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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The Final C: COLOR!

While I did not plan for the series to end this way, it seems appropriate that on this day when American are waving their red, white and blue to celebrate Memorial Day, the topic of the newsletter is color. Whether you are from the USA or somewhere else, I hope you will take a moment to express gratitude to those who gave their lives to enjoy the freedom that you are able to enjoy today.


While registration is an issue of competency, it also is an aspect of color. In the first issue on Competency, I expressed the need for an organist to be familiar with the registrations and combinations of organ stops available to him or her. Even a small organ of 12 stops offers 220 combinations of three stops! (You can check the math or try other numbers here.) While not all of these would project a sense of competency, I believe we fall into registrational habits and often fail to exploit all the colors an instrument may offer us. Instead of simply pulling out the 8′ Flute as a solo, why not try using a 4′ down one octave or a 2′ down two octaves? That 16′ reed in the swell might make a lovely 8′ solo stop if you play an octave higher. Using “non-traditional” registrations like this can also increase your mental dexterity and make it easier for you to play a melody or theme with the left hand or pedal.


Speaking of melody, a layer of color can come from melody notes that are non-chord tones and the contour of the melody itself. Every style (see The 3rd C: Coherent) has a set of rules for the relationship of melody to harmony with guidelines for how to treat non-chord tones. One simple exercise that was given to me by Philippe Lefebvre for finding colorful melodies was to hold a chord with the left hand and only play notes not in the chord with the right hand. It will take trial and error to discover which notes of the scale work best with what sort of chords, but let your ear be your guide. Perhaps the simplest rule I ever heard for non-chord tones came from Gerre Hancock in his admonition “Salvation is always a half-step away.” If you play something that sounds a little off, chances are there is a note right next to it that will sound better, and if you can repeat yourself and play it again, you become convincing and colorful at the same time!


A lot of my instruction in improvisation has focused on building and creating my own harmonic language. One of the ways to do this is to take a colorful harmonic progression from a written composition, memorize it, and then transpose it into all possible keys. Here’s a sample from the first movement of Louis Vierne‘s Symphonie no. 3:

The pedal part is an ornamented pedal point. (We could consider it a melodic way to add color to a static note!) The manuals could be simplified by only playing beats one and three of the chords. With these adjustments, we have a progression ready to transpose into all other keys and will be adding a new way to color a pedal point to our harmonic vocabulary.

What passages from repertoire do you find colorful? Examine them closely, simply if necessary and transpose them to make them part of your improvisational vocabulary. I’d love to know which composers and pieces you find inspirational.

Happy Memorial Day!

May all your improvs be colorful!

Glenn Osborne

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