A MUSICAL BASIS for IMPROVISATION THROUGH AURAL PERCEPTION
A GENERALLY APPLICABLE COURSE ON MUSIC THEORY AND SELF EXPRESSION
Definitions - What is music? The components of music.
Understanding - Music, the brain and learning. The way it works.
The market - The benefits of music. Everybody can learn.
Our sales pitch - Musical styles. Exploration & participation.
Our specialisation - Self expression & improvisation. Jazz & teaching improvisation.
For those of you who want to get straight into the action we suggest that you to go to the overview of the lessons and see how the course content is structured before starting lesson 1.
If you are interested in the scientific and musical concepts which have been used to develop this course, read on!
What is music?
Music is meaningful sound, it is part of everybody, every society has its own variant, it is as old as language itself. Music may have developed as a cultural artefact to enhance communication by arousing and sharpening emotions in social contexts. Religion has always exploited music and when it is associated with ritual it is a powerful symbol of group identity. The emotional entanglement of music and love is ubiquitous.
Unsurprisingly music is inextricably linked to the culture of its time. Bach’s music enhanced the glorification of God in Gothic cathedrals and it maybe argued that the disciplined co-ordination of the classical orchestra was a reflection of the rule based scientific enlightenment in the Habsburg’s Courts. The early jazzmen, although 'doing their own thing', managed to generate a cohesive ensemble swing, unwittingly mimicking the new freedoms in a booming but individualistic American society?
Today music is as powerful as ever, every nook and cranny of our lives seems to be infiltrated. It comes in all shapes and sizes to suit all tastes. Each one of us have our own musical preferences and prejudices. Our feelings are intensely personal and a source of heated debate. Nevertheless, regardless of origins and style, the components and characteristic ‘devices’ of all music, from classical to pop, are identical. It all works the same way!
The components of music.
Rhythm is the pattern and duration of sounds in time and is as fundamental as life itself. We all sense the rhythms of life, we are aware, responsive to the sounds of danger and comfort. A primeval brain sense, conditioned from birth …. heart beats, rocking, stroking, walking … or crackles, pips and squeaks … patterns of sound are everywhere. The threat of noise and the reassurance of lullaby. All environments have characteristic, recognisable sound patterns or rhythms. Rhythm is sensed and related to standards from experience.
Rhythm is the most fundamental component of music, rhythm structures time. Recurring patterns produce motion or beats. The beat may be explicitly stated as in most popular music but it is present in all music. Musical notes are subdivisions of the beat. Beats are grouped into larger repeating units or bars. Bars are delineated by accents and the Meter or the time signature defines the accentuation pattern in terms of the number and duration of the beats per bar. Just as beats are grouped into bars, bars are grouped into larger phrases which are repeated and varied musical ideas or motifs. Phrases coalesce to form sections and it is sections which finally combine to produce musical form.
In this way, through a hierarchy of patterns, rhythm develops coherence.
Some rhythms are infectious and induce participation. Music is almost universally associated with song and dance. We sing and dance in RESPONSE to sound. Is dancing sympathetic vibration? Is 120 beats a minute is the excited heart beat of all ‘disco’ music?
Melody is produced when sound becomes more sophisticated and pitch is added to rhythm. Melody is the succession of note pitches in time, perhaps, the most familiar element of music. Melody is what we remember most readily. But it is rhythm which makes melody move.
Melodic pattern is structured by intervals and scales. Pythagoras uncovered the importance of simple ratio intervals of sound frequencies in music. The 1/2 ratio produces an octave, the 3/2 ratio produces the pleasant sound of the 5th and successive 5ths produce the simplest of all musical scales, the pentatonic, C G D A E.
Leave out the ‘E’ and there is a haunting ‘hole’. Flatten the ‘E’ and the sound is ‘saddened’. Introduce the ‘F’ and the ‘E’ moves naturally up to the simple ratio 4/3, introduce the ‘B’ and there is a natural return to the starting note and the diatonic scale!
