be combined to the point that the vertical structures almost disappear (historically, chords evolved from linear writing anyway). Although this procedure runs against the current tendency in jazz for big modal chords and raunchy riffs, I still believe that it is a way forward (or sideways), it just requires more skill and effort than the average ‘block-scorer’ can provide, and that’s the main reason you don’t encounter it very often.

It’s usually desirable to simplify the harmonic basis of this type of continuity and to avoid the use of too many chords per bar, especially at faster speeds. During the 60’s and later, composers explored the use of extended and added chords – reharmonization – to the limit, and people sometimes get a little fed up with the saturated effect. Henry Mancini’s sumptuous writing for horns/trombones, strings and voices are a superb example of the ‘stacked’ writing of the period at its very best. It still knocks me out.

Another promising area is counterpoint. Of course, the melodic figuration of harmony described in the previous paragraph has a contrapuntal flavour, just as the simplest forms of early 2 part counterpoint resemble a succession of harmonic intervals, and ostinato forms. The labels we use to describe music will often overlap or become blurred. As far as I can see, very few writers have made extensive use of three part contrapuntal lines in the mainstream of jazz, because they can’t do it, that’s why. It’s important to avoid an excessively formal (uncool) approach. Musicians enjoy playing this style because it gets them away from the anonymity of merely providing a series of interconnected chordal tones in block voicings. My biggest hate is the tendency of contemporary writers to voice a frantic soloistic passage for the saxes. It’s clever, in a way, but the listener is always made to feel uncomfortably aware of the awkwardness and difficulty involved. With middle level bands and below, such voicings are rarely played without errors.

With the exception of colouristic and percussive effects, music should always demonstrate a melodic quality in the voicings (a good tip is to play through each voice to seek out the knobbly bits). With jazz counterpoint, this need is brought into sharp focus to the extent that each of the entwined, complementary voices could be taken as the ‘lead’. The use of more than 3 voices in jazz counterpoint carries with it the danger of having to use legitimate-sounding solutions.

Critics will say ‘Oh yes, but new music today will never be really new, it will be more or less a revamp of what’s gone before’. T’aint so. And this is the amazing quality that music has. When you bring together the elements of music – melody, harmony, rhythm, orchestration, dynamics… the ‘permutations’, for lack of a better word, may be as vast as the alternative futures some physicists believe must all come to pass before everything goes totally pear-shaped.

Another way forward may be to stop thinking in terms of ‘melody and chord sequence’ in our work. A composition may use any of the elements mentioned above as the major component, with the other elements being used in a supportive role. Compositions of pure rhythm are not unknown but eliminating all but one element will not produce anything of lasting value, in my opinion. Some question the need for ‘lasting value’ itself. I never seem to be able to give these riddles enough time.


There are two broad divisions in world music. I call them ‘Composers’ Music’ and ‘Performers’ Music’:

There is the formal European approach, with its emphasis on architecture, and other cerebral considerations, being used to produce a framework for expression and interpretation and there is the extemporised approach favoured by, for example, Indian musicians (of course, Indian music does have its own set of constraints).

Bearing in mind that India had a rich culture when the rest of us were throwing rocks at each other and painting our faces (so what’s changed?) we must be very wary of coming to dogmatic conclusions. I have always believed that extended variations on a theme, so called thematic development, are all too often carried to excess to satisfy composers’ egos and to frighten the peasants away from their exclusive domain. Have you noticed how big and impressive government buildings and churches are? It’s done to make us all feel insignificant. My own tendency, as I get older, is to constrain a work closer to its essence. This may be one of the ways we can learn from the distant past.

Shocked by this view? Well don’t be. Having the courage of your convictions is an integral part of being an artist or composer, providing you have done the required amount of humble soul searching beforehand and providing you have paid your dues in hours of woodshedding. A couple of years ago I caused a colleague to raise his eyebrows at a rehearsal when I criticised the ending of a work produced by one of the great composers. The suggestion that great men and women are 100% great every minute of every hour of every day is obviously ridiculous.


One final word of wisdom from my ‘little red book’:

Do everything you can to rid yourself of competitive behaviour. No matter how good you are someone, some day, will beat you (my brother once did a 4 minute mile in his lunch break). Realizing this is an essential part of becoming an artist. If someone is chasing you with a machete you will have a vested interest in running faster than he is, but your sole motivation as an artist is expression. So freely admire and enjoy the work of your ‘competitors’. Unfortunately, in the commercial world, it is so often found expedient to demonstrate prowess of one kind or another – to play to the gallery. That’s just the way things are. To become really good you also have to be working all the time (to be a pro) and that means having the versatility to accept a wide variety of work, some of which you may not really care for. I once tried to impress this view on my talented son, only to be told that he won’t compromise. He worked in the shoe department in a local store until he saw the light.

‘Pronouncing’ music

This Blog discusses the notation of wind instrument articulations.

