• Nikk May

When The Right Notes Become Wrong


Creative and artistic musicians will sometimes argue that there are no wrong notes. Miles Davis said, "There are no wrong notes in jazz, only notes in the wrong places." I love this idea, on many levels, but consider a different context where wrong notes do exist. I teach a mixed vocal and instrumental ensemble class where students are taught how to collectively learn and perform songs as a group. One of the most important elements in this class is learning how to listen, not only to me as their teacher but also to one another. Through listening they learn to recognize cues for dynamics, entrances/exits, harmonies, blending, when to play and when not to play, and most importantly rhythm.

Let's consider a student who is working hard on a particular piece with the rest of the group, matching every note perfectly from the paper to his/her instrument. The intonation is great, the dynamic is great, everything about it is great, there's only one fault. They're off beat. Perhaps a dropped count somewhere, a note held too long, or maybe they just drifted out of time, but because of this detail nothing sounds right at all anymore. In fact all of those "right notes" this student is playing feel wrong, and are actually clashing with the other instrumentation, as they are being played outside the time frame of where the tune is actually existing. They're out of sync, and the only means of rescue is to somehow compensate for the error. Sometimes it's fairly evident where a mistake happened, other times it requires focused attention to sort it out.

Truth is we're all students. Life is constantly teaching us lessons, sometimes loud and clear, other times masked in subtlety. Goals we set, plans we make, even the ways we treat people; If we're not careful to observe and be attentive to what's happening around us, and especially consider how the choices we make can impact others, we may end up on some very "off key" notes. Sometimes we can be doing all of the right things, but out of sync. We're human, occasionally we drift out of time and get off beat, and in fact "humanizing" is a term in audio production relating to an offset in rhythm with slight variances in tempo. It's important to recognize where the rhythm is, and pay careful attention to its pulse. A person could be playing all of the right notes, but out of time, the result could just be noise.

Nikk May

Singer/Musician/Songwriter/Producer

Studio: Vocal / Piano / Guitar

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