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Old 06-08-2012, 08:22 AM
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Default Conveying "Musical Information" as a Player

This an excerpt from the only chapter of a book I started writing on playing earlier this year. I'm not sure if I'll ever finish it. Take it or leave it. Let me know what you think.

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I love the way master drummer and educator Peter Erskine plays, and the way he discusses his playing. The subject matter of this chapter comes from him, though the actual term he used was “rhythmic information”. He was referring to a drum solo, not having to “save the world”. He played a simple 8 bar drum solo for the B section of Duke Ellington's “Take The A Train” and then said (to paraphrase) “Now that drum solo's not gonna win any prizes, but it was true to the form, and it conveyed rhythmic information to the rest of the band members, so that they could come in and finish the tune. I would call that mission accomplished.” These words of wisdom got me thinking: what other musical information do we (not just drummers) convey with our instruments and from what angles can we approach that concept?

First off, let's define what I'll be calling musical information. It's a deceptively deep concept and it's much easier to call it what it is NOT rather than try to define it. Musical information (by my definition) is always the result of a player's action. It has to do with the notes being played and the way in which you choose to play them, rather than the timbre of the note or the sound of the room.

At its simplest level, musical information can be separated into two categories: Direct and indirect.

Direct musical information serves a utilitarian purpose; it is very clearly stated. Before the chorus of a tune, Bob The Drummer could play a full bar of sixteenth notes on his snare, with a dramatic crescendo from piano to fortissimo. Check out all the direct musical information in just that passage! He's playing a definite rhythm, and is building the volume throughout the bar. This serves the purpose of “showing” the band the beat, to prevent a trainwreck, and notifying everyone (the audience too) that the music is building in intensity.

Indirect musical information serves a textural purpose. It's easy to confuse indirect musical information with factors of the timbre, like tuning, or the sound of a singer's voice. Remember, musical information is always intentionally conveyed by a musician. Let's say instead of sixteenths on the snare drum, Bob The Drummer chooses to play a massive press roll, blending the strokes together to sound almost like a big, dramatic deep breath being drawn in (in doing so revealing himself as Bob The Super Drummer). There is now less direct information being conveyed, because Bob isn't playing a definite rhythm. He's still playing, though; It's still there, but it serves a textural purpose because of how he chooses to convey it. This is an extreme example, however, since few phrases are of indefinite rhythm. Many phrases can be conveyed indirectly, and be more “concrete”, so to speak.

For example, one of the pillars of drumming and master of airy, indirect, accessorized playing is the jazz drummer Elvin Jones. He managed to get a beautiful swirling feeling by playing over-the-barline rolling triplet ideas around the drumset (indirect) while keeping time on the ride cymbal (direct) all the while.

Closer to the present, modern Jazz great Eric Harland is an absolute master of playing what he calls “against” the time; when he plays this way, everything is an accessory to the pulse of the music. The indirect information that he conveys gives the music an incredible emotional atmosphere and is reminiscent of Elvin's swirling complexity.

“The song is always moving, whether you choose to play the time or to step away from the time.” - Eric Harland

Another great example of this for our non-drummers is a simple major triad in root position. It's got a bass note directly conveying the tonic, and a third directly conveying that it's major. You can go to town with ninths and all of those beautiful chord tones to convey indirect information. The fifth is special though, because not only does it further solidify the root to the listener (direct), it thickens the sound of the chord (loosely indirect, really it has more to do with timbre). Any chord tones added after the fifth actually diminish the solidity of the chord, and open possibilities for the listener to perceive the root as a different note than it really is. Play a C major chord and it's C major; play a C major chord with an A in it, and suddenly it could either be C major 6 or an inverted A minor 7!
That's as far as I got. I know there was more to Elvin's playing than that, but it made for a good example.

- Eric
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Old 06-08-2012, 03:16 PM
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Default Re: Conveying "Musical Information" as a Player

Good stuff, it's well written too!

I'd actually call it phrasing. I agree there's either indirect or direct phrasing and the musicians or listener will known instantly where you're going or the mood of the song by good direct phrasing.

So it IS musical information really and this applies to everyone. Ever heard a guitar solo that seems to end too early? Or they don't resolve the note or hit a disappointing one?

That's bad musical information, I think they're meant to tell you were the song is going and end with a bang.

I understand that doesn't work for everything and unresolved notes and chords can he used well but, for the most part I here loads of guitsr solos that go nowhere, or start really well then kind of fade off.

That is bad musical information i think.
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Old 06-08-2012, 04:18 PM
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Default Re: Conveying "Musical Information" as a Player

Thanks!

