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
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
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.
A note is:
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.
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.
A phrase is:
A melody is a sequence of musical phrases.
A related sequence of musically motivated notes and silences
with an associated
Sequence of note time-value relationships and rests that
constitute the melodic rhythm.
The musical context
is an evolving "state" of the music that depends on three basic things:
What has come before (the past)
What is going on now (the present)
Meter and rhythm
The melodic rhythm of note-value phrases
What will come later (the future)
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,
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.
[same elements as what has come before]
There may be future themes, motifs, phrases, or breaks that you anticipate,
suggest, or foretell in musical passages that occur before the actual
theme or motif is revealed.
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.
are repeating sets of bars with a defined pattern of chords associated
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.
This begs the question of the composer's motivation for specifying
the note(s). How and why did s/he pick those notes in that order
to be played in that way. An understanding of the composer's motivations
can enhance your own motivations as to how you express the music.
It works with the groove
The groove sets the meter and the underlying
rhythmic emphasis on the beats, e.g.
The bass is generally integral to setting the groove, so the bass line
is a big part of it. The bass line includes bass notes as well as
the rhythm with which they are played, and the chords outlined or implied
by the bass is part of the groove and establishes the musical foundation
upon which you build your improvisation. Improvising
usually works well if you give emphasis to selecting your notes
based on the harmony in the current musical context--i.e.
lean on the notes in the chord and scale suggested by the bass. These
are also notes that will be used when a rhythm guitar or keyboard plays
chords, and an emphasis on these notes provides a contextual cohesion--a
sense of fitting with the rest of the music. Understanding which
of these notes add tension and which resolve it and how they work together
is key to playing by ear.
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
There are a wide variety of musical styles, as well as a lot of music
that refuses to be categorized. What you play and how you play it
can be fundamentally motivated by the desire to play within a certain style
or tradition. Some typical styles for the harmonica include:
Classical (seldom played on the diatonic harp)
And there are sub-categories within the larger genres
It works with or establishes some musical theme of
a song, like a
It works with or establishes some melodic
pattern (note-value phrase)
A melody consists of at least two patterns, a
of pitches played with a pattern of timing and
note-values (how long notes are held). The melodic
rhythm is the pattern of time-values of the notes in a phrase
(which I'm calling a note-value phrase). Melodic rhythms may be more
fundamental than melodies, since different but related melodies can be
played using the same melodic rhythm pattern on different pitches, but
once you fundamentally change the rhythm melody you have significantly
changed the melody, even if you play the same pitches. For example:
"da da da DAAAAAAAAA" might be recognized as the motif for Beethoven's
Ninth, whereas: "daaa da daaaaa da" using the right notes likely won't
be recognized as that motif. In some ways, the melodic rhythm gives
a melody its unique character more than the pitches associated with the
notes. You will probably recognize a melody more readily hearing
its melodic rhythm played with a single pitch (or tapped out with essentially
no pitch) than you will recognize that melody played with the same pitches,
but a different pattern of note-values. In any event, both patterns
are fundamental and important in defining a melodic phrase.
It contributes to the musical feel
The feel of the music is associated with its style, but there may be
many different types of feel associated with a given musical style.
The mode of the music is fundamental to the resulting feel. The most
common modes are simply called major and minor, but there
are several different minor modes, and others as well. The meter
and groove also contribute to setting a rhythmic feel for the music.
style: blues, rhythm: swing shuffle, feel: major
style: blues, rhythm: swing shuffle, feel: minor blues
It comes from the harmony
The harmony is essentially the chord produced by all the notes being
played at the same time or in some arpeggiated
(broken, one-after-the-other) fashion. Chords most often extend for
more than one beat, and so remain relevant for some time. Improvising
usually works well if you give emphasis to selecting your notes
based on the harmony in the current musical context--i.e.
lean on the notes in the chord and scale (of the mode) relevant at the
time, based on the chord progression (even
if no chordal accompaniment is present).
It comes from the scale and mode
The scale and mode work together to set a musical feeling by specifying
the notes primarily used, and to an extent the importance of the different
notes. For example, consider the C major scale. "Major"
indicates a mode type of Ionian. We had to specify 2 things, the
root note of the scale (C), and the pattern of intervals that generate
successive notes, in this case major, or Ionian. The C major scale
starts on C and uses only the white notes on a piano keyboard. The
key of A minor (Aeolian mode) also uses only the white notes, but it starts
(has its root note) on A instead of C. There are 7 modes that can
be mapped onto the white piano keys, each starting on a different white
key note and having a different pattern of whole and half step intervals.
