Sketch Scores

It’s often useful to make ‘short score’ concert pitch sketches when working on an arrangement or composition. They help to ensure the keys are right for everyone and the brass have time to remove mutes, etc. before wasting too much time on the full score. Instead of writing each voice or instrumental part on its own stave (staff), a whole section of the band or orchestra is written on one stave. With the big band I usually write the brass on one double stave (piano style) with the trumpets in the treble clef and the trombones in the bass clef. Ditto the strings and saxes, with the distribution of altos and tenors depending on range. Despite the tradition of writing saxes above brass on the full score (because that’s where woodwinds go) I always do it the other way round in short scores and scores for my own use because the method is visually in keeping with the way the ensembles work. The tighter brass are cradled in a foundation of open harmony saxes. Instruments can also be written in different colours on the same stave, offering a useful method of avoiding confusion in short scores.

The biggest problem with short scores arises where accidentals occur. A contradictory profusion of accidentals and cancelled accidentals sometimes arises as a result of passing chords and chord changes within a bar. It’s especially easy to miss a note recurring in the octave (up or down) that might require rectification (the computer spots them with relentless precision). What I do is to omit accidentals and write the chords and passing chords above the voicing and rely on my knowledge.

If you do decide to maintain a strict accidental scheme, you’ll have to decide whether or not to treat the two halves of the great stave separately. There is no single standard governing this, believe it or not, so it’s important to know what you intend. In view of the fact that, most of the time, your sketches will feature a homogenous section of instruments spread across two staves, there’s a strong case for treating the great stave as one. But then, you won’t be happy unless you write in the cautionaries anyway.

When we attempt to achieve conformity with a prevailing tonality, it’s important to remember that, in the tonal cell situation prevalent in standard tunes and jazz compositions of the thirties, forties and fifties, the tonality will be constantly changing. Music of the 50’s is full of these shopping mall ‘cycle of fifth’ chord sequences but the West Coasters did produce some truly memorable stuff with them. There are a number of examples in the book. 

Where passing chords move in exact parallel, often where the lead voice moves from non-chordal to chordal by a semitone interval, I use three or four parallel lines as a symbol above or below the stave. That way you don’t have to write the passing chord in full, just the lead line. Remember that the passing chord may also be on the beat and occur before the chordal voicing. We’re using the usual loose terminology here. Jazz musicians always refer to passing notes even though, as described in the book, passing notes are just one of many types of unessential notes.

I make use of all kinds of symbols – asterisks, etc., anything, really. Each one refers to a motif, rhythm or phrase and acts as a shorthand method of identifying detail sketches worked out in the ‘margin’. Where adjacent bits of musical sketches on one stave are not actually continuous in the final piece I use two vertical wavy lines side by side to separate them. They resemble engineering drawing style where a shortened view of a longer component is indicated in a similar way. Some kind of orderliness is necessary when writing sketches, which may fill many pages. Without this, there’s the danger of returning to a composition after an interval and finding that we can’t remember what we were doing. I’ve done it many times.

In many ways, the most useful sketches are those made on large sheets of plain paper where the shape and outline of the music is indicated graphically, using various colours. The rhythms and the rising and falling of the music are shown but pitches and harmonies are attended to once the piece begins to hold together. This method can be useful in overcoming inhibitions and in learning to control the music instead of allowing it to control you. Often, fresh harmonies are necessary to achieve the required shapes.

‘Writing by ear’ and ‘writing away from the keyboard’ are not strictly synonymous terms. They are two sides of the same coin. Although ear training is important, there is the problem of mentally hearing unorthodox scales and chord structures of the kind discussed in the book. One undesirable result of relying entirely on aural training, in this context, will be a tendency to conceive only in terms of those harmonies etc. that are within our experience. Our concepts will be constrained to a greater or lesser degree as a result. Foundation harmony instruction in education has changed little over the last three hundred years. Stravinsky often composed at the keyboard where he could work with the ‘physical presence of sound’. So did Wagner.

