"The Laboratory", for
the uninitiated, refers to my rehearsal space in the basement of my house.
I like to think of it as a place to experiment. It is my opinion
that music needs to be played with, not just played, to keep it alive. In
this space my friends and I do precisely that and, from time to time, it even
gets recorded. You may notice on some of the CDs on which I appear that
there are tracks recorded at "The Laboratory". I will make a
long story short by saying that it sounds more professional than "Randy's
basement". Now you all know, so it's not a secret, but hey...
I have friends who visit me at The Laboratory because they share my
curiosity. We discuss theory and composition. We play. We ask
questions. This page is for them mostly, but it is also for
me. I would love to know what others think of it, so if you have
stumbled upon it, read on. If you have comments, please send them to me
at firstname.lastname@example.org Thank
When many of my younger
friends who are music students first come here, they usually wish to have
some help with their music theory, composition, or improvisation. They
have many questions and, frankly, most of the answers to those questions as
well. I have found the biggest hurdle is that they don't know which
questions it is to which they lack the answers. If you are one of
them and are visiting this page because I told you to review this stuff, you
will remember this question as the prime directive:
What is music?
First and foremost, there is no one correct answer. Least likely is it
that, of the possible answers, mine will be found to be the most correct.
That won't stop me. Here is the answer I like that best suits the
kind of exploration I like to undertake.
Music is sound that is to be listened to, heard, and felt or thought
about which starts at a defined point in time and ends at a defined point in
time. These points in time create the frame that houses the art form.
Notice, this definition makes no attempt to say what is good music or bad
music. Those judgements are to be made based on aesthetic considerations
unique to each genre. Some forms of music nearly ignore parameters of
sound that are central to others; no one clear set of rules can be established
for good vs. bad which will apply to all music. How silly would it
be to criticize a Telemann piece for harpsichord because its sound wasn't
really powerful enough to fill a football stadium? It would be
equally hideous to criticize a recording of Hindustani classical music because
of its failure to stay within European equal temperment intonation.
So, for now, let's just leave good vs. bad alone until we get to the other end
of the discussion and find ourselves embroiled in a particular style.
Also, notice that this is a very open definition that would allow, for
instance, the recitation of poetry to qualify. It is music of the spoken
There are some things I do not consider to be music by this definition.
A score for a Beethoven symphony does not qualify, for instance. That is
a grand example of music notation, but not music.
Also, the sounds emitting from the radio in your dentist's office (along
with the muffled screams from the back room) do not qualify unless you have
made it your time and space to listen to sounds; if they are there to
simply mute your senses or incompetently attempt to block you from thinking
about the imminent pain you will endure, my definition has not been met.
If however, you are a sick puppy, and have gone to the dentist intent upon
sitting there and listening to the soundscape (screams, drills whining and
all), it then becomes music. Further, it should be noted that most of the
recordings played in those settings were definitely created as
music, performed as music and much of it is very, very good when you allow
it to be itself. In this setting, however, it is the aesthetic
equivalent of a white noise machine (which some dentists also employ).
If you wrap a piece of fish in a canvas that happens to be the Mona Lisa, its
worth as art is negated in my opinion. Conversely, if you take a piece
of plain brown paper in which your fish was wrapped at the deli and place it on
a pedestal in an art museum, it becomes art. It will not be good art, in
all likelyhood, but it will be art nonetheless.
With a definition of music of
music in hand, the next logical step is to define music theory.
Again, I make no presumption that my definition is the best. I am quite sure it
is not. Nor will the answer to my next question be the best answer, but I will
ask the question anyway because it is the next step.
What is music theory?
Music theory is a lexicon of sorts. It is a system of vocabulary
and/or rhetoric which enables the articulate discussion, analysis, criticism
and teaching of music. It provides and explains a framework of
musical notation or other means, such as syllabification, used to transmit the
teaching of music and/or express a composer's intent.
Music theory is not a set of rules for composition. It is, rather, the
methodology of analysis to determine common elements of the music being
examined and a naming system that allows discussion of those elements.
