August 20th, 2013

How One Note Can Open Up Your Ears and Spark Your Musical Creativity

By Eric

Can one note really change your ears and improve your musical creativity?

The answer is yes and I’ll show you how.

A few years ago I took a lesson with the great trumpet player, improviser and composer Ingrid Jensen. As we started the lesson, instead of the usual warm-up exercises and scale patterns I was expecting, she turned on a drone machine, a little black box that emitted a single constant tone.

For the next 10 minutes or so we played a number of different exercises along with this background tone – long tones, scales, trumpet etudes, intervals, etc. For some reason these familiar exercises that I had done hundreds of times before were transformed into something different with the accompaniment of the drone. The effect even changed the way I approached chords and tunes in my practice years later.

She later explained that she often uses a drone machine as a practice tool to enable creativity, musical freedom and focus at the beginning of her practice sessions. To clarify, a drone machine is basically an electronic synthesizer that sustains a single note, but the same effect can be achieved with other instruments or recorded tracks.

The idea of focusing on a sustained pitch is something that has been practiced for thousands of years. A drone is used in meditation (om mantra) and is played using instruments like Tibetan Singing Bowls or the Tanpura in Indian music.

The drone has been used as a calming element and focusing tool in many parts of the world. When you focus on this drone in your own practice, you’ll begin to hear detailed aspects of the sound like the overtones that would normally pass you by in your everyday listening. You’ll not only hear the tone, but also be able to focus on the sound in your ear as well – connecting your internal conception of sound with the external drone.

For example take a listen to this clip of a Tanpura drone:

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A single pitch naturally centers your focus and clears your head and for a musician in the practice room, this can make a big difference in your development.

Practicing with a drone tone

There are a lot of benefits to practicing with a single constant tone. Here are a few of the exercises that I covered in the lesson with Ingrid that day:

  • Practice long tones – Hold out the pitch for the entirety of your breath and adjust until locked in. Center the pitch in your ear and on your instrument with the drone. Start in unison with the drone and then move onto different intervals striving to find the most resonant and efficient sound that you can produce.
  • Play scales along with the drone. Major, minor, diminished, whole tone, etc. Lock in each of the intervals with the constant tone, always working for intonation and accuracy.
  • Practice scale patterns or technical exercises over the drone, locking in each pitch and concentrating on perfect instrumental technique.
  • Pick an interval (4th, half-step, 6th, etc.) or a short melodic idea and use it to improvise over the drone.

Having a single pitch as a backdrop for your practice gives you a sonic focal point, a tonal home base for the ideas that you’re concentrating on that day. In each exercise aim for a creative and meditative mindset. If done correctly these exercises will improve your ear, your sound, and your efficiency on your instrument, as well as expanding the harmonic possibilities available to your ear.

Practicing Harmonic & Melodic concepts over a drone

Below we’ll take a more in-depth look at each of the above exercises.

One sustained note

To get started in the practice room, begin with one sustained pitch. It’s no big deal if you don’t have a drone machine (most people don’t) you can easily go to the piano and hold the sustain pedal down. Or if you have a program like Logic or Abelton Live you can create a track with a continuous drone note or notes. You can even practice along with a YouTube clip of a drone.

Get creative with the background sound you choose. Different instruments or samples will inspire different creative directions in your playing.

As an example, let’s say you choose to sustain a C:

With this single sustained pitch in the background you have the potential to create a multitude of harmonic and melodic possibilities.

Begin by playing various intervals over this sustained C. Hear the pitch in your ear, sing it and play it on your instrument. Start with diatonic intervals above the drone tone, then move on to non-diatonic intervals. This is a good way to expand your ears by experimenting with varying degrees of dissonance.

Over that drone C, play a Major 3rd:

a Major 7:

a Tritone:

an Augmented 5th:

Get the sound of each interval in your ear and find the center of each note with your instrument. Continue until you’ve covered every interval combination.

After spending time hearing and playing the different chord tones above this drone note, the next step is applying the scales you’ve learned and the language that you’ve transcribed.

