This post and its companion, Jazz Notation – Drums and Chords, present the material from my talk on January 11, 2014, at the Jazz Education Network Conference in Dallas, Texas. Thank you to Makemusic for their sponsorship.
I get a lot of scores sent to me by composers and arrangers both young and old. I see a lot of things that do not need to be on the page, or are written in ways that are way more complicated than necessary. A lot of these extra indications are instructing players to perform in a way that is already covered by standard jazz , or what I call the Jazz Default. If you notate in a way that exploits this default, you will save yourself a lot of time and the players will know exactly what you mean, you do not need all the extra information.
On my blog, deBreved, I talk a lot about my concept of the Orchestral Default. In a nutshell, what does a player or section do when they see a naked note, with no articulation? If you can learn to think about this default reaction correctly, you will find many situations where you do not need to add any articulation. What happens if you add a staccato, a tenuto, an accent, or a cap?
What are the Assumptions?
Here are the things that I feel are the foundation of the jazz default:
- Swing eighth notes
- Quarter notes are short
- Eighth notes are long
- Fast notes will be slurred
- Long notes will swell
- If the dynamic is forte or more, the notes will be played with accents
- The length of the lead trumpet note is proportional to its height.
While it is common to dot your quarter notes, if you forget one or two, I will put money on the band still playing them short.
It is all about thinking through what they will play with no extra indications. What do I need to “make” them play? If you want a long quarter note, you need to put a tenuto on it (unless the tune is a ballad). But do you need accents on every note in a shout chorus?
All of these assumptions are moot if the notation is not correct for our genre.
Take a look at this piece I put together highlighting many of the issues I see in scores.
Where did we go wrong?
I see three reasons why people over-notate or incorrectly notate their scores. I go into depth on the subject in my post Over-Notation Nation. But in a nutshell here are my theories:
- Composers either do not know the default interpretation or do not trust that it will happen, so they state or clarify the obvious. This is either due to lack of experience, lack of trust in the performers, or failure to think about what you are writing.
- There is a belief that a score full of information is somehow better than one with minimal indications. It looks more professional to show you have thought about every note.
- Computer notation. Composers often write in a way which is easy to input into the computer. They also notate in the way that is best for computer playback. Not only does this affect the look of the music, but as dissonance does not work the same in the virtual world as it does in the real world, it affects the way the young arranger voices harmonies. I am not going to deal with the latter today, as that is a whole other can of worms.
This third reason is the one that irritates me the most. If you see a score with way too many dynamics and articulations, rhythms written in very un-jazz ways, and a drum part that only Terry Bozzio could work out, it is pretty safe to assume it was written for computer playback and not real humans. Notation programs are not aware of any performance practice or default, so everything must be spelt out for each note. I understand that playback is a big part of the composing and learning process, but does it need to come at the expense of good musical grammar?
Unfortunately it seems that the new overdone score has become the norm, if the ones that get sent to me are anything to go by. This problem is not unique to jazz scores. I see it in film scores, concert works, and educational music. A lot of these playback issues can be solved by hidden indications. This is not as complicated as it might sound, but it does take a little more time. Create an extra set of dynamics and articulations that are all set to ‘hidden’, save it in your default template, and then you are good to go.
The Jazz Default
The jazz default is the of a unique mix of rhythmic spelling, articulations, and dynamic markings. The reason we have come unstuck of late is that the default performance practice is rooted in a style of notation born out of hand-written scores, but these days people are writing by computer, and many have never written a chart by hand ever. Some aspects of writing a score have become easier with our software, while others are very hard or impossible.
For example, if we compare pen strokes to keystrokes, it is much easier to write a quarter note and put a dot on it than it is to write an eighth note and an eighth rest. But in the computer, the opposite is the case.
It is important to note that even in handwritten scores, conventions changed and developed over the years, and different arrangers and copyists have used different shorthand. I have tried to find the happy medium between where all of these hand-written techniques came from and where we are today with technology. I question everything, and if there is not a good reason for what’s being done, I will try to find a more sensible solution. My ideas have also evolved over time as I have become more experienced and thought about effective solutions from different perspectives.
As previously mentioned, you must think as if you are going to write the score by hand, and then the correct practice makes sense. Here are a few examples of how a passage might be historically written in jazz, and how someone coming to it now in the computer age might write it.
As mentioned above, a lot of this has to do with ease of effort. The top staff is easy to write by hand and the bottom is easy to enter into the computer. The top one takes longer in the computer and the playback would not be as ideal.
There are four primary articulations in Jazz. Combined with the correct rhythmic spelling, these cover 90% of all musical situations.
Technically the cap is called a marcato. Marcato does not necessarily mean short, but in order to make something marcato, there has to be space around the note. By jazz convention, though, the cap is always read as short and should be the default articulation for an accented short note.
These can be combined to make compound articulations:
- Tenuto Staccato
- Tenuto Accent
The tenuto staccato means detached. It is a little redundant on quarter notes in swing music, but useful on half notes. In a ballad it can come in handy on quarters. It creates space around the note. The tenuto accent forces full duration. This counters the default of playing quarter notes short.