With such a pursuit, one has to start somewhere; many of the familiar
theory textbooks choose Bach as a favorite because the pristine perfection
of his compositions gives something concrete to a young student on which they
can build. If, in fact, these texts were rules of composition, the
resulting choral exercises created by the "A" students would all
sound like Bach, which clearly they do not. There is more to composition
than just understanding how to recognize, name, and recreate vertical stuctures
similar to those created by the linear creativity of a Baroque master, which is
pretty much what those texts will do for you.
The next most difficult hurdle is understanding what the above means when it
comes time to do your music theory homework. In every theory textbook,
you can find examples of musical notation which are there to demonstrate the
particular concept being taught. Herein lies the problem. Musical
notation is NOT music. The textbook is about music, but (prior to the
advent of computers) it was really hard to put sounds into something you were
reading. The authors did the next best thing; they included examples of
musical notation, assuming the student would be curious and either play them
or, if they are blessed with exceptional ears, look at them and immediately
infer what the sound they represent would be. HUGE PROBLEM, FOLKS...
a) the average student hasn't been told to read their theory text at the
keyboard b) the handful with ears that good don't really need the theory
textbook that much anyway.
So, I offer a rule for music theory students:
Always read your theory homework at the piano, enter the examples into
whatever notation software you have on your computer and play them back, or get
somebody else to play and/or record them for you. Bottom line, if you
don't get to hear what they sound like, everything you read is meaningless.
If you abide by this rule, you will soon find that, for instance, a
"plagal cadence" is not just a mathematical relationship between the
musical constructs which the dots located on lines on a page represent, but
rather a phrase used to describe a particular kind of sound that you have
heard thousands of times and implicitly recognize. With that kind of ease
in your mind, you can get on to more pressing things like knowing what to do
with a plagal cadence in a compositional sense. You can stop worrying
about whether you know what to call it when you hear it. If you have not
heard it, you may well wonder if 4 to 1 is not similar or even equivalent to 8 to
ok. Deep cleansing breath everyone. ommmmmm.
With this pattern of thinking clearly set as the root of your outlook you
must now grow to understand the next somewhat frustrating aspect (but
ultimately this is the imperfection that makes it beautiful like a diamond) of
music theory. So here is my next rule for music theory students.
Music is a reflection of the culture from which it springs. There are
as many different kinds of music as there are cultures on this planet.
Within each of those cultures, there exist subcultures with discretely
different music resulting. That said, there can be many different ways
to describe the same element of music which occurs in multiple cultures; None
are necessarily rendered incorrect by the others. Similarly, there are
some elements of music which are different from one genre to the next which are
described using the same terminology or symbology.
Get used to it. We live in a pluralistic world. When employing our
music theory skills to discuss music, everything is relative to the genre we
discuss and the culture from which it comes. In your study of music
theory, you will have different teachers. Some will describe the same
musical elements using different terminology; others will use the same
terminology to describe different elements and neither will be right or wrong.
Learn to hear them for who they are and from their perspective and you
will extract the most from them as teachers.
If this seems vague to you and you don't quite get what I am writing about,
open your music notation program on your computer. Set up a blank lead
sheet for a tune and start entering some chord symbols. Tell me how many
different options you have for notating a major seventh chord. Also tell
me exactly what the difference between a half-diminished chord and a minor
seventh flat five chord is if you can; I think you can't because there is none.
Go back to Bach and look at some photographic images of the original
scores of the chorales which are familiar to you as exercises in
analysis; you will see yet another set of musical notation conventions than you
have grown used to in modern textbooks. Neither is incorrect.
Well, either that or neither of them are correct. Truth is, I know of no
system of theory or notation which accurately describes all parameters of
music. Many styles of music are carried forth as an oral tradition for
that very reason. Even European music, which is heavily notated by
tradition, still required a master teacher to pass on to the students the
nuances which are not written but have been developed and passed along over
time as common performance practices. Given all the personal choices you
can make, it turns out that a lead sheet is only slightly more vague than the
written score for a Chopin Nocturne.
So, let's say you have memorized
every aspect of your theory text. You are a master of the norms of Common
Practice harmony and can create theoretically correct florid counterpoint while
balancing a hedgehog on the tip of a broomstick. What then is the
dividing line between this and composition? What is composition that
is not found in the result of these exercises?