Different scales and lines will produce different harmonic effects over the drone tone. Because the drone is just a single note you can imply any number of different chord qualities and key centers: Major, V7, minor, Maj.7#5, V7sus, etc.

Start simply and gradually get more harmonically complex.

C7 over C drone:

C-7 over C drone:

Non-diatonic:

Just as you played dissonant intervals over the drone, you can also imply non-diatonic or dissonant key centers over the drone. There are varying levels of dissonance that you can employ in your playing and getting these sounds in your ear is the first step.

An example of a less dissonant key relationship would be G Major over the C drone:

And a more dissonant key center would be F# Major over the C drone:

The non-diatonic keys will sound very dissonant to your ear at first. Work on switching back and forth between a dissonant sound and a consonant sound (for example F# over C to C Maj.), tension and release. This exercise will train your ear to hear a variety of different harmonies over a single tone, expanding the number of possibilities you have to play in any given situation.

Open 5ths

The drone can also consist of more than one note, for example a Perfect 5th:

As with a single tone drone, the sound of a sustained 5th is ripe with the potential for harmonic experimentation. Listen to McCoy Tyner in the clip below as he routinely emphasizes these perfect 5th bass notes in his left hand and employs different harmonies on top of the main tonality.

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To practice over this sound play a perfect 5th with the left hand on the piano while holding down the sustain pedal. As you did with the single drone note, explore different scales, language and harmonic ideas on top of the sustained pitches.

Triad pairs

One idea to practice over the 5th drone is a pair of triads alternating back and forth, for example a C triad and a D triad:

With the two triads above you’re emphasizing the 9th, #11th, and 13th of the C/G drone as well as the strong chord tones. These 2 triads have a particular effect as other triad pairs will have their own unique effect. There are a lot of rhythmic, harmonic and melodic possibilities when you employ triads or intervallic material. Be sure to explore all 4 directions in your practice and experiment with different key centers and levels of dissonance.

Pentatonic material

You can also apply pentatonic scales or patterns. The example below alternates between C Maj. pentatonic and B Maj. Pentatonic over a C\G drone:

Again the harmonic material shifts from  dissonant to consonant, aiming for tension and interest giving way to resolution and release.

Open 4ths

You can also experiment with a 3 note drone. For example a quartal harmony with the notes stacked in 4ths:

When you stack perfect 4ths you create another sound open to experimentation. The sound by itself implies a V7 sus chord: root, 4th and b7. Over this you can use any of the Sus chord concepts that you’ve transcribed and worked out. Because the 3rd of the chord is not being played you can imply a Major 3rd (V7 sound) or a minor 3rd (minor 7) over the drone.

You can also imply ii-V language over stacked 4th drone, for example A-7   D7 over a D7sus drone as shown below:

You can also carry over the same concepts for the stacked 4ths that we used on the single drone note and the perfect 5th drone: Scales, Triads, Pentatonics, Transcribed language, etc.

Applying these ideas in your playing

You’ll eventually want to be able to use any one or more of these concepts in your solos to add interest and harmonic excitement. For instance, check out McCoy’s solo on Passion Dance.

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In it you can hear the use of 5ths and 4ths in the left hand and the use of various scalar, triadic and pentatonic material above in the right hand. Take a look at what McCoy plays at 2:39 in the video:

Over the static F7 sound he is implying a number of different harmonic centers, the harmonic material actually shifts every few beats! His control of melody, harmony and rhythm are astonishing and should be a goal to aim for.

While you’re not going to sound like McCoy Tyner right away, the ultimate goal of these exercises is to open up your ear to the multiple possibilities on every chord and the path there begins with a single tone.

As you practice applying these concepts, keep in mind that it’s easier to experiment on static sounds and chords rather than moving chord progressions: (i.e. Impressions or So What vs. Moment’s Notice or Giant Steps). After you get comfortable with a static sound start applying these concepts to the standards that you’re practicing: Blues, Rhythm Changes, etc.

In a short amount of time you’ll find that you are hearing new harmonic possibilities over familiar tunes and ultimately have a greater connection to the sounds around you. It seems counter-intuitive at first, but try it out for yourself and you’ll see that one note truly can open up your ears and expand your harmonic creativity.