Creating Music

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Archive for the ‘Advanced’ Category

When wrong notes work wonders

Posted by Pamela Szalay on November 8, 2012

Last week, I featured a simple activity in polytonality for a beginning pianist (A spooky surprise from a simple transposition). However, the basic premise is one that can serve advanced musicians: playing with musical ideas and being open to new sounds can lead to musical innovation.

For six-year-old Alison, the discovery was that she could make a song sound very different by playing in two keys at the same time. More advanced students may not consider this news, but they may not consider it desirable either. The sound resulting from experiments with polytonality can be perceived as harsh, dissonant and simply wrong. However, those who are willing to persist and experiment might find that playing with polytonality can not only change how you listen to music, but how you arrange, improvise and compose.

As a musician or composer seeking new ways of expressing yourself, one thing that can hold you back is a concept called “premature closure”. Although you may often toy around with musical ideas, you may be quick to judge and discard them, too. In actuality, you could be missing opportunities to develop your sound by rejecting ideas before fully exploring them.

My proposal is that you entertain the “wrong” note a little longer, avoiding premature closure. If you are willing to explore a little further, perhaps mingling in a few other related (or unrelated) ideas, you might push your way towards something not only different, but refreshing.

Fans of Dave Brubeck, a legendary pianist and composer who brought polytonality to jazz, would argue that his polytonal technique made music dreamy rather than dissonant. Apparently, he became quite accustomed to playing with his hands in keys a minor 3rd apart. Go ahead and listen to this excerpt of a live radio broadcast where Brubeck naturally moves from one to two keys: Polytonal Blues

To me, Brubeck’s technique is an anecdote for musical boredom and well-worn habits. While there is, of course, more to the art of using polytonality that just moving your right hand, it is important to recognize that our attitude about what is “right” can determine how far we will travel down an unfamiliar musical pathway. If we can tolerate some “wrong” notes, and entertain some strange sounds in our ears for a while so that we might understand them better, then I believe we are taking solid steps towards maximizing our creative potential.

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