A Few Odd Notes: The Instrument, The Body, and (Informal) Composition

One of the things that I think often gets lost in philosophical discussions about music (what is it, how does it work, how is it expressive, etc.) is the way in which the physical properties of instruments and players dictate composition. I’m not talking about how arrangers and composers do their job formally (in the case of “pure” music in the Western tradition, for example) — I think there’s ready enough recognition of what it means for a composer to choose certain instrumental voices for certain musical purposes.

No, what I’m interested in is the ways in which the physical properties of players and instruments can dictate the choices made, in less formal, music theory-driven instances, of what to play and how to play it. I’m also interested in how these choices can change the sound even of things already composed. I’m not sure where this is going yet — this post is mostly a collection of examples to prompt further thought.

I. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring: A Transitional Example

In symphonic settings, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the vast difference between the experience of playing a reed or brass instrument and playing a stringed instrument. While a quick look at the score reveals the full span of which notes are played and by whom, it’s the individual, written parts that tell you more about the experience from the player’s point of view. String parts are often several pages longer than wind/brass parts, for example. Why?

Duh. More notes! Lots more notes! A typical second violin player puts in far more actual, physical playing time than the usual french horn player in many fairly usual examples of symphonic works. Why?

Duh. Because the flute player needs to stop to breathe. Circular breathing is great and all, but good articulation often requires the stop. Meanwhile, the fiddlers can keep sawing away, blithely ignorant of the sufferings of their wind-instrument colleagues.

Also worth remembering: a string section, assuming everyone’s in good practice and decent shape and has all the helpful finger callouses they can stand, can saw through a couple of hours straight without suffering too badly. Meanwhile: don’t do this to your wind and brass players if you want them to live. Also: Some of them are going to look like they got punched in the face when they’re done, assuming they survive, because good amberture ain’t easy, and the mouth is a far more delicate thing than a well-calloused fingertip and well-stretched hand and arm joints. Even in symphonic band contexts (where everyone plays more often than they would in the presence of strings), individual players stop more often.

Consider, for example, two instrumental arrangements of Bach: one for string quartet and one for brass quintet.

Note that the sound is continuous, and that the two violins are playing distinctly different parts.  No one really stops much, and the first violin part moves from start to finish. The closest thing to a “break” that vln 1 gets is the chorale bit, and that’s really not a break at all. The viola picks up a piece of the melodic line, but more for effect than from necessity.

In this instance, the arranger has set things up so that the moving line is regularly traded around rather than being located in a single part. This is a move that works well to preserve breathing space (and occasional valve clearance) for the players while also ensuring the continuity of the sound. Sure, it sounds good, but…well, a good arranger also knows the difference between arranging for wind/brass and arranging for strings, which is one reason why it sounds good.

Recently, a string quartet in which I play had a bit of an emergency personnel problem at a gig we played. We substituted a very good oboe player for one of our violins at the last minute, and ended up playing Jesu with him on the vln 1 part (we made the change because vln 2 parts often go just a little bit lower than is comfortable for an oboe). He was not playing an oboe part, though — he was sight-reading a violin part, written with no allowance for the need to breathe, and it required him to make choices on the fly as to where he could drop out to breathe without breaking up the continuity of the sound of the whole. This was not an easy task, because the arrangement really didn’t make any room — if he dropped out with the line in motion, no one else’s part picked that line up. The chorale break in the vln 1 part, in that particular arrangement, was not placed in a way that would facilitate an easy breathing choice for an oboe player.

Arrangements, in this way, really do have to accommodate the players and the instruments at hand (and sometimes it’s the other way around…).

II. From Piano to Guitar, With Love

Many popular and folk musicians are excellent players of their particular instruments, but do not read music. They know enough about chords  to have a perfectly functional rough-and-ready grasp of certain bits of music theory, and they often have a very good practical understanding of how those bits of theory interact and may affect what they choose to do. It is possible both to write and to play music without ever knowing any more theory than this, and without ever learning to read music at all.

When people who don’t read formally written musical notation need to exchange information with someone who isn’t immediately present about how to play a tune, they do it in several ways: by sharing recordings, by writing down chord names relative to other markers (lyrics, bar marks/rhythm marks, other notations), by exchanging charts that represent chord structures, or by using tablature (which provides a sort of visual representation not of the notes played, but of the finger positions on strings or keys necessary to produce the desired sounds). There’s a booming business of tab exchange on the internet (often just skirting the edge of copyright restrictions) that allows people who probably couldn’t name many of the notes they play nonetheless to learn to play them, and to play them proficiently. There are also programs and services that reconstruct chords from recordings for people who don’t find themselves able to do it themselves.