The scale of 18th and 19th century Western music is the chromatic scale, represented by the piano keyboard with its 12 equidistant notes per octave. This combines the 7 ‘white note’ diatonic scale, and the 5 ‘black note’ pentatonic scale.
There are only 12 notes but an immense number of successive combinations are possible even though the sequences are constrained by ‘rules of association’. It is these 'rules' which enable patterns to be recognised. Mozart at the age of four sensed these relationships long before he could write them down!
We find simple, memorable melodies have pitches from the scales which are close together, no worrying jumps or dissonance but a shape, perhaps moving to a climax then falling away to a secure 'home base'. All have a pattern yet new melodies are continually being written.
Melodies can complement each other in counterpoint, or simultaneous sequences of related melodies, and harmony emerges when melody lines cross.
Harmony is perhaps the most subtle and certainly the most recent of the musical elements to emerge, it involves simultaneous sound sequences. Harmony is described by chords which are related to each other in time. Chords are built on the same simple ratio patterns which are so pleasing in melody. But harmony takes these simple sounds further with a plethora of emotion generating variation.
From Gregorian Chants and harmony from counterpoint, to Bach’s figured bass lines, to Mozart’s simple harmonies, to the added chord notes of the Romantics, to the ‘close’ harmony of blue grass … the mood is set immediately by the harmony … bright, sad, mystical, outrageous, delightful … even the devil gave his name to a chord?
Simple rhythmic melody is clothed and enhanced by harmony into a more complex system. Furthermore harmony has its own rhythm, producing still further layers of sophistication.
There are other musical elements used to complement rhythm, melody and harmony associated with the ‘quality’ of the sound produced. At it’s simplest this is the tone quality but, accentuation, volume, vibrato, glissandi and sound modification as TIMBRE, all have an important role in developing the dynamic and emotional nature of music.
All these components combine to produce the patterns of sound we call music.
Music, the brain and learning.
Burgeoning knowledge and understanding from -
Cognitive science - how the human brain works
Psychology - how people learn, how they interact and what motivates them
Musicology - how music manifests itself in different styles, times and cultures
suggests that the universal appeal of music derives from the particular way the brain works as a pattern generating and recognition system.
The brain has evolved by making sense of the world from the mass of data from eyes, ears, nose, tongues and touch. To survive we must understand our confusingly complex surroundings. We learn to recognise patterns of danger, patterns of food sources, patterns of behaviour …. patterns which have meaning.
The brain responds to music by seeking to identify some sort of pattern in an otherwise ‘meaningless’ succession of SOUND.
The drive to find order out of chaos is an ongoing and integral part of human cultural and intellectual effort. It is the motivating force behind scientific endeavour. We are distressed if we can’t discover an orderliness that we can understand.
All music is about the euphoria of recognising a pattern in an otherwise random environment. We can make sense of sounds!
Order manifests itself in music through the organisation of the movement of sounds through time. Sounds are combined and sequenced to produce a musical artifact which exhibits some recognisable structure.
However, musical sense is not necessarily ‘rational’, it is not a ‘logical’ phenomena, different cultures have different music. Different people respond to different patterns, the only prerequisite is an accepted system of recognisable relationships between tones.
We are all born with an ability to hear but however simple or sophisticated the sound patterns we have to learn to recognise them.
The way it works.
All musical devices are variations on the theme of ‘spot the pattern’.
The performer or composer uses the devices of music to build up tension and excitement as patterns are established or anticipated and expectations aroused but a climax is delayed or disguised in a series of unanticipated surprises and intriguing diversions. All music plays on our natural brain sense, the art lies in tantalising the listener with heightened expectation before a final revelation.
Spine tingling, intense arousal comes from anticipating the release from tension built up by manipulating rhythm, melody, harmony, structure and texture.
The pleasant sounds of foot tapping rhythms, tuneful melodies, familiar sequences, consonance and beautiful tones are not the focus of musical pleasure, they are merely vehicles which are manipulated to create tension and release. We are excited by expectations of pleasure and satisfied by the fulfillment.