Yeah, one of the reasons I stopped writing was I realized the idea didn't carry as much weight as I first thought it did. Which is why I decided to just share what I had and let the hivemind tear to shreds ;)
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Old 06-08-2012, 07:14 PM
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Default Re: Conveying "Musical Information" as a Player

A few questions/quibbles:

Quote:
First off, let's define what I'll be calling musical information. It's a deceptively deep concept and it's much easier to call it what it is NOT rather than try to define it. Musical information (by my definition) is always the result of a player's action. It has to do with the notes being played and the way in which you choose to play them, rather than the timbre of the note or the sound of the room.
What's your reasoning there? Why is sound not musical information? It sounds like you're basically limiting that category to things that can be notated, which seems wrong to me. Timbre is a controllable primary musical element-- it's just not as quantifiable and easily described as the other thing. I would actually argue that uncontrolled environmental factors are also musical information-- a la Cage, I guess-- but I don't expect everyone to agree with that.

Quote:
At its simplest level, musical information can be separated into two categories: Direct and indirect.

Direct musical information serves a utilitarian purpose; it is very clearly stated. Before the chorus of a tune, Bob The Drummer could play a full bar of sixteenth notes on his snare, with a dramatic crescendo from piano to fortissimo. Check out all the direct musical information in just that passage! He's playing a definite rhythm, and is building the volume throughout the bar. This serves the purpose of “showing” the band the beat, to prevent a trainwreck, and notifying everyone (the audience too) that the music is building in intensity.

Indirect musical information serves a textural purpose. It's easy to confuse indirect musical information with factors of the timbre, like tuning, or the sound of a singer's voice. Remember, musical information is always intentionally conveyed by a musician. Let's say instead of sixteenths on the snare drum, Bob The Drummer chooses to play a massive press roll, blending the strokes together to sound almost like a big, dramatic deep breath being drawn in (in doing so revealing himself as Bob The Super Drummer). There is now less direct information being conveyed, because Bob isn't playing a definite rhythm.
He's playing fewer notes, but he is playing a definite rhythm-- he's playing a whole note. The roll serves the same function as the 16th notes, and the 16ths have a texture of their own, so what he's really doing is just making a textural change.

Quote:
He's still playing, though; It's still there, but it serves a textural purpose because of how he chooses to convey it. This is an extreme example, however, since few phrases are of indefinite rhythm. Many phrases can be conveyed indirectly, and be more “concrete”, so to speak.

For example, one of the pillars of drumming and master of airy, indirect, accessorized playing is the jazz drummer Elvin Jones. He managed to get a beautiful swirling feeling by playing over-the-barline rolling triplet ideas around the drumset (indirect) while keeping time on the ride cymbal (direct) all the while.
It sounds like you're using direct to mean "functional" and indirect to mean "textural", which are not opposites-- textural information serves a function, and all functional information also has texture. You could dispense with the direct/indirect thing altogether.

If you think you have more of this stuff in you, you should start a blog. It's a good way of working your ideas out in manageable chunks on the fly, without the pressure of producing a "official", serious book.

And don't worry about your words not "carrying weight"-- all that means is that you won't be able to throw around any opinion you want with the expectation that people will take it as gospel because you're so great. Relying on authority is bad writing even if you can get away with it, so it's no loss to you. Just write about verifiable things-- things you can support, things you've experienced, and things you're trying to figure out.
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Old 06-08-2012, 07:22 PM
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Default Re: Conveying "Musical Information" as a Player

I get what Toddbishop is saying about the function and the texture.

I think Nerf is highlighting that certain phrases tell the band where they are going next better than others. And some fills are more 'out there'? they serve a purpose but, possible catch more people off guard.

So.... to use Nerf's terms if I was going into any musical situation with people who i hadn't met before I'd play directly and give them the 'musical information' they need to know where we or going and what is happening next.

I think that is the gist of it?

You write well, you should definitely start a blog!
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Old 06-08-2012, 07:25 PM
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Default Re: Conveying "Musical Information" as a Player

I think that's also called 'playing for the song'

But there are so many grey areas with these terms and alot of terms meaning similar things that you could argue about it all day.

I suppose those who get it, get the work.
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Old 06-08-2012, 07:59 PM
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Default Re: Conveying "Musical Information" as a Player

Thanks but I'm not going to start a blog -- I just don't write enough. Toddbishop is write... err... right, and so were you, Chunk. It really comes to down to phrasing.

Of course timbre is musical. I was only addressing the stuff that was actually being played, since, to repeat what you said, it is a lot more quantifiable than something like timbre which is ALSO defined by what it isn't (any characteristic of a sound that is not loudness or pitch). I basically was intentionally oversimplifying the concept of phrasing to help people think about it a little differently and maybe even make better musical decisions on the fly.

