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melody - should the composer have a say?


Dave Horne

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I spent a few hours yesterday with a singer. My point of view on singing the melody (or playing the melody for that matter) - the first time through you accurately state the melody - I'm talking 'tones' here; you can take liberties with the rhythm but the words remain intact and the melody notes remain intact. I can see changing the last several notes of the melody for effect, but for the rest, we should concede the melody to the composer ... or is that asking too much? The second or third time through you can do whatever you want with the melody, I just feel it is important to learn the melody as the composer intended. Am I alone here?

 

My problem with most singers, they never learned the original melody either because they never bothered to consult the original sheet music ... or they memorized the melody from someone who made the tune famous. They remain clueless to what the original melody is - they don't know what the original melody is.

 

I realize it might take a little bit of work to learn what the composer intended but is that asking too much?

No guitarists were harmed during the making of this message.

 

In general, harmonic complexity is inversely proportional to the ratio between chording and non-chording instruments.

 

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I agree that most ballads and pop tunes deserve a conservative rendition the first time.

 

The purity of the theme actually magnifies the variations that follow. And that's a great form, with eons of heritage and weight behind it.

 

(OT) I'm working on the opposite form ... as an experiment. Somebody once said that a solo is the opposite of theme and variations, you are actually playing with various figures until they comet together into something lyrical. I'd like to write something formal that combines different streams into a cohesive whole, but I am struggling with the writing.

 

Jerry

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Didn't you enjoy Billie Holiday's interpretations of Georgia? I don't think she ever sang the melody straight in terms of tones or rhythm. . . and what about Miles' approach to tunes?

I do like a simple statement of melody though rather than another opportunity for a singer to 'show off'. It's all a matter of taste. Not every singer can interpret a melody as well as Billie Holiday and some versions of tunes can be cringeworthy.

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Phil is absolutely right. Billie Holiday is the perfect example of someone not respecting the original melody at all, yet ending up with something wonderful. There are a few jazz singers, however, that having that great example in their ears, end up singing something more bland and weak than the original.

I think the most important point is to reharse with the singer, and be ready for whatever the singer's intentions are. At the same time, don't be afraid to give suggestions on what you think it works and what doesn't. In my experience, singers are often willing to listen to their pianist. :)

 

Another important factor is harmony. If you stick with the original chords, and the singer is used to hear that progression, he/she will feel free to add, change, and otherwise 'interpret' the melody. If you reharmonize heavily, the singer's variations could sound out of tune with the new progression.

 

Last Sunday, I played a solo piano gig playing Cole Porter's music. Some of the tunes I gave a 'light' harmonic rehash, but basically, I left more or less the original harmonic skeleton; some others I reharmonized wildly . Now, I don't know if I would give those 'personalized' version to a singer; it would take one with great harmonic knowledge to understand what's going on, and to adapt to the new harmonic context.

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Dave,

 

It sounds to me like you're really discussing practice technique. And the basic foundation I see is that when practicing as part of a group, (be it just a pianist and singer - or a larger combo), it definitely helps to have an outline for what the approach to learning a new piece is going to be.

 

I don't think there is a "right" answer -- other than the approach should be AGREED upon.

 

But I definitely understand, as an accompanist, that it's much easier to build up from the basic melody line to get the foundation laid for how the accompaniment will go.

 

I myself had a case where I was sight-reading a piece I was completely unfamiliar with - working with a vocalist I had never met before. So, I was doing my best to play note for note. Said vocalist was (like yours), wanting to dive directly into full blown emotive stylings - and wasn't showing a lot of patience as I tried to get a feel for her voice.

 

When you work with choirs, (as I do), one gets used to building a song in parts (literally), and you don't even think about dynamics until after the notes are down. Obviously, solists have tons more leeway with melody than a choir, but the basic problem of getting the accompaniment and vocals to blend is similar.

 

As a rule, I prefer to "follow" my vocalists, so I'm pretty adaptive (if I'm familiar with a piece) in letting the vocalist do what they're gonna do, and I figure out how I can best support them over a few run throughs.