Probably very little. Truth told, by the time you get that far in your
studies, your innate sense of what is and isn't good composition will probably
guide you there without too much effort. You will listen to what you
have written and, if it doesn't sound like it "makes sense", you will
probably correctly infer that it is bad composition. If you are a jazz
musician, the crowd may throw things at you.
It is time for a truly half-baked definition. I am still working on this
one. Once again, with feeling, if you have comments on this please email
me at email@example.com
What is composition?
Musical composition is the arrangement and juxtaposition of sounds
within the time framework the composer has previously determined to be the
start and end of the performance. It is about the relative relationships
of these musical elements as well as the absolute (a sound can be high, for
instance, in the absolute as it nears the edge of the human hearing range or
relative to another sound; a rhythm is rapid or slow in the absolute as it
pushes the limit of our sense of time to feel it or relative to a
preestablished pulse). The key elements of musical composition are
linearity, harmony, timbre, pulse, rhythm, dynamics, orchestration, development
of germinal gestures, relation to life's soundscape and last but far from
I need to work on that one.
It will do for now. For me, as mostly a jazz musician, it seems fine.
I find it necessary to define these together because my recent thinking
has led me to believe that composition, interpretation and improvisation are
the three dominant creative forces in a performance of music. Rather than
seeing improvisation as a spontaneous form of composition, I now believe the
proper conception is based on a different paradigm, where the three elements
exist as three simultaneous, creative building blocks of a musical
performance. They are found in different proportions to one another based on
the genre being performed, but I believe they are universally present in all
For instance, let's consider European
classical music. The composer creates a set of relationships between notes
played on a variety of instruments and notates those ideas in a manner that
shows their intended placement in time. Included may also be instruction about
his/her intent with regards to interpretation such as tempo or feel markings,
etc. The performer studies that scores, perhaps even conferring with the
composer, and rehearses a set of required physical motions necessary to
interpret the piece through control of an instrument or the voice that allow
him/her to generate the sound he/she believes best expresses the emotive or
intellectual message of the piece best. When the actual performance comes,
situations will arise and further spontaneous adjustments (improvisations) to
the interpretation/composition will be performed up to and including cadenzas
which are sometimes even newly composed spontaneously by tradition.
In some twentieth century music from the
European tradition there is a much wider use of improvisation as both a
compositional or interpretive tool. In Baroque music, the demand for composers
to be incredibly prolific by today’s standards, and the difficulty in copying
parts often led composers to use much less specific notation such as figured
bass; this, too, led to improvised compositional elements at the time of the
Now, let’s consider jazz. Frequently (but
not always), there is a composition used as a vehicle for the performance. This
composition may consist of no more than a lead sheet with a melody and chord
symbols, or it may be an intricate arrangement with planned improvised
sections. As the performer learns the composition, he/she may make
interpretive choices in advance regarding the statement of the themes, etc.
There can also be a revisit to the composition phase, in which the performer
chooses to alter the melody, harmony or form of original composition. During
the performance, there will be improvised elements of the interpretation as the
groove and energy of the moment demands and there will be improvised
compositional elements as solos are played. This improvisation may involve
modification of the melody, creation of new variations on the melody, creation
of new harmonic/rhythmic/melodic content based on other present musical factors
such as structures being played by fellow performers, as well as host of
improvised interpretive elements.
With the above in mind, here are my present working
What is Improvisation?
Improvisation is the spontaneous manipulation of musical elements based
on the emotions, energies, and musical factors present during a performance.
What is Interpretation?
Interpretation is the subtle manipulation of phrasing and balance between
musical elements and gestures during a performance.
Thus one can create a composition prior to
performance, then interpret it. One can improvise elements that are either of
an interpretive or compositional nature.
The more pragmatic question we are left with
is what to do about this, both in terms of that which we practice and that
which we play as jazz musicians. Can we, for instance, separate and refine
these elements individually as we hone in on our weaknesses in an attempt to
strengthen those areas of our knowledge?
I believe that the composition element can
be addressed by practicing tunes in ways that honor compositional integrity.
