Monthly Musings – May 21, 2017

Melodies and Pickup Notes

Have you ever written a melody and had it played by someone else? Did you cringe when any wrong notes were played? Of course you did. So it hit me at some point that, if I want my music played correctly, I need to show that same consideration when I play music written by someone else. My way of stating that is “Play the melody as though the composer were listening.” Many composers of standards we love are no longer alive but they still deserve to have their music played correctly. We would never consider playing the melody wrong in a classical sonata or concerto. Are not contemporary composers of non-classical styles entitled to the same respect?

Now I do believe that you should form an idea of how you want to interpret a melody and how you want to treat it rhythmically. Often, in lead sheets, melodies are written in straight quarter notes and eighth notes but would sound very stiff if performed literally as written. A good vocalist, for example, often sings a melody very freely almost as though in rubato. He or she may also fall behind the time in getting all the lyrics out. This makes the lyrics sound more conversational. After all, we don’t speak in straight quarter notes and eighth notes!

There is a lot or freedom in the interpretation of a melody but I believe we should be faithful to the notes which contribute heavily to the aura of the piece. Often, the melody may include notes that are obviously altered or sometime unaltered and should remain so. Take, for example, the bridge of “All The Things You Are.”

Allthethings - bridge

The melody goes: D, G, D, D, C, C, E b, E, C, B. The E b is a b9 that moves to a natural 9 and then up to the 7th of the D7 chord. But in the second half of the bridge, the melody goes: D, G, B, B, A, A, A#, B, A, G#. The A# is a chromatic pickup that moves to the root and then up to the 7th of the B7 chord. So those three pickups are different from the first phrase. In the first half of the bridge they are b9, 9, 7 and in the second half of the bridge they are #7, 1, 7. Jerome Kern had a reason for writing it that way so we should play it that way. Relatively few musicians ever play the melody on the bridge correctly!

One of my biggest pet peeves about this tune is the last four measures. Most people play the melody on the Bb-7 chord Db, F, Ab, Db, F, G, Ab, just an arpeggio of the chord. But it should be Db, Db, F, Ab, F, G, Ab. The result is beautiful melodic motion up a major 6th and then down a minor 7th.

Allthe things bridge

“On Green Dolphin Street” is an excellent example of a tune that requires close attention to the melody. In the second eight measure phrase, the melody emphasizes a flat 9 and a sharp 9 on the V chord in two different keys.


So the melody has sent a clear message that, if we are to make it sound like we are playing this tune, we need to use a sound with altered 9ths when we improvise over those 7th chords. Basically, this implies either a diminished scale or the altered scale (melodic minor a ½ step above the root). Some musicians would say, “Oh, that doesn’t matter, they are V chords and we can do whatever we want.” I say, “If you don’t want to make Green Dolphin sound like the composer intended, write your own tune!” Let’s think about “All The Things You Are” again for a second. In the first two A sections, the melody doesn’t imply any alterations, and so when improvising, one could play very diatonically in the keys and get a perfectly good sound. Of course, the dominant 7th chords could be altered but that wouldn’t necessarily improve the sound. Remember, making music more complicated doesn’t necessarily make it better, it just makes it more complicated.

There is still freedom to improvise fills in between phrases of a melody and to embellish the melody chromatically. But this should be done carefully so that the original melody is still intact. The great Jobim tune “Once I Loved” starts off on the 6th of the key (D in the key of F). The first chord is G-7 and it moves to C7+5 with the D still in the melody. Now, in jazz, we like alterations and commonly add extras that are not specified. So, if I played an altered scale (C# melodic minor) on the C7, it would add all of the alterations, b5, +5, b9, +9. But the D in the melody of the C7 is a natural 9 and that should be reflected in the improvisation. The chord calls for a +5 so the appropriate choice here is a whole tone scale which includes the +5 but also a natural 9. To me, ignoring these kinds of signals when soloing shows either ignorance or a lack of respect for the melody and thus the composer.

It is important to observe even simple single pickup notes. In the key of F, does a pickup to an F chord go C to F, or D to F, or maybe even Db to F? It is an important detail. As someone once said, “The beauty lies in the details!” I recommend learning melodies in a functional way that makes you aware of the motion through the chord or in the key. So, if I were learning the melody to Tenderly in Eb, I wouldn’t just learn the pickups at the beginning as Bb, C, Eb, D. I would learn them as 5, 6, 8, 7 and then I could play that melody in any key, assuming I was comfortable in the key. If you want to see if you understand how a melody moves, just try playing it in one other familiar key. For practice, play Happy Birthday starting on any note to see if you really know how the melody moves. This is also true of the chord progression which should be thought of functionally in the key of X!

Finally, guitar, piano and vibes players should pay careful attention to the melody when comping, either for someone playing the melody or solos. First of all, the job is to support the sound and make the solo voice or instrument comfortable. If someone is singing or playing the melody and your chord voicing contradicts the sound, it is not good! Good accompanists always enhance the sound rather than conflicting with it. So it is critical that you know the melodies and what notes to emphasize or avoid. Basically, if you don’t like to accompany, a rhythm section instrument is not for you! Good luck!



4 thoughts on “Monthly Musings – May 21, 2017

  1. Nice article, Dan. It’s true we should pay homage to the original composer’s wishes. Sometimes after exposing the melody and harmony correctly, I like to change it up in an improv with variations in harmonic content. I think Chick, even when he really changes up a tune by Monk or Bill Evans, always keeps the “kernel” of truth that the composer intended. I think Monk would like what Chick does with his music, as several other artists have interpreted him, too! I think if it’s a very good artist, then we agree to let the artist pay homage to the original in his own artistic ways. It’s quite different when a student, or someone early on, mis-interprets a head, or changes due to his own ignorance.

    By the way, I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to use a 9#5 harmony. It has such a special quality, perhaps because that tritone is exposed between the 9 and #5. Your seldom used “Hindu scale” could be used, too, correct? The 7b6?

    Also, I hope you won’t mind if I steal your phrase “in the key of X!” It makes me laugh, because I know what you mean! Thanks for this nice entry!


  2. Great view on the subject of correct melody notes! The skip at the end of “All The Things You Are” has always made me wince a bit, especially when singers just run over it with the wrong notes added, usually because they have not grasped the beauty of the original! Pianists when accompanying a soloist whether vocal or instrumental, must be aware of the melody and all of it’s ramifications if they are to sound correct. To many wrong notes or clashes with the melody notes by the pianist, really destroys the soloist. Pianists need to wait until their turn at the melody, to try out their new harmonies on the unsuspecting listeners!


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