I am a huge fan of Brazilian music. I absolutely love the rhythms and the lush chords and harmonies. I love the buoyant, upbeat melodies.
However, I’m often times dissatisfied with the way people play it. I am frequently left thinking that it could be so much better than what I am hearing.
I sometimes get the same reaction to jazz chord solos. I find them theoretically brilliant, but oftentimes lacking on the performance end.
So why is this? If there’s a beautiful melody, compelling rhythm, and full rich harmonies, then what’s missing? It seems like all the ingredients are there, so why does it fall flat, like a soufflé gone wrong?
Organization is everything
The answer is organization. If all of the musical elements were created equal, it wouldn’t matter. We could just play all the notes and out would pop a musical masterpiece. But as you may well know, it ain’t like that.
But all parts are not created equal. There is a hierarchy of importance. Some parts should be more prominent than others.
Just like in a stage play or film, some parts have lead roles, and some have supporting roles. To have a masterful performance, the listener has to know which parts to pay attention to, and which parts are meant to be in the background.
Confusion kills attention
When we fail to clearly show the listener how the music is organized (what’s what, in terms of melody, bass, and harmony) then it becomes more likely that the listener will be momentarily confused.
As soon as confusion sets in, it’s all over. The thread of attention has been broken and it’s very hard to get the listener re-engaged. In our practice, we must learn to understand and clearly demonstrate the structure and details of our music.
“As musicians, our job is to eliminate confusion.”
As musicians, our job is to eliminate confusion. It is our responsibility to take our
listener by the hand and show them exactly where they should place their attention and exactly how everything is organized. This makes for a wonderful experience for the listener, but demands more work from us as musicians.
Welcome to Fantasy Island!
A very wise man once explained it to me like this:
It’s like you have this amazing world you can visit anytime you like. It’s got high mountain trails with sweeping vistas. It has beautiful towering waterfalls you can stand under. The whole landscape is truly stunning. You love this place and would like to share it with someone. So you invite them in.
But to them this is a foreign landscape. If you don’t intentionally make them feel safe, if you don’t take them by the hand and show them exactly what is beautiful about it and why, then they may have a negative experience.
To them, they could just suddenly be on the side of some mountain, fearing that they will fall to their death and not even noticing the view. They could be assaulted by the water falling on their head, instead of enjoying the waterfall you are so keen on.
It’s up to you to make them understand and appreciate the beauty of the experience. It’s up to you to show them how the mountains fade into the distance and how the breeze feels good on their face, how the light falls on leaves and how nice the water feels pouring over them. You must clearly demonstrate every nuance and detail.
If you leave it to chance you are simply not a good host. If you assume they will hear what you hear, you are wrong. You have to point it all out.
Balance: no longer just for acrobats
To make sense of music when we have melody, bass and harmony (interior voices) we have to be able to make some voices louder than others. Some voices need to be in the background while others are in the foreground. This is called balance.
Identifying different voices in guitar music
In classical guitar music, usually use the stems of the notes to tell us what is what. The bass notes have stems that point down. The melody may have stems that point up. The interior voices may have stems that point down or up, or be connected to either the bass or melody. (more on interpreting classical guitar music here.)
One of the most important lines to identify is the melody line. The melody is usually in the upper voice, but may be in the bass or in the interior voices. If all you do is know and accentuate the melody, while turning down the volume on everything else, you’ll instantly sound much better and more organized.
Tip: It may help to use a highlighter pen and mark all the melody notes. Chances are you are playing something that’s not the melody, and thinking that it’s part of the melody.
It will be an ongoing study and practice to bring the melody forward and everything else back. Keep at it. It helps to play the melody by itself a few times to get it in your ear, without all the bass and accompaniment getting in the way and muddying up the waters.
Balancing Chords and Melody
Occasionally, we encounter melody notes that happen as the same time as multiple other notes. On the page this looks like a stack of notes: a chord. So it is easy to forget the melody and just play a chord. But that’s not really what is happening. What’s happening is that there is a melody note, and there is a chord under it, supporting it.
When this happens, we have to make sure that the melody stays in the forefront and doesn’t get overshadowed (or upstaged) by the chord.
To do this take a special technique called chord balance. And that’s what the video above talks about.
Here’s a tip:
Go slow and keep the long-term in mind. These sorts of technical challenges can be, well, challenging. It may take a while to get comfortable balancing chords on the fly. But it’s well worth the time you spend.