Instead of working from abstract scales and arpeggios that have theoretical
relationships to predetermined chord structures, we may wish to instead deconstruct
the pieces and practice expanding and contracting germinal melodic fragments of
the melody over a host of possible harmonic alterations which we feel we may
encounter. To this end, I feel it is wise to consider the particular musical
colleagues that will be involved in the eventual performance and the choices
they seem to prefer. In this way, as we practice playing the composition in a
jazz style, we also practice the technique necessary to execute an improvised
solo based in genuine melodic development rather than abstract creation based
on a set of preconceived changes.
To my way of thinking, a practical
application of this concept would be to consider that tunes such as “How High
the Moon” and “Ornithology” are now quite different pieces of music, with
entirely different emotive, musical messages despite their historical
relationship and connection,. It seems to me that it would be an error in
aesthetic judgment, when it comes time to improvise on them, that I should
abandon the music and create a solo based on only their common harmonic
progression. So, this form of practicing development of germinal constructs
from within each composition will enhance the integrity of the performance.
However, I think it is also flawed practice
to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I believe that abstract scales and
patterns can also be a useful avenue to compositional integrity, but in a
different way. Coltrane was known to practice often from Slonimsky’s Thesaurus
of Scales and Melodic Patterns. This text makes no reference to key or
harmonic structure. It is a technical manual for developing melody and
explaining melodic/motivic development. If you can get the kinds of thought
patterns that Slonimsky used to create the thesaurus in your head (even a bit),
then get those kinds of patterns to happen under your hands on your instrument,
you will have another very powerful tool in your compositional arsenal. It’s
not about memorizing the couple hundred pages of melodic examples in that book,
it’s about understanding how Slonimsky derived those melodies by interpolation,
extrapolation, etc of notes around a simple interval that may occur somewhere
in the harmonic context of a piece of music. Once you have even a piece of
that in your head, you can begin to build your own around whatever sounds
present themselves in a performance context.
So, there are at least two ways in which I am
now attempting to shape my practice to enhance the compositional elements of
that which I do as a jazz improvisor. But, what about the element of
Interpretation is another element which I
believe one can make great gains from practicing in an improvised way. So
often, as a young student, I was handed scales or pattern to learn and
dutifully did so by repeating them over and over again, until I could control
my muscles to make them execute the same way each time. This VERY
important process of learning to control an instrument should not be skipped or
trivialized. However, with that in our back pocket, there is another
way of practicing such material which I have found very fruitful. I turn on my
metronome and take a single melodic phrase and see how many different ways I
can articulate it. I practice improvising interpretation in this way, while
isolating it from compositional factors (to a degree) for added focus. I say
“to a degree” because my experience leads me to believe that, as I change the
articulation of a single melodic line, the implied counterpoint within that
line resulting from the new shape of the musical gesture does indicate a change
in a compositional element.
IF my new thoughts on the paradigm are going
to hold up, though, I need to also address the element of improvisation in my
daily practice routine. Consider this:
Go with the Flow.
Sound flaky? Okay. Guilty as charged. But
there is one element of my practice routine that, the older I get, the more I believe
has been a lifelong mistake. I would be practicing scales, arpeggios, a tune,
a groove or whatever… as I would be drawn to expand it as if I were playing a
solo on a gig, I chastise myself for my lack of focus and insist that I get
back to the element I was intending to practice. Before I get into it, let me
say emphatically that I am not advocating that I should accept the
unintentionally played parts of my practice routine. Those are mistakes. Well
played music, in my opinion, is played intentionally whether or not it is
What I am suggesting however, and have found
very fruitful for myself, is that we should be open to the spontaneously
occurring ideas that float through our head as we practice scales, arpeggios,
melodic patterns, standard tunes, etc. IF something occurs to me as I am
practicing something else, I like to give that temporary priority and let it
work itself out as a method of practicing the element of improvisation. The
key to this sort of thing, no doubt, is the ability to come back in bounds and
get focused back on what I was doing before I checked out the other path… much
easier said than done, in my experience, but well worth it.
Also, I sometimes wish to practice this
element of improvisation apart from when it happens spontaneously within the
context of practicing other elements.., the way for me to do that best is to
put down my mallets and sit quietly, breathe, and empty out the excess junk
between my earlobes, of which there is much. When that is done and a particular
musical thought creeps in, I stand at my instrument and play around with it…
then if other things occur, I explore those until I find myself crossing old
familiar ground which is not in need of examination. If I stop being inspired
to expand what I am working on, I sit again and clear out. The process here is
to find and feel the energy of our day and the room we are in and practice
responding to that in a musical manner. It is quite the opposite of how we
normally practice, where we set upon an idea and focus our minds on the music.
