Part 4 – Sound vs. Style

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series HOW TO SURVIVE BEING A MUSICIAN IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM


Pt. 4 Sound vs. Style 

Miles Davis – “Music & life are all about style.” 

Welcome back. I know my last few articles have been spaced out a good amount due to a busy gigging schedule but if anything this “break” has given me more time to reflect. The topic for this month is the difference between sound and style. At this point in time there is no difference the way the phrases are interchanged. I am no linguist so the focus of this article will be demystifying the vague term by explaining each component of the phrase “X’s sound” or, referring to my first article, further describing leveling up from Level 2 to 3.

As you remember from my first installment, level 2 is the imitation phase and level 3 is how you personalize it. The simple version of this introspective process is stated with the questions: What aspects from player or writer X are you keeping and which components are you modifying?

To aid you in this ever lasting quest of self discovery I have broken down each attribute of what goes into a “sound”, style, approach or whatever you want to call it. Starting from the microcosm (individual) to the Macro (collective).

Approaching Microcosm:

**I would like to note within this leveling up process one has to maintain a great sense of balance, meaning, what you want to do vs. what is necessary for the job**


This aspect of a persons sound/style is probably the most identifiable. When the laymen listen to a recording, tone is the first thing they react to. Through out my tenure as a woodwinds player I’ve found this to be the biggest pot hole a musician can fall into. Sure getting a great tone to come out your instrument is… great… but there is so much more to music than just tone, unless you’re Hans Zimmer.


Though generating a pleasing and functional sound of your instrument is a huge thing what’s even more important is phrasing. When someone lays down the cliche “Sing your parts, listen to the singers of olde” and etc, the adviser is really telling you “HEY, YOUR PHRASING SUCKS!!!” The way I see it, if your phrasing is good so is your tone.

What is good phrasing?

To me, good phrasing is being able to make even the weirdest and most poorly composed melody sound beautiful. Don’t believe me? Just go back to all those weird New Wave recordings of the 1980’s and listen to the sax solos.

***Note: The type of tone you have will influence your phrasing choices and will cause limits to material that you “can play”, but hey finding out what you can’t is the real fun***

How do I attain good phrasing?

By studying Rhythm, Harmony and articulation extensively you as the musician gain a deeper insight in presenting or creating melodies. After all isn’t the difference between noise and music structure and/or organization?

Reason for Rhythm:

Everything has a beat. With out the beat there will be no life. As you mature as a musician (and hopefully a person) complications become simpler. You’ll find that you get more out of just playing one note instead of a hundred. You’ll also realize that pretty much every melody has an underlying pattern. You know, theme and variation…

The rhythmic figures are merely a frame work for you to manipulate.

Sensible Harmony:

I will spare you the 101 break down of harmonic progressions. After all, this section is called SENSIBLE Harmony. The most practical reason I can think of, to have a deep knowledge of harmonic progressions and etc, is to know where to place your notes or change the articulation. This will turn you from a mere musical mechanic to an engineer or architect. You will become a real time composer or arranger. Transcending the void and enhancing your imagination.

In short, knowing your harmony and rhythm allow’s you to create some stock devices that you love (or hate) to play. This creates a foundation for you to expand upon. It will speed up your process and skill level for sight reading and open up a whole new level of intuitional playing.

Approaching the Macro: 

The big picture of this is a collective sound and more compositionally based, assuming execution and technical level is that of a professional ensemble.

Each rhythmic or harmonic figure carries some type of emotional weight as well as a certain flavor that caters towards a specific region of the world. If I was to express this as a metaphor; The rhythm is a car driving on the road and the harmony is the scenery for which the car is driving. The melody of the piece/tune/whatever are the characters and how they interact with in the car.**

**The instrument and orchestration choice is the resolution or filter on the camera**

Again and again we will find that what separates band/composer X from Y with in the same genre or style is how they choose to embellish whatever colloquialisms are used. How it’s perceived by the public which is none of our business. That’s what publicists and promoters are for. After all, when did it become the responsibility of a professional musician/composer or whatever creative field to worry about the impact of their craft? It is beyond our control and if you are getting called back then that’s all that really matters.

The biggest Genius is the one that’s most like themselves” – Thelonious Monk

Stay tuned for the next one: Humility not Nihilism

Series Navigation<< Part 2: GETTING A GIG (BEING A LEADER VS. A SIDE MAN)
Dick Metcalf, editor, Contemporary Fusion Reviews
Dick Metcalf, editor, Contemporary Fusion Reviews
Dick Metcalf (aka Rotcod Zzaj) is a globe-hopping musician and poet who spent many years roving the world until he finally settled in his current abode, Lacey, Washington... just down the road from Seattle. He started IMPROVIJAZZATION NATION magazine in 1990 (still being published), and Contemporary Fusion Reviews magazine in 2016. He also was a keyboard player & singer for many years... you can hear (and download for free) many of those works at his "Internet Archive Collection". If you'd like to support our efforts and get something in return, there are also a few of these albums for sale on the Rotcod Zzaj BandCamp site"

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