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Structure

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If you think about your favorite player(s), I think you'll find structure in much of their work. When I listen to someone playing a solo or accompaniment on any instrument, one critical thing that separates the polished from the profane is structure. A common beginner approach is to learn licks and play them in a sequence. Imagine if we learned to speak that way. Come to think of it, we do, but when we become capable of conversing, we no longer combine phrases, we construct sentences. In a given culture, the quality of these constructions (sentences) reveals the quality of the language education that person has assimilated. My only regret in not going to college, is the arbitrary self-education I have in my native language.

Back to music. Aside from "feeling" which is very hard to pinpoint, and tuning which is obvious when it's way off, the structural nature of music has always been important from the earliest western classical works. The grand structures of classical music, such as movements, have become set lists in the world of popular music and jazz recordings and concerts. But what about the smaller structural aspects? What are they? I'm hoping to hear from some of you who have thought about this, studied it, or just discovered the idea. What kind of structural elements do you perceive and wish to emulate? Here's a stream of consciousness list I hope you'll complete:

+ Repetition is the easiest one to recognize. A phrase is played, repeated, sometimes with a slight variation. Or in a different key or mode.
A rhythmic motif is played, then repeated or imitated with different, related notes. That relationship is flexible. Could be a half step up, an interval like a fifth, or an extension of the same scale or arpeggio.
  • Length and density of notes. Is there any sense to it? Schillinger thought it mirrored nature. Things grow in complexity, so it might make sense to hear less notes, maybe longer notes first, evolving into shorter and more dense. This is equally true in orchestration and individual playing.
  • Note direction. Ascending and descending often bring imagery, like the classic cartoon character falling with the xylophone playing a long spiraling scale pattern. As an aside, listening to cartoon music is a great source of structure. Because of the context, it's purposely made obvious.

Some people think is that they could write a book as well as "author x", simply because they can speak and write. Few think they can sing like Aretha Franklin, because they're not trained or have her background. But if you study, practice and play music, can you compose it, and for improvisation, can you compose it instantaneously? A friend of mine who wrote produced a lot a great songs out of Nashville said something I'll never forget. When someone hears a great musician playing and says "I could have played that!" he would reply, "Maybe, but she did." In a way, that kind of sums up the answer to a question I wondered about a long time ago. Listening to great jazz guitarists whose albums often were mostly trying to be popular, and therefore "accessible", it felt like anyone with a minimum of acumen on the instrument could play that. The difference was that they did. I believe the element most important in that great playing, even if it isn't fiery, fast or dense, is the quality of structure.

Thoughts?
 

Wade Cornell

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There are lots of parallels in other arts, literature, visual and functional, like architecture. One of the basic debates in architecture is whether form follows function or vice versa. Does the idea come first then the structure or do you think in terms of the structure first i.e. I'm going to write a Samba in C with these changes and this set of lyrics.

In either case what we see or hear is the result, which either works or it doesn't. The human mind is hard wired to see/hear underlying structure, which allows us to make sense of our surroundings and experiences. However (IMHO) if there is too much structure the result can range from boring (predictable) to lacking a balance in other qualities that delight or entertain, like telling stories, surprises, and giving emotional experiences.

The arts are about communication. How much or little structure is involved is up to each creator, and judged by their audience. Too much beauty or emotion can be as bad as too much structure when either becomes the total focus without balance.

The challenge as a creator or player is to communicate and entertain. Your audience will soon let you know how you're doing.
 

jbtsax

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In college I took a composition course and learned some of the techniques composers use to "fill out" a piece after a melody or motif is first introduced. The 4 note motif at the beginning of Beethoven's 5th symphony is a perfect example as he "weaves" it into the composition.

One of the aspects of Paul Desmond's solos I like and try to emulate is to state a motif, repeat it higher or lower twice and then move to another musical thought or idea. If you listen carefully three times is usually the number of times Paul plays a motif in his solos. His playing in Emily below is a good example of how he "composes" his improvisations.

A really smart musician friend of mine taught me that most jazz compositions are in "Sonata-Allegro" form. First you have the "exposition" where the tune is presented, next comes the "development" section where each soloist improvises around the melody and changes, and last the "recapitulation" where the full band comes back in and restates the melody, sometimes called the "shout chorus".

