Lines of Least Resistance and Trusting to Chance

I once asked South African jazz harmonica player Adam Glasser if it wouldn’t be more practical to have an isomorphic chromatic harmonica laid out around the two whole tone scales, to make intervallic improvising intuitive and everything you play freely transposable.

I have never attempted to play the chromatic harmonica seriously myself, as the bias towards C major as a default scale (with the slide in “out” position) goes against my musical aesthetic.

But Adam has a different view. He actually enjoys learning the different phrases that work best – or that are easiest to play – in each different key.

It put me in mind of a doctoral thesis I once read some time back in the sixties which listed all of Charlie Parker’s licks in each key, and came to the conclusion he had a strong bias for certain licks in certain keys.

Well, hats off to the man for finding that out!

You might call musical phrases that are begotten by the design of the instrument “artefacts”. Naturally such things are foreign to the concept of “playing like singing in the shower” that this blog aims to encourage and inculcate. We want our playing to follow our inspiration and do what it’s bloody well told by our Inner Ear.

I came across an extreme case of an artefact when working on Coltrane’s tune Offering from the album “Expression”. He uses these jerkily delivered wide intervals to create an almost unbearable tension :


and then a bit further on:


These are notated transposed for tenor saxophone so saxophonists can see what’s going on: a simple interplay between the first finger of the left hand and the pinky of the right. Suffice it to say, it’s a whole lot more difficult to do in any other key – on the saxophone. On the violin it is actually surprisingly easy in any key!

Nobody would describe this pattern as a cliché, but in a way, having different lines for different keys can help you avoid repeating yourself by simply playing in another key. I will have to ask Adam if that’s what he means.

Saxophonists have moved on since Bird’s day, some spurred on by Lennie Tristano’s injunction against repeating yourself verbatim in your solos, beginning with Warne Marsh and continuing with players like Chris Potter, Chris Cheek and Mark Turner.

You might say that they have finally overcome the instrument’s inbuilt biases, through dedicated hard work.

But you need a certain mentality to persevere in such obstacle course training. If that’s not you, the ideal improviser’s instrument would be one whose layout makes all lines into lines of least resistance in any key. Like the wholetone panpipe. Or the yet-to-be-developed harmonica with a slide for slipping between the two wholetone scales.

Trusting to Chance

OK, so, changing the subject here, I just came across a Kickstarter project for a card game for improvisers with ideas block called Tonic Improv. As of August 1st, you have 14 days left to get your first edition copy.

I find the concept a bit abstract, and the 12-sided dice use note names, not intervals, but since the maker, Scott Hughes, even lets you download the cards to print out yourself for free (without the 12-sided dice) it costs you nothing to give it a try!

Those of you interested in developing your intervallic awareness, or in using chance operations to compose music and/or MOVES exercises, might wish to invest in this set of 12-sided dice on eBay. The coin (shown for scale, not included – duh!) could be tossed to decide up or down.


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Why Saxophonists are so Annoying

Last week a friend, who remembered me from back in the day when I used to play saxophone, invited me to come on a gig with him in Paris. I wondered how come he didn’t know any sax players in Paris. He said he never played with sax players, because they were “so annoying”, but the client had insisted on having a sax; so he had thought of me.

With little more than a week to go for the gig I took my tenor out of its case, where it had gone decidedly musty, and starting brushing some of the rust off my rudiments, finger exercises, and one or two MOVES exercises of my own devising.

Never far from the back of my mind was what my friend had said about saxophonists being annoying. I decided to take my panpipes along as a back-up. (Panpipes can get annoying too – but in a different way.)

A while back on this blog, I looked at what makes an awesome lick and used this passage from Coltrane’s tune One Up One Down as an example:


Rumour has it that Trane used to practice a lot reading from Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Musical Patterns. The scales and patterns in this compilation are arrived at by the same permutational methods used in MOVES exercises, but are written out in full, and not in MOVES, so taking up vastly more space.