Experience, conditioning and repetition of sound patterns arouses in the listener both a memory of what has been heard and an anticipation of what is to come. This is true of both recognizable details and also of subtler patterns which might only be subliminally recognized.
Four devices or techniques are employed in all music when manipulating patterns - repetition, variation, development and contrast, and they are applied to rhythm, melody, harmony, structure and dynamics. The basic procedure might be
establishing the pattern - usually through statement and repetition. Repetition is seldom exact, because pattern recognition must be challenging if music is to be interesting.
moving away from the established pattern -
variation or embellishment - generating interest as the pattern is decorated or disguised
development - involving taking apart the original phrases and recombining or displacing them in novel and intriguing ways
contrast - a bolder tool where a new surprising composition is presented to compare and contrast with the original pattern.
resolving back to the secure familiar sound of the original.
An established rhythm with 4 beats to the bar is broken up in an endless variety of ways in Latin American music or it can be transformed with subtle delays or anticipations as in jazz swing but always we sense the secure feel of the familiar beat.
All good melody keeps us guessing. The melody can ebb and flow, climax and cascade, in the motion and repose of a song but it always seems to return to a recognisable structure.
Harmonies will move characteristically and surprisingly but will invariably return to the ‘home base’ of the tonic.
Musical dynamics will add contrast and variety, breaking monotony and retaining interest, but the standard dynamic is always remembered as a reference point.
Even though we can understand what appears to happen to music in the brain we cannot instruct the Mozarts, Beethovens and Armstrongs how best it is done! Good music is a tantalizing, intriguing surprising mystery!
We can now identify an objective. This course explains how rhythm, melody, harmony, structure and dynamics can be manipulated to create and disguise recognisable patterns which result in excitement and satisfaction.
The benefits of music.
Mind and body
Science is suggesting that the enjoyment of music reflects the way we are 'wired' together in the brain. Furthermore, imperfectly understood research is now confirming that the benefits of music are widespread and include -
improved brain function and higher cognitive ability, mental agility and concentration improved physical dexterity and emotional balance resulting from an improved mind / body interface with the possibility of therapeutic help in clinical recovery …
these findings suggest that music is not only a cultural phenomenon but that it has origins in the evolution of the human brain. Music is not only the food of love but also provides sustenance and enhancement for the brain!
There are further, social, benefits of music which should not be forgotten. Many hard earned accomplishments deliver self confidence and enviable social status but music has a particular potency because of its ubiquitous social context.
We suggest that no aspiring musician can afford to ignore the social benefits of performance. Most social gatherings are complemented by music. No party is complete without music and anyone who can play an instrument is the first on the guest list. In the local pub, village hall, social club, sports club, dance hall, theatre, rehearsal room, studio or concert hall, the ability to play has become a most valuable asset.
For the rhythm guitarist, the ability to accompany singing with a chord progression or harmonic sequence is a most valuable asset, and if your skill stretches to playing a lead chorus or some 'funky fill ins’ so much the better.
The coming of the electronic organ has brought new opportunities and challenges for keyboard players as a massive variety of musical contributions are now available for every social event.
If brass or reed players are identified they will almost certainly be prevailed upon to 'take a chorus' and electrify the atmosphere. Music enhances almost all social occasions!
Everybody can learn?
Any accomplishment, and music is no exception requires talent, special knowledge, training, effort, technique, facility, endurance, strength, agility, concentration, rapid reflexes and more.
Successful musical performance is not easy to achieve.
However, musical abilities are not 'gifted' to one individual as opposed to another; rather, they are the result of SPECIALISATION, and in the value placed on music by peers.
Overwhelmingly musical ability is the result of motivation to invest time in the learning process.
The benefits we have outlined should encourage every parent to persuade their children to learn to play a musical instrument. The younger they start the investment the better. Children learn to speak from a very early age there is no reason why music should be any different. Music has to be learned in the same way as a language. At an early age children will learn music by ear, which is the best possible way.
