Guide Tone Lines in Action, Part 1

Today, let’s start off with a short musical interlude:

The song of which this is the definitive recording will be the example used for the next  couple of posts. But before going much further, I want to talk about someone who very few jazzers have ever heard of – and who on the surface would seem to have very little to do with jazz theory.

Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935)

Heinrich Schenker was a pianist and musicologist who believed in essence that all tonal music could be boiled down to simple scales – or fragments thereof.  According to his philosophy, there is a hierarchy to the pitches making up a melodic line; there are primary pitches that make up the fundamental scale-wise structure of the tune. All other notes surrounding these primary pitches are simply there to bridge the gaps or provide ornamentation.

Schenker was a bit of an opinionated prig; aside from being sexist (don’t judge too harshly; he was a product of his time and culture), he felt as if very little music of any consequence was created after the Romantic Period (ca. 1825-1900). He would doubtless have taken issue with his system of analysis being applied to the body of American popular song that makes up the bulk of the repertoire we call “standards.” However, all of those  Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley composers came out of a tradition of tonal music, and a great many of them either had classical training or were familiar with music of the “Common Practice” Period (basically, Bach to Brahms).

Case in point: Harry Warren.

Composer Harry Warren (1893-1981) With Lyricist Al Dubin

He is possibly the greatest songwriter  you never heard of. Although he had more Top 40 hits in is time than Cole Porter, the Gershwin Brothers and Irving Berlin combined, he once quipped that even his best friends didn’t know who he was. People know his songs, however: I Only Have Eyes For You, I Found a Million Dollar Baby, About a Quarter To Nine, Shuffle Off To Buffalo, Lullaby of Broadway, Chattanooga Choo-Choo (the first million-seller in history) and That’s Amore were all Harry Warren songs that continue to be favorites decades after they were written.

He was born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna, son of Italian immigrants, in 1893. Not surprisingly, he grew up listening to Italian opera  – and the lyrical quality of this classic music was a major influence. Warren’s melodies are as carefully crafted as those of the great composers of the Common Practice Era.

Underlying this craftsmanship, however, is a surprisingly simple structure. An understanding and analysis of this structure goes a long way toward helping one in finding the guide tone lines that are useful in orchestration and improvisation.

In my next post, I’ll apply principles of Shenkerian analysis to this gorgeous melody –  the “A” section of which is based on nothing more than elaborations of a major scale. In the meantime, give it a few more listens.

Can you hear the ascending and descending scale structure?  Have any questions about this?  Feel free to ask in the comments section below.

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About GuideToneLines

KJ McElrath earned his Masters degree in Music Theory and Composition from Central Washington University. Composer of several works for big band, wind ensemble and orchestra, which can be heard at I perform a cabaret act with Athena McElrath as McElrath Cabaret, which you can find at
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