Anyone who has taken part in a band competition will have experienced the confusion of wanting to play in a certain way and yet, at the same time, feeling obliged to play precisely what the adjudicator will be expecting. It’s rather like taking a driving test and knowing that looking in the mirror isn’t enough, you have to really swivel that head to get the point across to the guy sitting next to you, even though your main concern will be to watch the road ahead. The ‘correct’ interpretation of articulation marks is a particularly good example of the problem.

In jazz, especially, there’s a strong ‘vocal’ element in instrumental performance. When we sing, or recite a passage of prose or poetry, we use a range of attacks that is incredibly varied and subtle as we enunciate the words. Scat singing owes its success to this feature. It works despite the difficulties of singing in an instrumental style. The world’s languages offer a wide variety of attack and articulation forms and each country has its own set of problems. For example, the Chinese have difficulty with the letter ‘r’. They eat flied lice.

Squeeze valve, flutter tongue and growling are other examples of vocalization at work.

Because of this element of vocalization, the interpretation of written parts involves a range of attacks and articulations that are impossible to notate fully on paper.

Most accents are subject to universal agreement of course, but even here the problem isn’t simple. An accent (letter ‘v’ on its side) is like a mini diminuendo preceded by a strong attack. I was asked by the MD at a rehearsal the other day to make my accented notes shorter. The problem is that if you make the notes too short it ceases to be an accent since the duration of the note becomes too short for the diminuendo effect. You never, ever argue with the MD so I just said “OK”. The notes became staccato at this point, which I feel sure was not what the writer had in mind.

The grave accent, inverted ‘v’, is fairly obvious to understand and sometimes carries the added refinement of a dot or sostenuto dash. I’ve always believed that these particular markings should be placed above the note (similar to string section down bow marking), whereas all other markings are placed opposite the tails.

As mentioned in the book, it’s often better to write staccato crotchets (quarter notes) than a series of quavers (eighth notes) with rests in between, especially when writing with a pen instead of outputting from a computer. Some manuscript styles are difficult to read and the best writers sometimes have terrible ‘handwriting’.

Although a ‘slur’ or phrase mark generally means play the encompassed notes legato, in reality this will not always mean use valves or keys only, without using the tongue. A lot of jazz phrasing requires a flat tongue legato rather than valved, or a complex mixture of both. Trombone players are particularly good in this respect since the slide instrument always requires clever tongue work.

Effective interpretation requires an infinitely variable blend of tongued and valved (or keyed) legato styles that defy notation. The answer to the problem is to employ good lead players with a mature sense of style and get the section to follow on (to listen!). In an ideal world, it would not be necessary to say any of this. Early bands used many ‘head’ arrangements and they gave birth to a rich new form of big band jazz that eventually found itself extended by more schooled writers. Some early big band sections had unbelievable coherence. Fletcher Henderson’s sax section had such an uncanny togetherness that it’s tempting to believe they were telepathic! I doubt if they achieved this by discussion. They used their ears!!

Instruments that are lower in pitch are physically larger and require more effort (or impetus) to overcome inertia. If a bass trombone player has to descend suddenly to a low note, especially when using the less responsive ‘plug’ section of tubing, he or she will have to give the first note a bit of a nudge to get the instrument to speak when lips become tired. The players of larger wind instruments will need to breathe more often, too, often snatching a breath in the middle of a slurred passage. They have to cheat to make it imperceptible to the listener. Many players can’t offer circular breathing.

This newsletter is not intended to be a course on brass playing (I’m not the best trombone player around by a long way) but it’s relevant to point out the need for the tongue to rise and fall according to the pitch of the notes. To descend properly the tongue has to fall backwards and down very swiftly otherwise there will be an insufficient volume of air delivered to energise the column of air and overcome inertia. The air stream is also projected towards the throat of the mouthpiece so that the ‘turbo’ effect is translated into a longer and looser spiral of air whereas, in a high note, the spiral is tighter as a result of being projected down (or up, with some players, me, for example) towards the rim of the mouthpiece. Here, the tongue must arch upwards, helping to deliver a tighter stream of air.

I’m not the best source of information on saxophone technique but the situation is similar, but slightly less critical because of the more intimate interaction between the brass player and his instrument. A brass player can’t change reeds.

The worst thing an MD can do is to get in the way of good musicians and in the context of this Blog that means he should not blindly insist on a literal interpretation when his sensibilities tell him otherwise. A good tip is to mentally sing the parts to allow the natural vocal element to creep in.


By the way, I was taken to task by a journal in the USA for writing dotted quavers (eighth notes). They were very fair in their appraisal of the pieces reviewed but pointed out that American musicians don’t need to be told how to swing. I’m not totally convinced by this point of view but, despite the advice given in the book (carefully to write even or dotted as required), my latest composition uses even quavers but states ‘with a dotted feel’ at some points in the score. It makes the process of putting it on computer much faster, I must say. Sometimes the word ‘swing’ is written as an instruction to the player.

A dotted quarter note (crotchet) in cut time is the same as a dotted eighth note (quaver) in common time. The only difference is one of velocity and if we use the former, we’re justified in using the latter, and musicians will, in any case, use their interpretational skills either way.