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Beginning Musical Improv: Part 2
by Ben Brinton

In this article, Ben Brinton continue his three part series on musical improv. These articles will focus on the most basic elements of musical improv: rhythm, melody, and rhyme.

MELODY

Melody is probably the hardest of these concepts to understand. For the beginner that has no experience in music, tackling melody will be the most difficult aspect of musical improv. So let's break it down to understand the working parts of melody.

Melody is the series of notes that is most prominent in the music. Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are. We've all heard it. There is nothing fancy about it. Sing it to yourself. You just sang a melody. The song becomes more elaborate when additional voices are added singing a lower collection of notes, or a higher collection of notes. In music terms this is called harmony. However, harmony should not take away from the showcasing of the melody. It adds to the original presence. Does this sound like any other improv philosophies you know?

That one voice that sticks in your mind, that one tune that you can't get out of your head, is most likely the melody.

Melody establishes the songs' personality. In other words, when you listen to a quartet of voices (i.e. Backstreet Boys, N'sync, The Beatles) there is one voice that sticks out the most, and the others back it up with a lower or higher harmony. That one voice that sticks in your mind, that one tune that you can't get out of your head, is most likely the melody. It is catchy, relatively easy to sing and memorize, yet still obtains an interesting and original value.

In the world of improv, Melody does a number of things. Melody gives character. Melody gives mood. Melody is the means to which you show off your singing, your personality, and your abilities as an actor. Let's analyze a general scenario: we have an actor singing two or three notes over and over again for a song. This would cover the minimum standards expected from a musical game. We could have you sing the same simple collection of notes with oomph and zest. You are still fulfilling those expected areas of musical improv, but now it's just a bit more energetic. What if we expanded the collection of notes sung in this song from 2-3 different notes to 9-10 different notes? As the audience, which would you rather hear?

The variety of notes not only interests the audience, but helps you as well. A larger range of pitches (notes) gives the actor a larger playing ground to work from. It is in your best interest to expand your voice and its capabilities. Your character needs that ability to express their personality to its full extent. Now that we can hit higher or lower notes, to present an emotion, the depth of our character is heightened. The byproduct of this will be a more heightened circumstance and a stronger emotional setup. You can't have a more intense scene without an obvious character reaction. Music is a great means of exploring and presenting this chemistry in a scene.

Music is a great means of exploring and presenting chemistry in a scene.

Exercises: 8 count SCAT-MAN

As a group, get in a circle. Start clapping your hands in unison to establish a rhythm [see Ben's Rhythm article for more information - Ed.]. Count to 8 with each steady clap (1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8). Then one person starts by experimenting with their voice. He/she sings for 8 counts. (la la la la la la la la) During the second count of 8, everyone else tries to do the same thing the first actor did. And then it goes around the circle, each actor taking a turn to sing for 8 counts. Don't get too crazy with your 8 counts. Keep them simple, and focus on the quality of what is coming out rather than the quantity. Eventually each person with become more and more comfortable and therefore try something progressively more active, or interesting, or difficult.

To be continued...

Ben Brinton is a musician and actor. He performs improv with the group Knock Your Socks Off (KYSOff) in Salt Lake City, UT.


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