The more we uncover about the working of the brain and neural networks, the more we realise the importance of stimulation. And stimulation in formative years is the most important of all, it is then that the network is being established and at its most receptive. Undoubtedly the younger the better!
Later in life?
Although it is probable that learning is easier when we are young but it is possible to learn at any age. There is an argument that learning later in life brings a bonus of learning by understanding. Again there are parallels with learning a language. If we understand vocabulary, grammar, syntax and idioms, learning a language maybe easier, and so too with music. Learning by understanding is an increasingly important insight. Learning ‘facts’ is a cul-de-sac, few have good enough memories, but once guiding principles are understood progress can be rapid. Maybe there is a short cut to success in later life, understanding music theory, or the vocabulary, grammar, syntax and idioms, provides assistance which is unavailable to the young who can only learn by trial and error!
Adults are also more readily aware of differences in style, tone quality and pitch as a result of their experience. The capacity for analytic thinking can improve with age. The learning capacity of adults declines far more slowly than most people believe, and experience more than compensates for any loss in mental agility.
Adult audiences are attracted to music by the excitement and admiration generated by mastery of skills as well as the pleasure from the performance. Personal involvement in playing intensifies the meaning and pleasure of the musical experience and can change us from interested observers into active participants. Such SELF-MOTIVATION gives an immediate advantage in that improves the capacity to learn.
An amazing number of adults harbour a sincere and unfulfilled desire to play but most have serious misconceptions about the study of music and grave doubts about their ability to succeed.
However, musicianship is a simple marriage of physical and intellectual skills and we only get out of life what we put in -- there is a virtuous circle of interest, motivation, understanding, playing, pleasure and satisfaction.
Far too many of us make excuses, ‘It's too late for me to begin,’ or ‘I took lessons for a couple of years as a child, and now I regret that I didn't stick with it.’ Admittedly starting as young as possible is the ideal, but whatever your age it is never too late. It is possible, and the results are rewarding. You'll feel a sense of achievement from making your own music. You will gain confidence as you progress. In addition, you will meet new people with whom to share experiences as you learn.
If you are an adult who has always wanted to play, it’s never too late and there's no time like the present to take those first steps toward making your dream of playing come true.
The benefits of music are clear and cannot be ignored, we suggest understanding and participation enhances both the enjoyment and the benefits of music.
There is a vast wealth of music from all periods, all countries and all styles, played and written for all instruments. No matter how dedicated and diligent, nobody can hope to listen to and appreciate all that is available, and yet, it is all potentially rewarding and interesting in its own way. How do we decide what to listen to or to play?
We can identify three broad musical style categories, which are, of course, unsatisfactory but nevertheless useful markers for understanding. But, remember, a lot of music - military music? Church music? - defies classification and each category involves a multitude of sub categories --
Folk music – world wide music shared by particular cultural or ethnic groups, usually in rural communities and largely played by amateurs, such music is transmitted aurally and is often not readily accessible. Originally all music was in this category.
Classical music – a particular Western European tradition, composed and performed by trained professionals originally under the patronage of courts and religious establishments, but now widely available in concert halls and on record.
Popular music -- of massive variety, performed by professionals and amateurs, disseminated through theatre, film, radio, television, records and print, and consumed by the urban mass public as entertainment.
How do we choose which music to enjoy? There is only one criterion, personal satisfaction.
We must now interject that it is our firm belief that any preference for a particular musical style is not relevant -
the benefits and pleasures of music are available to us whatever our style preferences because all music works the same way.
However we can improve our personal satisfaction by exploration and participation.
If we can sight read, a wealth of musical material can open up which will provide limitless new opportunities for challenging and satisfying experience. Sight-reading makes available more material and aids memory in reproducing composed music. Prior to sound recording mass communication of music was confined to the score.
However, we should remember that notation is a particular characteristic of Western classical music. In all other cultures, folk and popular music rely on memory and improvisation. Most of the world's music is learned by hearing.
