Motivated Notes

A “motivated note” is a note that is played for a reason.  All notes are motivated to a certain extent, but the degree of motivation is a big part of how well the note will work in the music.. how good it will sound.

What motivates the selection of the next note to be played?  Why do you pick that particular pitch at that particular time, and why do you hold it as long as you do?  That depends on what motivates you.. what your reasons are.  What motivates you depends fairly heavily on what you know about, as well as your attitudes, and even what you don’t know. Learning new things can enhance your motivation, giving  you better reasons for playing a particular note a certain way.  One new idea can take your improvisations in new and interesting directions.

Many times we are unaware of our actual reasons for what we play.  We are normally at a different level of awareness and have difficulty peering deep down into the underlying and overriding motivations that meld into our judgments and determine our decisions.  This is particularly true when improvising.  Playing by ear, we say.  Just going with the flow and playing what works, what sounds good.  We get an aural image of the music, look around, and see where we want to go.  But what do we see?  How do we think about what we see, and how do we decide which way to go?

There is a vast array of different notes and note combinations that can be played at any given time, in various combinations, different ways.  The context of the music provides a probabilistic limiting to what things will work, musically.  You’re probably not going to play a classical motif while performing Chicago Blues.  Certain notes in certain contexts can be practically guaranteed not to offend the ear.  Certain notes in certain contexts will be almost guaranteed not to work.  Most notes fit in between, with varying degrees of “working”, consonance, dissonance, and not working with the rest of the music.  To understand how to use notes, we have to understand what they are.

note is:

  • a particular pitch
  • played at a certain moment
  • for a particular duration of time
  • with a certain timbre
  • at a certain volume
  • that changes over time in a certain way.

So a single note has many aspects.  Each of these aspects has to be considered as to how it fits in the context of the music.

phrase is:

  • A related sequence of musically motivated notes and silences with an a*sociated
  • Sequence of note time-value relationships and rests that constitute the melodic rhythm.

melody is a sequence of musical phrases.

The musical context is an evolving “state” of the music that depends on three basic things:

  1. What has come before (the past)
    • Meter and rhythm
    • The groove
    • Melody
    • Harmony
    • Timbre
    • Motifs
    • Themes
      • Verse
      • Chorus
    • Phrases
    • Chord progressions
    • The melodic rhythm of note-value phrases
  2. What is going on now (the present)
    • Current harmony (underlying chord)
    • Nearby notes and silences
    • Whether on or off the beat
    • Which beat you are on
    • Where you are in the music’s chord progression, motif, melody, phrase, or theme
  3. What will come later (the future)
    • [same elements as what has come before]

Music is built with these patterns upon patterns upon patterns of notes and silences.  The musical context sets the framework for these patterns–a pattern cannot be fully realized if the whole pattern has not been exposed–played yet.  For example, the pattern of patterns that is a song or piece of music is not complete until the piece has finished.

The meter is perhaps the most fundamental pattern associated with a musical theme.  The time signature defines a repeating pattern of note-value (time duration) relationships that often remains inviolate through out a piece–the most common example is 4 beats per measure.  No matter which pitches you choose, you have to make them fit in a 4 beats per measure pattern (though often the end of one measure will extend through the beginning of the next).  The most elementary motif is normally no shorter than one measure, one bar.

The number of 4 beat note-value combinations (melodic rhythms) in one bar is not extremely high.  Considering that the sixteenth note is usually the smallest time value extensively used, basically only a half dozen different note values are available (sixteenth, eighth, quarter, half, whole, triplet).  The number of patterns available from combinations of these time values in a beat pattern like 4 beats-per-measure-quarter-note-gets-one-beat is reasonably manageable.  However, as the number of bars increases, the number of combinations increases exponentially.  Patterns of bars emerge, and patterns of bar-patterns are built on top.  These can be phrases or sub-phrase patterns, motifs, themes, verses, choruses, A-sections, B-sections, songs, or symphonies…  The development of patterns and adhering to them are fundamental motivations for playing particular notes.