 

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Obviously, one doesn't contrive structure. It has to come out naturally, but in practicing and especially in listening to others, the observing and analysis of it are valuable. I would even say that hearing the form and structure of what you like, musically, is as important as hearing the tone you want. It's as important as practicing scales and all that. Structure is something the public will feel. Every area of entertainment uses it, some better than others. Rules can be broken to effect, so there can of course be music without structure, as in "free" music. Although, free music may not be free of everything. Ornette Coleman's has structure, it just isn't usually the classic one. Classical music has very marked structure, with forms both big and small in the same piece. Yet, it's not as popular as the flatter structure genres like pop.

I believe all learning has a major component in observation and, if needed, analysis. For example, you love a solo and want to understand why, it works for you musically. It's like being in a room and loving the decor. As you look around, you feel how the main lines and colors work together, evoke a feeling in you. Once again, making a mental note of density, consonance, timing in music, and then playing around informally in practice will do wonders for your playing, in my opinion.

When I listen to some players, I am sometimes stricken by a lack of structure. The logic of lick chaining is, to me, not a logic at all. It's just a bunch of shouting. Musicians have often noted that it's harder to play slow tempos. I think part of that is because you're kind of naked, things go by the listener slowly so that he or she can completely absorb the notes and phrases and even the untrained ears hear the structure or lack of it, as how the story is told.

@jbtsax yeah, that Desmond solo is chock full of little structures that just flowed out naturally, but are like excuisite crystals.
 
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Clivey

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This link is relevant.
Well for western style music, not sure how african influence on blues fits in to this and don't want to dispute it's part either.
Poetry08
 

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the result can range from boring (predictable) to lacking a balance in other qualities that delight or entertain, like telling stories, surprises, and giving emotional experiences.
My mother used to start telling a joke and the giggle, continue, burst out laughing, and then continue. That rhythm spoiled the joke, but her breaking up was usually funnier than the joke itself. Occasionally, I fall into the same trap.

Too much structure in improvisational music? I'm trying to think of an example. I don't think you can have too much structure when improvising, unless you conceive of a scripted sequience of licks and play the sequence. Oh, that's called the melody, or head. The structure I'm talking about comes out naturally when playing, and I believe no great player consistently lacks it. Many beginners do, though. Anyone can have a bad (or less brilliant) session or gig, but listening to most work by the greats, whether I like 'em or not usually has a minimum of the things I mention in the first post. Structure is always suggested by the chord changes and the rhythm of the material being played. In the case of harmony, if a song has a bridge, that's of course an imposed structure. Each chord (or harmonic moment) is a structure, too. So the common structure of a standard 12-bar blues has the underlying structure built in. Playing with that, you will hear the great blues player on any instrument add his/her own structures within the mantle that is the blues. Here's a random example. Easy to understand. Listening to this reveals a lot of structure in the harp solo.

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-i66V-twCw0

EVEN BASS PLAYERS can do it. Check out this amazing solo by Wilber Ware
View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ix9FAzxNB4&feature=youtu.be&t=172

Great example on piano by Keith Jarrett, full of structure(s)
View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=op2hsKPdtsw&feature=youtu.be&t=49
 
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jbtsax

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Something I think is also important in both composed and improvised music is melodic "contour". Some improvised solos start high and loud and stay there. I was taught that all good music should be leading to a "climax" or moving away from one. This applies not just to composing or improvising, but interpretation in performance as well.

One of the most difficult but valuable courses I took in graduate school was musical analysis. At the first of the term I was assigned Brahms 4th Symphony. I went up to the professor after class and told him I didn't care for Brahms and asked if I could trade with someone else. He replied, that is why it is the perfect assignment for you. It involved weeks of listening to recordings, studying scores, and taking copious notes to get "into" the "structure" and "building blocks" of the piece. The teacher knew what he was doing. Today the Brahms 4th Symphony is one of my favorite classical works.
 

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Something I think is also important in both composed and improvised music is melodic "contour". Some improvised solos start high and loud and stay there.
Definitely, and studying scores or transcriptions shows this visually. EVen with my poor reading skills, I can see this.
 