On the fly... that was the other piece I was assuming: The musical context I had in mind was a largely improvised one, in which case some decisions very well might come down to "do I play something 'out there' or do I need to keep the band together this beat [or this bar, etc.]?" Again, that's an oversimplification of the drummer's role in the band and what drummers play but hopefully it served to illustrate my point. I'm absolutely not trying to say this is the only way someone should think about their phrasing or their playing as a whole.
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Old 06-08-2012, 08:43 PM
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Default Re: Conveying "Musical Information" as a Player

Cool stuff. I think in terms of mood. I don't play beats and do fills....I keep the time and use it to create moods...buildups, excitement, continuity, support, unexpected things....there has to be a feeling behind it or it doesn't get played, but the time keeps relenting on. And on. Keeping time always works. When in doubt, keep the time. (Or roll...as Bill Bruford would say)
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Old 06-08-2012, 09:43 PM
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Default Re: Conveying "Musical Information" as a Player

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Originally Posted by NerfLad View Post
On the fly... that was the other piece I was assuming: The musical context I had in mind was a largely improvised one, in which case some decisions very well might come down to "do I play something 'out there' or do I need to keep the band together this beat [or this bar, etc.]?" Again, that's an oversimplification of the drummer's role in the band and what drummers play but hopefully it served to illustrate my point.
On an improvised context, the last thing I want to do is thinking, or analysing what and when I'm going to play something, as Larry said, there has to be a feeling behind it, in improvised music, you interact with the others, very spontaneously, the end results can be a beautiful conveying of "musical information" to an audience and to those playing it, or not, if the "discussion" between players and the audience is not happening, but for me, thinking and analysing fills, grooves, patterns or timbre are not part of improvising, it's what you feel, recieve and give on the spur of the moment in an improvisation, it is unique, everytime you'll play it, it will be different.

BTW, very nice OP Nerf, I enjoyed reading it :)
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Old 06-08-2012, 10:09 PM
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Default Re: Conveying "Musical Information" as a Player

There's is some good points made in your article. Good stuff. I also agree though, that there's much more to the picture.

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On an improvised context, the last thing I want to do is thinking, or analysing what and when I'm going to play something, as Larry said, there has to be a feeling behind it, in improvised music, you interact with the others, very spontaneously, the end results can be a beautiful conveying of "musical information" to an audience and to those playing it, or not, if the "discussion" between players and the audience is not happening, but for me, thinking and analysing fills, grooves, patterns or timbre are not part of improvising, it's what you feel, recieve and give on the spur of the moment in an improvisation, it is unique, everytime you'll play it, it will be different.
MAD, true, improvising should be as natural as possible so that it just happens and you don't have to think about it.. But a good way of developing your own playing is analyzing others' playing and recordings of yourself. This is what I took from Nerf's article. You can analysis one of Elvin's drums solos and ask questions like "What elements of the melody is he quoting?" "How is he developing his solo?" "How is he responding to the ideas presented by the other soloists?" "How is he preparing the listener and the other musicians for the musical passage that comes after his solo?" All of these questions can be answered by references things we've all mentioned like timbre, dynamics, complexity, direct and indirect musical information...
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Old 06-08-2012, 10:16 PM
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Cool stuff. I think in terms of mood. I don't play beats and do fills....I keep the time and use it to create moods...buildups, excitement, continuity, support, unexpected things....there has to be a feeling behind it or it doesn't get played, but the time keeps relenting on. And on. Keeping time always works. When in doubt, keep the time. (Or roll...as Bill Bruford would say)
Thanx Larry....I have a long way to go
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Old 06-08-2012, 10:26 PM
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MAD, true, improvising should be as natural as possible so that it just happens and you don't have to think about it.. But a good way of developing your own playing is analyzing others' playing and recordings of yourself. This is what I took from Nerf's article. You can analysis one of Elvin's drums solos and ask questions like "What elements of the melody is he quoting?" "How is he developing his solo?" "How is he responding to the ideas presented by the other soloists?" "How is he preparing the listener and the other musicians for the musical passage that comes after his solo?" All of these questions can be answered by references things we've all mentioned like timbre, dynamics, complexity, direct and indirect musical information...
I totally agree, as far as developing improvisional skills, analysing and understanding what and how others have mastered in this aspect of music, I would say it's almost essential, as it is essential to have a vocabulary to express yourself in an improvisation.
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Old 06-09-2012, 07:03 AM
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I totally agree, as far as developing improvisional skills, analysing and understanding what and how others have mastered in this aspect of music, I would say it's almost essential, as it is essential to have a vocabulary to express yourself in an improvisation.
One of the great paradoxical jazz nuggets: Premeditation breeds spontaneity.


