making music come to life

making music come to life

how to make your music come to life by adding variety to your compositions and arrangements

who is this article for

some of the suggestions and techniques mentioned in this article are generic and could apply to all musicians, some are for stringed instrument players and yet others are specific to (mountain) dulcimer players – so I hope this article will appeal to both dulcimer players and a broader audience

background, disclaimers & scope

this article came about from a request by a Facebook friend to suggest improvements to his dulcimer compositions – but I didn’t want to critique his work, especially not in public on Facebook – and he had sent me a link to 682 of his pieces – so I felt a better approach would be to write about what I do to make my own music come alive

music can be very personal – the suggestions documented here might not work for every player and in every situation – but they work for me and my style of playing – and if just one of them works for you, then this article has done its job

recognising that this article is no substitute for a workshop or 1-2-1 coaching, I’ve nonetheless tried to explain the techniques as clearly as possible – and I have had to assume that the reader has a basic knowledge of music and their instrument

also, in this article the assumption is that the player is right-handed – my apologies to any left-handed players, who will need to interpret appropriately

in concert I use digital delay effects on my instruments to enhance the sound – but this article will focus on musical form only, leaving technological matters for another day

adding variety

the key to making your music come to life is to add variety to avoid expected repetition and so hold interest – how much variety you add is probably a matter of taste and may vary according to genre – for example: the traditional folk singer may sing all the verses of a long ballad in much the same way – whereas, a jazz guitarist might, after a few verses, vary the melody so much that the theme itself is different

in my arrangements of popular songs & tunes and my own compositions, I add variety in number of ways, which are detailed below with examples of notation, films or other related articles – generally, I add variety to my music using the following techniques: dynamics, timing variations, expressive playing, melodic variations, styles of playing and alternative chords

what are dynamics

dynamics simply means the difference in volume created by playing quietly or loudly – technically, the dynamic range is the volume difference between the quietest and loudest passage in a piece of music

the invention of the piano forte (the loud and soft machine) by Bartolomeo Cristofori c.1700 revolutionised musical performance, especially for composers such as Mozart and Chopin – previous keyboard instruments of the harpsichord family, which were plucked by a plectrum, could only play each note at a fixed volume level – today the piano, whose hammers respond to the varying pressure applied to the keys, affords the player the option of playing loudly or softly – and so, by adding dynamics to their playing, the musician can add sensitivity or drama to their performance

the same applies to the modest dulcimer, which although inherently quiet, can be played more softly, or more loudly, than normal to create interest – it’s important however, to play with good technique in order to have a decent volume range in the first place – if you play fingerstyle, this link to my article on fingerpicking will help you to play with best-practice technique, and so have a respectable volume with which to deploy dynamics

when to use dynamics

it is often said that songs (and tunes) should have a shape and should gradually build to a climax at (or near) the end, through increased complexity and/or volume – so, playing loudly at the end of a piece, will often make sense and will herald an exciting end through performing with more energy

on my new album: A Waltz Through The Woods (2024), the last track, a Viennese waltz called Varsoviana, ends with more instruments and increased volume to mark the end of both the piece itself, and the finale of the whole album – you can hear the recording on this film, starting at 4’ 40”

as well as creating excitement, dynamics can be used in many other ways to enhance the performance of a piece or song – for example: playing a passage more softly will draw an audience in – by contrast, playing a passage more strongly will emphasise that section – on this haunting Irish air: Banks Of The Lee the third verse is played exactly the same as the second verse, but lounder to add variety and shape to the overall piece

dynamics can also be used to emphasise (or stress) individual notes within a piece – and, if this is done repeatedly, then the perceived rhythm of the music may be changed – for example: in a 4/4 piece the emphasis would normally be on the first beat in the bar – but if you stress the 3rd beat repeatedly, you may give that section of your piece a more reggae or Caribbean feel