Furthermore, it is only in the last century that sound recording has been significant in communicating musical styles that go beyond notation.
Historically the music that we are exposed to has been severely limited.
There is a further problem of inertia, the temptation to continue to listen to the particular music from our familiar environment. Sticking to the tried and tested in the local tradition avoids the effort of learning a new sound system.
But if we continue to listen to the same cherished pieces by the same revered players and composers, opportunities can be missed. Predictability sets in and excitement and emotional arousal dissipated. Passive listening and overexposure can result in benefits to the brain and mind being diminished.
We need the freshness of discovery, the thrill of surprise, the challenge of a new contribution?
Traditional teaching methods don’t help either. Learning music is not about sight reading, it is not instrument specific, it is not passing music exams, it is not scales, it is not drills, it is not exercises, it is not even recreating masterworks, all this is likely to result in boredom and not the life-long musical enjoyment that is possible. Most musical instruction ‘goes through the motions’ of teaching 'conventions' but neglects the enlightenment of understanding music as sound patterns.
The route to success in music is not necessarily through the formal training of parentally inspired piano lessons but more realistically through exploring the urge to create and respond to exciting sound. Experimenting and exploring the sounds of the current pop tunes by strumming a guitar may be far more beneficial than force fed scales. Musicianship develops through practice more than through instruction.
We suggest that if you view music as a dynamic process of endless variety and explore new sounds and new possibilities for organising music, your interest, enjoyment and satisfaction will multiply. Focusing on the discovery of new kinds of music, of different styles, from different periods or cultures, will encourage you to analyse, evaluate and perform, and so enhance your enjoyment. Familiarity with many styles and forms of music will unlock the doors to ongoing musical interest and enjoyment.
Your target should be to experience the widest possible range of music and learn that the expressive components are common to all music and above all, understand that music is about RECOGNISABLE PATTERNS of SOUND.
We now extend the argument from exploration to participation. The point we want to make is that musical ambition should be about positive self-development, about participation in your own music making.
Our target should be to search for our own individual musical style. New exciting sounds, the sounds that each and every one of us can discover and produce from our own particular experience.
Our aim is for you to understand and further enjoy music by playing and creative self expression. We suggest this participative approach to music develops and invigorates and whereas passive listening could be manipulative and oppressive.
This, then is our 'SALES PITCH', more PLEASURE and more BENEFIT from music through UNDERSTANDING what is going on and exploring through active PARTICIPATION.
Self expression and improvisation.
All music is marvelous, and our endeavour is to help you to enjoy all music, but our specialisation is improvisation. However, the musical basis for improvisation through aural perception provides relevant understanding for ALL MUSICAL STYLES.
It is the excitement and satisfaction derived from creative SELF-EXPRESSION that is the basis of our suggestion that you learn to play and to improvise.
People listen and respond to music almost everywhere but many of us have also have a desire to create our own music and it is music as a means of SELF-EXPRESSION that we are concerned with in this course.
It is the creation of SPONTANEOUS music, or musical invention that we call improvisation. The particular appeal of improvisation is that the ‘apparent’ creation of order is done ‘casually’ without recourse to the studious effort of formal composition. Creating recognisable patterns in such challenging environments adds to our sense of excitement and achievement.
Anything new is unfamiliar and a challenge, it elicits natural responses, and invites associations and comparisons. Musical creativity results when something new is produced by combining, recombining and displacing musical components that are recognised as part of a system. In music, patterns must be recognised, order must be discovered, fingerings must respond, surprising changes and developments must be explored for their expressive possibilities … so many options.
When improvising we try to develop our own ideas that make some sort of sense, ideas that are not necessarily those already worked out by others. There is no one in charge offering a musical composition for others to receive; instead, there is the excitement of DISCOVERY.
Innovation is an important force for good in Western culture, although less so in many other societies. It is the new and novel that interests and excites us. It is the new and the novel that is essential for progress.