 

But, in other cases, where I realize I have a 'timid' vocalist, I'll sometimes "lead" with the piano, which helps pull them along and get them to open up a bit more.

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Originally posted by Dave Horne:

I spent a few hours yesterday with a singer. My point of view on singing the melody (or playing the melody for that matter) - the first time through you accurately state the melody - I'm talking 'tones' here; you can take liberties with the rhythm but the words remain intact and the melody notes remain intact.

Actually, I've heard it said that the listener is more likely to recognize a melody if you change the pitches and leave the rhythm intact.

 

I guess it depends on the kind of music you're doing. I can't imagine a Big Band song that doesn't state the traditional melody in the first ride before the improv solos.

 

OTOH, sometimes you don't want anything to do with the original version. For example, I probably wouldn't play "Old MacDonald" with the traditional melody if I was aiming for today's "hip" teens.

 

When writing my own works, yes, having a singer show up and blow their own interpretation of what I wrote can rub the ego the wrong way. But I take a step back and evaluate: (a) does their take work better for the song?, and/or (b) did I write something so convoluted that (at least for this singer) it cannot be sung well as written. So maybe the melody gets changed. It's especially hard working with new singers, because it's hard to get an idea of their range, their power notes, their comfort zone, etc.

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I think anyone, singer or otherwise, should learn the exact original melody when learning a tune. Only when you've got that "correct" melody learned should you explore other phrasing possibilities by listening to other great musicians play it.

 

This all takes place in the practice room, though. In performance, I think you should make a melody your own. Many of those old melodies are pretty square rhythmically. They need spicing up. For me anyway. Lord knows I've heard some of those standards so many times that if everyone played the melody the way it was supposed to be I'd end up taking a gun to my own head. I'm down with creative interpretation.

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You have to 'know' a tune before you can 'play' it if you ask me. I would wager that Billie and Miles 'knew' those tunes backwards and forwards before they started to take liberties with them. I could always be wrong though...
A ROMpler is just a polyphonic turntable.
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+1 :thu: on learning the melody 'right' first and then taking creative liberties with it.

 

Definitely want to keep it fresh and interesting too especially if it has been heard enough to contemplate 6 chamber roulette. ;):cool:

PD

 

"The greatest thing you'll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return."--E. Ahbez "Nature Boy"

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it's only in the rendering of the right melody that the interpretation makes sense... im thinking of a sax rendition of "europa" where the guy never does play the melody intact.. and as a result (for me) it just meanders... it's akin to playing outside without showing you can inside???
"style is determined not by what you can play but what you cant...." dave brubeck
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I like the outside stuff. :D I also like the inside and in-between stuff.

 

I don't have a problem with a singer (or a horn player) taking liberties with the melody--as long as he/she doesn't mind me also taking similar liberties while accompanying him/her. Sometimes, I don't mind following the singer, and sometimes I'd prefer to lead.

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Dave,

 

While I don't disagree with anyone's comments here, I think that the treatment depends on the tune. If it's a standard that's well known and firmly ingrained in the public's ear, then it's not necessary to play it through straight the first time. "Georgia" is a perfect example. Because the public already knows how it's supposed to sound, it's not necessary to state it the first time through.

 

On the other hand, there are lesser known standards like "Out Of This World", where I think it's incumbant on the singer to sing it reasonably straight the first time through.

 

To expand this subject further (and you just know that we're going to end up bashing singers here :eek: ), what makes me nuts is when there are a few certain notes in the original melody that are trickier to sing than most; those few notes that the composer specificly wrote to get the listener's attention, and the singer inevitably finds easier, but completely wrong note choices, rather than singing it properly and risk screwing up.

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I'm not really a jazz guy, but I find a similar thing covering tunes in any genre. And it's not just singers.

 

People often want to jump straight to "interpreting" a cover song. This drives me nuts, because you almost always end up with a tune that sounds just like all your other tunes. :(

 

An approach that works much better for me is learning a cover tune as closely as possible to the most definitive original recording, including all of the nuances of dynamics and such. Once you know that, you can take it anywhere you want, and it's far more likely to have it's own unique signature as a song, instead of sounding like "Jam in A" with lyrics that people know. :rolleyes:

 

--Dave

Make my funk the P-funk.

