The Four Building Blocks of a Song

Why teach the song before the arrangement?

We’ve all had that moment where something cool happens in an arrangement, we look out on our students with excitement, and…nothing. Half of the kids seem barely awake, let alone awestruck by what’s going on in the music. How do we get our students to care and engage with the music that they’re performing?

Often the biggest impediment to engaging our students is simply that they don’t know what’s going on. We plop a part down in front of them, they figure out the notes, dynamics, and articulations, but have no idea why they’re making the musical choices they’re making (or following the directions on the page).

A solution is to teach the song before digging deep into the arrangement. We think of every song as having four building blocks – Groove, Melody, Bass Line, Harmony. Once everyone knows these four building blocks, the specifics of an arrangement become clear. Better yet, the students have the ability to create their own arrangement.

Let’s briefly explore the four building blocks:

  • Groove. The Groove is a great place to start when learning a new song. It helps determine the rhythmic feel, the pulse, the subdivisions – the Groove is the foundation upon which we build everything else. Right away, we can get into discussions of Fast vs. Slow, Straight vs. Swung, Downbeat Oriented vs. Syncopated. Understanding where the accents are placed and how the subdivisions are felt is essential to feeling and performing jazz language. If we can lock in a good groove, the music will sound good. If we neglect it, the music will fall flat.
  • Melody. When we hear the Melody, we can often say, “I know what song that is.” It’s the main Melodic current that runs throughout the entire song – whether explicitly stated or not. Teaching the Melody to the entire band allows every student to play a song outside of the classroom and is a great jumping off point for improvisation.
  • Bass Line. The Bass Line is the bridge between the Groove and the Melody. While the rhythms in the bass line often match up with the Drum Set, the notes create a feeling of tension and resolution. This journey between Home and Away sounds can be heard in all styles of music. It provides the setting in which our Melody comes to life.
  • Harmony. The Harmony is made up of the notes we choose to accompany our Bass Line. These notes work together to take our Home and Away sounds from Black and White to FULL COLOR. Harmony can be broken up into groups of Neighbor Notes – A Home Note that accompanies the Bass Home Note and one (or more) *nearby* Away Notes that accompany the Bass Away Notes. 

When put together, these Building Blocks combine to create a repeated cycle within the music. In Jazz, we call this cycle The Form. If our students understand the Form, they can create for themselves:

Who plays the melody first?
Ok, then who will play the second time? Trumpets, let’s build a background using neighbor notes.
Does anyone want to take a solo? Let’s have some Bone backgrounds behind the solo!
OK Sally, you want to solo? You can be our second solo.
hen let’s all play the Melody super soft and then SUPER LOUD!

Suddenly, we have an arrangement without ever pulling out our sheet music. THIS is creating. Creating engages students. 

Over the next four weeks, we’ll dive more deeply into each of these four building blocks. Stay tuned!

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