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.


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