Reverse-engineering from the above passage, we can surmise that Trane was probably familiar with two patterns from the Slonimsky book, namely {-1 +4 -1 -3} and {-1 +2 -1 -1} both with a linksum* of -1, which translated means they descend in semitones.

Here is a line of each pattern written out in full, continuing from where they appear in the above example. Obviously, if we wanted to to cover all the houses, we could fill a book, which in effect is exactly what Slonimsky did – in the days before score-writing software!


A cursory glance reveals that these two belong to a larger family of chromatic patterns {-1 +m -1 -n} where m = n+1.  And of course as with all MOVES exercises you simply reverse all the signs to find your way back to the top – or bottom as the case may be.

So the conscientious saxophonist will end up trying out all these on his horn, or if he doesn’t feel like working them out for himself, he will probably find them in Slonimsky:

{-1 +2  -1 -1}

{-1 +3  -1 -2}

{-1 +4  -1 -3}

{-1 +5  -1 -4}

{-1 +6  -1 -5} … and you get the idea.

And this is where saxophonists get annoying.

Such chromatic patterns are a powerful answer to the challenges peculiar to woodwind instruments, and practising them methodically ensures you can get your fingers round the melodic cell in any key.  But the temptation, especially after all the work you put into mastering them, is to play the pattern through as many houses as you can get away with in your solos.

This something Coltrane managed to avoid. When you listen to his solos, you keep hearing things that sound like the beginning of a pattern, but the pattern never continues predictably.

Resisting that temptation to unpack in public all those exercises you practised is a higher level of mastery, and stops you being annoying. Something Trane’s many emulators could usefully bear in mind.

Of course I’m guessing that’s what my friend hated about saxophonists. Such show-offs!

* See the MOVES page for definitions of MOVES terms.

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MOVES: Melodic Freedom for the Classically Chained

Followers of this blog (both of you) will have noticed that I like to quote the NLP adage: “The Map is not the Territory”. And one of my main beefs about most traditional musical instruments, when it comes to learning to improvise on them, is that the Map they offer is marked out in note names, and not in intervals. And intervals are what your improvising ideas are built with.

When someone who has been happily and intuitively playing guitar for some time decides he wants to commit to lessons and learn “music”, his first task is to convert this mental Map:


Into this:


Some students are actually excited by the prospect. Beating this challenge will be a kind of proof of devotion to the goal of world domination on his guitar. But not all. Here I could reel off a list of guitar legends who touched the hearts of millions without ever going through this process; but I’m sure that’s something they would prefer to tell you in person.

(Such is the shame attached to musical illiteracy… though I would bet quite a few horn players would love to have that freedom without the hassle.)

The guitar is probably the easiest instrument to serve as an introduction to intervallic awareness. Players of other instruments, such as the piano or saxophone, have to acquire intervallic awareness (if they ever do) by internalizing the labyrinthine web of relationships and equivalences between the various note names.

So let’s say you start saxophone lessons. You will start with a Map that looks like this (saxophonists will note that I made this diagram as imagined from the player’s side, so left hand side keys appear on the left, etc.):


As you improve, you will learn alternate fingerings for given notes that complicate the interval mapping. But even so, a Map like this gives you better orientation around your horn than the dots you will doubtless be reading from.

Applicants for one of Jamey Aebersold’s improvisation courses used to undergo a test with questions like

  • “what is the flatted fifth of D-sharp?” or
  • “what notes are in B Dorian?” or
  • “name the II chord of A”.

It is quite possible to play all your life reading from dots and still be unable to answer questions like these off the top of your head. You might be caught closing your eyes and mentally playing a chromatic run on an invisible saxophone or piano.

You will know where that B-flat is, but if you have never asked the question, you may have to think hard before answering how many semitones separate it from D-sharp. Some third-year pupils I have had could not even tell me how many semitones there are in an octave!