When such players compose, they are more likely to play before they write; indeed, the playing and the writing for them may be entirely the same activity. A band might jam until a song comes out; and individual player might noodle until she hits on something she likes (a riff, a chord sequence, etc.). This kind of embodied composition really does depend less on music theory than it does on the body and the instrument(s). The piece will often change quite dramatically when its composer(s) introduce new players to the mix, as their parts will be improvised rather than decided, and sometimes those improvised bits stick (something that recording makes possible).

One thing that happens in this kind of composition practice is decision-making about chord voicings based not on sound or theory considerations, but instead determined by the way the instrument itself is played, or by the limitations of the player/singer’s skills. Some voicings for different chords are physically and structurally near each other on the keyboard or guitar neck; the move from an open C chord to a barred F at the first fret on a guitar in standard tuning is very, very easy, as is the move from one way of playing a G chord to a related Cadd9, for example. Further up the neck, certain barred chords are very easily strung together just by sliding among nearby frets, so that what might be hard to do quickly down at the first or second fret becomes simpler at the fifth or sixth. Add a capo to the mix, and suddenly things get interesting! Sometimes, one wants an open voicing to enable an easy walkdown in the bass line; at other times, this just doesn’t matter. Sometimes, one’s body makes certain demands on one’s play; Django Rheinhardt’s style is what it is in large part because of how he dealt with his injured hand. A player may even alter the tuning or the instrument itself to accommodate his preferences or to create specific kinds of sounds. Keith Richards, for example, is famous for removing the low E string from his guitar and playing the remaining 5 strings in an open G tuning, which is a large part of the distinctive sound of certain Rolling Stones tunes.

What works easily on a guitar, however, is not always what works easily for a singer or for a pianist (and vice versa). One of the marvelous things about a piano is that one can, at any time, put together full chord voicings using a LOT more notes than the guitar player has at her immediate and easy disposal. Some of the wilder jazz chords, on a piano, aren’t especially challenging to get around, and the keyboard’s nice, linear setup makes it relatively easy to move among some pretty complex arrangements of notes. Meanwhile, the guitar player’s got some hard choices to make — and not nearly enough fingers — and so probably won’t go straight to those chords when she composes. The guitar player, though, has the advantage of an instrument that can be retuned easily to create default chord voicings and combinations that would be more work for the pianist in some instances.

The instrument we write the song on sometimes tells us what to write in this way.

TL;DR: It’s a lot easier to play a Fiona Apple tune on a piano than on a guitar. She wrote it that way.

III. The Flexible Tenor

Once upon a time, back in the 1920s, tenor banjo players started losing work to guitar players in dance bands. Some clever soul discovered that it was possible to just make a four-stringed guitar suitable for banjo and/or octave mandolin tuning (CGDA for banjo, GDAE for mando/”Irish” tuning; can be and often is tuned in other ways as well), so that banjo players could play guitar and thus keep working. This is how the Tenor guitar was born — a need was noticed, and a need was met. The build and tuning of these instruments made them (indeed, makes them) terrifically useful as both lead and rhythm instruments.

The narrow neck, tuning flexibility, and tone of the instrument make it ideal for the kind of retro swing tunes that the Two Man Gentlemen Band plays. Andy Bean is also originally a tenor banjo player, and many of their older recordings feature that instrument instead of the guitar; this is still a part of what the tenor guitar is — an instrument that the players of something else can play. Its designed flexibility makes it work just as well for rock as for old-school busking swing — see, for example, Warren Ellis (who plays pretty much anything and everything with strings but has a special gift with the violin, mandolin, and tenor guitar), using an electric tenor that he designed and built with Eastwood Guitars and shredding like a wild man with Nick Cave.

There are things a tenor guitar can’t do, of course — it’s always going to lack the full, booming sound that a big six-stringed guitar can produce, for example. Still, it can do interesting things. It has its own sort of voice, and the songs one writes with it reflect that voice in the choices made about chords, about notes, about a dozen other little things in its tone and its presence.


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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