Also,
Thanks everyone for the positive, intellectually sound responses. The only thing I must once again stress is not to read too heavily into what I wrote. It's a "beta" idea that takes a somewhat odd approach to the subject matter.

-Eric
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Old 06-09-2012, 09:00 AM
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One of the great paradoxical jazz nuggets: Premeditation breeds spontaneity.


Also,
Thanks everyone for the positive, intellectually sound responses. The only thing I must once again stress is not to read too heavily into what I wrote. It's a "beta" idea that takes a somewhat odd approach to the subject matter.

-Eric
You should do a thread just on these jazz nuggets you keep coming out with, lol.
Have you got a big book of jazz wisdom or something?
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Old 06-09-2012, 10:03 AM
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One of the great Also,
Thanks everyone for the positive, intellectually sound responses.
Yes, I agree. Very thought provoking post. I can't express and articulate my ideas on drumming quite as eloquently as you all, but I'll try to sound relevant.

The guitarist I jam with likes to discuss this very thing a lot. He is always stressing the importance of the rhythm section to lock in together as a solid foundation with plenty of root notes and space in between. But in doing so we need to also keep it interesting by adding indirect musical information or texture. Dynamics, phrasing, texture, crescendo and tempo all have to be blended together into a tasty mix of musical expression.

This guy told me that he wants the freedom to do anything he wants to on the guitar and it's up to me and the bass player to provide a fertile foundation for his ideas to grow and develop. He also said that it's nice to once in awhile go past the usual 3 to 4 hour practice (we're just getting warmed up) because some of the greatest musical expression can be found in the 6th, 7th or 8th hour of continuous session work (which means a few breaks here and there).
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Old 06-09-2012, 02:58 PM
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You should do a thread just on these jazz nuggets you keep coming out with, lol.
Have you got a big book of jazz wisdom or something?
Haha, you'd think, right? (Chunky and I have been PM'ing back and forth)
John Reilly's got a bunch of them. I got a few from my band director when I was in high school. I dunno! I guess it's just the nature of jazz musicians to have little sayings for things.

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Yes, I agree. Very thought provoking post. I can't express and articulate my ideas on drumming quite as eloquently as you all, but I'll try to sound relevant.

The guitarist I jam with likes to discuss this very thing a lot. He is always stressing the importance of the rhythm section to lock in together as a solid foundation with plenty of root notes and space in between. But in doing so we need to also keep it interesting by adding indirect musical information or texture. Dynamics, phrasing, texture, crescendo and tempo all have to be blended together into a tasty mix of musical expression.

This guy told me that he wants the freedom to do anything he wants to on the guitar and it's up to me and the bass player to provide a fertile foundation for his ideas to grow and develop. He also said that it's nice to once in awhile go past the usual 3 to 4 hour practice (we're just getting warmed up) because some of the greatest musical expression can be found in the 6th, 7th or 8th hour of continuous session work (which means a few breaks here and there).
That's great that I could touch on something you've been experiencing! I agree that I get WAY more out there with the stuff I can do as I just keep playing and get in the zone. When we gig, by the third set I'll start playing fills that surprise me because it becomes automatic, and I'll be like, "where on Earth did I learn that?!"
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Old 06-09-2012, 07:15 PM
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That's great that I could touch on something you've been experiencing! I agree that I get WAY more out there with the stuff I can do as I just keep playing and get in the zone. When we gig, by the third set I'll start playing fills that surprise me because it becomes automatic, and I'll be like, "where are on Earth did I learn that?!"
Yes, I don't know a lot about jazz drumming. I certainly enjoy it with all its diversity and complexity, but I've also found this type of playing in rock too that goes way beyond your standard 4/4 beat. This is what we are trying to accomplish in the studio.

Here is an example of what I'm talking about http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjRgn2oQwsw&feature=plcp

This is Wally Ingram playing (Timbuk 3 - Future's so bright I gotta wear shades) and it's a really good example of what you are explaining here in this thread, but from a rock perspective. Just amazing stuff and truly an inspiration for a hack like me.
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Old 06-10-2012, 10:57 AM
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It's..... so funky...
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Old 06-11-2012, 05:50 AM
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“The song is always moving, whether you choose to play the time or to step away from the time.” - Eric Harland
This is a problematic statement, especially if it's taken literally. Does Mr. Harland actually "step away" from the time? What does that even mean? Does he ignore it? And if so, how does he find his way back to it?