It’s difficult to get musicians to be honest about these things. Try asking a colleague if he or she has perfect pitch and notice the hesitation before an answer arrives. The fact is, musicians come in all shapes and sizes. I remember doing a big band gig when the lead alto forgot his pad. He played the entire concert of quite difficult stuff note perfect from memory. He could busk any tune in any key on demand. ‘Body And Soul’ in seven sharps? No problem. But he had a sound like a very blunt chain saw and his intonation was awful. As my grandpa (a Yorkshireman) used to say: ‘There’s nowt so queer as folk’.

It’s interesting to note that many of the composers who showed most disdain for ‘keyboard knights’, as JS Bach used to call them, tended to write music that was constructed as much as it was created. The book deals in some detail with musical architecture and the way in which musical forms emulate our experiences of the physical world quite independently of programmatic content. The only area of possible dissent is the extent to which these factors apply to jazz, with its emphasis on spontaneity. Jazz arrangements are the framework within which spontaneity flourishes, with the added dimension of orchestral colour, form, dynamics and power.

Early jazz bands also used ‘arrangements’ to give shape to performances. The more musicians we use the more difficult it becomes to avoid chaos without them. With more complex arrangements for bigger bands it also becomes more difficult to perform without written parts. Even after weeks on the road the great bands of the past would have the book open as a reference. I saw all of them play in concert performances, many times.

One of the great things about writing each voice on its own stave in the full score is that the knobbly bits in the melodic style of each voice will scream out at you. It’s essential to think linearly and not get hung up entirely on vertical chord formations. You’re sometimes forced to treat a chordal note as non-chordal to achieve your aims (to cut a long story short).

If you play through one of the harmony voices and it proceeds by a series of disjointed melodic intervals, this is often a sign that the voicing needs a rethink. There are exceptions and, in any case, tempo has an important bearing on the issue. At slow speeds the ear is more tolerant because of the emphasis on harmonic flavour. At extremely fast speeds (either tempo or note duration-wise, or both) the melodic tendencies reach a point where they eliminate harmonic considerations. In such cases all voices will emulate the lead voice, resulting in a series of individual ‘melodies’ which effectively become modal derivatives using the prevailing tonality (each voice uses the same scale but starting on a different note according to its position in the chord). Rapid flurries of strings and woodwinds are an example, often featuring five and seven note tuplets.

Constant repetition, especially where there is a prior thematic significance, also renders situations to become more acceptable.

Players will encounter transcriptions done by lesser arrangers where the parts are difficult to pitch and execute cleanly. What results is a clean start and end to the passage with a garbled mish-mash in between. So if you’re having trouble, it may not be your fault. There’s nothing nicer than a really good excuse for playing badly.

And what about the book?

I now have two four star and two five star reviews. Thanks to all concerned for that.

Keys and transposition

A while ago a miffed alto sax player asked me why on Earth, at the modulation, I’d written his part in seven flats. ‘We’re supposed to know all the keys, aren’t we’ I replied as diplomatically as I could. There were no jazz solos at this point, the music moved in simple durations at a steady tempo and I’d been very generous with cautionary accidentals. The nominal key of the piece put everyone in a flat key and it seemed a good idea to stay with flat keys at the modulation. Thinking about it, I decided he had a point, so I changed the score to 5 sharps at the modulation, the enharmonic equivalent, with appropriate changes to other instruments. The trombones would still be far happier in seven flats but they’ll be in the bar by now anyway.

To arrive at seven flats Cb major from a literal transposition, the original ‘concert’ key would have to be Ebb major. The minor equivalents would be Cb minor to Ab minor. The particular modulation I’d used was to a mode, not to another major or minor key, so that double flats didn’t occur anyway.

I remember playing exercises in double flat and double sharp major and minor keys because anything seemed easy afterwards, rather like climbing a hill after removing a heavy kit bag. I’m not convinced there’s any other use for them, although correct chromatic ‘spelling’ in any key is important, to avoid confusion (see ‘Chromatic Harmony’ in the book). 

Most jazz and popular music is written around one side of the cycle of keys, not straying too far in either direction from the starting point C major/A minor = zero sharps or flats. String arrangements will stray further in the sharps direction and brass arrangements in the flats direction (if the sounds are synthesized, or sampled and enhanced, it makes no difference).