rhythmic and timing variations

The Water Is Wide is not only a popular folk song with dulcimer players in America, it’s one of my favourites too – this simple recording of the tune is performed with dulcimer and violin – the verses that the violin leads are played in 4/4 timing, as 4/4 was the original time signature for the song – however, the parts that I lead with the dulcimer are played much more freely and in 3/4 timing – the change from 4/4 to 3/4 time signature is a rhythmic variation

you may have noticed that in the recording of Banks Of The Lee, mentioned earlier, the tempo is slowed down at the very end, known as rallentando, often abbreviated to Rall – rallentando is a timing variation

another timing variation: Rubato is the general flexibility, or give-and-take, of timing in music – it is often used in songs especially, to allow the song to breath – singers often lead the song with accompanying musicians following the singer’s timing

in the traditional folk song: The Ellen Vannin Tragedy, the words force a certain rubato – here are the lyrics to verses 2 and 3:

v2. At one am in Ramsey Bay

Captain Teare was heard to say

Our contract says deliver the mail

In this rough weather we must not fail

v3. While ocean-liners sheltered from the storm

The Ellan Vannin on the waves was born

Their hold was full and battened down

As she sailed for old Liverpool town

you will notice that the first line of verse two has 8 syllables:  at  one  a – m  in  Ram – sey  Bay  – whereas the first line of verse three has 10 syllables:  while  o – cean  li – ners  shle – tered  from  the  storm  – so either the words have to be compressed to fit the music, or the music must give a little to accommodate the lyrics – this is especially relevant in tradition British folk songs where, in medieval times, storytelling would probably have predated music accompaniment

there are many other timing variations such as fermatas, which prompt the prolongation of a note at the discretion of the performer, and ritenuto a tempo (or rit. a tempo), where a specific passage is slowed down to emphasise the section – both of these and the (sometimes confusing) difference between rhythmic and timing variations are explained in this article, with illustrative examples of notation

expressive techniques

expressive techniques are the way we play the notes – fretted stringed instruments, like guitar and (mountain) dulcimer, lend themselves especially well to using them – common expressive techniques include: hammer ons & pull offs, slides, harmonics, vibrato and muting

a hammer on is where a following note, usually on the same string but higher up on the fretboard, is not plucked or strummed but played by a finger on the left hand pressing quickly and hard on the fretboard – likewise, a pull off, to play a lower note on the same string, is not played by plucking or strumming but by a left hand finger pulling the string sideways to release the subsequent, lower note – hammer ons and pull offs are usually used to play fast passages with greater ease of speed – however, when they are played alternately together and fast, they can result in a trill, which can ornament or decorate a phrase

slides are where the following note is again not plucked or strummed, but the left hand finger continues to apply downward pressure to the string whilst moving up or down the fretboard, finally resting on the fret for the subsequent note – in a slide the intermediate or passing notes are also briefly sounded – slides, both up and down, create a transition between notes, making a feature of the transition itself in a smooth and elegant way

best practice technique, with regards to hammer ons & pull offs as well as slides, is to play the first or leading note slightly more strongly, such that the subsequent note is clearly heard, which might otherwise be quiet – and thus the desired effect is not lost

harmonics played on stringed instruments are the soft, clear, bell-like sounds that arise when the string is plucked by the right hand, but where the left hand finger does not actually fret the string but simply and gently touches it over the fret – harmonics are strongest at the certain divisions of the string, in particular the octave (7th fret on a dulcimer or 12th fret on a guitar) – best practice technique to play harmonics is to pluck the string with the right hand reasonably firmly and delicately touch the string with the left hand finger simultaneously, then immediately that the string is plucked, to release the left hand finger to allow the harmonic note to ring out undampened

vibrato on a stringed instrument, is the slow or fast modulation of the frequency or pitch of the note – there are various ways to play a note with vibrato on a stringed instrument  – one way is to rhythmically bend the string sideways on the fretboard with the left hand, after plucking or strumming the string with the right – vibrato adds texture and importantly, sustain to a note, which can help to both emphasise the note and make it sound more elegant

muting the strings can be achieved in a number of ways, with either the or left or right hand – a palm mute is where the palm of the right hand rests gently over the saddle, damping the strings at the bridge, without altering their length or the pitch – muting changes the attack and decay characteristics of the note, slowing the attack and curtaining the delay, thus softening the sound, changing what’s called the envelope, or how the sound of the note changes over time

expressive techniques generally help the player to add feeling to the piece and help the audience to react emotionally to the music

notation for expressive techniques is usually indicated over the tablature and is typically notated as follows :-

