Top Down #3: Phrase Length and Form

Listen to some old-school blues tracks, and dig upon how some phrases/lyric lines are longer than the 4 measures that we’re used to. The performer goes to the IV chord, back to the I, to the V, when it feels right, as it fits the lyric; the melody/lyric leads, the chords follow. It’s still blues, though not the 12 or 16 bars we’re used to.

Here’s Lightning Hopkins with “Mojo Hand”:

Phrases are about 4-5 bars long, give or take.


Don Grolnick’s tune, “Blues for Pop”, extends the blues – this time with a cool melody for the first 8 or so bars, then the last phrase floats and moves over the barline. Listen to melody in the last phrase – it’s different than you expect, but it sounds natural. The melody ends…it’s a 14 measure blues.

<oops…”Blues for Pop” is copyrighted, soundcloud took it down…>

In both these examples, were I to analyze them, I would say they’re good illustrations of a top-down melodic concept, a writing and performing environment where the phrases don’t end until they’re ready, and the chords and accompaniment follow.

You can’t do this if you’ve already set the length of the section in your sequencer. So, don’t write the chords first if you want a loose or extended melody, or if you want the chords to follow the melody. This seems obvious, but our brains default to song form and chord progressions.

How many of write top-down sometimes? Not as many as should, I’d say, but it’s not all our fault (see my earlier rant about DAW and computer composing). I’m not saying only use this technique, but certainly taking a break from writing over a groove or drone might be just what you need to liven things up. Maybe it’s just a matter of extending a phrase in the blues, or adding a few bars to some phrases of an arrangement of a standard. Keep your ears open, go with your melody first, and don’t end until it’s over.


About Scott Healy

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

1 Response to Top Down #3: Phrase Length and Form

  1. macmahler says:

    Very COOL And nowdo you know any good Sibelius copyists

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