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I agree. But 8 bar solos in a rock tune don’t have that luxury.
Weeeeeellll now, sonny...

Rock's particular quality is that it breaks all the rules, just like rap. Come in screaming loud and high, 8 bars or 800.
Mostly, it's not there for wallpaper, and solos need to either simply break up the monotony of a vocal, happen right before the modulation, or try to express something that's present in the feeling of the song.

Ironically, there are probably more excellent sax solos in rock songs that are widely heard (i.e., not counting your cousin's garage band) than in jazz. I say this because statistically, there are far more saxes in jazz than rock. Second, any band that's had success is not going to allow a bad sax soloist mess up their show.

Am I wrong about this, @Pete Effamy ?
 

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Weeeeeellll now, sonny...

Rock's particular quality is that it breaks all the rules, just like rap. Come in screaming loud and high, 8 bars or 800.
Mostly, it's not there for wallpaper, and solos need to either simply break up the monotony of a vocal, happen right before the modulation, or try to express something that's present in the feeling of the song.

Ironically, there are probably more excellent sax solos in rock songs that are widely heard (i.e., not counting your cousin's garage band) than in jazz. I say this because statistically, there are far more saxes in jazz than rock. Second, any band that's had success is not going to allow a bad sax soloist mess up their show.

Am I wrong about this, @Pete Effamy ?
No I agree. And there’s a structure (or a template) in itself. As Sting said in Bring On The Night, you can’t build a solo like you do in Jazz (when you have few bars or are playing over high intensity/energy stuff); you have to burn right from the first note - presuming of course that it’s a burning rock/blues tune and not Prog Rock.
It’s a different skill too, and both are, or can be difficult. The ability to jump onto the crest of a wave and be concise for the duration. In fact, some players still succeed in having a structure which could be: scream - fast/shouty - scream.
 
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With regard to bringing out one's innate ability to create structure, which is a pretty good definition of the difference between music and noise (or to be kinder, a collection of random sounds), I personally believe in helping it come out. I didn't invent this, but I can't remember where I saw it. If you want to improvise and haven't done much of it before, try this. Play a "lick", maybe three or four notes. Now play the same thing changing one of the notes. Now change the same note again to something else. You're improvising structure! A lot of people have said they use this in warming up. Or, you could do it in the middle as a fun thing between learning Patterns for Jazz or whatever else it is you do in practice.

The same concept applies to rhythm. You can play one or more notes in a rhythm, then the same notes changing something about the timing of one or more of them. You keep morphing these ideas. This is not to say you're establishing a lick dictionary. No, it's to get used to playing this way so that all comes out in the more organic way, regardless of tempo, harmony or rhythm.

This is all probably obvious, yet I hear plenty of work where there's nothing notable, even where there is great facility, perfect intonation (not that I would know it!), great tone. Yes, we can admire these things, but they don't spell fine improvisation, only great mastery of the instrument. I would not be surprised to find that the players you admire most are those that have the most natural logic to their playing.

By the way, this is an example of something you can practice at three AM on an EWI, or in your head, or on another instrument.
 

jbtsax

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Another example is Phil Wood's classic solo in Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are."

 

7201

 
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Yes it is. But it’s also a very laid back tune and has a very jazzy harmonic structure.
 

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Yes, it was the perfect stone for him to carve his sculpture.
Agreed. There was no way that combination wouldn’t have produced anything other than a marvellous solo. Same as Mr Wu, Steely Dan.

Interesting to think that whilst Wayne Shorter played some great solos for Dan and Joni Mitchell, he’d presumably not have fit Just The Way You Are as well as Woods. This isn’t a question of less structure though, but of a style match.
 

Halfers

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I wonder how much of solo structure, in modern pop music, anyway, is sometimes a matter of engineering? I don't know about the "Just The Way You Are" solo, or indeed Doctor Wu, but on the Joel theme, the Freddie Hubbard solos on 'Zanzibar' were strung together from different solos. That struck me a little when I found that out, cos I always considered them to be perfect little solos (to my mutton ears).
 

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