Archive for the ‘tablature and notation’ Category

It’s About Time – a story about music notation.

November 4, 2017

One night, while teaching my class, a student was confused about the types of notes I was referring to: quarter notes, whole notes, etc. To answer her questions, I wrote a story – an imaginary story – of how music notation came to be. I hope you enjoy it.

 

It’s About Time
Once upon a time in a land far, far away, there lived a man called The Time Keeper, or The Keeper, as he was commonly known. The Keeper noticed the sounds of nature and of the villagers walking to and fro. The rhythms they created fascinated him. A very creative and innovative person, he thought about how he might create a language with which he could notate the various rhythms he observed. Being able to write down and diagram rhythmic patterns and the pulses of nature would enable him to archive, share, and reproduce them.

One day while on a stroll, The Keeper noticed how simple the act of walking was: left, right, left, right… He got out his sketchpad and drew a line that looked like a leg and at the bottom of that line he drew a foot. He would use that symbol each time he took a step, and before long he had filled the entire page with these symbols. The Keeper realized that it would be difficult to keep track of all those steps, as the symbols all looked the same and they went on and on with out any simple way to count them. Perhaps they could be grouped together in some way to make it easier to track them.

“Left, right…” the Keeper said to himself. “There is a grouping I could use.”

So, every two steps the Keeper made a vertical bar to separate the steps. That helped, but still seemed like a lot to keep track of.

“What if I doubled that, and grouped my footsteps into fours?” he wondered. “Left, right, left, right… Yes, that would do quite well.”

So, the Keeper made a vertical mark every four steps. He called it a bar. (He also simplified his foot symbol to being simply a vertical line with a solid oblong oval at the bottom where the foot used to be.)

“What shall I name those four steps grouped together?” he wondered. “I have it! I shall call it a measure.”

As the Keeper went on to think about all this, he realized that he would be noting all types of sounds and rhythms besides footsteps. He decided that he would call those “lines with legs” by a new name: notes. Since there were four of them in each measure; each representing a quarter of that whole measure, he would call them quarter notes.

Soon he realized that other sounds and rhythms he heard often lasted longer than the length of one footstep: often twice the length, while others moved by much faster. So, he created half notes, which were twice the length of a quarter note, and the whole note, which represented the length of four quarter notes. The half note looked just like the quarter note, but he left the oblong oval hollow, instead of filling it in. For the whole note, he decided to leave the hollow oval, but to remove the stem/leg.

He also realized that many sounds happened more often; sometimes twice as often as a single quarter note. To notate those sounds, The Keeper  divided each quarter into two parts: one for the initial downstep of his quarter note (that initially represented his footsteps) and another for the upstep. Since there would be eight  of these in a measure, he called them eighth notes.  Rather than creating a new symbol for these faster notes, he simply added a little flag at the top of the stem of the note. If needed, he could even divide those farther, creating sixteenth notes (two flags,) and even thirty-second notes (three flags.)

“Wow,” he exclaimed. “I have now created a system where I can notate the durations of any rhythmic pattern I encounter.”

And then he rested.

He sat down by the side of the path he had been walking on, and listened; hoping to hear something exciting he could notate with his new set of musical symbols.

Amid the chattering of the birds, and the footsteps of passersby, he observed that there were often times when there was no sound at all.

“Hmmmm,” he thought. “It seems that certain sounds are resting, much like I am. I will need to create some symbols that can represent these empty spaces. I shall call them rests.”

For the quarter note rest, he drew a squiggly line that looked somewhat like a broken leg. For the eighth note rest, he made a vertical line with a flag, (somewhat like the eighth note,) but left the oval off. For the sixteenth note rest, he did similarly; leaving the oval off, but adding two flags. For some unknown reason, he made the half note rest look a little like a hat: a line with a rectangle on top, and for the whole note rest, he turned that hat upside down.

Now he could resume his work: to observe, listen, and notate all the interesting rhythms he wanted to remember.


Well, that’s odd…

The Keeper continued his work of listening and notating the various sounds and rhythms he heard. The sounds of certain machines and the clip-clop of passing horses all seemed to easily fit into the system he created that was based on a measure of four quarter notes. But occasionally he would hear patterns of sounds that felt more natural to count them in groups of five, as the patterns just didn’t line up as well in groups of four.

“This presents a problem,” he thought to himself. “Will counting in ‘five’ mean that I have to create all new notes and rests? That could be quite cumbersome having two sets of fractional divisions, and as I discovered this new grouping of five, I would suspect that there are other odd groupings yet to be found as well.”

The Keeper paced to and fro, pondering this dilemma. As he walked, he realized that even as he walked left, right, left, right – he could still use his footsteps as units of measurement – he would simply be counting “in five” instead of “in four.” He could continue to use all the same names and values as before, after all – four quarter notes would still equal a whole note. The math was still applicable as long as he indicated how each measure was to be counted: a signature of sorts that would direct the reader.

