Texture series: Words about motion

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It has been a busy last few weeks for many reasons including music. Last week, I started and finished recording a new piano album in my own studio and today, I am heading to Nashville today to record an album with the Studio Contest winners Niah and Allisha Merrill. I will keep you up to date on that throughout the week.

Let’s revisit our texture series today and talk about another important concept that I will refer to as motion. Truthfully, if I had a degree from some prestigious music conservatory, I might use a more official name but I will just call it motion.

For me, motion refers to how “busy” the music is or if you were going to pin me down in a technical way, I would say how much time there is between the notes that are being played.

Here is a quick example.

ibmw1

These are a few lines from an arrangement of “In the Bleak Mid-Winter.” Note the difference in motion between the two lines. The first one is moving on quarter notes (primarily) and the second line is moving on eighth notes.

There is clearly a place for all kinds of different motion in your arranging. That being said, here are some factors to consider.

  • Pianists have a happy medium in which they are most comfortable. As a rule, pianists will struggle with music that has little motion. Simple music is extremely hard to play well and requires above average musicality from the musician. And on the other side of the equation, more motion means higher technical demand, and the average pianist cannot be expected to handle overly technical stuff well. (It is not like they don’t have jobs and families and other things to do besides practice music.)
  • The nature of the piano lends itself toward some motion. Remember how a piano works. Keys are struck and the sound begins to decay immediately, even with a sustain pedal. It is very different from a choir or other instruments that can sustain sounds forever and even change dynamics while the sound is being sustained. Because a piano’s sound begins to decay immediately, it is natural for there to usually be a need to play something else relatively quickly to keep the sound going.
  • In general, you want to usually stay somewhere in the middle while not ignoring the extremes completely. There is a place for music with less motion and there is a place for lots of motion. The key is to use those variations in motion in a way that helps bring contrast to the piece.

At this point, you may be looking for some kind of concrete formulas to follow and I can’t really give you any. For example, I can’t tell you that your motion should be in eighth notes rather than quarter notes for any number of reasons but most notably, tempo makes all of those decisions relative anyway. In the end, your ear is always your best guide.

Now, all of that introduction brings me to my textural tip for the day. When you are trying to get more motion into a piece and you want to keep it technical accessible for yourself and other pianists, the simplest way to do that is divide motion between the two hands. I am going to show you an incredibly simple but effective way to do that today.

Here is the example from above again and pay attention what I have circled.

ibmw3

I use this kind of motion constantly in my arrangements. The tie is sort of a giveaway to what I am doing and it is sort of related to the idea of the “push” that we discussed a few weeks ago. Rather than playing a open interval on beat one or the G on beat 1 and the F on beat 2, I intentionally create a pattern that makes more motion in beat 1 to fill up space.

Now, let’s look at a more involved pattern that I use a lot that will demonstrate it better.

ibmw4

The last two bars demonstrate a very simple but effective way to use both hands together to create motion. This is far easier than it might look. Essentially, the right hand is playing quarter notes but the left hand fills in the gaps so that the overall motion is in eighth notes. The sound is interesting but technically, it is laughably simple.

So here is the takeaway. When you are arranging, listen for places where the motion is too sparse and then look for ways to fill in the gaps using both hands together. Don’t allow one hand to dominate if you can help it. That will make your music technically easier to handle and spreading out the motion between hands will in general lead to a better sound overall.