We know that major and minor keys have different and distinct sounds and
feels--but they use the same notes! The difference is in which notes
are used more often, which fall on the beat, which follow each other more
frequently, and the chord progression made from the notes in the scale.
In other words, there are different motivating factors for selecting
notes depending on the mode of the music, in addition to the key
of the music, since the set of notes can be the same for different
modes in different keys.
It borrows from a related harmony, scale, or
The pitches in chords are strongly
motivated parts of a note. Knowing
chord relationships can help you think of related chords that will work
in the musical context, which will suggest more notes that will be reasonably
motivated and work well.
Knowing how the scales in different modes are related, for example
C major and A minor, can suggest ways to pattern your notes to provide
a particular feel to the music and add variety to your improvisation.
It follows from the melody
Maybe it follows the melody line for a time, and then branches off
in a different direction, growing a different line, but still growing towards
the sun. Maybe it mostly follows the melody, but sometimes takes
a different twist or turn like a vine entwined around a tree, or dangling
from a branch. Maybe it waits for a phrase/melody/theme to unveil
for a while, play on ahead, before it jumps in and follows behind, sometimes
in the exact footsteps, or sometimes in some echoed footstep--the same
dance in a different place or time. Both what has gone on before
and what will go on later provide a motivated basis for note selection,
a solid tree about which to grow. A well maintained park in which
to play and explore. A large park, with favorite paths and views,
and darker passageways leading off in up hill directions through thick
fog and brambles. And who knows what vista lies hidden just around
the next dark corner? But you have to be willing to suffer the scratches
while you grope about in the dark fog and climb to the top of the path
from where it is easier to partake its beauty and mysteries. It's
good to have a sturdy familiar walking stick to help you maintain your
balance as you explore.
It leads to upcoming harmony (chords)
For example, building tension by playing notes with a certain
chord that are not from that harmony, but from a chord to follow.
Knowing the notes in the chords can help you see how to lead
into a new chord by stepping smoothly out of the previous chord, or
perhaps landing on a stepping stone note that is part of both chords, the
pitch providing transition consistency between them.
It comes from the ear,
motivated by the sound
The ear has learned to appreciate certain sounds and sound combinations:
patterns of expectation. Moreover, certain sounds and scales and
modes seem to be naturally associated (across cultures) with certain emotions
and feelings, instilling them as well as expressing them. Playing
by ear is largely about establishing a feeling or conveying an emotion
based on sound and our emotional level (as opposed to intellectual level)
response to them. No one can doubt the different feelings established
by loud, distorted, fast, wild, raucous Rock'n'Roll, a slow blues shuffle,
and a lullaby.
It comes from the
motivated by the intellect
Music lends itself nicely to theoretical analysis, having many mathematical
relationships and symmetries, scales, intervals, chords and chord relationships
among them. Given a relatively small set of note value possibilities
(quarter notes, eighth, sixteenth, half and whole notes, triplet notes),
and a regular tempo, short note-value patterns and phrases are relatively
limited and can be studied independently. Many interesting harmony-based
(and/or rhythmically based) things can be done that follow well-defined,
well-expressed rules that can be recognized intellectually, appreciated
intellectually. These intellectual realizations are one aspect
of a sense of "good art", or "good music". If music that is appreciated
intellectually also communicates on an emotional level and sounds good,
the notes have been well and fully motivated, and will appeal to the widest
range of listener.
It comes from the body,
motivated by playing technique
Playing technique is a physical manipulation of the instrument to produce
a sound or sounds. The pitches and/or rhythmic patterns are motivated
by physical actions and the mechanical characteristics of the instrument,
not musical relationships or an inner vision directed by the ear.
Performing a series of physical actions results in a sequence of notes
related to these specific physical actions. Relevant techniques include:
Successions of playing techniques can establish musical themes or motifs,
and can generate entire musical phrases. If these action-based playing
techniques do not result in well motivated notes, the ear and the mind
may not "fully appreciate" the results. Over-use of technique-motivated
notes can detract from the final musical result.
It comes from the
motivated by its mechanical characteristics
The mechanical characterists of the instrument give it its capabilities
to play music, as well as causing its limitations. The mechanical
characteristics determine such things as:
chords, like blowing 3 holes or strumming a guitar chord.
notes generated by or associated with preset licks and riff patterns, for
example the different music generated by playing the same lick on a standard
richter-tuned major diatonic vs a natural minor or "country" tuning.