Improvisation has a long tradition. Classical music, although primarily compositional, is not devoid of improvisation, and musicians from Bach, to Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt, have practised and enjoyed improvisation. Traditional folk music was necessarily improvised, and modern recreations nearly always involve improvisational elements. In contemporary fields of commercial light music, pop and electronic music, improvisation has a role. Modern popular music and improvisation are inseparable.
But it is JAZZ that dominates improvisational music, and jazz influences almost ALL POPULAR MUSIC today.
The history of jazz provides an interesting digression.
The jazz environment encourages imagination, spontaneity and originality, where creativity is possible and individuality valued. Jazz music is culturally important, social in context, rhythmic in nature, innovative sounding, aurally transmitted, participative dance music.
It is worth pausing to look back at the jazz tradition to emphasise these points. At the turn of the century music in the Southern States of America produced some genuine innovation. The music was an amalgam of many influences, all of them inseparable from social activity -
the songs - work songs, parlour songs, church hymns, marches, minstrelsy sing songs, ragtime banjo play alongs, dance songs and the blues …
the social gatherings - camp meetings, line outs, song sermons, ring shouts, jubilees, funerals, weddings, christenings, picnics, lawn parties, dances, candy stews, clambakes, fish fries, corn shuckings, tailgate parties, beer busts, riverboat excursions, secret societies, hoe-downs, meat-outs, soirees …
the locations - plantations, parlours, churches, street parades, medicine shows, vaudeville theatres, honky tonks, barrel houses, gin mills, saloons, dance halls, bandwagons, gambling joints, crap houses, speakeasies, sporting houses, clip joints, bordellos, cabarets, whore houses, brothels ...
the dances - quadrilles, scottises, slow drags, waltz, polkas, cakewalks, mazurka, lancers, bamboulas, Latin rhythms, 'Spanish tinges', tangos, habaneras, rhumbas, turkey trots, grizzly bears, bunny hugs, chicken scratches, monkey glides, camel walks, buzzard lopes, fox trots, black bottoms, Charlestons ...
The music that emerged from this cauldron of mixed cultures and traditions was ASTONISHING. It was first and foremost rhythmic music, participatory rhythmic music, full of syncopation and cross rhythms, the melodies were often banal and the harmonies simplistic but the result was a foot tapping participative urge, a body moving dance music.
Some legendary musicians in New Orleans around 1900 transformed the brass marching bands and the ‘sweet’ string dance and picnic bands into something new. The string bass, drums, guitar / banjo, clarinet, cornet and trombone were put together to play the music that was everywhere and fused it with the low down dirty blues of the dance dives.
Jazz interpretation emerges from simultaneous horizontal 'part' playing and idiomatic rhythmic phrasing, not from vertical harmonies. Independent melodic lines were played collectively, lead lines with counter statements. A new way of creating interest by the time tested method of tension and release through interrupting and disguising an established regular alternation of strong and weak rhythmic pulses. Growls, slurs, glissandi, bends, scoops … and general irreverence, adding interest from the unexpected.
It was a way of playing existing songs. Relaxed, laid back, synchronised empathy not stiff, stilted, awkward or 'corny'. Not only a matter of impulse and improvisation but also much more to do with happy good times.
The emotional haunting music of the blues added a completely new ambience to the rhythmic innovations. The blues originated in the last century from the early work songs and church songs on the American plantations. These 'riveting laments of the rural South' were from field hollers and Baptist jubilees. Blues have a characteristically different sound and a traditional musical structure.
The particular attraction of the blues to jazz musicians is the freedom to create melody and rhythmic patterns around a familiar framework. Thousands of blues of with unimaginable diversity have been created over the years around the same basic structure. When improvising some sort of framework is essential to avoid chaos, and because jazz is essentially a rhythmic music the relative simplicity of the harmony is irrelevant. Nevertheless the basic sequence can be adapted and 'enhanced' in endless ways, but the fundamental 'feeling' of the blues sequence is always intact.
