April 1, 2011

Between the notes

We need to develop technique so we can communicate with our listeners. We often get caught up in what is cool, or difficult, or whatever, but that's not really worth much if it doesn't help us communicate.

We can work endlessly on scales, arpeggios, slurs, tremolo, etc, but that's just where technique starts. Real technique is attention to the details that make the music come alive. Virtuosity is mastery of the details of those details.

Listen to some great flamenco guitarists, and notice when they buzz notes. It's not random and it's not merely because of the setup of their guitars. It's integral to the feel of the music. You learn that by listening.

Listen to when a singer or flute player breathes, and the sound of the breath. That's part of the music.

As a fan and player of irish music, I can't tell you how obvious it is when I hear someone who thinks that all there is to the music is playing the notes. I could learn flamenco falsetas from a book but to a real flamenco afficionado it's just going to sound like a classical guitarist reading the notes. It has to have the right feel, and you learn that by listening.

When people say "music is in the space between the notes," they don't just mean the rests. They mean that the notes are one of many aspects of music, and they all require our attention.


  1. Bravo William! Nicely put!

    Yes. music is all about the feel. As Duke Ellington wrote, "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)."

  2. Thanks, Philip!

    But speaking of swing, too often I've seen things like "the eighth notes get played like a a dotted 8th and a 16th." The same goes for description of a hornpipe rhythm in Irish music. Both, in reality, can vary widely depending on style, taste, mood, etc.

    A lot of students (I was certainly one) are too apt to take such a description at face value and not even notice how it differs from reality when listening, like our brain modifies our perception to fit the expectation.

    Something similar that irks me in Irish music is the idea that the older generations of fiddlers were way out of tune and therefore to get an authentic sound, you need to detune your fiddle.

    When you listen deeper to it and get the ear for it, you begin to notice the consistency and deliberateness of the intonation. Most Americans wouldn't say "all those old blues guys can't stay in tune," but it's exactly the same thing.

    I guess the point is, when we're learning a style of music, be it flamenco, folk, classical or baroque, we need to seek out good examples and listen with open ears, minds and hearts.

  3. Yes, that's the academic way to describe what swing is. When I first learned jazz, that was what I tried to do, turn eighth notes into triplets, but it didn't sound anything like George Benson or Joe Pass. Took me three months at Berklee to figure out that jazz swing has more to do with syncopation than the triplet feel.

    But I think the quality of swing is universal in all good music. Perhaps not in the jazz definition that we're familiar with but something akin to it. I hear that quality of swing in all great music, from the music of jungle tribes in Borneo to Irish music to great classical pianists like Martha Argerich.

  4. I agree. Trey Gunn (www.treygunn.com) posted a link to this on Facebook a while back. I think it illustrates your point well... You could notate these rhythms but it wouldn't even begin to convey the feel, and how the parts fit together.


  5. I'll make a point of checking out Martha Argerich soon. Thanks!