Syncopation (even earlier etymology here – as daft as that sounds) is the root of most rhythmic excitement – and trouble. The trouble is that, often, the only suitable counterpoint to a syncopated rhythm is another opposing one. How can pupils in an ensemble survive that? You can switch off to surrounding parts and concentrate on your own one but this means missing out on much of the enjoyment. Even if you manage to switch off to the distracting parts and get in the groove of your own part, even its patterns break off into different syncopations in order to avoid monotony. And some of them could turn out to be helpful if only you could single them out.

Take these 32 bars of samba – extracted from a new piece introduced at today’s East Lothian Guitar Ensemble rehearsal. There are six parts with six or seven people to a part. samba-full-ensemble

Closer inspection reveals that the six parts really fall into three teams – each with its own rhythmic patterns and breaks:

  1. melody

  2. four harmony parts

  3. bass line

The trouble is that the pitch of the melody part falls more or less in the middle of the four harmony parts.

So we remove the tune in the hope of hearing how the bass interacts with the harmony parts: samba-bass-harmony-only

Then you can’t help feeling that it might be helpful to hear how the harmony parts bond: samba-harmony-only

In order that the pupils can practice with or against each of these combos – at a variety of speeds – I’ve posted 15 versions of the piece on the Guitar Group Midis page.

While preparing the play-along files I recalled how, around 10 years ago, I was struck to notice a school guitar group incorporating quite detailed articulation* into a medley of Burns tunes – even although there was none written in the music. It occurred to me that years of aural exposure allowed them intuitively to include what the written parts had omitted. I determined thereafter to be as fussy about the articulation as possible. The resulting paradox is that using a completely unmusical tool (a computer) has resulted in more expressive articulation than leaving it to chance and feeling. The pupils can afford to be intuitive but I can’t.

* articulation = the way in which the notes overlap, join up or separate; whether the transition between any two adjacent notes is elided with slides and slurs; the way notes are perceived to be grouped together through combinations of heavy or light touch