Music key pattern (a)symmetry (guitar and diatonic harp patterns
tend to be symmetric with respect to musical key, piano and chromatic harp
patterns tend not to be)
distinct trills and tremolos based on easy-to-do-fast playing techniques
Note creation techniques, like
bends (can't bend a note on a piano)
multiple notes at the same time (unlike most wind instruments)
pushing a chromatic slide (easy to do, can be difficult to duplicate on
pressing valves on a horn
bow patterns (like on violin)
finger "pull-offs", as on a guitar
grabbing keys, as on piano or organ
note sustain and decay variations
instrument responsiveness (how fast can you play it.. trombones are slower
It comes from memory
The memory of what you've heard before, learned before, or played before
is a huge factor in determining what you will play next. In order
to recognize a pattern, you have to remember a series of
notes that have been played before. In order to recognize a musical
context, you have to remember the chord progression, verse, theme,
style, etc.--all the relevant musical elements. In order to recognize
and remember these elements, you have to listen carefully and pay
attention. When you pick a note to play you consider:
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
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 same
melodic 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
Let's face it, we all make mistakes. There are many different
varieties: you can feel like a certain note will work well, but
it ends up not to; you can think a note with a certain contextual
musical relationship (like "go up a flat third", or "hit the dominant 7
of the 4 chord") will work well, but it might not end up sounding like
you wanted; you can mis-calculate and not hit the note you thought
you wanted (like you wanted to go up a 5th and you went up a 4th instead);
you can play at the wrong time, with the wrong expression or effect, or
you can simply miss the note and not play it right (which is easy to do
on some bends and overbends). The question is, what
do you do when you make a mistake? That depends on how
the accidental note(s) works in the current musical context.
If it's a rhythmic mistake--you played at the wrong time--you need to
get back in the groove just as fast as you can, or you have to find some
"outside the groove" melodic rhythm that you make intersect back in the
groove that works. That's not always easy, and if you screw
up the rhythm or can't get back into the chord progression you're in big
trouble. Sometimes you can throw in a little syncopation for variety
then get back to the groove. It's less risky just to sacrifice that
note as being wrong and just get back to playing right notes without trying
to cover the mistake.
If it's a time-value held-it-the-wrong-length-of-time accident, you
can often easily compensate by changing the time-value of some subsequent
note(s) in a symmetric, corresponding manner.. e.g. if you held one too
long, play another too short; if you waited too long to come in, play shorter
notes or skip something--but get back into the melodic rhythm, the meter,
and the groove, and get back in control. Sometimes, especially if
you're playing with a band, you may want to just stop playing and lay out
until you catch the groove and get your bearings in the song. Usually
silence is much better than a bunch of out-of-time notes that aren't following
If it's a wrong note you have to judge whether to try to fix it, cover
it up, or just accept it and move on. It depends so much on the situation
and there are so many different situations, it's tough to offer advice.
Sometimes, when improvising, accidental notes (on time) are perfectly
acceptable alternates to the note you had chosen, if less than optimal
because it wasn't what you were going for. If you are just practicing
and not performing (depending on your ability and confidence) you may want
to use this accidental note as an excuse to go exploring. Play as
if you had intended that note, use the musical context it provides, and
see if it leads to any unexplored paths you might like to get familiar
with. After all, you may make that same kind of mistake again, and
if you've explored where it takes you you'll have a better idea what to
do next time. Or, sometimes you can use the note to lead you back
to where you want to be a beat or few later. Sometimes an accidental
note can give you an idea on how to extend the musical context that you
hadn't thought of before. You may think "this note is related to
that chord, and that chord could be used in this way to..." whatever.
And off you go, with new ideas for your music.
It tries to meet expectations
The groove establishes expectations. The chord progression establishes
expectations. A theme or motif or chorus or verse establishes expectations.
In order to please the ear, the music needs to meet many expectations,
which have been established by what has come before.. the past part of
the musical context.
It tries to be unexpected
This can be refreshing and add interest. There is a lot of musical
"meeting expectations", playing what the ear expects to hear or the theory
or style demands. If the music is excessively "expected" it can sound
stale or unimaginative or merely ordinary. The ear wants some surprises.
The mind wants some mystery. The emotions want some realization of
"universal truth" to move them. The ear and mind also wants the loose
ends tied up. If used improperly or overused the unexpected can sound
dissonant, analytical, or just plain wrong.
It acts in a phrase of related notes to contribute to a musical
Music is normally organized as a series of related phrases that alternate
between establishing tension and releasing it, asking a musical question
and answering it. A phrase sets a musical
context of its own. Understanding or anticipating the context
of a phrase provides for well-motivated note selection--there's a good
reason for playing what you do.
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 associated pitches
based on the physical characteristics
of the instrument. Phrases are associated
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
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.