Skip to content

Archive for

Scales: Order in the chaos?

The second law of thermodynamics says that the entropy of a closed system can only increase over time. What does this have to do with scales? I was musing about scales, thinking about this week’s #MUS654 topic as I walked along the sea and thought about this in bigger contexts. I thought about order and chaos in various aspects of life: how we experience many things as whole events, not individual components or moments.

Eating a cookie involves a synthesis of the components.

Walking is a cosmos of individual actions and motions.

Performing is about the musical experience and not the technical minutiae.

Then looking out, I saw the clouds. They reminded me of fractals. I know we tend toward entropy. Dust bunnies magically grow, stuff fills the space, and I can certainly believe that, but what about the incredible order that also exists. Fractals are an infinitely repeating pattern that happens within nature, and all around us – You can look at river systems and see them, or at the patterns in leaves and see them. No matter on what level of detail you look, then still happen with the same level of perfect repetition. There is a really fascinating application that lets you navigate through them here:

I wondered if somehow scales are like that. Is it our way of creating order? Is it about reason? Even though we do not want to see the individual details within a performance, it is often when there is a glorious level of detail and precision embedded within the music and the performance that it can then transcend its parts to be a whole. Or is ti just an acknowledgement of what IS. The harmonic series exists within nature, but our scales are only partly built on those. And what about the allowances for deviation, as with the piano and its equal temperament? For example, string players tend to tune a perfect fifth to align the harmonics perfectly, which is 702 cents whereas the piano’s fifth is 700 cents. Small differences, but they can add up if you are stacking fifths across octaves of instruments.

Back to the fractals (Image CC BY-SA by Hairchaser)


My thinking and music was something that I had time for. I was going somewhere and had that mile of walking to think. I was in the right place for it. When I reflect on my early experiences of learning scales, I cannot say the same. They were something to be done for a test. In my case it was for the seating in orchestra at school. We had a list to prepare and would be tested on it. I don’t think I realised a wider purpose – not even a purpose like learning the geography of the instrument, and certainly not a purpose like learning the building blocks for conversation. I just don’t think I thought about them.

At higher levels I could synthesise the need to understand both geography and create a vocabulary. It makes me think. There must be a way to instil the skills both of understanding, facility, and application from an early stage. It requires a shift in perspective and a willingness to do a lot more playing off the page, where playing becomes musical conversation. Then new doors might open.

I’m going to do this in my own playing. Break scales down, and make sure I include more. (I was tempted to finish that sentence, but I think it is complete.) I am going to allow time to explore and know that it is more than just a pattern. Heck, nobody would have read this by consciously decoding of alphabetical repetition. (but it could be done) Reading, writing, performing: It’s all about the application to create levels of meaning – and that larger picture.


Cry me a river

I love the idea of dressing up and why not do this with a melody? There is so much that can be learned from listening to other people and other instruments doing the same things. Today I went did this with Cry me a River. This morning I went in search of people to help me make a backing track and I was extremely fortunate that my colleague Rob Westwood agreed to play the chords in the key I requested so I could go home at the end of the day and work on it for this post. Melodies played by different instruments is not a new idea. There are transcriptions of music for so many instruments – whether it is because the saxophone was invented just over a century ago and that instrument is perfectly capable of playing music that was written for another, so there are transcriptions to help that instrument access the centuries of music that came before across various styles or just because something is beautiful and someone wants to play it.

There is also something to be said for understanding music as it is played/sung/performed on another instrument. As a cellist, I do not need to breathe in order to make sound. Well of course I do, but If I hold my breath I can still produce sound, whereas a singer or wind player actually needs to breathe.

As my last post for this week’s topic on What makes a melody? I decided to take a melody that is typically performed on an instrument different from mine. So what about process? Did I just look up the music and go?


I listened.

and listened

and listened some more.

Then I played it.

Then I listened some more.

then I played it while thinking about the words.

If I had more time than a short spell in an evening to spend on it, I would refine … links where different words are emphasised, and perhaps I don’t want you to hear a bow change, or maybe I do want you to hear a bow change.

As an aside, I am also learning to sing this (yes, I have singing lessons – I’m a student too!) and I wonder if having played it on my main instrument will have an impact on my capability to access emotional and technical expression when I sing it.

It’s a new topic for those of you following #MUS654 tomorrow. Hope you have enjoyed thinking about melodies in all their forms this week.

Featured image CC BY-SA-NC by Guy Mayer


Shortest post ever…

Can’t get you out of my head.

(does that trigger a song in your head?)

How about this?

Y M C A !

(thought that one might…)

What other earworm triggers can you think of?