We’re used to seeing jazz arrangements in C, G, F, Bb, Eb, Ab and Db. Transposed up for the alto sax we get A, E, D, G, C, F and Bb. Notice how the world looks quite different through the eyes of the alto sax player. Bb brass band players complain about too many sharps, but if C major/A minor and G major/E minor are common keys, Eb instrumentalists (alto sax, ‘tenor’ horn – it’s an alto instrument – and Eb tuba) will be equally at home playing in three and four sharps.

Concert pitch bass trombone parts in brass bands are often in five, six and sometimes seven flats because it puts all the other (transposing) instruments in an easy key. Cb = Db and Ab for Bb and Eb instruments respectively. (Tenor trombones are treated as Bb transposing instruments in these bands for reasons I’ve never understood.)

Familiar habits will often be irrelevant when using less orthodox seven note scales, some of which use both sharps and flats in the key signature. In addition to extending tonality, the book encourages more adventurous modulations in terms of root movement than those favoured by a tradition that is still heavily influenced by classical thinking.

On the subject of keys we can’t let the matter pass without a reference to ‘key colour’. Since around 1550 AD all keys are made up of identical semitone building blocks (equal temperament). Imagine laying out thirteen of them on a table, from C to octave C. Now take the left hand block and move it to the right hand end. We now have the diatonic and chromatic material necessary for writing in the key of Db (or C sharp), but the only thing that has changed is pitch. The key is a semitone higher. I’ve read various attempts to explain that key-colour exists but I’ve yet to see a convincing argument.

The only other aspect of so-called key colour to consider isn’t really anything to do with tonality at all. It has to do with instrumental characteristics:

The more open strings that occur on sustained notes, the more resonant a string section arrangement will sound. Listen to the unison violins drop down to the open G string in Scheherezade in the slow melody. (A reminder that this piece is essential ‘reading’ for the orchestrator. Virtually every trick in the book is in there somewhere.)

Piano strings change construction from top to bottom of the register.

Guitars and bass guitars produce a fuller sound when the hand is in the middle of the fretboard.

Clarinetists have to work hard to equalize the tone quality of the weaker ‘throat’ tones which occur, annoyingly, right in the middle register. They then have the ‘break’ (register change) to contend with.

Some people even refer to the colour of individual pitches. Conditioning is a powerful force and if we lived in a world where the sky was green and the grass was blue our subjective response to these colours would change accordingly. Cause and effect are dangerous areas for the unwary in any scientific field.

Colour and ‘atmosphere’ in music are created by the interaction of the various elements available to the composer. It’s often easier to draw comparisons with the graphic or pictorial arts. A single spot of colour will appear more saturated if surrounded by black (and there are lots of different ‘blacks’ as any printer will tell you). The humble common chord can have a powerful impact following a dissonant progression of chords. In other words there’s no practical purpose in assessing any individual component in isolation.

Key changing and pitch changing in general have been automated by music notation software but accidentals will often need to be edited to ensure they make sense. But then, we always check parts through don’t we, using our check list?

If you’re doing a vocal arrangement and you’re unsure about the key, which often happens in the real world despite all attempts to resolve the matter beforehand, it can be an idea to leave the score print out until after the first rehearsal just in case the key has to be changed. There’s a fair amount of work involved in printing score sheets on both sides (backing up), assembling them in the right order and binding with the stiffer card outer cover. If you’re on a once-only recording session it won’t matter what key the score is in for conducting purposes on the day. 

It’s worthwhile bearing in mind that vocalists can ‘shout’ a high note with more confidence when they have the backing of the full band. Vocal arrangements will often use less usual keys because a semitone up or down can make a difference. So if you’re transcribing a vocal piece and you think it’s in E or B you might be right, especially if there’s a string section involved.

In the big band era Db was a favourite key partly because Db was the lowest note on the old baritone before they added the bottom C (bottom A to the player). This note (C) is two octaves above the lower limit for practicable use in music (= 16 cycles)*, below which the sound ceases to be heard as a continuous note. In the upwards direction you reach a point where only cats and dogs can hear the note. The ability to hear very high sounds diminishes quite early on in the ageing process giving rise to significant individual differences.

