What did you give up for Lent?

If you serve a liturgical church, today is the day when we are halfway through Lent. Many people give up something for Lent. Common examples include caffeine, smoking, chocolate, or even all desserts. I know a lot of organists that give up certain stops on the organ for the season. No reeds, no mixture, and certainly no Trompette-en-chamade! What if instead of giving up stops, we gave up notes? What would happen to our improvisations if we used not just fewer stops, but fewer pitches?


Can you improvise a piece using only one note? Harmony completely disappears from consideration if we only use one pitch to create our piece. Can you build a melody by moving the note up and down to different octaves? Rhythm and tone color seem to be the primary musical options for us when we only have one note to work with. Drum solos can last several minutes, so it is definitely possible to keep someone’s attention using primarily rhythm. How long can you keep the listener engaged while using only one note? What does it do to your own sense and awareness of rhythm? I managed about 2.5 minutes…

And then there were two

Using only one note is pretty tough. What if we give ourselves permission to use two different notes? Which two would you choose? How far apart would they be? A fifth? A third? Only a half-step?

With two notes, we now have some melodic and harmonic elements to work with in addition to rhythm. Is it easier to make a longer piece now? How much longer can you go? What difference does the choice of interval between the notes have on your creative ability?

I managed an extra 10-15 seconds with 2 notes…

A few more

Before going running back to a full set of 7 or 12 pitches, try using only 4, 5, or 6. If you can play for 2 minutes using only 2 notes, can you improvise for 5-6 by creating a B-section with 2 other notes and then return to your original material and pitches for a rounded binary or ternary form? Imagine 6 minutes of music using only 4 notes? What might that sound like?

The pentatonic scale only has five notes and has generated numerous folk melodies. How much time have you spent improvising with those five notes? Beginning keyboard students often have pieces that do not require moving the hands beyond the five notes that are directly below the fingers. What sort of music can you create in five-finger mode?

The whole-tone scale has six notes. Composers have made ample use of it to create impressionistic pieces and transitions. The traditional major and minor triads aren’t available in this set. How do you create harmonic tension or interest when all the notes are the same distance apart?

Lenten Sacrifice

Giving up chocolate, alcohol, or caffeine for Lent might be difficult, but I believe the practice of restricting ourselves for a limited time makes us better in the long run. While it is not easy to improvise using only one or two notes, the practice makes us aware of other elements in music that we may not pay as much attention to normally. Even though Lent is now halfway over, I encourage you to spend at least a few minutes exploring how you can improvise using only a handful of notes.


Newsletter Issue 64 – 2017 03 23

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