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Motivated Notes

A "motivated note" is a note that is played for a reason.  All notes are motivated to a certain extent, but the degree of motivation is a big part of how well the note will work in the music.. how good it will sound.

What motivates the selection of the next note to be played?  Why do you pick that particular pitch at that particular time, and why do you hold it as long as you do?  That depends on what motivates you.. what your reasons are.  What motivates you depends fairly heavily on what you know about, as well as your attitudes, and even what you don't know. Learning new things can enhance your motivation, giving  you better reasons for playing a particular note a certain way.  One new idea can take your improvisations in new and interesting directions.

Many times we are unaware of our actual reasons for what we play.  We are normally at a different level of awareness and have difficulty peering deep down into the underlying and overriding motivations that meld into our judgments and determine our decisions.  This is particularly true when improvising.  Playing by ear, we say.  Just going with the flow and playing what works, what sounds good.  We get an aural image of the music, look around, and see where we want to go.  But what do we see?  How do we think about what we see, and how do we decide which way to go?

There is a vast array of different notes and note combinations that can be played at any given time, in various combinations, different ways.  The context of the music provides a probabilistic limiting to what things will work, musically.  You're probably not going to play a classical motif while performing Chicago Blues.  Certain notes in certain contexts can be practically guaranteed not to offend the ear.  Certain notes in certain contexts will be almost guaranteed not to work.  Most notes fit in between, with varying degrees of "working", consonance, dissonance, and not working with the rest of the music.  To understand how to use notes, we have to understand what they are.

A note is:

So a single note has many aspects.  Each of these aspects has to be considered as to how it fits in the context of the music.

A phrase is:

A melody is a sequence of musical phrases.

The musical context is an evolving "state" of the music that depends on three basic things:

  1. What has come before (the past)
  2. What is going on now (the present)
  3. What will come later (the future)
Music is built with these patterns upon patterns upon patterns of notes and silences.  The musical context sets the framework for these patterns--a pattern cannot be fully realized if the whole pattern has not been exposed--played yet.  For example, the pattern of patterns that is a song or piece of music is not complete until the piece has finished.

The meter is perhaps the most fundamental pattern associated with a musical theme.  The time signature defines a repeating pattern of note-value (time duration) relationships that often remains inviolate through out a piece--the most common example is 4 beats per measure.  No matter which pitches you choose, you have to make them fit in a 4 beats per measure pattern (though often the end of one measure will extend through the beginning of the next).  The most elementary motif is normally no shorter than one measure, one bar.

The number of 4 beat note-value combinations (melodic rhythms) in one bar is not extremely high.  Considering that the sixteenth note is usually the smallest time value extensively used, basically only a half dozen different note values are available (sixteenth, eighth, quarter, half, whole, triplet).  The number of patterns available from combinations of these time values in a beat pattern like 4 beats-per-measure-quarter-note-gets-one-beat is reasonably manageable.  However, as the number of bars increases, the number of combinations increases exponentially.  Patterns of bars emerge, and patterns of bar-patterns are built on top.  These can be phrases or sub-phrase patterns, motifs, themes, verses, choruses, A-sections, B-sections, songs, or symphonies...  The development of patterns and adhering to them are fundamental motivations for playing particular notes.

Chord progressions are repeating sets of bars with a defined pattern of chords associated with each bar.  For example, the blues format is a pattern of 12 bars with the I, IV, V chords played for 4, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1 bars.  Within this pattern there is obviously another pattern lurking.. it is divided into 3 groups of 4 bars.  In the first group the chord does not change.  In the second group of 4 bars, the chord changes once.  In the third group of 4 bars the chord changes 3 times.  The frequency of chord changes is a "superimposed pattern" that gives the music a sense of motion.  In the 12 bar blues form, the music starts out still, starts moving faster in the middle, and moves even faster at the end.  With this faster motion comes a feeling of "something happening" that is over and above the rhythm and the melody of the music.  When the blues progression repeats, there is another cycle of relative stillness giving the feeling that what was happening is over and something new has started, followed by the increasing motion again and a new sense of something happening.  So, another pattern is built out of repeating verses, a pattern of chord change frequency (even if the chords were different each verse, as in modulation to a new key).

What are possible reasons for picking a note?  What motivations are there?  How do we know which note to play (next)?

Turning Licks Into Phrases

As discussed above, licks are playing patterns that generate a melodic rhythm and associated pitches based on the physical characteristics of the instrumentPhrases are associated musically motivated notes and silences with a corresponding note-value pattern, which is the melodic rhythm of the phrase.  So, licks generate musical phrases, but they aren't themselves musical phrases.

One way to help turn a physical playing pattern into a musically motivated phrase is to use the melodic rhythm as a recurring theme or motif in your song.  As with most things, good taste includes not overdoing it.

To really turn the results of a lick into a musical phrase, you should be able to play the same notes wherever they occur on the harp.  In other words, if you play a lick on the bottom of the harp, be able to play those notes in the middle and top of the harp too.  Be able to play them in different positions so you learn the musical relationships, not just the physical actions you use when playing the lick in one place on one harp.  This will help your ear and mind get control of the musical phrase and help you minimize the reliance on muscle memory.  It helps your music break free of your technique, by extending your techniques to enable the music you want to play.  It helps improve your musical vision, and can help enhance your internal image "mind's eye" view of the harp.