*P.S. I’m aware we talk of Hertz these days.

Brass and Saxophone Quartets

A February edition of this blog mentioned the useful fact that a sax quartet arrangement, written for the conventional line-up of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone, works equally well for a brass quartet comprising cornet/trumpet, Eb horn, euphonium and Eb tuba (providing the euphonium and tuba read treble clef). The pitches of the instruments are the same without transposition but occasional modifications might be necessary:

(1) The Eb tuba can go much lower than the baritone sax so that a change of octave in the bass part may be beneficial, within the constraints of voice leading considerations*.

(2) A change of key may be desirable to respect the Eb horn’s lesser ability to stay aloft for long periods.

*Taking bass notes up an octave needs to be done with care. The book describes the potentially damaging effect to sonority, especially when higher extensions are used (which can also limit the variety of inversions).  

Only one thing spoils the ‘fun’. Most brass quartets employ a different instrumentation. One reason for the existence of the cornet, Eb horn, euphonium, tuba line-up is the British tradition of writing brass band arrangements so that, with members of the band absent because of industrial injury, shift work or political activities, each voice of the quartet ‘core’ of the ensemble (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) is represented. Because of this style of orchestration, bands can still produce a good sound without the full complement of musicians. Here, the soprano voice is represented by cornet/trumpet, not the soprano cornet (which was generally used to bring a sparkle to ensembles by providing an upper octave).

It’s also worth pointing out the (obvious?) fact that various sizes of tuba are chosen. The Eb tuba (together with its bigger brother, the BBb) are standard in all British brass bands.

Typical brass quartet line-ups worldwide are:

Two trumpets, (French) horn (or trombone), euphonium;

Two trumpets and two trombones (one of them being a bass trombone);

Two trumpets, trombone (or euphonium) and tuba.

Cornets can be used instead of trumpets but the cornet, although very agile because of its more conical air column, lacks the projection of the trumpet. Good players can overcome this to an extent that makes a blindfold test quite tricky. (A conical column of air responds more readily than the more cylindrical shape of the trumpet.)

The so-called (in Britain) tenor horn is an alto instrument, one reason I now call it an Eb horn to avoid confusion across national boundaries. Other alto instruments include the single horn, mellophonium and mellophone, all of which tune down from F to Eb. (the term French horn has largely dropped out of use),

Further confusion exists with regard to the baritone horn, which is a tenor instrument with the same compass as the tenor trombone. The three valve euphonium has a similar range but the four valve models now in common use possess an extended low register. Euphoniums were also called tenor tubas in older scores.

All this is more evidence of the confusing effects of tradition and local customs in music. 

Some publishers include alternative parts (for example, trombone instead of horn) at no extra cost. All publishers should offer horn, transposed appropriately, as an alternative to the Eb horn.

Bass clef parts (in concert pitch) should also be offered for the benefit of the many trombone, euphonium, tuba and baritone horn players who don’t read treble clef. This is especially true in the USA. Bass clef tenor trombone parts are standard in big bands, orchestras and military bands, although tenor clef is occasionally used (but never in the big band, at least not in my wide experience). Tradition and customs again play an important role here.

The sax quartet situation is simpler. There are hundreds of sax quartets worldwide and they all, with one exception I’ve encountered so far, use the soprano, alto, tenor, baritone line-up as the standard format. Together, these instruments offer a huge orchestral range, comfortably exceeding the compass of treble and bass clefs combined. Unusually wide-spaced voicings may be used because of the tendency of the rich overtones in the saxophone sound to ‘fill in’ the voids.

Some players double on all the saxes, in addition to offering flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, oboe etc.

Many quartets have a clearly defined musical policy. They may specialize in classical styles, the Baroque, jazz, popular music or the avant-garde. Most have found that it pays to be versatile and vary their program to suit the occasion.

The richness of sound, range and versatility of the sax quartet never ceases to amaze me.