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Melodic Interpretation

By Cliff Engel

Melody, harmony, and rhythm are the three fundamental components of music. A melody can be defined as a succession of pitches of varying durations that are organized to convey a musical idea. Typically, the melody of a composition is the element that initially grabs the listener's attention and is retained the longest.

If music is compared to a spoken or written language, not every word within a sentence is significant to our overall understanding of the message being communicated. For example, nouns and verbs constitute the primary information in an effort to convey ideas whereas adjectives, adverbs, and the like assist in qualifying that information. In music, some tones provide the basic structure while other notes serve to embellish upon that principal content. Think of the chord tones and scale tones as providing the foundation or structure. In other words, chord tones and scale tones will function as the nouns and verbs of music. The manner in which we embellish or ornament those chord tones and scale tones will be equivalent to the roles played by the adjectives or adverbs in a language. Since Western music consists of only 12 different tones, the essential building blocks used in the construction of melodies are rather limited. However, through the utilization of embellishing tones, vibrato, dynamics, and different methods of articulation such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, slurs, and grace notes, musicians can add individuality or a degree of uniqueness to the way they interpret music.

Chord tones are identified as the root, third, fifth, and seventh degrees of a scale while scale tones consist of the second, fourth, and sixth scale steps. Non-diatonic notes are tones which are not found within the chord or its diatonically associated scale. Embellishing tones are notes of secondary significance in music, and many times they are not diatonic to the harmony. Often, they create dissonance and resolve by either a half step or a whole step to a more critical pitch.

One of the most commonly employed embellishing tones is the passing note. A passing note connects two other pitches of greater importance through stepwise motion. The passing note may appear in a descending or ascending fashion between two pitches, and it may or may not be diatonic to the harmony. When a scale tone is positioned between two chord tones, it is functioning as a passing note.

Other embellishments include approach notes and neighbor tones. Approach notes do exactly what their name suggests. They are embellishments that may precede any target tone by either a half step or a whole step from above or below. They may or may not be a member of the chord or one of that chord's most closely associated scales. Some of the most frequently used approaches to target notes are scalar approaches as well as single chromatic and double chromatic approach notes.

A neighbor note is an embellishing tone which occurs stepwise between a more important tone and its repetition. It may be played above or below the tone of greater significance, and like passing notes and approach tones, neighbor notes may or may not be a member of the chord or one of that chord's most closely associated scales.

As an improviser, one technique of melodic development involves the varying of phrase lengths. This can be accomplished through either phrase extension or phrase compression. Phrase extension can be applied by including notes not found in the original melody or by simply making rhythmic durations longer such as extending eighth notes to quarter notes. Phrase compression is a technique where a portion of the phrase is omitted or rhythmic durations are shortened such as reducing quarter notes to eighth notes.

Besides altering phrases through the methods of extension and compression, they can be also modified with rhythmic displacement. Rhythmic variety through displacement can be attained by simply changing the place within the measure where phrases begin and end. Effective rhythmic phrasing is an essential aspect of sustaining rhythmic interest. When presenting a speech, the best speakers will pause in order to provide time for their audience to absorb the information. Great improvisers take the same approach and will incorporate pauses so that the listeners can process the musical ideas being expressed.

Study as many melodies as possible because they usually contain the best target notes, and experiment with manipulating those phrases through melodic interpretation. This is a great way to learn how ideas relate to each other which will help you expand and personalize your own ideas. Melodies can begin early, start late, speed up, or slow down, and the accompaniment will continue. By learning how to play and interpret melodies, you will break free of outlining every chord change that is played because you will begin to hear the chord progressions moving underneath your phrases instead of using your note choice to constantly remind you of the chord changes. As you learn more melodies, you will acquire a sense of the independence the melodic instrument has from the accompaniment.

In this lesson, we will take a look at just one of the practically infinite ways you could interpret the melody of "Autumn Leaves," a classic composition from the jazz repertoire. In both the standard notation and tablature, you will find two staves. The top bass clef and its associated tablature staff feature the melody of this composition played in a very straight-ahead fashion. In the bottom bass clef and its related tablature staff, I have notated one possible way of interpreting this melody through the techniques of melodic interpretation. First, play the melody many times to establish a base for comparison. Next, play the interpretation of this melody. Then, create your own variations by experimenting with the techniques of melodic interpretation. Listen to different recordings of this jazz standard to compare how the great improvisers interpret the melody. As you listen to recordings, take note of how musicians embellish key melody notes, how they begin and end phrases, the way in which they vary phrase lengths, and the different methods they use to articulate the tones. Transcribe the melody, and analyze how it is interpreted. In addition to transcribing the melody, play along with the recordings, and try to mimic the vibrato, articulations, and dynamics. After you feel comfortable playing the melody, expand upon the phrases through melodic interpretation, and build your own phrases using the melody as the foundation.

This lesson has been excerpted from Soloing Techniques For Bass Guitar & Acoustic Bass. If you would like to learn more about soloing, ENROLL TODAY!

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© 2014 Cliff Engel