Top Down #6: Melodic Motion–Space is the Place

“Space is the Place” – Sun Ra wrote from the “top” down, all the way from Saturn.

You can give your writing rhythmic tension by varying the “groove” under a melody, melodic line, or syncopated figure. You can also create space for counterlines and more music material under, after and around your melodic figures. This adds a third dimension to your writing.

Again, I’d love to use some famous works for demonstration, but there are many copyright restrictions. Soundcloud won’t let me post others’ tunes, and I’m sure there is an issue with the scores.

Once again I’ll using the intro and first statement of the head from my tune “Dhyana” for big band to illustrate how the same syncopated figure sounds different depending on what’s under it, and then to show how to create some space within, around, and after your phrases. Textbook “top-down” writing (if you like textbooks).

Since I indicate for the rhythm section not to play time until m.12, the same figure that’s in m.1-4 sounds totally different in m. 12-14.


So what’s my intent? What’s my first idea? Is the groove/bass figure, or is it the upper melody? Or perhaps it’s just the rhythmic outline. For me, it was the melody first stated by the solo tenor and trumpet in m.15: syncopated rhythms with a cool contour. Those two things gave me enough material for the melody and descending bass in the intro, for and the “groove” once it kicks in. You can compress or expand the rhythms of the melody and change the notes etc., which expressively develops your material (sometimes even before the melody is really stated).

In the intro and first head of “Dhyana” the melody is compressed and sounds out of time, and is orchestrated thickly so you really can’t hear it as clearly. Yet it draws you in and sets the tone for the piece.

I have “strong beats” are indicated—that’s where the rhythm section is not playing time. The vibe is rubato, with no metric grid, and the length of the phrase varies.

Once the 4/4 grove kicks in the strong beats are more what one would expect, and the head is definitely in time.

This writing technique can open up all kinds of possibilities. One think I like to experiment with is varying the phrase length (like above), varying the space between phrases, and varying the orchestration from one phrase to another. What do you put in between phrases? How ’bout counterpoint, counterlines, or contrasting melodies? There is tons of room in your piece now, and it’s even easier if you don’t sketch in or outline a chord progression first (see my earlier post). Take your time, think of pacing, and leave room to get all your ideas in. You can always go in and do surgery later. Again, think of writing from the “top”–one phrase introduces another, but also might open the door for more information under it, more musical material, thereby adding an extra dimension to your piece.

It’s all about creating space so something can happen. Don’t be afraid to overlap lines, create counterpoint or linear harmony. Here’s an outline of the melodic lines and counterlines in the intro. It goes up and down, builds and releases tension, and is also fun to listen to. That’s important too:

Overlapping lines weave through the orchestration of the intro. In these lines the doubling changes, notes get passed around, and the texture is varied to give the piece some shape and interest. There’s a lot of blocky writing coming up, so I wanted to do something a little more fluid and off the grid.

I’m posting here the full score and audio of a rehearsal of this piece. I would suggest listening to it in a separate window while you follow along with the score. Remember the score is transposed (a habit from the old school, and this piece is from 1982–the intro is new though):


“Dhyana” Full Score

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About Scott Healy

LA composer and performer.
Gallery | This entry was posted in Arranging/Orchestration, Jazz Arranging, Jazz Composition and Analysis, Orchestration, Theory and Harmony, Top--Down Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Top Down #6: Melodic Motion–Space is the Place

  1. macmahler says:

    Yes, I dig this muchly. In the second example from the intro, The key for me is the bass entrance on the and of 3 in bar 2 (the low F) Great example! Good stuff….

  2. Scott Healy says:

    Thanks–me too…I wonder if it’s because of the relative consonance of that chord? Or just that it’s a quick release? Or that it’s the first really strong beat after the “downbeat”, and now we have an idea of the “pulse”. Who knows, it does work, so it doesn’t matter why.

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