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Beyond E Major

and into writing music

Be ye not afeared of the musical stave. This month Billy Jenkins begins to make sense of written music.

Charlie Parker didn't do it.

Wes Montgomery wouldn't.

Charles Mingus could but didn't always like to use it. Roland Kirk was blind to it and so is... er... Stevie Wonder.

Proof enough that all you need to make music is a pair of ears and an instrument, and that understanding musical notation is not by any means essential. The sheer volume of terminology, in English, Italian, French, Spanish, and Latin, the complex relationship of one scale to another, the sharps, the flats, the keys, the intervals, the time signatures, and everything and everyone from Abaco, Guiseppe Clemens Ferdinand Dali (who he?) to Zylis-Gara, Teresa (who she?) appeals to only the stoutest, or some might say stupidest, musical zealot.

It's a comforting thought for those who adamantly refuse to understand one digit, that the only option open to the average music college graduate are a place in the rank and file of a provincial orchestra or an income through teaching — alternatives hardly worth wetting knickers over.

However, there is a very strong case for an understanding of sorts. To be able to communicate through one's instrument in tandem with another is all the more pleasurable when the small talk can be avoided and you can get straight down to "discussing" a common "interest".

That common ground might initially be found in a blues sequence or a two chord groove, but for many the "discussion" ends here, with no new words having been exchanged.

I don't for one minute suggest that anyone can tire of exploring single note blues sequences, but that interest can only be maintained from the influx of different scales, note patterns, and harmonic relationships, other than the basic blues scale and its permutations. So let us clarify alternative ways of writing music in a way that an outsider can quickly understand, digest, and join in.

The simplest way of mapping out a piece of music, particularly if it is a song with lyrics, is to place the name of the chord above or below the syllable on which the chord occurs: most folk songs are scribed in this way. A further refinement is the use of 45° strokes to denote either one strum of the guitar, or to define the beat:

E / / / B7 / / /

The addition of bar lines helps to clarify this notation further. Bar lines are those thin lines standing erect through the five horizontal lines known as the stave. Their use is twofold; in the first place they mark off the music into equal portions, known as bars or measures, and they also define the position of the strong accent, which, as a general rule, falls on the first note after the bar line. But don't take the crack of the snare drum in a rock and roll band to be the start of a bar. Most rock music has an accented second and fourth beat. Remember also that most modern music has four beats to each bar. So, with the bar lines added, the Jolly Old Folk song can be written thus:

E / / / B7 / / /

When sung in full the measure of this particular chorus will be eight bars. Straight away you can find common ground when working with another musician. "Take it from the fifth bar," you might say, or, "What in God's name was that chord you hit on the third beat of the sixth bar!?" No more having to sing "Jimmiecrackcornan'Induncare" three times as fast as possible till you reach the offending part. You simply refer to the exact graphical point.

While we're on bar lines, a double bar line serves to indicate the end of a piece of music. It is simply two lines drawn close together perpendicular to the stave. But two dots written at the left side of a double bar line implies that the music just played is to be repeated and the player returns to previous double bars with dots on the right side. If there isn't a double bar with r.h. dots you go back to the start of the music.

So here we have an example of simple(tons) notation, spruced up with a little pseudo Latin:

:E / / / B7 / / /

repeat ad nauseum

I'm not sure what will make you sicker, the horror of repeating such an inane line ad nauseum, or the realisation of just how easy it is to put to paper all those ballads you've been composing under the bed clothes after lights out. They always say the best music is composed in bars...

So be you a wordsmith, a tunesmith, an Aerosmith or just a plain Smith(s), think rhythmically when it comes to documenting ideas. Time is money! You can bar out your music in the privacy of your country retreat then return to the Rockin' Snakepit Rehearsal Rooms in LA (Lower Acton), bung the charts in front of your musicians, count in, and you're away. Much more civilised than trying to cue in a rough of the number in question (recorded in the back of the Transit enroute on a Sony Walkman with fast fading batteries) so the band can get the feel of it, and then the bassist missed it because he was taking a leak, and the drummer was fixing the bass drum pedal (again) and couldn't hear it properly, and then Kev the lead singer says, "How many times does the guitar go chugga-chugga-chug before the drum break and does he do that five times or seven (it'll no doubt be a multiple of two ie four, eight, or 16) and do we do the whole bit twice before the guitar solo and is that over a whoppa-whoppa-chip-chip and I can't work out 'ow long 'e does that for do I come in singing when I like or do I wait for three whammo-clunks what do you take me for a moron...?"

Kev is not a moron. He is a highly skilled 'vocal artiste'. But he is being forced to communicate in an unmusical way in a musical environment.

Had Kev a barred-out score all would be sweetness and light. Most people (except roadies) can count to four, and if, for instance, Kev doesn't come in till the ninth bar, all he has to do is to rock back and forwards in time to the music while silently counting "ONE, 2, 3, 4; TWO, 2, 3, 4; THREE, 2, 3, 4; FOUR, 2, 3, 4..." etc, the first beat of each bar being used as a bar count. And you thought lead singers swayed about through overindulgence...

Within time it is easy to "feel" extended measures. Stories abound of the tenacity of pit orchestra percussion players who have been known to time a prolonged pause between one cymbal crash and the next so perfectly, they've been able to nip out the stage door into the local pub, down a pre-ordered drink, and get back in time for their next cue.

Sometimes the geometric preciseness of rhythm notation is too restrictive to grasp accurately the "feel" of a particular sequence, and indeed the complete system of musical notation is widely acknowledged as being somewhat less than watertight.

It is a means to interpretation.

If you can speed up the time it takes for others to play your music, or for you to play someone else's, more time can be spent in actual "conversation" — less of the "how do you do's", more of the sort of exchanges that would qualify you as a star performer in an Oxbridge Debating Society.


Practise scanning through simple chord charts like the ones that have appeared in previous columns of Beyond E Major. You have to be able to feel your way about the fretboard without having to peer down to see where your fingers have to move to next. This is where the Jenkins Three Shape Theory (E, A and C type) can be used to good effect, for you should be able to play any chord within an area two frets up and two frets back from a predetermined base.

Encourage a calm intake of information to the brain via the eye, and let your fingers play it. Confidence and relaxation are very important for any sudden loss of concentration might cost you a beat, a bar, or, worse still, lose your place completely.

A simple trick to help you in this — or in fact anything else — is to let your neck muscles relax before playing. If tension arises, this is where it'll first surface, and will affect both your hands and brain! Stretch your neck forward, pivot each shoulder in a circular motion, twist your head left and right, then to the back.

When handed a piece of music study it carefully before picking up your instrument. Gauge its length, look for any repeat signs, check the key signature (since we're only looking at chord charts at the minute, look for the predominant chord — odds are the music will start and end in the tonic) and the time signature (if there is no indication of beats to the bar it will be in 4/4, or four beats to the bar).

Most chord charts should have four bars to a line to facilitate easy reading.

Take a deep breath, relax dem muscles, and pronounce yourself fit for active service.

When they count in, be sure they can count on you!

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