What is musical vocabulary?

supreme_lickster
Oct-11-2020

Much like spoken language, improvised solos are built from basic words and phrases. In this article, we will look at a jazz performance from an outside perspective and learn how to recognize and acquire useful musical vocabulary to get better at improvisation.



We have previously explored the analogies between music and language.

This is an enormously helpful concept, so let me briefly recap why language and music are essentially the same thing:

Both languages and music

  • are auditory skills.
  • have grammar and rules.
  • rely on vocabulary.

In this sense, being able to improvise music is the equivalent of being able to fluently speak a language.

In order to reach fluency in the language of jazz or any other language, it is of vital importance to acquire a solid foundation of words and phrases to use in conversation.

Today, I would like to discuss what we mean by words and phrases in the context of music and how you can recognize and acquire musical vocabulary to get better at jazz improvisation.

The key to understanding musical vocabulary is to look at music as if it was a language.

For this purpose, let’s do a little thought experiment.

The language of an alien species

Imagine you are an extraterrestrial from planet Lix, and you are on an exploratory mission in an uncharted region of the Milky Way galaxy.

image[milky_way, milky way galaxy]

Within a few lightyears of an otherwise unremarkable star you stumble upon a radio signal and you hear the following recording:

(As you have no way of knowing, it is a performance of “All the Things You Are” by Buddy DeFranco and his jazz combo.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GCj1D71DCE

You jump from your seat as the message bears the unmistakable signs of intelligent life. In fact, the clearly designed structure and irregular but repeating patterns suggest some form of communication.

I pose you the following question:

If you had no idea what humans sounded like nor how they communicate, would you be able to tell if this is a musical performance or a conversation?

I find it hard to tell the difference myself, and I claim to be human!

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that we’re extraterrestrials a little longer.

As you analyze the alien broadcast, you notice that there are at least 4 or 5 speakers who speak one after another. You deduce this because each individual has a unique voice. Perhaps it is the creature's biological voice, or maybe they use some sort of individualized communication devices to produce unique sounds.

The aliens talk in short phrases

As you listen more closely to the speech patterns, you realize that the alien language is made up of short phrases that have a clear beginning and an end.

Each individual alien, without exception, seems to communicate in short bursts of language, usually followed by a brief pause, perhaps to catch a breath in between.

You mark a few example passages in your log:

1. Phrase one

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GCj1D71DCE?start=75&end=84

2. Phrase two

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GCj1D71DCE?start=105&end=112

3. Phrase three

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GCj1D71DCE?start=173&end=181

You have no doubt that these are examples of spoken sentences.

Although you haven't the foggiest idea what the aliens are talking about, you have discovered a fundamental unit in their language, from which the longer monologues are built.

You name these short phrases licks, in honor of your distant home planet Lix.

Licks are musical phrases that function like sentences. They are self-contained units of music with a clear beginning and end.

In order to study the phrases in greater detail, you attempt to reproduce the sounds on your ship's synthesizer:

1. Phrase one

lick[285,0]

2. Phrase two

lick[286,0]

3. Phrase three

lick[287,0]

The phrases are made from words

As you reproduce and record the three phrases spoken by the aliens, you notice that each phrase is made up of a handful of words or themes.

You notice several characteristics of the words you hear:

  • Each word within a lick has a distinct rhythmic theme
  • Words also have a melodic theme, i.e. a unique pattern of notes.
  • Words or individual syllables are often repeated in a slightly altered form or variation.

For your log, you decide to dissect the licks further into the words they are made from:

1. Words in phrase one

Pay attention to the rhythmic and melodic theme in this word:

lick[288,0]

This is a variation of the first theme:

lick[289,0]

2. Words in phrase two

Here's another rhythmic and melodic theme. Notice in particular the last 4 notes:

lick[290,0]

Once again, the word is repeated in an altered form. Notice again the last 4 notes:

lick[291,0]

3. Words in phrase three

This word doesn't have much to offer in terms of rhythm, but it has a neat melodic line:

lick[292,0]

The speaker does not repeat the first word in this case, but here a word is formed from repeating "syllables":

lick[293,0]

Conclusion

Steering your ship through the void of interstellar space, you are both proud and humbled by your discovery of this unique and beautiful alien language.

You pat yourself on the back for deciphering the fundamental units of communication:

Musical language is made from licks (phrases) and musical themes (words)

Surely the public will be excited about the alien message once you report back home. This will mean a promotion, and perhaps lasting fame. Figuring out what the meaning of the words might be will be a job for the gearheads at the astrolinguistics department, and you decide not to worry about it for the moment.

Following protocol, you mark the position of the star from which the message originated, and you change course back towards planet Lix...

Work on building your musical vocabulary

This thought experiment illustrates to me that jazz improvisation can be analyzed and learned just like a language.

Nowadays, whenever I listen to a recording of a solo or a band performance, I pay attention to the words and phrases that the music is made from.

This is the musical vocabulary that we are after. Licks and short themes.

Now that you know how to identify musical words and phrases, try to gather as many of them as you possibly can.

You can start with the collection of musical vocabulary here on the LickStack. Pick up the musical words and phrases you find here and try to experiment with them and make them your own.

Keep building your vocabulary and become fluent in the language of jazz.

And when the visitors from planet Lix come back and attempt to talk to us in our language, you will be prepared!


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