    • hammer on: H – with a slur (curved line) between the two notes
    • pull off: PO – with a slur between the two notes
    • slide: sl. – with a diagonal line between the two notes, indicating up or down
    • harmonics: harm. or harmonic(s)
    • vibrato: a wavy line

these are illustrated in the two segments of notation below

this early guitar piece of mine, shows many of these techniques: especially palm muting and slides in the first movement and harmonics in the last part

extended techniques

extended techniques are less common than expressive techniques but still have their place in making music sound more exciting – the extended techniques that I use most are : –

    • the Doppler effect – where the instrument is moved with respect to the listener, such that the pitch is altered during the movement – here is an example using guitar – see from 2’ 40” on this film (the effect would have been more pronounced had I not use a pickup)
    • percussive use of stringed instrument or tapping the body of the instrument – here is an example using dulcimer – see from 2’ 34” on this film
    • plucking the strings beyond the nut and/or bridge – a dulcimer example of both of these techniques is on this film from 2’ 02” 

my very good friend and classical guitarist Dr Martin Vishnick researched his PhD on extended techniques, has devised a notation system for them, written papers on the subject and presented those papers at international musicology conferences – Martin is featured on two of my albums: Spirit Dancing (1997) and Autumn Dance (2002)

melodic variations  

using Varsoviana again as an example starting at 4’ 40” – the structure of the piece in parts is: A B A B C D A B E – the A and B parts are the original melody, whereas the C & D parts are variations on the theme – by adding in the alternate melodies in the C & D parts, the piece is both enhanced in interest and can be played for longer without undue repetition

the late, great British dulcimer player Roger Nicholson, taught me Varosviana, so that we could play it as a duet – decades after his passing, I could only remember the basic melody (the A & B parts) and not all the variations that Roger himself had added to his arrangement – so I invented the alternate melodies (the C & D parts) to add variety to my recording

alternate melodies might also make harmony parts, and so could be played alongside the original melody

styles of playing

as some of you will know, DAA is my go-to tuning for the major scale on the dulcimer – DAA has many benefits over the more commonly used DAD tuning, and affords me three distinct styles of playing:

    • melody-and-drone-style – where the melody is played on the 1st / chanter string and the other two strings are played open as drones
    • airs-style – where the melody is played on the 1st / chanter string and a harmony note is played on one of the other another strings, leaving the remaining string open as a drone
    • chord-style – where all three strings are fretted to create triad chords, often to accompany songs

this article: in praise of DAA, explains these styles in more detail with illustrative examples

significant variety and comprehensive accompaniments to songs, or comprehensive arrangements of pieces, can be created using multiple styles in one song or piece – a very simple example can be found in my arrangement of The Water Is Wide, mentioned earlier – the parts not only alternate between 3/4 and 4/4 time signatures, but also between the dulcimer leading with airs-style playing, alternating with the violin leading and the dulcimer playing triad chords in chord-style accompaniment

alternative chords

changing the chords to more interesting versions is good way to add interest to songs – in my dulcimer arrangement of If I Were A Carpenter, in place of the expected G chord in the third measure, I use a G9 – in DAA tuning, the G chord is fretted as 3-1-3, whereas the G9 chord is fretted as 1-0-3, giving a more open and relaxed feel – later on in the song, the stronger G 3-1-3 chord is used in the corresponding place to further add variety and interest – G 3-1-3 gives the notes G, B & D, whereas G9 3-0-1 gives the notes G, A & B

