MTeach, week 4

(Posts written on this subject are written with the MTeach students in mind, as a way of giving them notes on what we do in each class – but hopefully of interest to others as well).

Last week’s session with the MTeach students at Melbourne Uni was focused on inventing melodies. I taught them a workshop project I like very much, that involves inventing melodies through chance processes. Several people in the group had brought their own instruments with them, others played tuned percussion, guitar (including bass guitar) or piano.

This is an outline of the project:

Cycle of 6

  1. Set up a cycle of 6 beats, counted out loud by the whole group.
  2. One by one, each person places a note of their choice in a place of their choice within the cycle. It might be on a beat, or it might be off a beat, but it needs to be the same pitch, in the same place each time. It’s important to do this one by one, so that people can hear what is already in place before they add their note.
  3. As more and more people add their notes, a melody made from this combination of notes, in their specific places in the 6-beat cycle, will start to emerge.
  4. Stop the group, and see if anyone can sing the melody as they hear it. They might only sing some of the notes, but this is fine. Getting someone to try singing it helps tune everyone’s ears into the emerging melody.
  5. Next, ask players to listen to the other notes around them. See if they can place someone else’s chosen pitch (in place) as well as their own. Can anyone play the full meldoy?
  6. The aim now is to figure out exactly what the emerging melody is. You can do it by ear (but this can be difficult, time-consuming, and frustrating – so be warned!) or you can do some of it by ear (as we did in class) then figure the rest of the notes out by asking if anyone in the group knows they were playing a note in a space in the cycle of 6 that is not yet ‘covered’ by any of the pitches in the emerging melody as it has currently been identified. You can add these notes in one by one.
  7. At some point your melody will be pretty full – full enough to be considered ‘finished’.
  8. Now you have two principal pieces of musical material with which to build a larger composition. You have your unison melody, and you have your version of the Cycle of 6 in which each person contributes just one note (I usually call this the ‘single note’ version. I find it incredibly uesful in group composing to name sections as soon as possible, so that everyone has a convenient reference term to use when planning the strucutre of the piece).
  9. I usually test out some augmentation and diminution versions of the unison melody, and see how they sound.
  10. You could also try inverting the melody, or playing it in retrograde, or creating a harmony to it. In our group, the pianists started to play accompanying chords, and this gave the meldoy a strong harmonic structure.
  11. You could also try playing it in canon. This happened in our class by accident, as there was some confusion as to where the downbeat should land. In the end, attempts to solve the confusion were only making things more confused, and the sound of the displaced downbeat version against the original version was actually pretty interesting – what we could call a happy accident!
  12. As a group, decide a structure for your piece that utilises all these different versions of the melody, either as layers in the one section, or as separate sections each.

Further thoughts…

There is no reason why it can’t be a cycle of 7 or 8 or 9 or 5… any number will work. In smaller groups (of perhaps 6 or 7 people), you could invite people to play their one note, as described above, and then go round the circle a second time with everyone adding a second pitch, in a different space. It can be a lot of fun to play two different notes in the cycle, as it becomes a little riff in its own right.
I find augmentation and diminution layers very, very helpful when working in unusual time signatures like 7/8 or 11/8. When there is a strong half-speed version in place, it can act as an anchor for those playing the faster version. They start to get a strong sense of when the shared downbeat will happen, and pace their line towards that. It takes a while to lock in sometimes, but is really worth persevering with. Players start to feel a lot more grounded in these time signatures.


2 comments so far

  1. chris on

    hi there,
    i’m in the m-teach class.
    interesting stuff thanks.
    its taken me a while to getting to yr blog but i finally made it.
    where are you doing yr masters?
    who’s yr supervisor?

  2. musicwork on

    Hi Chris,
    I’m doing it at Melbourne, with Neryl. Glad you like the blog!

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