Chord progressions are repeating sets of bars with a defined pattern of chords a*sociated with each bar.  For example, the blues format is a pattern of 12 bars with the I, IV, V chords played for 4, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1 bars.  Within this pattern there is obviously another pattern lurking.. it is divided into 3 groups of 4 bars.  In the first group the chord does not change.  In the second group of 4 bars, the chord changes once.  In the third group of 4 bars the chord changes 3 times.  The frequency of chord changes is a “superimposed pattern” that gives the music a sense of motion.  In the 12 bar blues form, the music starts out still, starts moving faster in the middle, and moves even faster at the end.  With this faster motion comes a feeling of “something happening” that is over and above the rhythm and the melody of the music.  When the blues progression repeats, there is another cycle of relative stillness giving the feeling that what was happening is over and something new has started, followed by the increasing motion again and a new sense of something happening.  So, another pattern is built out of repeating verses, a pattern of chord change frequency (even if the chords were different each verse, as in modulation to a new key).

What are possible reasons for picking a note?  What motivations are there?  How do we know which note to play (next)?

  • It has been composed and is predefined.
  • It works with the groove
  • ONE two THREE four ONE two THREE four
  • one TWO three FOUR one TWO three FOUR
  • ONE two three four ONE two three four
  • ONE two three ONE two three
  • ONE two ONE two ONE two three ONE two ONE two ONE two three
  • It fits with the selected musical style
  • It works with or establishes some musical theme of a song, like a
    • phrase
    • verse
    • chorus
    • bass line
    • chord progression
  • It works with or establishes some melodic rhythm pattern (note-value phrase)
  • It contributes to the musical feel
  • It comes from the harmony
  • It comes from the scale and mode
  • It borrows from a related harmony, scale, or mode
    • Chord substitutions
    • Mode/scale substitutions
  • It follows from the melody
  • It leads to upcoming harmony (chords)
  • It comes from the ear, motivated by the sound
  • It comes from the mind, motivated by the intellect
  • It comes from the body, motivated by playing technique
  • It comes from the instrument, motivated by its mechanical characteristics
  • It comes from memory
  • What has sounded good before
  • What has sounded bad before (so you don’t do it again in that context)
  • What theoretical relationships have worked before (in addition to what new relationships may work now)
  • What physical actions have been practiced before
    • Lick – A set series of physical actions (consisting of blows, draws, bends, overbends, and other effects) that result in a memorable pattern of notes with an action-associated note-value phrase (melodic rhythm) over a set of holes.  One lick can be played in different physical places, or on different key or tuning harps, to produce different melodic phrases with the samemelodic rhythm.  While the original musical phrase may have had “well motivated” notes, when captured as a physical action pattern of play rather than a musical statement the notes can become less well motivated.
    • Riff – The term “riff” is not used consistently by players.  Many players consider a riff to be the same thing as a lick.. two words with different origins that mean the same thing.  Other players think of a riff as a short repeated “lick” used in some thematic way, such as a song’s “hook”.  Some people think of a “riff” as something behind the solo, and a “lick” as something used in a solo, and others think something else altogether.  It’s good to make clear from the context just what you mean when you say “riff” to avoid confusion. Another definition for “riff” is: a physical-action based ornamentation of a note, or transition between notes or phrases.  As with a lick, the motivation of the resulting notes of an ornamentation riff is primarily due to the physical action, and not to play notes of particular pitches.
  • It is an accident; a mistake of the ear, mind, or technique
  • It tries to meet expectations
  • It tries to be unexpected
  • It acts in a phrase of related notes to contribute to a musical statement
  • Patterns upon patterns upon patterns of notes and silences form an integrated tapestry that is the music.

Turning Licks Into Phrases

As discussed above, licks are playing patterns that generate a melodic rhythm and a*sociated pitches based on the physical characteristics of the instrument.  Phrases are a*sociated musically motivated notes and silences with a corresponding note-value pattern, which is the melodic rhythm of the phrase.  So, licks generate musical phrases, but they aren’t themselves musical phrases.

One way to help turn a physical playing pattern into a musically motivated phrase is to use the melodic rhythm as a recurring theme or motif in your song.  As with most things, good taste includes not overdoing it.

To really turn the results of a lick into a musical phrase, you should be able to play the same notes wherever they occur on the harp.  In other words, if you play a lick on the bottom of the harp, be able to play those notes in the middle and top of the harp too.  Be able to play them in different positions so you learn the musical relationships, not just the physical actions you use when playing the lick in one place on one harp.  This will help your ear and mind get control of the musical phrase and help you minimize the reliance on muscle memory.  It helps your music break free of your technique, by extending your techniques to enable the music you want to play.  It helps improve your musical vision, and can help enhance your internal image “mind’s eye” view of the harp.


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