Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Silence as Technique in Music

One of the challenges and creative thrills in playing the hammered dulcimer is coming up with your own arrangements. If anyone had told me 15 years ago that I would be arranging my own music I would have laughed in disbelief. But it happens. As you learn your way around the instrument - practicing scales and chords, increasing your repertoire, accumulating ideas from other player's arrangements - you fill up your own bag of tricks. You develop opinions about what you like to hear and what you like to play. Out of this, your personal style emerges.

Now, the "bag of tricks" can be quite complex. But today I have one thing on my mind ... fill notes.

One arrangement idea is to fill "space" in a tune using arpeggiated chords, pieces of chords, pieces of scales, drone notes - or some combination of all these things - as "fill notes". The technique can be very effective. It creates a full sound. The instrument is laid out perfectly for it. It's fun! AND ... it's easy to get carried away. Don't overdo it! Plan for "empty" spaces.

  • Let the tune "breathe". It will give you (and your listener) the opportunity to breathe.
  • Give the melody its own space. The melody is THE thing and should always come through loud and clear ... or at least more loudly than the accompanying notes. Avoid crowding the melody by surrounding it with too much fluff. 
  • Leave some notes out. While it might be instructional and useful to your practice to fill every eighth note division of time, it's often more pleasing to the listener to leave some space. You'll find that even some melody notes are dispensable. It's OK to eliminate notes that are not critical to the bare bones of the tune.
  • Use dynamics. It's never too early in your playing career to start thinking about dynamics, i.e. playing more or less loudly. Lighten up on the fill notes to allow the melody to shine through.
  • Record yourself and listen with a critical ear. Can you hear the melody?  Is it too busy? Is there room to breathe? Are you satisfied or worn out in the end? Make adjustments.
Good luck incorporating more "space" into your arrangements.  Here's one jazz musician's take on The Role of Silence in Music .

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