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Remember the Theme

Using jazz educator David Bloom’s metaphor, musicians need to look in the rearview mirror and remember the theme if they wish to move forward. But when you look back, you are not just remembering what you played at the beginning of an improvisation—you’re remembering all of that music that got you to the point of even being able to look back in the first place.

What is the Theme?

A listener recently asked me, “What is a musical theme?” It’s a good question, and not as obvious as it may seem. Maybe I’ll do a future episode on this subject.

We usually think of musical theme as “the melody.” That’s basically true, though it’s  not the whole truth.  Theme, in fact, can be any musical element—a few notes, a chord, rhythm, musical timbre. It can even be a single note if it is placed in such a way as it makes a sonically memorable impression.

The impression must be memorable enough that when it repeats, is morphed, developed, it carries the weight of the narrative of a piece of music.

In theory, this is simple. Just take a collection of notes (or whatever) and move them around—alter the starting point, change the rhythm, use them with a different chord, etc. In practice, it’s difficult because it’s very easy to fall into non-creative traps that make musical sense, without actually saying anything new.

There is No Formula

So while Bloom is correct in saying that there are tried and true methods of developing one’s musical ideas thematically to tell a musical story, those methods don’t guarantee that your story will be interesting.

To do that, a real artist learns when to follow the method and when to creatively break it—to do the unexpected in a way that still makes musical sense. Not surprise for its own sake.

That last part can’t be taught. It must be earned and requires the courage not to follow the accepted formula.

Very few artists can do that.



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