This was a tiny thought for #MUS654 – tomorrow I’ll be dressing up a melody: Playing one that isn’t usually for the cello, and seeing if I can copy some of the identifying features of the original. If you can think of an earworm or have a tune to play, please do join in!

Making it melodic

Thinking about melody, there are a few components that are common to all music – pitch and rhythm. None of the topics in #MUS654 deal distinctly with rhythm, but it is interwoven into everything. Yesterday in my made-up melody example, I used different rhythms to give meaning to the notes. It made me think. There are some pieces of music where the notes are constant, and then what? It is not always the rhythm that points to the melodic line. The components of music can be shuffled so that one comes to the foreground while something else, that maybe more constant, fades more into the background. Read more

Deal me a tune

Today I decided to take a leaf out of Duane Padilla’s book and follow the example he set for us in the video he made for #MUS654 Session 2 about the difference between a riff and a melody. Duane is an excellent violinist and teacher and he explained it simply, and said that a melody is the notes of a scale mixed up. In his video he made cards for the different notes of the scale… I have cards – playing cards! I used these to represent the eight notes of any scale instead of writing down specific notes. Taking out one of each of the numbers Ace through to 8 gave one card for each note of the scale, and then I decided to deal myself a tune. Read more

Twinkle twinkle little bat #MUS654

Speech, the melodic qualities therein, and a favourite nursery rhyme. Sounds like a #MUS654 task to me! This is my effort at listening to a nursery rhyme – one of my favourite versions of Twinkle twinkle, having an go at notating the speech, and playing it on the cello. I thought about reading one myself, but I knew that I would read it in an affected way just because I knew what the task was about. The idea is to listen for the melodic qualities in speech and to see if you can come close to replicating them on your instrument. It is all part of this week’s #MUS654 topic of What makes a melody?

Most English speakers have a surprisingly limited melodic range in their speaking voices compared to speakers of other languages. For this exercise I choose one of my favourite parts of the animated Alice in Wonderland, where the doormouse recites ‘Twinkle twinkle’ with a twist at the un-birthday party. Listen from 10 seconds to hear just the right bit:

and then I sat down at the piano, and copied the voice… and it was a bit messy:img_7191


You can see it was tricky to decide what notes it used. I had someone else listen and they agreed it started on B, but then said – it sounds like it’s in C.

and then I played it:

When played on the cello, it is completely removed from the original. Beside the ambiguity between the lovely cartoon mouse and my ‘interpretation’ of the notes, there is the great difference in the tonal quality. I have not spent a long time getting the articulation right – but I wonder what is possible? There are composers who do use voice as a basis for their compositions and they transform the vocal spoken lines into purely instrumental playing. Take Steve Reich’s Different Trains for example. There are great examples of using speech – listen to 3 min 20 where the recorded voice says ‘the great train from New York’ and the cello mimics this, and then later there is the line ‘going to Chicago’ that is played by the viola. There are more… see what you can hear:


Have you had a go at any of the tasks in this week’s session? Do! 🙂

Featured image by Cea + CC BY

The Birds… what are they saying?!

Today as part of #MUS654 I had a go at one of the tasks from Session 2 about ‘What makes a melody?’ that asks us to copy and/or fake some birdsong, and MAN, it’s hard!! I enjoyed this, and I admit to limiting myself to about 10 minutes to listen and figure out something. It was a busy day here! The process of listening to the birds and going from something so abstract to working out some semblance of what they were saying was interesting as a process and revelatory in musical terms.

The process was quite hilarious, because if you look at me, I might be trying to play some broken glass instead of music. I started by listening to a conglomeration of birds and trying to pick out something from this mix of birds in the garden.

Then I tried to record just one of the birds and sat down to listen to it over and over:


When I realised that this was not going to happen without a lot of listening and experimenting, I decided to have a go faking it a bit.


It was a lot trickier than I expected, and the easiest bird to do was the one that just went ‘chirp chirp’ because I could just play one note, and that was followed by a pigeon – coo coo! I didn’t include those, because I thought it was more interesting to hear that I had a go and it wasn’t necessarily perfect (or even close!). To be honest, my first dozen attempts sounded like a lot of untidy trills, and the birds don’t really do trills. I was imposing aspects of classical music. It is habit to go from what you know, and I needed to listen. Birds hold notes and flit between intervals. They don’t really have vibrato. They don’t often trill. They don’t hold individual notes for long. It is very interesting when you attempt to copy it. I was notably frustrated at14156857293_bd514fdc8d_z how difficult I found it, and I do not think this is because it is impossible to either hear or do, but it is not something that I am used to. This taught me what it was like to do something new, and that itself was a useful lesson.  There were odd leaps to in-between the notes, and if it was scored, I really think I might have minded, not chosen to listen, or at the very least not enjoyed it. Still, somehow when I hear the birds sing those songs, I love them and am entranced by the way they leap octaves, project, and have ceaseless energy for their calling. (Image CC BY SA by Ferruccio Zanone)


There are, of course, other examples of sounds that aren’t necessarily birds, but are still reminiscent of other things… and this clip below is something near and dear to me. Something from my childhood – cartoons! Here is the Tom and Jerry music played live by the John Wilson Orchestra at the Proms in 2013. You can listen from the beginning or if you just want a glimpse of the effects, jump to 3 min 50 sec for a good 15 sec passage… Hope you enjoy it!