please also note the F#sus4 chord, at the start, by way of introduction – very unusually, this chord is not played again anywhere else in the song – suspended 4th chords add a sense of suspense and are used later in the song, alternating between A and Asus4

you can hear my arrangement of If I Were A Carpenter at the start of this film

in my version of the folk song The Grey Funnel Line, I use what I call open chords throughout the song – for example the first chord, D in DAA tuning would normally be fretted as 7-5-7, giving the notes D, F# & A – but in this song the opening D chord is fretted as 7-0-7, giving the notes D, A & A, which although not a complete D major chord, has a more relaxed feel – the remaining chords in the song are all open chords, which include an open string or drone

chord inversions

guitars and mountain dulcimers are especially conducive to playing inversions of chords – chord inversions have the same combination of notes but in a different place on the fretboard, and with the notes in a different order – so, whist they are the same chord, they have a different sound, known as voicing – for example: in DAA there are several ways of fretting the D major chord: 2-0-3, 4-3-5 and 7-5-7, as this graphic illustrates

by using inversions of chords, not only can you add variety to a song accompaniment, but also shape – in my arrangement of the traditional folk song Bogie’s Bonnie Belle, inversions of the chords take my left hand up and down the fretboard to follow the melody – indeed the tune is recognisable from the accompaniment alone – this has the additional benefit of supporting the vocalist, by giving the singer a reference note in the accompaniment

this link tells you more about DAA chords and their shapes

by way of review

let’s return to my arrangement of the Banks of the Lee https://www.english-dulcimer.com/banks-of-the-lee/ and look at it in more detail

this is the notation for the end of the piece

please note :-

    • the wavy lines over key, sustaining notes indicate that they are played with vibrato
    • rall. in measure 53 indicates that the player should slow down at the end
    • the 2 (2nd fret) on the bass string in measure 54 is an accidental, out-of-scale note, as part of the 3 2 1 descent on the bass string (measures 53, 54 & 55)
    • the penultimate 7th fret notes are played as harmonics in measure 56
    • the very last note, the 8th fret on the melody string, is played with vibrato for expression – and helps to sustain it to the following and final measure

the notation for the whole piece can be found here the tune is already interesting as it is played in the Aeolian mode (DAC), to result in the correct drones for the mode and give the piece a haunting mood

please also note :-

    • although originally and traditionally played in 4/4 time signature, I have changed this to 3/4, albeit with a few 4/4 bars, to make it work – but it nonetheless flows nicely
    • the sequence is A B B C – and the first verse, or A part, is played melody-and-drone style
    • the second and third verses, or B parts, are played airs-style, with the third verse played louder – this is indicated by f 2nd time next to the B at the top of page 2 – f being short for forte, or loud
    • the fourth verse, or C part, is again in melody-and-drone style – but this time the sustaining notes are played with vibrato – and the first section (measures 34 to 42) is repeated with a fermata to hold the last note a little longer …
    • … before continuing with the remainder of the C part – but more softly now, indicated by the p (for piano) – and more slowly, indicated by lento

this may seem like a lot to remember but it’s no harder to play with expression and feeling than without and the listener should certainly enjoy the music more – moreover, many of these techniques are intuitive and, over time and with experience, will come about naturally and instinctively

to conclude & discography

I hope this article has given you food for thought and helps you to make your own music come to life

from a personal perspective: the more I learn about music, the more I appreciate music and enjoy hearing it

‘music produces a kind of pleasure, which human nature cannot do without’ Confucious

happy playing

Dan Evans – July 2024

    • Varsoviana, Banks Of The Lee, If I Were A Carpenter and Tumbling Skies can all be heard on my A Waltz Through The Woods CD album (2024)
    • The Grey Funnel Line can be heard on my Au Vieux Moulin CD album (2014)
    • The Water Is Wide (instrumental) and The Ellen Vannin Tragedy can he heard on my Autumn Dance CD album (2002)
    • To Althea From Prison can be heard on my Spirit Dancing CD album (1997)
    • Hearty Pound can be heard on my Guardian Spirit CD album (1993)