Forward motion is a quality of musical performance. It describes the force which makes melodies seem like they’re leading somewhere, that they have a purpose, and that a story is being told. Forward motion is a crucial ingredient in songwriting and improvisation.
From the simplest chord progressions to the complexities of the harmonic series, writing good music should always centre around using melodic momentum to create a memorable experience. But a surprising amount of music courses online seem content to stick to preformulated ideas and motifs, often lacking the forward motion required to consider the music quite memorable. If you’re aiming to bring life to your composition and improvisation, familiarize yourself with these basic principles related to forward motion in your playing.
Licks are short snippets of melody created (or stolen!) while learning the guitar. Guitarists insert them into harmonically relevant passages while improvising. You might think that improvising is all completely made up on the spot, in the moment. Usually, not so. Most jazz and blues musicians draw on a repertoire of pre-learned licks sometimes called their vocabulary or ‘licktionary’. While learning guitar online, you should acquire as many of these as you can. But remember that while it’s easier to execute one of your favorite licks, it’s so important to understand what makes the lick memorable or exciting. Phrasing and contour are two insights which contribute to the forward motion of a good lick.
Phrasing describes the rhythmic grouping of a sequence of notes. It’s the way a sequence of notes like a scale is rhythmically delivered. Let’s say you wanted to play a C mixolydian scale to kick off your solo. You could play it as straight 8th notes:
Or you might decide to play it with more complex rhythm, leaving a gap in the melodic run to create anticipation, followed by a quicker grouping to ‘catch up’ and resolve:
Including a triplet or two in your phrasing is a very common and popular way to spice up your melodies
The point here is that you’re always able to play the rhythm of a melody in many ways. Whether you’re learning the solo from Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb, one of Beyonce’s stunning descending vocal runs or the head of a Dizzy Gillespie jazz standard, listen to the phrasing. You’ll start to notice that the melodies which you remember are often those which have avoided playing it ‘straight’ and have an interesting choice of note grouping.
If phrasing describes the push and pull of the melody’s rhythm, contour describes the up-down direction of the melody. If you’re ascending a scale or arpeggio, your contour is upward, while descending contour moves down the scale. Now imagine a graph of the melody you’re playing. Does it go up note-by-note, step-by-step? Or does it leap over certain tones on its way to the end? Are there any major leaps of an octave or more? The steepness of the graph is generally related to the emotional quality of the music at that moment. This means that big leaps have the effect of briefly raising the listener’s attention (tension) while a straight run to your home tone has the effect of soothing and comforting the listener (release). Guitarists use both speed and the giant leaps of a steep contour to bring the magic during a blazing solo. Pay attention to these nuances and you’ll be on your way to a music career.
The aim of it all
If you’re after any sort of career in music, the goal of playing with forward motion is to detach yourself from a fixed vocabulary and move to a rhythmic and melodic vocabulary. This means you’re able create strong melodic lines with forward motion by paying attention to your phrasing and contour, tapping into the inner magic and playing better with less effort. The highest goal of a musical performance is to communicate some sort of message. If music is a language, forward motion is the storytelling force that retains a the listeners’ attention and gives them an emotional connection to one another. Be inspired by your ability to tell that story!
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Written by music composer, producer & writer, John Bartmann.