Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Genius of Monk

"A genius is the one most like himself."
Thelonious Monk

For years now, this famous document filled with curious scribbles, titled "MONK'S ADVICE," has been making its rounds on the internet. (One blogger discusses Thelonious Monk and some of the document's background here.) I've noticed the document pop up time and time again, and each time I read it, I get something new out of it. Today, the "genius" quote popped out at me.

Throughout life, we are constantly influenced by outside sources. We may emulate a personal hero, mimic a musician's melody, or draw knowledge from a famous quote (like right now, for example). Through imitation and emulation, we shape ourselves (musically and personally).

Outside influences push and pull us in many different directions. Sometimes these forces challenge us and change us for the better; other times they confuse us and throw us off of our path. At these times, I think it's important to look inwardly and go with your gut. Or, for you saps out there, go with your heart. Stick to your essence.

Alternatively, if you prefer rhymes:
"Today you are You; that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You."
—Dr. Seuss
Musically, this means you should pursue the music that interests you the most. Do your best to branch out and become versatile, but realize that it's okay if not everything gels perfectly with your style. Realize that you have your own style.

For Monk, this meant embracing his own crazy, unorthodox style: percussive, fragmented, and completely unique.

Sunday, September 2, 2012


What is an interval?

An interval is the distance between two notes.

An improper method of measuring intervals on the piano. (There is no "inches to semitones" conversion.)

The smallest interval (in Western music) is the half step, also called a minor second. As you increase the number of half steps between two notes, the interval gets larger until, eventually, you arrive at an octave (12 half steps apart).

Each interval has its own distinct sound, and this aural aspect of intervals will be the focus of this post.

The following is a list of all the intervals (within the range of one octave; not beyond) and some examples of their corresponding aural identities.

Intervals and Their Aural Identities
  • Unison (0 half steps): likely the easiest interval to identify aurally. It's the interval that's created when two people sing the same pitch. It's the interval that piano tuners try to achieve between all three strings of one key.
  • Minor 2nd (1 half step): a small, very dissonant interval. In solfeggio, it's the distance from ti to do.
  • Major 2nd (2 half steps): appears in the first two notes of a major scale.
    • Musical example: in the first line of "Happy Birthday," the interval from "-py" to "birth-" (and back down to "-day")
  • Minor 3rd (3 half steps): often used to establish a minor tonality and express sadness or grief. In a minor scale, it appears in the leap from the first note to the third note.
    • Musical example: the first two notes of the guitar riff from Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water"
  • Major 3rd (4 half steps): often used to establish a major tonality and express happiness or joviality. In a major scale, it appears in the leap from the first note to the third note.
  • Perfect 4th (5 half steps): a rather stable, consonant interval.
  • Tritone (6 half steps): this interval presents itself either as an augmented 4th or as a diminished 5th. It it is so dissonant that, dating back to Medieval times, it has been dubbed "diabolus in musica" (the Devil in music). Since the interval has historically served as a symbol of evil, people often associate its sound with danger and the unknown.
  • Perfect 5th (7 half steps): a very stable interval.
    • Musical example: the "Winkie Chant"  from "The Wizard of Oz"
  • Minor 6th (8 half steps): in a second inversion minor triad, the distance from 5 up to 3 (solfeggio: mi up to do).
  • Major 6th (9 half steps): in a second inversion major triad, the distance from 5 up to 3 (solfeggio: sol up to mi).
  • Minor 7th (10 half steps): the inversion of a major second. In a dominant (major-minor) seventh chord, it appears in the leap from the root to the seventh. In this context, the minor 7th has a strong pull toward resolution (as in the following musical example).
    • Musical example: from "Somewhere" (Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story"), the first two notes (There's... a...)
  • Major 7th (11 half steps): the inversion of a minor second. In a major seventh chord, it appears in the leap from the root to the seventh. In this context, the major 7th wants to resolve up to the consonant octave.
  • 8th/Octave (12 half steps): the leap from a note up or down to the next occurrence of the same note name.  The frequencies of two notes an octave apart have a ratio of 2:1.

Symphony of Intervals

I'll leave you with this video (audio only) of a symphony's pre-concert tuning and warm-up. Intervallically speaking, listen for the unisons created immediately after the tuning note is sounded, then listen for all other intervals as each musician warms up individually and deviates from the initial unison. The swirl of different tones and timbres is rather enchanting.

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