Although initially a black music there was an immediate and lasting appeal to white taste, the music was both -
hauntingly different with new scales and continuous syncopation and cross rhythms and
surprisingly coherent as it emerged from a spontaneous big fun atmosphere.
There were two innovative and creative aspects which bounced the music into prominence -
swing, which requires an in depth assessment, is the manifestation of the tension and release created by disguising and subtly changing the beat. Difficult to describe unmistakable when present. Buoyant, detached, floating, melodic 'trajectories', away from the 'ground beat'. Resulting in a lilt, which has to be felt rather than taught.
improvisation, or the spontaneous creative self expression of new music adds a further intriguing challenge.
The great marvels of jazz are the lilting unfathomable swing and its incredible spontaneity, which demand an immediate body moving response.
The initial innovation has led to a century of further development. New threads are constantly added, each innovation building on the previous one, until the idiosyncrasies of modern jazz bear little superficial resemblance to the original.
Nevertheless, the roots and the tree are the same, and, furthermore, the whole edifice of American popular music has been nurtured from the same fountainhead of turn of the century jazz innovation.
Many people want to be able to improvise jazz and swing, it has an unfathomable attraction. All ages, all abilities, and all backgrounds seem to respond.
Recruits probably start playing popular songs or folk songs because they are ‘technically’ easier, but nevertheless the generation of the musical effect requires the same skill in any style, it is dependent only on the sensitivity of the listener.
The majority of youngsters probably play the guitar or keyboard, and are motivated by the simple urge to get up and do something they enjoy. As accomplishment develops, the possibility of self expression in their own music becomes a reality.
Candidates are those who, when young, want to rebel and try something disapprovingly different and, when older, want to escape from the daily grind and lift themselves out of the rut of routine. This may help to assert individuality or help acceptance of an expanding waistline or greying hair. Many are simply those who can find a little time to devout to music. The bug can bite at any age.
The chance to perform, especially before a participating audience, brings camaraderie as well as personal satisfaction. Good spirits from the music are infectious. Mistakes are a joke. Egos are taboo. It is not technical ability that is attractive but willingness to participate and share. Jazz is a collective music. Effects are produced by exchange. It is doing and participating.
Jazz in its widest sense encompasses all derived POPULAR MUSIC … blues, boogie, bluegrass, country & western, musical theatre, swing, rhythm & blues, rock ‘n roll, rock, doo wop, motown, soul, gospel .... etc. etc. … ALL SPRING FROM THE SAME SOURCE ...
This then is our ‘SPECIALISATION’, we are biased but we urge you to discover the delights of jazz improvisation as a route to UNDERSTANDING and PARTICIPATING in music making!
Regardless of our biased view of the delights of jazz this course is based on sound MUSIC THEORY and understandings in COGNITIVE SCIENCE and PSYCHOLOGY together with years of TEACHING EXPERIENCE.
Musical scholarship and research abounds with new insights and we are increasingly aware of the nature of music and how students learn and how they form preferences and make musical judgements.
We now understand how sound patterns are assimilated. Ancient scales and the once-mysterious music from other cultures have now been explored and can be exploited in today's music. Dissonance, once the hallmark of the new, is now commonplace. Indeed, what once sounded shockingly innovative may seem utterly conventional today! In light of the rapidly increasing diversity of today's music, no teacher can afford to retreat behind the security of a fixed and unchanging system or repertoire.
Nevertheless, to improvise effectively a musician must thoroughly understand the conventions of any given musical style. These conventions provide a sort of mental library for the musician, effective chord sequences, rhythmic patterns, melodic motives, and so forth, that are combined, varied, and used as a starting point for new inventions. The conventions are essential otherwise colleagues and listeners would not recognise the sound patterns. Doing your own thing and disregarding the traditions of the style will leave you alone, with no colleagues, no listeners, and no participation!
As with many other aspects of music, improvisation is often thought to be a GIFT and something that cannot be taught! It has to be admitted that when we listen to an expert performer it is easy to assume ‘I COULD NEVER DO THAT’!
