Note: This was originally posted in 2012.
Today, I am going to walk you through two things you can do to get a more interesting sound in your music. If you have followed the blog for any amount of time, one will be familiar to you and the other less so.
We are going to be working with an 8-bar phrase that you might typically see as an introduction or interlude. There is no real melody associated with it so we have full freedom to do what we want.
I see a lot of music and I thought we could start with an example of the kind of writing I often see, especially from inexperienced arrangers.
There is nothing wrong with this of course. It utilizes a simple broken chord pattern in the right hand called a straddle. Because it is used so consistently, it makes the piece sound very developed rather than maybe just something the pianist is playing off the top of his/her head.
Assuming we are going to stick with this 8 chord progression, let’s apply two different concepts that will make these 8 bars more interesting. The first thing we are going to do is something deceptively simple: we are going to move the melody notes (top notes) on those straddles further away from the roots of the chords. By that I mean that we are going to use notes that are not necessarily in the triad of the chord (root, third, or fifth). Here is one way to go about it.
Play this example against the first example and note the difference in complexity in the sound. This one uses 7ths and 9ths as the top notes in the straddles rather than 3rds and 5ths. Putting Eb (b9) on top of the D7 is especially pretty. Remember, we call these kinds of decisions voicing decisions. Voicing refers to the order and positions of the actual notes of a chord as played on the keyboard.
When you start choosing the top notes you play on the keyboard according to this principle, your sound will improve dramatically. Color notes are always great but they are really great when they are on top of the voicing.
Let’s also consider something else we can do with these 8 bars. This is much more dramatic. I want you to lose some of the structure. In other words, loosen up on those patterns. Just because you play straddles for a bar does not mean you need to play straddles in the next bar. No the music will not sound as structured and planned, but it will sound more interesting.
I know this is different than what many of you have been taught. Frankly, it is different than what I was taught in college. Especially for classical music lovers who greatly value structure, this is a very different approach. But I want you to sound a little less “Mozart-y” and a little more modern.
Here is an example of what I might do to these 8 bars.
Don’t bother looking for structure in my patterns here. You won’t be able to identify much (because there isn’t much). But that does not mean that there is no method to the madness. There are some rules I am following:
1) The rhythm is intentionally varied throughout but not so much that the overall phrase lacks uniformity.
2) The lines I am playing are based on the chord underneath them. (By this, I mean the notes in the line belong to the underlying chords.)
3) The line designed for each chord is designed to connect seamlessly to the line for the next chord.
4) Lines for each chord do not necessarily start or stop with the chord. Note the use of pickups throughout the phrase.
5) The notes that are played on downbeats and other critical spots are chosen intentionally using the concept we just discussed (putting color notes on top of voicings).
As you can imagine, the actual lines that you can use in these 8 bars are numerous. The one above is fairly similar to what I would do off the top of my head. If I had the time, I might work up something more creative and complex.
Don’t expect to be able to do this immediately, but it is not as hard as you might think. Developing lines like this will help you in numerous ways too. So give it a shot and stick with it. Practically anything you do will sound more interesting than consistent 8th note straddles.