Featured image CC BY by Jon Bunting

It’s all about melody: Week 2 #MUS654

In Week 2 of #MUS654 we are thinking of all things melodic. There is birdsong, a spattering of cool riffs, and a discussion on the way a tune gets stuck in our heads. We have a custom made video by Gypsy Jazz violinist Duane Padilla about the components of melody. We read from the historical writings of Mattheson from the 1700s that still hold relevant today, and for those of you hungry for more, there are links to four hours of lectures by Bernstein on the qualities that make it a melody… There is plenty to get into!

Melody is certainly more than notes. Is there something about context that gives those notes meaning? There can be things that stick as meaningful and hardly seem melodic to others, but they have significance because of… it’s hard to say. Sometimes both for a musicians and a listeners, those meaningful moments seem possibly ineffable.

Is that really true?

This week’s tasks provide a chance to unpick those different aspects of melody, take time to reflect, understand, explore, and make those seemingly ineffable things articulate. We do this through sound, notation, and words. If you have the time to dip in and join us, it will be delicious. Participation is voluntary, and there are no prerequisites or requirements for engagement.The class is open and music lovers, performers, and teachers of all levels are invited to join us.

Where is it?

You can find the session page on the dropdown menu under the #MUS654 tab (or follow the link at the beginning of this post.) I’m looking forward to playing around with the task of copying some birdsong tomorrow, and then I’m going to tweet about it (pun, pun!).


Image CC BY-NC by Haberdashery Pie

Seeing more clearly

I’ve been thinking about sounds and I came across this website that provides listeners with a graphic listening guide for music… and it is completely unpretentious, and approachable, and quite useful in some ways. I am sure that some people might look at the image below and think, well, there is so much more, but also it is a way in… a way in to that so much more. Opening a door is a good thing, then you have the option of walking through. The link below takes you to a full write-up of the Toronto Symphony and how they use and design these aides to scores.


How the Toronto Symphony Orchestra uses graphic design to guide audiences

Short post today, got waylaid, but did want to post my daily #MUS654 post!

Tomorrow we start Session 2 and think about what makes a melody!


The Answer!

What was it? What’s the answer??? A couple of days ago I posted a listening challenge as part of #MUS654. The task was to create a soundscape and see if you, the listeners, could guess where I was and what was happening. I did have a few people have a go and share their thoughts…


One person asked:

Is that the sound of sand being poured out from a large bucket?


Wendy Taleo tweeted a haiku:

She sits near the road

Wet bitumen a mirror

Interrupted dreams.

Then I had this, which was spot on:

It sounds as though you are next to a road with a damp surface as if it had been raining. I heard several cars go by and I think there also a bike.


This comment came from someone who is an accomplished musician, and very used to listening to a variety of angles within the sounds around us. It is a real skill, and not everyone is regularly so objective and analytical with their listening, but that does not mean it cannot be achieved.

The first guess was good. Sand. There are qualities that are similar – the sound is low down to the ground and it has some semblance to white noise. It is something that we, as humans, do – to relate to what we know. It turns out that first guess came from someone who lives in a place where sand is prevalent, so they were used to that sound and associated the unknown with what they knew. I did a research study with several hundred school children at the beginning of my PhD, and they were all learning new instruments. One boy said he was learning the ‘elbow’. It was the oboe, but he had never heard of an oboe, and renamed it to be something he had heard of. I do that too – if I read a complicated foreign name in a book I sometimes make up a new version that is easier for me to read rather than breaking up the flow while I work out the phonetics.

Listening is a skill that can be developed, and it takes practice.

My cello teacher in Chicago used to occasionally suggest I practice in the dark: to listen and not rely on my eyes. At first that was so hard. It was similar to asking someone to meditate and clear their mind for the first time. I am very visual and aged about 19 when I first attempted to actually have a clear mind I did things like imagine window cleaners walking into my brain and polishing the interior walls. Busy, busy, busy. Take a moment in your day, whether you are a musician or not, and shut your eyes for 10 or 20 seconds and listen. Do it every day for a week. It is amazing what you might hear over the days.

Until tomorrow…!

Featured image CC BY by Colin Kinner