I realize, of course, that this isn't the case. But it's funny when otherwise well-meaning (and amazing) musicians mince words when describing their style or approach. It's just not that complicated! All any drummer is ever doing is emphasizing or de-emphasizing the downbeats, the upbeats, or whatever rhythmic theme that has been presented by the music at hand. When we use rhythms that are within the stylistic confines of that genre or piece to reinforce or disguise the rhythms of the music, we sound good, and when we use those that are not part of the music's vocabulary, we don't. On some level every great drummer understands this idea, even if they can't verbalize it (which is fine with me, I don't need my favorite drummers to also be Nobel laureates!).

Daniel Levitin writes in his book "This Is Your Brain On Music" that "music is a game of expectation". The central idea is that if, as a musician, you create a theme, you can meet or defy the listener's expectation of what comes next. If you defy those expectations momentarily, but meet them in a creative or clever way shortly thereafter, you will engage the listener, and reward him/her for paying attention.

Solos that "go nowhere" usually suffer from two problems. First, there may not be enough repetition or space between ideas. A stream of ever-changing notes with no discernable pattern, end-point, or grouping is not very listenable, because there is no reward for paying attention. A more effective approach is to play a short idea, and then repeat the short idea, with a variation or additional note(s). Second, a solo from a pitched instrument (guitar, bass, piano, etc.) ought to reflect the scale or chord at hand, or the one coming next shortly. To the degree that the note played is related to the scale/chord, the listener will experience "resolution" or "tension" (playing the root, third, or 5th degree will create strong resolution). Some modern music scarcely uses resolution, and is quite comfortable with its tension and dissonance. It's appreciators, though, are usually studied musicians themselves, so the message is perceived.

Nerflad, I like where you're going with your piece, and I understand what you're trying to say (I think), but I would encourage you to check out Levitin's book, and well as reading up on musical and rhythmic expectation. You know, do some "homework"! :)
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Old 06-11-2012, 07:15 AM
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This is a problematic statement, especially if it's taken literally. Does Mr. Harland actually "step away" from the time? What does that even mean? Does he ignore it? And if so, how does he find his way back to it?

I realize, of course, that this isn't the case. But it's funny when otherwise well-meaning (and amazing) musicians mince words when describing their style or approach. It's just not that complicated! All any drummer is ever doing is emphasizing or de-emphasizing the downbeats, the upbeats, or whatever rhythmic theme that has been presented by the music at hand. When we use rhythms that are within the stylistic confines of that genre or piece to reinforce or disguise the rhythms of the music, we sound good, and when we use those that are not part of the music's vocabulary, we don't. On some level every great drummer understands this idea, even if they can't verbalize it (which is fine with me, I don't need my favorite drummers to also be Nobel laureates!).

Daniel Levitin writes in his book "This Is Your Brain On Music" that "music is a game of expectation". The central idea is that if, as a musician, you create a theme, you can meet or defy the listener's expectation of what comes next. If you defy those expectations momentarily, but meet them in a creative or clever way shortly thereafter, you will engage the listener, and reward him/her for paying attention.

Solos that "go nowhere" usually suffer from two problems. First, there may not be enough repetition or space between ideas. A stream of ever-changing notes with no discernable pattern, end-point, or grouping is not very listenable, because there is no reward for paying attention. A more effective approach is to play a short idea, and then repeat the short idea, with a variation or additional note(s). Second, a solo from a pitched instrument (guitar, bass, piano, etc.) ought to reflect the scale or chord at hand, or the one coming next shortly. To the degree that the note played is related to the scale/chord, the listener will experience "resolution" or "tension" (playing the root, third, or 5th degree will create strong resolution). Some modern music scarcely uses resolution, and is quite comfortable with its tension and dissonance. It's appreciators, though, are usually studied musicians themselves, so the message is perceived.

Nerflad, I like where you're going with your piece, and I understand what you're trying to say (I think), but I would encourage you to check out Levitin's book, and well as reading up on musical and rhythmic expectation. You know, do some "homework"! :)
Brent this is exceptional, I got a lot out of this.
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Old 06-11-2012, 05:10 PM
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NerfLad NerfLad is offline
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Default Re: Conveying "Musical Information" as a Player

So did I. Thanks brent. Much to learn, I still have....
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Old 06-11-2012, 05:49 PM
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Default Re: Conveying "Musical Information" as a Player

Very well written; good grammar and writing style. Interesting as well. You should definitely continue to write it.
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Old 06-12-2012, 12:21 AM
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Default Re: Conveying "Musical Information" as a Player

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Originally Posted by larryace View Post
Brent this is exceptional, I got a lot out of this.
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So did I. Thanks brent. Much to learn, I still have....
Thanks guys! If only I found playing as easy as I do talking about playing...
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