With all this in mind, I invented MOVES notation, which you can read all about on my MOVES page.

By banishing the 31 note-names and centuries of confusing theoretical accretions, MOVES exercises go straight to the nitty-gritty of melodic performance. They offer the quickest way to free the improviser from the constraints of whatever mental Map you might be reading from, and give you back the freedom of your horn.

A typical MOVES class for adults and the “classically chained” starts by asking people to suggest songs that everyone knows. We then extract very short passages from the chosen song and “chain” them, to get them going through different keys, first by singing and then with their horns.

Like a kid on a bike exploring his neighbourhood, you don’t need to know the street names to find your way around. MOVES gets you pedalling. It forces the brain – and the ear – to work, but would you have it any other way?

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Playing like singing in the shower

In my ongoing research into finding the best instrument for learning to “play like singing in the shower”, and in the process helping you, the gentle reader, to do the same, one instrument I have placed near the top of the list (just below the whole-tone panpipes) is the violin. In many respects it is intuitive in that its geometry accurately reflects intervals, which are what tunes are made of.

We can imagine an idealized violin consisting of a single string, and a player with an unlimited number of fingers. The brain-to-melody connection would then be practically unmediated.

But anyone who has tried the violin as an improvising instrument finds herself magnetically lured into tonalities suggested by the ever present subliminal or not-so-subliminal vibrations of the open strings. So that the violin is sort of telling you what to play.

And one thing the violin – let’s be frank – sucks at, is the whole-tone scale.

I don’t mean just playing the scale ascending {+2} and descending {-2}. That’s easy. But when you start getting into phrases and curlicues, fingering becomes a problem. And it’s a problem that will get you all tangled up if you want to play your idea exactly as you conceived it, and in tune.

All improvisers can do well to practice transcribing and learning from other great musicians, and high on my bucket list agenda has been Coltrane’s last Impulse album “Expression”, for me one of the summits of twentieth century music in any style. Let’s look at part of the closing passage of the track Offering, with my fingering suggestions.


To get this sounding good – that means in tune, and articulated as written – on the violin you literally have to sit down and work out the fingerings in advance. And these fingerings, aside from being cramped in half position up (or is that down?) by the nut, involve frequent changes of finger for the same note.

I once read somewhere in a saxophone improvisation method that you never play anything you haven’t practised beforehand. Whether that means you can’t play anything unless you have got it technically licked in advance, or simply that your solos are bound to be a sort of mishmash of stuff you’ve been working on, it seems somewhat fatalistic.

(Of course that didn’t bother Trane, who if reports are to be believed, hardly took the horn out of his mouth between practising and going on stage.)

Once you get beyond the beginning stages of the saxophone, you start exploring different fingerings, and that means trying out different ones for a given passage. There are four or five different ways of playing B-flat, and choices for C and F-sharp. The altissimo register is a veritable labyrinth of fingering routes.

So “knowing your way around” the saxophone is something that you acquire by actually taking each route and figuring out how to handle every corner, which fingerings are easiest for crossing over between, or for getting the truest interval or expression.

But where does that leave the idea of Inspiration? Well, if we believe Sonny Rollins, once you’re on stage, “You let the music play you. You don’t play the music. You don’t play what you practised at home.” It doesn’t hurt that he certainly knows his way around the sax.

So let’s imagine that you dreamed up a piece like Offering out of the blue and wanted to play it straight off without preparing a load of fingering strategies. Which instrument would you pick up? The one that offers you loads of choices of fingerings, not all of them good for every situation, requiring detailed planning (and memorizing) in advance?

Or would you go for the tuutflutes wholetone-tuned panpipe, designed with Gheorghe Zamfir’s easy-to-learn note-bending technique in mind to give total chromatic freedom? Admittedly, you might have to sacrifice some of those legatos, but hey, if you want to sing in the shower, just take a shower and start singing!