Do not use:
- Staccato Accent
- Staccato Cap
Thinking back to doing this by hand, a cap is much easier to write than a staccato accent, and as we all know a cap is short in jazz, so saying “short cap” is silly. Likewise, using a cap or staccato on an 8th is silly, use nothing, or a normal accent. If an 8th is on the beat and followed by another 8th, the first will be long. Many people put a tenuto on the first note, but the default interpretation is long.
I see all sorts of combinations like this in order to get the computer to play back correctly, but these are redundant for real players.
These speak for themselves, so no need to say “fall” or “gliss”. Change the default in your notation program! The only thing that needs clarifying is the length. I use the wavy line for a long fall and the hook for a quick one. This is not 100% standard, but many people do understand it without me having to explain. If you are worried, specify “long” or “quick”.
The role of articulation is to alter a note. What I have found is that we tend to add articulations to notes that often do not need them. The default takes care of a lot, and it is all “under the hood” so to speak. If we add too many articulations we also risk an effect of “crying wolf”. For example, if every note in your chorus has an accent on it, how do you convey that the last note should be accented even more? If it is a shout chorus, do you even need accents? What will the band do if you leave them out?
Playing a few notes straight
An old shorthand that seems more common in the US than anywhere else is to use articulations to indicate notes that are to be played straight. If you put the same articulation on successive eighth notes, they will not be swung.
The alternative is to use text, like ‘Straight 8’s,’ etc. (It is important to add the ‘8’s’ or you will find half the brass scrambling for a straight mute.) You can use a bracket to outline the notes if there are just a few. If it is a whole section, just use the text and cancel it with ‘Swing’ when you are done.
There is a school of hand copyists that put all articulations above the note. This has mostly fallen out of favor now. In classical notation the marcato articulation always goes above. However, as we are using the marcato in a different way, it is on the same importance level as the other indications, and so I think it should go inline with them too. In my scores I go with the tradition of all articulations above, but I am in the minority on that these days.
pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, fp
These are the ones I would recommend limiting yourself to; however, in a basic swing chart, you can even get away with just p, mf, f & fp. There is no need to micro-manage a band the way you would a computer.
An accent on a fp means the same as sfp, and saying sfp with an accent is saying the same thing twice. Therefore sfp, sffp, sfz & sffz are not needed in jazz. I have also found that even if you are at ff, you do not need to say ffp, as fp has the same effect. Similarly, fpp is played exactly the same as fp. The band can hear the context and will make it work. You can not assign mathematical values to this articulation in the real world. Taking it to the next level, one can even leave the accent off as the fp will be accented by default.
As I explain in my blog article “Dynamic Affairs“, there is more to dynamics than just volume. For each dynamic there is an associated attack. It is really just physics; in order to play loud, the air is pushed out in a quick burst, thus there is a solid start to a forte note. The opposite is true with softer ones, as the air starts slowly with a light tongue. Combine this with the context, and I again pose the question, do you need an accent on every note in a shout chorus?
In researching this subject, I looked at a bunch of scores, some by famous writers and publishers, some by hand and others by computer. It was interesting to note the differences. Sammy Nestico is a good example of someone who leaves more to the default. He saves the accents for when he wants to push you to the next level. Thad Jones, on the other hand, has one on everything.
Lets go back to the example I put together. I took one of my own charts, threw it into the Finale big band template, and put in many of the things I see in charts sent to me.
As you can see, the Finale template is not well spaced. Just because the computer formats it, it does not mean that it is correct. In order to see this score more clearly, I have spaced it a little better. I am amazed at the number of scores I see where things are all over each other. it should be obvious to all that this is not cool.
Here is how I would do it. Notice how much cleaner it looks. It has the perfect balance of information. As I have used the correct jazz notation language, I can totally rely on the jazz default for interpretation.
Take a listen:
Regardless of the notes, no one has a chance at reading your score or parts if the layout is terrible. It is important to look at them from someone else’s point of view. Is the layout clear and easy to follow? Is there anything clashing or printed on top of each other? There is no excuse for poor scores. With our modern notation programs, anyone can produce professional looking scores and parts. Never accept the way your notation program lays out your score without any adjustments.
Here is the full score for Jazz Vespas.
Fonts and templates
As I have shown, the default Finale big band template needs some work, as does the Sibelius one. I have worked on mine for many years, refining the settings and fonts. One thing I would suggest is that people avoid the ‘Jazz Font’ for text. It can be hard to read, especially its numbers. There are many other options out there. My template uses the ‘Swing Font’ for text. I like it because it is clean and easy to read. It does deviate from hand copying tradition in that it has lower case letters. All hand copyists used small upper case letters for lower. I use the ‘Jazz Font’ for the noteheads. The ‘Swing’ whole note is too small for my tastes; it looks like a half note. I also use the Sibelius Reprise font for my titles. It is the best I have found at replicating the look of the stamps used by hand copyists.
I have been a Finale user for twenty-five years now. I spend twelve hours a day on it; it is my instrument. What I like about it is how I can change nearly every setting and make the score look how I want, not how the program wants. However, it is not the program that makes the music or defines it. It is you, the composer. Don’t fall into the trap of letting the program dictate how your music looks or sounds.