An inspiring performance is the end result of activities which, because of our ignorance, lead us to think that there must be some GENIUS involved. Fortunately for the aspiring jazzman, our knowledge now allows us to modify these ideas.
Our experience of teaching and studies in psychology and cognitive science, have made available a body of knowledge that allows us to understand how these dramatic effects are produced.
THERE IS NO LONGER ANY SECRET!
The required ‘know how’ is available and HERE and it is no use protesting that you have ‘no ability’ and excusing yourself by assuming you have ‘no aptitude’; we now know that improvisation can be learnt by anyone.
We are aware that any musical performance is a WHOLE and cannot be broken down into its parts. However, because we are subject to human limitations and cannot appreciate the nature of complex wholes we have, by necessity, to ANALYSE the parts in order to try to understand. This is the only way the OBJECTIVE mind knows how to work. Unfortunately, in breaking down the whole, we can destroy all meaning. The danger is that analysis of the parts will obliterate the value of the creation; just as a flower is destroyed if we try to dismember the petals in an attempt to discover the source of its beauty!
However, we suggest that in addition to our objective mind we posses a SUBCONSCIOUS mind, which can SYNTHESISE, or put together again, the things we have learnt from analysis. Thus, the objective mind provides the material for the subconscious mind to use to create the finished performance. In this way, the analysis should not destroy the beauty and integrity of the whole.
This course aims, methodically, to analyse the elements, which when assimilated and synthesized will produce the desired spontaneous creation of music, or improvisation.
There is nothing mysterious about this; once the work has been completed, the desired result is BOUND TO MATERIALISE!
We suggest that improvisation is nothing more than the subconscious projection of material previously absorbed by the objective, thinking, mind or brain. The raw material must be accumulated before any proficiency at improvisation emerges.
Bearing this in mind, it does seem wasteful to pursue self-education based on slow and painful collection of material through personal experience. Improvisation can be learnt entirely by trial and error, by ‘ear’, by copying others but progress will be slow and unnecessarily difficult.
Teaching can shorten the time it will take you to reach some of your early goals. Not only will you have the benefit of the teacher's years of experience and expertise, but also a teacher can provide encouragement that will keep you progressing.
We avoid tedious, repetitious practising, we encourage sensitive, intelligent music-making in groups! The dynamics of a group encourage sympathetic listening as well as performing. Playing for others becomes a natural experience to be enjoyed and not feared. We focus on fun and enjoyment and on songs not scales and exercises.
We recognised that it is very difficult to play a musical instrument well, especially when there are so many precocious youngsters around! We suggest you play a little, often. We know there is a painful struggle to get to the first plateau, but once you have reached first base you will know how the process works. Second base will be no easier but at least you will have the confidence from experience of knowing how it’s done and what’s involved.
You must listen to play well. However, you become a much better listener through playing because you can hear the playing solutions to the problems you have personally experienced. Players are much better listeners, and listeners are much better players. Moreover, listening players secure more satisfaction and enjoyment from music.
Through jazz improvisation, we try to give you the musical tools that will prepare you for a general musical lifestyle. We provide an integrated course in theory, analysis, and playing of the basic materials of music which can be applied to any style.
We focus on playing varied material of personal choice that should result in fun and enjoyment, recognising that motivation is the essential prerequisite for the learning process. We use a variety of examples but only as aids to help you discover the characteristics that you enjoy in your kind of music.
We engage in the same process that is used by all great musicians. Recognising and creating the fundamental rhythms of music, forming melodic phrases, harmonising them, improvising new compliments and listening critically for structural balance and dynamic variety. In this way you will discover the meaning of music and begin to sense what goes into the making of a successful performance whatever the style or context.
We teach MUSIC, not a particular series of masterworks. We develop understanding, not merely skills, hoping that you will move forward more confidently and competently into active participation in music making.
Music, like most other subjects, and jazz is no exception, is based on pattern and ORDER; improvisation HAS been studied, it is KNOWN and it CAN be learnt. Here’s how!
john p birchall
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