By the way, speaking of the instrument telling you what to play, in over twenty years using wholetone tuning, I have never felt impelled by the instrument to play in the whole tone scale. I just know it’s there when I need it. Lest you worry 🙂

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Affirmative Action for the Piano

One takeaway from my recent experience in a Montessori school was the evident glee with which the children attacked a pentatonic balafon brought in by one of the teachers, contrasting with their apparent lack of interest in the expensive chromatic set of bells sitting on a nearby shelf.


You can buy the one in the photo on Woodbrass for 160 euros, or for a fraction of that sum next time you visit Mali.

Naturally I wondered if the kids’ enthusiasm had something to do with the charm of the pentatonic scale. As my mother, who was a classical pianist, used to put it, “you can never sound wrong in the pentatonic scale.” She thought Debussy had invented it.

Many of you will have seen Bobby McFerrin “playing the audience” in this video, where they end up singing up the pentatonic scale without prompting:

This may be the wisdom behind an original beginner’s piano method I came across recently. Written by brilliant French jazz pianist Phil Walter it starts with the black notes – which as you all know, form a pentatonic scale. I hope to collaborate with him one day in preparing an English version.

Conventional teachers might be put off by seeing staves with five and six flats on the opening pages of a piano method. But when you think about it, isn’t it better to start with the scale that “has no wrong notes in it” and that furthermore is already marked out for you on the keyboard? And to think some kids used to find the black notes intimidating!

Phil has very elegantly thought out his approach, which stays in 4/4 and introduces pedal and walking basses to develop rhythmic sense and hand co-ordination. The transition to white notes is very painless when it comes.

Looking through his expertly illustrated book, with keyboard diagrams for fingerings, I was reminded of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s introduction to his song Blacknuss, his ironic contribution to musical affirmative action:

“Now we’re gathered here in the Universe at this time , this particular time, to listen to the 36 black notes of the piano, There’s 36 black notes and 52 white notes, We don’t need to eliminate nothin’, but we’re gonna just hear the black notes at this time, if you don’t mind. Blacknuss. B-L-A-C-K-N-U-S-S.” 

So if there are no wrong notes in the pentatonic scale produced by the black notes, does that mean the wrong notes must all be white? Well, maybe, but that’s not the same as saying that all white notes must be wrong!

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Adding colour to the diminished scale

It is easy to slip into the idea, from studying harmony textbooks, that the only way to form scale-tone chords is to make stacks building upward from each note of the scale, skipping every other note. Then depending on how high your stack is, you call it a triad, a seventh chord, ninth chord, eleventh or thirteenth chord.

Of course the result is rather boring if you do this with the diminished scale (that’s the one I call the 2 1 short scale – check out my MOVES page if all these numbers mean nothing to you). All you get are inversions of the same two diminished chords a semitone apart.

French composer Olivier Messiaen was blessed (or cursed) with a condition called synaesthesia, which means he heard sound – or chords – as colours. He was also very fond of short scales, which he had a special name for: modes of limited transposition.

His solution for adding colour to the 1 2 scale is elegant. He harmonizes it with eight different chords using this system:


As you can see, if you keep moving the bracket to the right, this provides a series of chords with alternating 3 4 6 and 3 5 6 structure, none of which are inversions of each other.

Of course, for Messiaen these chords are colours, so he can use them as a colourist would. He doesn’t have to restrict their use to harmonizing diminished scale passages. The sixth movement of his Turangalila Symphony, called “Jardin du sommeil d’amour” (Garden of Love’s Slumber) consists of a long slow theme that uses only these 3 4 6 and 3 5 6 chords plus fifty shades of F#6 and its dominant C#7.