It is, quite literally, about working to achieve a quasi out-of-body experience
where one sees oneself performing at the instrument and just plays what the
We all have thoughts that float into our
heads. We cannot stop them, but we can learn to control our minds to recognize
them as only thoughts and not let them knock us off balance. We can also
learn to value them and let them be our muses without letting that knock us off
balance either. So often, the correct spontaneous thing to do is that which is
perfectly in concert moment. The trick is getting our hearts, mind and ears
open fully so that we can know what the moment really is and be part of it
without letting our neurotic little brain thingies send us in an entirely
Yes, opening up like that has been, in my
experience, potentially very detrimental in a club setting. You will hear and
feel everything in the room, the conversations, the upset waitresses, and the
nervous lady being hit up by the skeezy dude in the cheap suit… That’s the bad
news. You will also hear and feel the other musicians on stage with you much
better and have a real tap into what message the room needs to hear at any
point in time.
Of course, playing purely from that energy
can make for a strange, Sun Ra-like performance if you are trying to play “A
I believe that the main thing to remember is
that a performance of jazz is primarily an aural practice. Given that you
have done your technical homework with regards to playing your instrument, and
learning any predetermined compositional or interpretive elements, the main
skill is hearing. It is also important to remember the established
conventions in some styles of jazz regarding which elements get improvised and
which do not. The rule there is "When in Rome do as the Romans do."
If you are, for instance, playing a standard tune, I think it unwise (unless
you reaaaaallly know the other guys on the bandstand well and they are going to
be with you on this one) to improvise on the structure of the tune, adding or
subtracting a few bars here and there. Generally, it is not okay to do so when
playing standards, but if you know the guys, that ‘s the ground rules, and are
all listening it may be okay.
For me personally, the greatest lesson in that was working with the late Eddie
Green. In particular, I learned this playing his arrangement of
Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So". I loved it because Eddie
played the A section as a modal romp that went on and on until you couldn't
stand the pressure any more and then the bridge would happen. Like
I said, if you know the guys and that's the ground rules, it is beautiful.
We all felt it and it happened. It wasn't in any particular
place other than exactly where it belonged. Sometimes we would play
seven or eight A sections to get to the bridge.
Try that with a typical wedding band and it's train wreck time, folks.
Kids, don't try that at home.
Like I said... when in Rome.
I believe that the main way to improve your
hearing, to achieve the above, is to transcribe music. So do this as much
as possible. Transcribe, analyze. While I understand there are many
divergent opinions on this, my vote is that you don't worry so much about ever
playing the whole solos completely (although I highly recommend using excerpts
and phrases as technical exercises.. this is the link between translating sound
into what you do when you improvise), just keep transcribing so you recognize
sounds as they happen. With that, your instincts will kick in and you can
just play and interpret that which you compose as you hear it.
Anyway, so in my world, theory is not a set
of rules and improvisation may or may not have some rules, depending on the
situation you are in. Lately I have been working a lot on through
composed improvisation. It defines its rules as it develops in many
ways. But that is not to say that, as a jazz musician, I am without rules
I have been collecting "rules" of improvisation from teachers and
masters I have crossed paths with for the last thirty or so years. Many
of these were probably been passed down from others, but I will credit them
here with the individuals with whom I most associate them. Here are my
top ten in no particular order:
1. Keep your ears open - Rudy Jones
2. When in doubt, lay out -Ray Shiner
3. Learn the tunes -Dr. Jim Miller
4. Better strong and wrong than light and right. -Ray Shiner
5. If you want to play well, play tunes you can play well -Larry Ham
6. If you don't make some mistakes sometimes, you are not trying hard
enough -Mickey Roker
7. Play every note, every night, to the best of your ability -
8. Your sound affects every note you play - Rudy Jones
9. Be yourself; don't try to be like another musician just
because they are hip - Rudy Jones
10. If you are not in the groove, you are not in the game. -Junior Cook