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"I learned the rules so I could forget the rules." - Claude Debussy (1862-1918


The first step in constructing a guide tone line for a specific voice is to identify the common tones – single pitch classes that are common to two adjacent harmonic structures (basically, two different chords that share a single pitch).

Of course, some vertical movement is inevitable – and even desirable. You often hear recordings of orchestrations in which the string section plays a single, sustained pitch over the moving lines. This can be a useful technique, but in most cases, when doing orchestrations – particularly for multiple horns in one of the many jazz configurations such as the octet (three saxes, trumpet and trombone) and even a full seventeen-piece big band, it is important to keep the voices moving in a logical and preferably melodic manner.

This is one reason that Duke Ellington’s orchestra sounded as good as it did back in the day. Originally, very little of an arrangement was actually written down; often, Ellington would dictate ideas to the various sections and the sidemen would come up with their parts in collaboration, thinking in linear terms rather than in terms of vertical harmonies.

Constructing a set of  guide tone lines using neighbor tones is quite simple, but easier to demonstrate than to explain. For this example, I will use the harmonic progression for  the first eight measures of an old standard entitled Who’s Sorry Now?  – which incidentally, shares the same chord progression as All of Me, You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You and several others (this will be the topic of a future post as well as an extended article and forthcoming e-book).

In addition to arrows, please note the use of colors for the purpose of clarity.  We start out with three pitch classes – in this case, C, G and E. Notice how the top guide tone line divides into two voices. This second voice continues its descent to A. The second voice starts on G, rises a half-step to G#, then returns to G, finally going down to F as it combines with the third voice.

The important thing to remember is that each of these voices can stand alone melodically – yet when played together, create pleasing and functional harmonies that lead from one to another in a way that our Western ears find comfortable and logical.

Those of you who have had formal music theory classes will also note that these particular guide tone lines conform largely to the rules of voice leading learned in first year chorale writing. Specifically, note how the voices making up the penultimate A7 chord resolve to the D minor. The seventh degree of the A7 chord resolves downward to F, while the C# – a leading tone of the following “tonic of the moment” in the D minor chord – resolves upward.

If you have recently suffered through first year theory (as I did), you may wonder what place these rules have in jazz  orchestration. My response would be, quite a lot, actually. In Western musical traditions, the ear is conditioned toward certain aural expectations. Much of the time, this conditioning is subconscious; we aren’t even aware of it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t there, however.

There are times we may hear a piece of music that doesn’t sound quite right, but cannot articulate what is wrong with it. Other times, we’ll hear something that moves us to the core of our being – but again, are unable to say just why it affects us the way it does.

My opinion is that it is attention paid to these “rules” that distinguishes great music from that which is simply good, mediocre or even bad.  Great composers and orchestrators either have studied these rules thoroughly, or more likely, have a keen awareness of what sounds “right” or “natural” – and by their awareness, know when these “rules” can be broken or disregarded.

But I digress…when it comes to music,

the “rules” are really nothing more than  a codification of what you already know in your ear to be correct.

I’ll elaborate on this more in my next post.

In the meantime, are there any questions here? Please leave them in the comments section.




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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 BardicCircle.com. I perform a cabaret act with Athena McElrath as McElrath Cabaret, which you can find at http://mcelrathcabaret.com.
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