I don’t know how much I’m allowed to quote, but the theme’s coda looks like this:


One of Messiaen’s famous dicta was “Melody is Queen”. This queen follows her fancy. If we look at just the top notes, (the melody), we note that the 1 2 short scale occurs five times, somewhat randomly interspersed with bits of the chromatic scale, and doesn’t even replicate up the octave:


Some of my astute readers will have observed that the 3 4 stack is a minor triad, while the 3 5 stack is the first inversion of a major triad. And sure enough, if we remove the melody and look at what we have left, we get a pretty collection of colours:


All that is left for me to do is to play the piece for you, so you can hear what it all sounds like. I have left out the avian chatter of the original (which you can also find on YouTube), meant to be nightingales, but to my ear more reminiscent of the black-throated laughing thrush (garrulax). This is not, however, the place to take issue with Messiaen on ornithology.

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Why Montessori Bells Get it Wrong (2)

“Why are those ones black?”

The little girl was four years old and had asked the one question I couldn’t answer in a way she could understand.

I wanted to see how children used these Montessori bells and what could be done with them.  I had three hours in a local Montessori school to find out. I wanted to know, for instance, if children could sort them into order of pitch. So I began by shuffling them.


The classroom was a wall-to-wall environment of competing attractions for 3 to 6-year-olds, with activities involving splashing water topping the popularity scale, followed by picture tracing using the window as a light-box. The bells sitting on their shelf did not seem to be getting much attention. Or, in fact, any.

We laid the one empty one shelf unit on its front to make the bells easier to reach for the little ones, and I sat behind picking out tunes on them to see if I could draw an audience. One thing you don’t do in a Montessori classroom is corral the kids into an activity they don’t care for.

The first thing you notice with these bells, which cost and arm and a leg, is that they are not really created for producing melody. Their decay is so long that a damper is provided which you hold in your other hand. If you try to play a melody without using the damper, the notes coalesce into a shrill throbbing mini-cacophony.

The school principal explained that indeed that the bells are intended to give children the sensory experience of sound rather than turn them into musical prodigies. I thought Tibetan singing bowls would do that better, cheaper, and in a lower register easier on the ear.

I noticed she corrected the girls on how to strike the bells, by limply dangling the beater and swinging it at the edge of the bell. I wondered why they were stored on such a high shelf if that were the case.

Lacking takers for my challenge I ended up having to place the bells in order myself and offered to accompany any child who wanted to come and sing something.


One very forward little girl came and gave a charming rendition of the first line of Au clair de la lune in D-flat. I showed her where the notes were (the first three in the top row above) but she didn’t seem to think this information was intended for her and simply repeated the extract.

The control side of the experiment was provided by the arrival of a balafon (African xylophone) brought in by the teaching assistant. The children crowded around this and kept coming back to it throughout our “workshop” session. I lost count of the number of times I was asked to rewind the rubber onto the beaters.

They also competed with each other to get notes out of my plastic panpipes, some with remarkable success. One six-year-old wanted lessons on them.

But they really couldn’t be bothered with the bells.

I don’t know if they didn’t like the sound, or didn’t like being told how to hold the beater, or maybe they were already so familiar with them that they simply didn’t need to try them any more.

One thing I found curious was the way they were stored.


I don’t know if this is general practice, but relegating black notes to the shelf below makes me wonder: why have them at all?

But I covered all that ground in my first post on this subject.

Sensory exploration

Many of Maria Montessori’s principles have been handed down unchanged since she died in 1952. Her educational outlook grew out of her experience with retarded and delinquent children and bears the stamp of the scientific prism through which she saw the world. And today, as brand franchisees, Montessori educators are in some sense bound to take on board her highly schematic views on child development as gospel.

The school equipment is a major part of this tradition. But you could be forgiven for thinking the closest Maria Montessori ever got to a musical experience was the Helmholtz resonators in a physics laboratory. Reducing music to “sensory exploration” ignores a fat chunk of what music is about.

A thought: maybe the bells weren’t meant to be about music at all. In which case – why are those ones black? 

I’m grateful to my friend Maud for the opportunity to meet the children and get a better idea of what goes on in her generously equipped school. 

