Melodic Line Construction: “Oppositionality”
When we hear the word “line” in the context of “bass line” or “melody line” we tend to think in terms of scales and/or chord tones as we are learning theory. This is good.
There is a further level of thought about lines that has to do with the notes not in the scales or chords; the use of non-chord, non-scale tones has been more accepted since the late forties and the advent of be-bop; boppers began to discover the oppositional power of the notes around the chord tones. The melodic thinking that started to emerge through the horn of Charlie Parker (who heard the beginnings of this thinking in Lester Young’s work) continued to evolve in subsequent generations of players. There is a famous Miles Davis quote: “Play what isn’t there.”
Miles was famous for his “wrong“ notes that sound so incredibly expressive and individual; he was the master of the non-harmonic tone. As a bandleader, he had the luxury of experiencing the sound of every possible non-harmonic tone without getting fired – it was HIS band… and consequently ended up with a 12-tone (and everything in between) sonic palette, knowing how every “wrong” note would sound against every chord.
Music is dynamic; we’ve heard of “tension and release?” There is tension and release within the universe of melody itself as harmonies are expressed, either by playing them, or opposing them and resolving to them. This suggests a characteristic that a note might possess; any note could be harmonic, or oppositional – or incidental to those 2 functions.
If you have the means to play a chord in a loop, set it up; or maybe keep keys depressed by wedging matchbooks in your keyboard. We’re going to see how every chromatic tone sounds against a C major chord, and how we can create context for it—so it sounds great.
It’s good to try this at home first! It can be hazardous to your job to show up with your oppositional tones blazing! Use your taste and discretion… But, if you’ve been feeling “in a rut” with your playing, this is a great way out of the rut.
Lets start with a G# against a C triad:
Just letting the note ring has an interesting and exotic sonority – it creates a set of harmonic implications (which are worth exploring in themselves) but for our purposes, let’s resolve it..
Satisfying, no? This melodic device is heard often in Miles’ work.
Let’s look at a C#. Very oppositional!—although, maybe not so oppositional if the chord is a C7b9, or if we’re in F minor…
Yet very satisfying when resolved.
A note like this creates more tension, and greater release. If oppositionality is what we’re after, how could this note be “wrong?”
Try the other non-chord, non-scale tones – and resolve them to a chord tone… try either by step, or leap, up or down. The world begins to open… Ultimately, music is more about the sounds we make, and our power to make them, and our familiarity with the result, than it is about following the “rules” for the sake of “safety.” It’s right to know what wrong sounds like… and how to incorporate it into your personal sonic palette.
More on this next week! Incidental notes…