“I will write one number that will indicate how many beats I am grouping into each measure, and then another number to remind myself of which value I am using to count with,” he said.

So, the Keeper invented the time signature and put it at the beginning of each rhythmic pattern he notated. It looked like a fraction; one number on top of the other, with a slash between the two. The upper number notated the number of beats, and the lower represented the note value used to count.

Soon his notebook was filled with rhythms of all sorts. As predicted, he discovered that some patterns were best counted in other time signatures. Some worked best in “seven,” while others were in “nine.” Some patterns seemed to repeat between steps, causing The Keeper to think of using the “eighth notes” as the unit of measurement.

Soon he invented the triplet, which was a way of counting three notes in one beat, and all sorts of shorthand symbols he could use when wanting to communicate repeated measures, or entire passages.

He began creating his own rhythms and compositions; writing page after page of notes and rests. Changing time signatures midway wouldn’t be a problem as long as he made note of the change, and soon others in the land learned to read and write this new language. To see many villagers gathering together to perform these rhythmic pieces was not uncommon.

A new way to communicate was created and all was good.

The End.

Or is it?

Stay tuned for the next chapter when The Keeper met meets his new wife to be: Melody.


How often do I need to tune my instrument?

February 16, 2017

For those of you who don’t know this, I am the editor and publisher of a Ukulele Newsletter, serving mostly the California Bay Area, but with subscribers all over the world. In this newsletter I have created an advice column called, “Dear Uke Guru,” and there I answer questions sent in from my subscribers. Here is another question I think you might find helpful, depending on your level of musicianship:

 

Dear Uke Guru, 

I just bought a ukulele. How often do I need to use that tuner?

Signed, 
Pitchey Mi

Dear Pitchey,
To sound good, an instrument needs to be in tune all the time. Because there are many factors that affect the tuning of your strings, including temperature and the accidental “bumping” of your tuners, your instrument can stray from its proper tuning easily and often. The Uke Guru suggests that you certainly tune it before you play it – every time. Sometimes it won’t need it, and sometimes it will.

The Uke Guru hears students say sometimes, that they had just tuned it the day before, so “it should be good,” not realizing that they had to put their instrument in its case, put it in the hot (or cold) car, bump it around on the road, take it out of the case into a new environment, and start playing it again. Take the time to check your tuning.
This doesn’t mean that your instrument doesn’t stay in tune – it just means that it may not always be in tune. We make such efforts to learn and play better – why start out with a self-inflicted handicap?

The Uke Guru hopes this helped.

Signed,

The Uke Guru

 

(You can sign up for the Ukelist Newsletter by going to: www.ukelist.com and using the “sign-up” form.)

 

 

Dear Uke Guru, How do I know how many strums to play when I see a chord on my music sheet?

February 7, 2017

For those of you who don’t know this, I am the editor and publisher of a Ukulele Newsletter, serving mostly the California Bay Area, but with subscribers all over the world. In this newsletter I have created an advice column called, “Dear Uke Guru,” and there I answer questions sent in from my subscribers. Here is one I think you might find helpful, depending on your level of musicianship:

Dear Uke Guru, 

You are our last hope – confusion about number of strums. When a song sheet contains a D, is it one strum? Or when a song sheet shows a D/, is it two strums? There seems to be a different opinion about what these mean. Inquiring minds want to know.

Signed, 
All Strummed Out

Dear All Strummed Out,
Thank you asking an important question – one that I’ve heard many times.  The reason you, and many others, find these types of song sheets confusing – is because they are.

The song sheets you are referring to – the ones with the chords over the lyrics – are best thought of as rough guides to songs one should already be familiar with. They contain the lyrics and the approximate placement of the chord over a particular word. The person creating these song sheets does their best to indicate any breaks or special rhythmic sections, but it is very difficult to accurately indicate anything, let alone specific musical information. And there isn’t really a standard – everyone does it a little different – myself included.

That being said, let’s move on to a more important aspect of your question: how many strums one plays. Let’s differentiate between the word “strum” vs. “beat.” A “strum” is merely the act of making a sound with your strumming hand. A “beat,” on the other hand, is a length of time a chord is played – usually 4 beats to a “measure.” How often you “strum” is entirely up to you. If a D chord is to be played for a duration of 2 measures, or 8 beats – you could strum once, or 64 times… these are two different things we are talking about, and indicating what to do is difficult with song sheets, as they are merely guides.

The best way to accurately indicate rhythmic breaks and chord durations is with actual sheet music using standard musical notation. This type of notation informs you on what chord to play when, as well as the notes of the melody and the timing – and then some. Of course, one must be familiar with reading this type of music; it’s not the type of thing a beginning ukulele player would know, unless they are serious about learning everything they can about music.

