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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

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May 9, 2013 | Best of JM: Fourthness and Purple

Enjoy the popular archive material below.
From August 2, 2007 | Fourthness and Purple


Music is such a subjective thing. The combination of art and science blends worlds of aesthetic intangibles with harsh concrete science, bringing listener and performer together in ways neither can control, predict, or imagine. The way the sense of hearing engages the mind is not unlike the other four senses; based on cumulative personal experience and familiarity, sometimes studied, more often subconscious.

Consider the antiseptic smell of a hospital. Most folks are conditioned to be uncomfortable around this, past unpleasant experiences condition the nose to warn the brain of potential discomfort, yet to a rescued jungle wanderer, this smell of civilization might instill an emotional state of sanctuary. The sound of a thunderstrom can be terrifying to a Sheltie puppy, but to a drought-stricken farmer, it's the voice of angels. Commercial graphic artists tell us a smooth Reflex Blue will induce calm to the reader, Cardinal Red will stimulate both attention and alarm. The senses respond culturally in somewhat predictable ways, but as individuals, often based on past experiences out of extremely personal histories.

Music and sound for the studied musician may mean significantly more than to the novice. Knowledge of theory involves the brick and mortar of harmonic and melodic structure, but this is mere intellect. How the aesthetic, the intuitive responds is every much as significant, and we can't afford to be eggheads about our theory. Ultimately, it's still a tool to not only deeper understanding, but a path to a higher level artistic experience. If done properly, in performances it can bring our audience along with us.

Chicago multi-instrumentalist and jazz mandolin pioneer, Don Stiernberg tells of his emotional response to chords and modes. Each chord extension may have a mood-inducing impact, a happy sound, a sad, an invigorating, and in his own mind, he experiences the music more passionately so. Certainly, he knows the theory, but that doesn't distract him from the aesthetic experience.

Berklee Professor John McGann quips, "Theory only seems like rocket science when you don't know it. Once you understand it, it's more like plumbing!" The truth is, we don't need to know plumbing just to enjoy a cool glass of tap water, but it's sure nice to have some basic knowledge of water pressure when maintaining a lawn or fixing a noisy toilet. His point is well-taken in that rocket science isn't something we all have access to, but plumbing is something we use (and enjoy) everyday; it's this experience that makes it relevant.

Have you ever pondered your own emotions stimulated by certain chords? Certainly, most will hear the stability of an open 5th or an octave. A three note major triad (C E G) is likely a "happier" sound than minor triad (C Eb G). Pondering more complex chords like major 7ths, impressions will be more subjective and individual. Certainly this harmonic vocabulary is more "peaceful" to the 21st century ear than use in past history. The contemprary blues musician will argue there is nothing more exciting than a flatted 5th note; a Medieval Gregorian monk would go out of his way to avoid this interval for fear of spiritual heresy.

It's all about context.

Let's offer some suggestions, but bear in mind, this is YOUR personal journey. We've talked about the "pull" of 4ths and 7ths. In practicing the FFcP scales think not only about which finger plays the 4th note of the scale, but add this interactive dimension of perception as you drill. In 1st FFcP, the 4th note is in the 4th finger, momentarily stopped in time does your ear (and finger) sense the restlessness? Do you experience the "fourthness? As you hit the 3rd note with your 3rd finger, is their a defining sensibility of majorness or minornesss? Do you enjoy a state of "thirdness." Can you duplicate this in 2nd FFcP and the other two fingerings?

In the early days of discovering the mandolin, when your playing was built on open strings as your home base, did these notes imbibe a feeling of stability, physically and aurally? How about emotionally? There's no reason you can' carry this sensation or experience into the other fingers AND expand characters and personalities to the other fingers. You really get beyond the mechanics of playing when you do this and experience true art even just running through scales and exercises.

What does that major 6th interval do for you? Is it happy, precocious, restless? How about the minor 7th? Is it consonant, rebellious... dare we get existential and say "purple?" There is no one single answer, and only YOUR answer as a unique artist and musician.

Experience in your practice routine, the art in the little things like this, and as you grow more deeply, the complex aspects of playing will become an even greater personal aesthetic journey.

Compose yourself. Story Arcs.
Forsaking the notes for the music.
Ensemble Sensitivity: Corps playing.
Building off silence.

Posted by Ted at May 9, 2013 6:34 AM

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