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A Quiet Revolution in Harmonic Theory

In my young day, your first lesson in jazz harmony was the so-called scale-tone seventh chords. This was the basis of the John Mehegan method back in the fifties. You just piled up your thirds on each note of the scale using only notes belonging to the scale, and this is what you got:


What this did not mean, was that you were supposed to harmonize a scale passage using a sequence of those chords. There is such a thing as harmonic pace, which in its simplest form means that you change chord at the beginning of each measure, or halfway through one. This is pretty general in all songs except Burt Bacharach’s A House is not a Home, which always requires two extra hours of rehearsal.

So how did you square a scale passage that might fit inside a measure, with a chord that lasts the whole measure? Well, if you were a guitarist singing it, you do just that. Hold down the chord and sing the scale passage over it.

If, however, you were scoring it for four saxophones, or three trumpets and a trombone, and you wanted the horns to move together to add “thickness” to the line (aka “parallel-motion homophony” to the initiated) there was a simple rule of thumb used by everyone from Duke Ellington to George Shearing :

  • For the four scale notes that are already in the chord, just use the notes in the chord below them.
  • For the scale notes that are not members of the chord, hang a diminished seventh chord (3 3 3) underneath them.

And this was how it was taught until veteran jazz pianist and teacher Barry Harris came along and made it all much more elegant.

The first thing he noticed is that the C major 7th chord (4 3 4) is not the home chord of the C scale. It sounds tense. That major seventh wants to resolve down to the sixth (4 3 2). Hmm, now doesn’t that sound better?

The second thing is that all those diminished chords would contain three notes that belonged to the scale plus a fourth note (snuggling between the fifth and the sixth in the case of the tonic chord.)

What to do with that extra “chromatic” note? The traditional answer was to call it a passing note, placed there to keep the parallel movement moving in all parts.

Barry’s solution was simpler. He simply added the “passing” note to the scale, making it an eight note scale. This discovery was not just a change of name. It allows pianists to generate new harmonies for much of the jazz repertoire, and works both for parallel and contrary motion. Note that it doesn’t have to add notes to the melody that weren’t there before.

For lovers of theory, that extra note between the 5th and the 6th becomes the new 6th, making the 6th the new 7th. Here is what the new harmony looks like for added-sixth chords in tonic, subdominant and dominant (I, IV and V) position in C major:


I have highlighted the diminished chords in three colours. All the diminished chords in the same-coloured rectangle contain the same notes. The chords in between are also inversions of each other.

You can watch hours of Barry Harris’s piano workshops on YouTube to see young players twisting their fingers in knots as they try to assimilate this elegant knowledge into their technique on that glaring anachronism, the traditional piano keyboard. And we haven’t even mentioned the flattened fifth and dominant seventh harmonies yet.

Which all brings me round to Roy Pertchik’s patented TriChromatic system, combining a chromatic keyboard layout with three colours in rotation, seen here in his double-wholetone-row vibraphone. (I’ve taken the liberty of using his choice of colours in my diagram, above.)  Here is his introduction to the instrument:

For the complete exposé, here he is explaining it at Stanford University.

I hope to persuade Roy to write a post for this blog to tell us how his double wholetone keyboard has helped him explore music. In my quest for an instrument that truly maps the territory I am curious to know if this particular mapping is useful for all styles and tastes.

I, for one, certainly like the sound of it.

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The Science of Licks

Continuing from my recent post on the philosophy of licks, one of the measures of a good lick is how it messes with the listener’s cognition and fries his brain. It arrives too fast for you to take it all in sequentially, and you ask what just happened?

This was my reaction to the second half of the bridge of this ditty by John Coltrane called One Up One Down:

He used this title more than once for different tunes. This was the one recorded 1963, live at the Half Note, not the one at the Newport Festival. The passage I refer to starts at 0:20 of the video.

