Music as Language

Music is a language. Through it we express joys and sorrows beyond words. Composers across the centuries have given us pieces crafted in the language of music that we perform repeatedly. We trust in their skills and creativity to create the atmosphere or transmit our feelings to others.

In our spoken language however, we do not rely upon great writers to express ourselves. Imagine trying to have a conversation where you could only quote Shakespeare. While we may not be great writers or even great orators like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr., we are all capable of putting words together and conveying our thoughts to another person in a coherent manner.

For me, improvisation becomes the ability to converse in the language of music. When we enter the world of music, why do we suddenly lose faith in our own ability to communicate? Everyone learns his or her native language, and perhaps a few others. All musicians should learn not just to recite the music others have provided but to create their own expressions in music. Complex sentences and large structures are not required in our everyday conversations. Why should we consider a good improviser only someone who can make complex music? To improvise well should be as easy as speaking a well-constructed sentence.

Daily Practice

We learn our native tongue through constant use. We are surrounded and encouraged daily as a child to make sounds and put words together, even if they don’t follow correct grammar! To master the language of music, we need that same daily practice, encouragement, and immersion. A child doesn’t learn to say “mama” and “papa” in the same day. How many times did the parents say those words to the child before he or she uttered something close to those sounds? Find a sound or progression you would like to make part of your improvisation vocabulary and practice it daily. Do you have a keyboard at home? Play your chosen sounds every time you walk by it! We learned the grammar of our spoken language not because we learned the rules but because we heard them applied every day. A three-hour session on Saturday afternoon will not have the same lasting result as a few minutes everyday. Sure, we can make progress in a long session, but we learned our language through daily practice. We should do the same to master the language of music.


This Saturday, I will present a workshop to the local Baltimore AGO on improvisation. If you are in the area, feel free to drop in. We’ll be at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen from 9:30 to 12:30 on October 14. After an opening presentation on looking at improvisation as conversing in the language of music, there will be time for questions and willing volunteers to sit on the bench and apply the ideas.

I will also be attending the AGO Pedagogy conference next week at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. With a focus on organ and improvisation study in the French conservatory system, I hope several of you are planning to attend. Please say hello if you see me there!

Hoping you speak music daily!

Newsletter Issue 67 – 2017 10 11

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Summer Improv Courses 2016

The Summer is a popular time for conferences and special courses. Here’s a list of opportunities to study improvisation at the organ this summer. If you know of others, please email me or share them in the comments so that I can add them to the website.

This summer is also the National Convention of the American Guild of Organists. It will take place in Houston July 19-23. Typically there is an improvisation competition and several workshop presentations on improvisation during the convention. I only spotted one improvisation workshop: Adagio Lost and Adagio Regained:
A Study of the Lost Art of Improvising in the Adagio Genre, with Emphasis on Handel’s Organ Concertos presented by HyeHyun Sung. The NCOI competition was restructured for this year with the preliminary round taking place last summer. (See my critique here.) No information about the competition is currently on the Houston website…

I am still considering offering a couple of days of improvisation instruction here. If you would be interested in coming to study with me at the Cathedral July 28-30, 2016, please let me know. Space for active participants will be limited. If there is sufficient interest, I’ll share more details soon.

Hoping you take some time this summer to improvise better,


Newsletter Issue 58 – 2016 04 21

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Call me old-fashioned

One of the great things about my new home town of Baltimore is the numerous concert offerings. The Baltimore Symphony has a fabulous line up of programs, and the Peabody Institute seems to offer some sort of concert almost every day! Add in a few other concert series at local churches and other institutions and there is a true wealth of cultural opportunities to explore here. Oh, and should you happen to not find anything to your liking in Baltimore, Washington DC and Philadelphia are just a short drive away!

New and Different

Perhaps it’s my interests in improvisation and composition, but I’m always interested in hearing works that are new or lesser known. I might have also inherited part of this attitude from one of my organ teachers as well who always encouraged students to play pieces that everyone else wasn’t playing. Whatever the reason, I was led to attend a concert last week that included some twentieth-century works by well-known composers but which are seldom done. While not absolutely new, these works were certainly different. Presenting some different instrumental ensembles and technically very demanding, the works have been rarely performed since they were written. While we can lament the great masterworks that lay hidden and unplayed for many years, I suspect the selections I heard will remain largely unknown for the foreseeable future.

Melody (or lack thereof)

Many times on this blog, I have stressed the importance of color. Usually, this comes through increasing harmonic complexity. While a theorist may have delighted at the study of the scores from the concert I heard, as a listener, even with some of the techniques explained in the program, I found myself floating in a sea of sound that had no coherence (another favorite topic of mine!). I completely understood the development of aleatoric (chance) music at this concert because there was no melody for me to follow. There was no pulse to prompt me to tap my foot. It just seemed random. Why waste the time working out complicated structures when the listener simply cannot hear them? That’s when I decided you could call my old-fashioned: I like a good melody that I can remember, follow, and perhaps even sing.

Good Melody

What makes a good melody? What should we think about as we try to improvise a melody? Since I proposed the Four C’s of Improvisation, I’d now like to propose the Four R’s of a Remarkable Melody:

  1. Rhythm – Is the melody monorhythmic (like many hymns) or does it have a variety of rhythmic patterns?
  2. Range – Is the melody within a tight or wide range?
  3. Relaxation – Does the melody offer a sense of tension and release?
  4. Rotundity (I think I made this one up to fit my list.) – What shape does the melody have? Are there lots of skips or is it mostly stepwise?

I’m not sure that there are absolutely right answers for these questions, but I propose that a remarkable melody probably has something interesting about the rhythm (even if it is that it is all the same), a high point and a low point (preferably only one of each), builds and releases tension with a shape that can be recognized by the ear. All of these can apply regardless of the complexity of the harmonic language.

Evaluation and Application

At the next concert you attend, evaluate the melodies of the pieces on the programs? What makes them remarkable? Consider what qualities the next melody you improvise has. Does it move primarily in one direction? Could you create a longer piece simply by changing one of these four R’s at a time? A short four-bar melody could easily become a 24-measure piece just by stating the melody (4m), adjusting each of the criteria (4×4=16m), and then stating the original theme again (4m). Exploring these ideas will also give you the tools to produce development sections in larger sonata and symphonic forms. Even when you aren’t pleased with the results (as I wasn’t happy with the concert I attended), be brave enough to experience the new and different!

May all your melodies be remarkable!


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