I wants to get funked up.

 

My Funk/Jam originals project: http://www.thefunkery.com/

 

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I really enjoy accompanying singers who really know the music and lyrics.

 

I find annoying singers who seem to focus on yodeling and other vocal gymnastics moreso than melody. :rolleyes::cool:

PD

 

"The greatest thing you'll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return."--E. Ahbez "Nature Boy"

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If the singer does not know the true melody I don't think he/she can do justice to the song no matter what variants are explored. If a song is good enough to sing in public the performer should respect it enough to accurately learn the melody before going off on a tangent.

 

Robert

This post edited for speling.

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"Georgia" is a perfect example. Because the public already knows how it's supposed to sound, it's not necessary to state it the first time through.
I was involved in an audition of a singer many years ago. The young girl was very talented though could not read music. (Since this was a position in a big band, reading was a necessity.)

 

She starts to sing a standard that was also recorded by Whitney Houston, (you know, it might have been Georgia). We stop and ask her to sing the original melody. She couldn't, she had memorized every vocal inflection that WH recorded and that was that. Had we wanted a WH sound-alike, she would have gotten the job.

 

Why I started this thread, I had a rehearsal this week with a singer who interpreted every song without stating the original melody. I suppose if she were Billie Holiday she could have gotten away with it; she wasn't.

 

To expand this subject further (and you just know that we're going to end up bashing singers here :eek: ....
Believe it or not, I asked this question as a literal question - you don't have to read anything more into it. I also get annoyed with sax players who know about 85 percent of the melody. I personally feel we owe something to the composer to learn the melody and then do something with it, but that's just my personal view on this (and my view when I find myself in a teaching position). As a piano player I also find it important to know the stock changes even if I don't play them. When you play with musicians you don't know, it's important to have a common reference.)

No guitarists were harmed during the making of this message.

 

In general, harmonic complexity is inversely proportional to the ratio between chording and non-chording instruments.

 

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She couldn't, she had memorized every vocal inflection that WH recorded and that was that. Had we wanted a WH sound-alike, she would have gotten the job.
Wow. And since they weren't even HER OWN interpretations, she was just a "copycat", and not a real jazz vocalist anyway. Sad....

 

Believe it or not, I asked this question as a literal question - you don't have to read anything more into it.
I was referring to my comments, not yours.

 

I also get annoyed with sax players who know about 85 percent of the melody. I personally feel we owe something to the composer to learn the melody and then do something with it, but that's just my personal view on this (and my view when I find myself in a teaching position). As a piano player I also find it important to know the stock changes even if I don't play them. When you play with musicians you don't know, it's important to have a common reference.)
I agree on all counts.
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Originally posted by Dave Horne:

I suppose if she were Billie Holiday she could have gotten away with it; she wasn't.
They never are, are they?

 

 

I would expand this to the need for instrumentalists to know the freaking words to songs that they're going to be playing the melodies to. That tells you a whole lot about how to phrase the melody if you ask me.

A ROMpler is just a polyphonic turntable.
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I would expand this to the need for instrumentalists to know the freaking words to songs that they're going to be playing the melodies to. That tells you a whole lot about how to phrase the melody if you ask me.
I agree ... and I am very deficient in this area. (I'm reworking Brother Can You Spare a Dime?; those lyrics will make you cry. That tune has to be played slowly if you pay attention to the lyrics.)

No guitarists were harmed during the making of this message.

 

In general, harmonic complexity is inversely proportional to the ratio between chording and non-chording instruments.

 

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Originally posted by kanker, apparently:

 

I would expand this to the need for instrumentalists to know the freaking words to songs that they're going to be playing the melodies to. That tells you a whole lot about how to phrase the melody if you ask me.

ain't that the truth...

similarly i find it curious (as a writer who doesn't do lyric) when someone wants to try their hand at it and send me lyrics that only fit the melody in their head and shows no bearing to the phrasing...

 

dp2 you may be right on that version...

"style is determined not by what you can play but what you cant...." dave brubeck
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