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Two Kinds of Musical Minds

July 14, 2008

I’ll confess it up front. This post will bore most people to the point of unconsciousness, because it’s about music at a pretty technical level. Those who are not bored will, I think, have one of two immediate responses—either “What a cool idea!” or “What a load of BS!”

Ever since I wrote the “Lenny” post, I’ve been thinking about how it is that classical musicians and jazz musicians, even when they play the same instruments, have trouble talking to each other about music and for the most part just don’t “get” each other. My own orientation is toward jazz, even though I haven’t thought of myself as a jazz player for decades.

When I was in high school, three of my friends and I put together a jazz quartet. I played alto sax. We all had connections with working jazz musicians in the area and were happily absorbing their view of and orientation to music. Jazz (except for so-called “free jazz” which I don’t don’t enjoy and spend no time thinking about) is organized around chord progressions. There are lots of conventions about how this organization happens, and even a few more or less set-in-stone rules. Except for big bands which work from carefully written arrangements, most jazz bands use what are called “lead sheets.” Here’s a picture of part of a typical lead sheet that might be given to the keyboard player.

sample of a lead sheet

It’s a simple thing and looks pretty much like the music folk guitarists work from, except that it’s likely to contain chords that folk musicians don’t play. It contains the melody and symbols that represent the chords that are supposed to accompany the melody, and it’s a pretty good conceptual representation of a jazz tune. Of course, there’s a huge store of shared knowledge that underlies the use of lead sheets.

Lead sheets are almost always written in the treble clef. In the example here, the single flat in the key signature suggests that the tune is written in the key of either F major or D minor. The first chord (G minor) might be used in either key, but the song move to the the C7 chord and then to F major. There’s the key, “one down,” i.e., one flat—F major.

How the keyboard player actually plays the chords is left to that player’s discretion, so long as the rules and conventions are obeyed. The G minor chord is G-B♭-D. As the chord is used in the example lead sheet, jazz conventions would permit (almost insist) that the the so-called seventh of the chord (F) be added. Its also possible that the ninth of the chord (A) would be added as a “color tone.”

In a jazz piano style more or less created by Bud Powell something like 60 years ago, for example, the chord would be played as F-A-B♭-D, with no G in it at all! The bass player would probably pick up the G, and whatever instrument is playing the melody has the G covered anyway.

Anyway, a lead sheet is a pretty good conceptual representation of a jazz tune because, like a jazz tune, it “hangs” from the melody. The actual bass line doesn’t appear. Lead sheets were my musical orientation when I arrived at the University of Connecticut to major in music as a bassoonist and was first introduced to what is called “figured bass.”

Figured bass notation is very old, and it looks like the sample shown below. There is also a huge store of shared knowledge involved here, but it’s almost completely different from the the knowledge underlying a lead sheet.

sample of figured bass notation

Conceptually, figured bass is pretty much the opposite of a lead sheet. For one thing, it’s written in bass clef. It specifies the exact notes to be played in the the bass line, and it describes the chords, without naming them, through the numbers written below the notes. In the sample here, the key signature is two flats, and the first note is G. The numbers 5-3 below the note specify that the chord is in so-called “root” position, so that the notation describes a G chord.

The bottom note is G, the second note is a third higher (but flatted because of the key signature). The third note of the chord is a fifth higher than the first. This yields G-B♭-D, the same notes as in the Gm chord at the beginning of the sample lead sheet.

For the second chord, we find the note B♭ with the number 6 beneath it. This is shorthand that a “continuo” player would be expected to decipher. It means that the top note in the chord is a sixth higher than the bass note, a G. So, the second chord in the piece is also a Gm chord, but it is to be played in the note order B♭-D-G.

For the third chord, the note is D. The numbers below describe what is called a 7th chord in root position. The ♯ symbol is another bit of shorthand and indicates that the second note of the chord is to be raised a half-step. In its entirety, the chord is realized as D-F♯-A-C. The lead sheet would describe this as D7, and Bud Powell might have played F♯-B-C-E, a D7 with no D in it anywhere!

In a nutshell, figured bass notation sits on the bassline, and the melody doesn’t appear at all. This reflects a mindset so alien to the jazz sensibility that it should be no surprise that classical musicians and jazz players really, really don’t speak the same language.

One Response to “Two Kinds of Musical Minds”

  1. Mike Nichols Says:

    Another difference between jazz and classical musicians is that classical musicians are “stuck” to the notes. They are taught that the notes on the printed page are sacrosanct, never to be changed, only interpreted.

    That really was a stumbling block for me when I was learning to improvise. I felt like I was doing something wrong by varying from the notes of the tune!

    There’s quite a movement these days to teach classical musicians and kids training classically in the ways of jazz. It started with the Jazz Education section of the American String Teachers Association and spread from there. There are several method books; I used two of them in my teaching. The result is that there are quite a few fiddlers out there playing jazz!

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