Joe's Blog

Arpeggios: a musical state that lies somewhere between melody and chord

May 22, 2018

Consider on the one hand playing the notes of a melody in a slow, leisurely fashion and, on the other hand, sounding all the notes of the same melody simultaneously, mush-ing the melody into a single chord or cluster.   In between these two extremes there are many intermediary possibilities, each one blending insensibly into the next, and forming thereby a continuous spectrum.

At one end of this spectrum, the notes of a melody go by so fast that, like a rapidly arpeggiated chord with the pedal held down, the effect barely departs from that of a simultaneous chord.  The previous sounds spontaneously congeal behind the most recent sound to start, like the ice trail of a jet airliner.  At the other end of the spectrum, the melody slows down so much, that each of its notes sound for so long that we lose even the awareness that we are in a melody.*  We lose track of the current note’s relation with the previous one, and we cease to anticipate that another note might show up after the current.**  In other words, we are locked in the frozen presence of the current note.  This would be like observing a glacier in order to detect its movement.

If I were looking for a position on this spectrum that best combined the qualities of these two ends, I might choose a fluid, somewhat rapid arpeggio.   My choice is based on the fact that an arpeggio is already suggestive of the single phenomenon of a chord, but still retains the order of the single pitches.

One of my favorite practice techniques is to disregard the actual rhythm of the written notes, and convert the pitches into an arpeggio of notes of equal duration, undulating up and down on the keyboard, extending the arpeggio upwards and  downwards past the written notes and into adjacent octaves as suits my fancy.

* The music of Morton Feldman from the 1960s to me seems to gravitate towards the end of the spectrum where a single note of the melody lasts for an unusually long time. Here is an example in his piece ‘Last Pieces’

** At both extremes things become as it were frozen.  Either the melody loses its implied order of notes inside a frozen chord, or all we are conscious of in the melody is the one frozen note sounding currently.

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