OK so I hear that and I’m going WTF just happened? The normal solution would be to write down the notes and try to figure out what it is about them that puts your brain in a twist. But even laboriously transcribing it note for note leaves one not much the wiser. Here it is:


The thing is, when you play this slow, its sounds like nothing at all. Playing it, you think: this is going to be a mess. It adds weight to Thelonious Monk’s dictum that “the inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good.”

The basic scale of the “A” section of the tune (the “outside”) is 2 1 1 3 1 2 2 with F# as the tonic. You could describe it as the fifth mode of B jazz minor with sauce added. This bridge uses that mode for a framework, with a couple of chromatic excursions.

Hidden within this “vocalise” are four-note phrases that sound as if they belong to pattern exercises. The four notes spanning the middle of the first measure suggest a {-1 +4 -1 -3} pattern, also used in Bud Powell’s Wail and in the bridge of Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks. The second half of the second measure suggests a {-1 +2  -1 -1} pattern. Both patterns have a linksum of -1, meaning they descend in semitones.

The third measure starts with a visit to E major, followed by a descending arpeggio in the basic scale, culminating in the fourth measure with a typical Coltrane phrase-final rhythmic figure (since become universal) ending on a throwaway C natural. So cool!

With all this going on in three-and-a-half seconds the “fried brain” criterion is met; cognition has been licked – at 240 bpm.

What I wonder is: can we use this type of example to build a book of cocktail recipes for making amazing licks? Cognitive science might one day provide part of the answer, but the serious business of actually composing boss licks still depends on the pudding for its proof. And we may find there is a minimum speed threshold for each lick to work.

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Violin Mind and Guitar Mind or Why You Should Learn Two Instruments

Here is an exercise that builds on a fragment from John Coltrane’s solo on Giant Steps that gets you through all the major triads (4 3) and half diminished arpeggios (3 3 4). In the original context the half diminished is actually a dominant ninth without its tonic. It contains a diminished triad (3 3) and a minor triad (3 4) magically combined.


The numbers add up to +1, which means it rises gently up in semitones.

On the violin, this is a fantastic exercise if you play it in first (or half) position using open strings whenever possible, as each iteration of the pattern requires different fingerings. The logic is all in your ear, but not on the fingerboard.

But once you are onto the top two strings something else happens. You start repeating the same fingering, but a half-step higher each time. The logic is now under your fingers too. Of course, if your violin technique was up to scratch, you could have done what a guitarist would do, and played it that way from the outset, staying on the G and D strings, shifting effortlessly chinwards in half steps.

The reverse can sometimes happen. Something that goes all over the place on a guitar can be neat on the violin.

Some time last year I proposed this exercise that gets you through all thirty-six major, minor and diminished triads in the twinkling of an eye. It was inspired by the chord sequence of the song There’s a kind of Hush (written for Herman’s Hermits, I was surprised to discover, by my friend’s dad).


As you can see, the numbers add up to -7 which means that it descends in fifths; and also means you will have to substitute a +3 move for the -9 every so often to bump it up the octave. But, that aside, the finger patterns you discover on the top two strings will repeat as you go down. The logic is under your fingers.

I like to combine these two exercises, slipping between them, using the major or the diminished triad as a hook. One leads you up and one leads you down, so you never have to run out of space.

They are of course easy-peasy on the wholetone panpipe or double-wholetone-row xylophone, but that may not be your instrument of predilection. I have road tested them on saxophone and flute and they become strangely automatic after a while.  It probably makes you a better sax player.

So what does this all mean? My takeaway is that using such “cross-platform” exercises on different instruments can offer you insights into the intervallic logic of what you are playing better what you would get from just one instrument. That is bound to strengthen you as a musician.

And check this out: learning two unrelated instruments will keep you from getting into those dreaded ruts that you get into if you stay on one horn the whole time. That is sure to enrich you as a musician. Stronger and richer: that can’t be bad.

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