So, back to your original question: is it one strum or two? I don’t know. I, too, have asked the same question. It’s best to already know the music, and then try to guess what the author meant by his or her markings.

One way I prefer, is to do this to indicate number of beats on a particular chord:

D                                  Bm
/  /  /  /      /  /  /  /     /  /  /  /      /  /  /  /     etc.
la la la la laaaaaa la de da da da….

This example tells you that you are to play a D for two measures of 4 beats each, followed by a Bm for another two measures. Of course, this takes up more room, and it makes lining up words and slashes nearly impossible, so I only use it for trouble spots on a chart that need clarification.

I thank you for your question, and feel that it only points out the need for everyone who enjoys “playing music” to learn more and more about what experienced musicians know when they are playing. You don’t have to dedicate your every breathing moment to study, but learning the basics will open your eyes and ears to a fantastic world of music appreciation and participation.

The Uke Guru hopes this helped.

 

 

 

Playing by Numbers

July 20, 2016

Have you ever painted a picture by numbers?

I remember the one I did when I was very young; it was a scene of a flock of ducks flying over a pond, out in the countryside. But though it may have had its rewards, painting by numbers didn’t really teach me how to paint. Had the outlines and numbers disappeared, I would have been left with a blank canvas and a palette of colors I had no idea of what to do with, and though I may have been learning how to wield a paintbrush, if I were to really want to be a painter (and an artist), I would need to learn much more about composition, shading, and proportions.

I observe many new users playing by numbers – that is, to be following a set of directions: play 3 strums of C, 8 strums of F, 8 strums of C, 8 strums of G, 4 strums of C, 4 strums of C7, etc. Playing this way may, at first, help you to play along to “This Land is Your Land,” but should you miss one count, or miss one “strum” of any one chord… well, you would likely to be get lost. You’d be staring at a page full of instructions yet not knowing where you were, or where to look.

On the other hand, had you known that those “8 strums” were actually two bars of 4 strums each, and that they weren’t necessarily even called “strums,” but rather beats, you would have had a better sense of where you were and able to get back to playing. You would have recognized those three odd beats at the beginning as simply the last three of four beats of a full measure before starting the song. Soon, you would have been noticing the composition of the overall picture:

simple this land is your landNow, on your way to better understanding how a seasoned musician “looks” at music, you would be able to add new techniques and flourishes as you learn them: rhythmic enhancements & variations, dynamics, and even chord substitutions – much like the seasoned artist knows how to add shadows, light, and depth to his or her paintings.

So go ahead and paint, er…. I mean, play by numbers, but don’t be afraid to actually learn what you are doing as you do so. And though another “paint-by-number” player may be eager and willing to help, ask a more experienced player if they would be willing to give you a few tips here and there, or take a few lessons from a professional to get you started.

That painting I did of those ducks – I wish I still had it, as I was sure proud of what I did, and how far I have come.

Your Song is Not an Elevator Speech.

May 26, 2016

You know how sometimes in business, an executive is expected to be able to deliver an “elevator speech” – a condensed, brief summary of an idea or proposal? In the time it takes to ride the elevator top to bottom, an idea has to be presented and sold to the “big boss.”

But what does this have to do with playing music?

Well, I am most happy to announce that I am now a student again. I have begun to study Indian classical music, and in addition to actually learning how to play the sitar, I am also learning about how Indian music is thought about.

On my very first lesson, the teacher explained how a musical piece is crafted – often an improvisation of sorts – by slowly exploring the raga (set of notes, or scale) they will be using. Instead of simply playing the whole scale at once, they start with one note, add another, and another… sometimes taking up to 45 minutes simply setting the scene for the rest of the number. What patience and mindfulness, I thought.

In western musical terms, let’s think about our familiar scale:

Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do

Rather than simply singing or playing the entire scale at once, we might proceed like this:

Do……….. Do Re………..

Do…… (let that first note really sink in)

Do Re Mi….

Do Mi Re… Do…..

etc., playing with all possible combinations of just a few notes at a time.

 

For most of you playing the ukulele or guitar – you may not want to extend your intros for that long, but you can still borrow from some of this wisdom.

When you play a song or a solo – you needn’t be in a rush to show off everything you know. A simple solo using only a few notes can, when played with finesse, bring the listener into your world to hear your “story.”

We’ve all experienced being in the presence someone who talks endlessly about everything they know; dominating the conversation and not letting anyone else get a word in. Compare that to that of the person who wisely chooses just the right words to make their point, and then let’s the listener reflect on what they’ve heard.

You can do that in music, too.

There’s no rush. We’re not running a race with a timer keeping track of how much time we’ve “wasted.” We don’t have to “sell” ourselves to anyone who is off to another, more important, meeting.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and constructive comments about this. Please feel free to reply and share your response.

Rhan