Expanding the jazz palette

The book deals with various techniques that may be used to jet the jazz composer out of the block-chorded four-to-the-bar convention. It has served us well and, hopefully, will continue to do so but there’s more to life than that.

There’s an extended look at form and the serial development of rhythmic patterns; the capabilities of the string and woodwind sections are investigated and all thirty six seven note scales are explored, together with the huge number of scales of fewer than seven units, including their harmonic implications etc. etc.

Around the beginning of the 20th Century composers began to look for ways of expanding their control of musical resources. These included: dividing the scale into smaller units than equally tempered semitones; the specification of timbre; the use of the voice instrumentally and with notated dialogue; the use of noise and of sounds created by objects such as sirens, rattles and whistles; writing simultaneously in different metres.

Their efforts ran parallel to other innovations such as panchromaticism, bitonality, polytonality and serial techniques (which sought to undermine the dominance of the key, or other, axes).

Although the book, and all these blogs, stress the important role global communications will have in producing a multi-cultural world, it’s difficult to imagine at present how some of the above techniques will find their way into the main stream of what we call ‘Jazz’. Nevertheless we briefly discuss these now.


We’re already familiar with small variations in pitch in the shape of blues inflections in jazz. Trombones and strings can also smear or slide by infinitely variable degrees (solo or in sections). So can electronic instruments, even the earliest Moogs.

Bichromaticism involved writing consistently in a scale of 24 quarter tones. Quarter tone pianos and clarinets were even built. Some composers used other subdivisions of the octave using as many as 36 subdivisions (and more).

I’m not too sure about all this since, if we examine how our scales and chords evolved, we find that they were not based on conscious efforts to subdivide frequencies, apart from the decision in the middle of the 16th century to impose equal temperament. From that point on, instruments could play in any key, something we take for granted.


A note may be regarded as having three properties: pitch, colour and intensity. Pitch is the only one that had originally been treated to a notation system enabling the composer to communicate his wishes clearly to the orchestra.

Some composers have sought to devise systems of notating timbre as clearly and concisely as we notate pitch and dynamics. This practice may have some life in it although it’s unnecessary, with electronic music, where the writer has everything under control. He can even alter the tempo of the music without altering the pitch (and vice versa). Having said that, he still needs some form of identification (file name) even if only for his own convenience. There are so many possible modifications to attack, sustain, fade etc. that life can quickly become very confusing. With conventional methods, pencil and paper, for example, a composer may see his various sketches laid out before him at a glance.

One aspect of the work of the early pioneers that does appeal to me is the possibility of merging different sections of the orchestra. For example we could have a section of instruments playing very softly under a loud chord from another region of the orchestra. As the loud chord dies away the other section becomes louder, gradually taking over. This newly emerging section could even be in a different key, producing a novel form of modulation. Or the music could blow from ‘hot to cold’ creating a powerful effect as the two crossing chords briefly melt into noise. Or the instrumentation can be varied constantly by the sequential adding or taking away of instruments, which can be achieved imperceptibly. Schoenberg wrote conductors’ notes explaining this need.

The effect of a crescendo or diminuendo can be enhanced by this method.

American composer Charles Ives was fascinated by overlapping effects of a kind he experienced in his home town when two or more marching bands met at a road junction, each playing a different tune in a different key. There is something joyous about the resulting cacophony of dissonance. He once turned to a critic during a performance of a likeminded piece by another composer and said ‘Don’t be a cissy. Use your ears like a man’.


As so often happens, jazz got there first with scat singing (not strictly true chronologically). And there have also been some amazing results with ‘section’ writing for four or more voices. You need jazz ears to sing this kind of stuff. (Dig out some of the old Four Freshmen titles – they’re on YouTube; you’ll never watch X Factor again.)

The human voice is capable of producing an enormous range of colours and attack (articulation) forms.


We already use noise in the drum kit, where some instruments can be tuned approximately, but not others. Cymbals are predominantly noisy.

We may resist the idea of using sounds from objects that are not musical instruments in the conventional sense but the use of an air raid siren or whistle at the peak of a crescendo definitely makes the skin crawl, something no one can deny. The sound of castanets creates Spanish imagery faster than any purely musical device, although authentic gypsy flamenco music featured hand-clapping.

All this is part of a much wider discussion of course. As stated in the book, music emulates the world around us and, as a result, it triggers an equivalent response in our auditory consciousness. Musical forms have dynamic qualities echoing forces that existed before man and his concepts even arrived on the planet. Music does not therefore necessarily need to communicate or describe. This is a big issue I know. I once got involved in a discussion group on this subject via the web but it became too stressful with philosophy students asking me to justify every claim I made.


Jazz writers have used multi-metred forms for some time of course (e.g. three against four). But although it’s easy to assimilate symmetric metres occurring simultaneously, asymmetric ones are difficult for jazz musicians to live with. The varied placement of accents and the combination of downbeats with anticipations and retardations in different voices are an essential feature of counterpoint, creating a polyrhythmic effect, although the metres are most likely to be symmetrical.

With symmetric metres, the bars of the different orchestral sections ‘come out even’, for example 12/8 against 4/4, 2/4 or 6/8 against 4/4. Asymmetric metres result in an interference ratio where a number of bars may pass by while we run around and jump on again. These metres are very difficult for performers who find themselves having to play 5 or 7 note groups over, say, a three in the bar pulse.

Composers also experimented with asymmetric rhythm groups within the bar. Normally, if we use a succession of note values that do not add up to the duration value of the bar, as notated by the time signature, we use tuplets (triplets, 5 note groups etc.) to preserve the underlying continuum. With asymmetric rhythms this did not apply and the ‘pulse’ ceased to exist, with each attack of melody or harmony having an individual duration. This style of writing is difficult for the human performer, especially when coping with the distractions from other voices in polyphony or the varying rhythms of a harmonic background.

With audiences having a taste for jazz that swings, writing in this way might mean keeping that day job going. Nevertheless there may be applications, even if merely in intros or bridge passages.


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