Posted by: rileylaurie | August 13, 2020

Overtones, Sympathetic Vibration, and Resonant Frequencies

What happens when you pluck a taut string, exactly? The obvious answer is that it produces a note, but in fact the result of plucking a string is far more complex. What we think we hear as a note actually consists of many notes, most of which are significantly less audible than the fundamental one. Our brain mostly ignores the others and picks up on the fundamental because it is louder. But those “unheard” tones often do have a subconscious effect on the listener.

The sounds produced when you pluck a string include overtones, undertones, and sympathetic vibrations, which we will explore in this article. We will also explore a related phenomenon called “resonant frequency”.

Fundamental Notes

In acoustic stringed instruments, a fundamental note rarely occurs alone, even though we are most often not aware that we are hearing more than one note. Acoustic instruments produce complex sounds from one plucked string, while single (pure) tones can be produced by certain electronic instruments  –  which is why they don’t sound as musical as acoustic instruments unless the sounds are “sampled” (recorded from an acoustic instrument rather than originating electronically).

The sound wave produced by a single pure tone is called a sine wave, and we can think of it as looking like this, as generated on an oscilloscope:

But we can think of the many tones of an acoustic plucked string as looking more like this:



Overtones and Undertones

The spectrum of sound produced by one plucked string include tones above, below, and within the range of human hearing. Overtones are higher than the fundamental note, and undertones are lower than the fundamental note.

You can hear overtones by playing harmonics: if you very lightly touch a string precisely at its midpoint and then pluck it at the same time, you will hear a note one octave higher than when you pluck the open string. (This can require some practice to get the note to sound clearly; it should sound like a chiming bell.) The octave note you hear is called the second harmonic, because the first harmonic is the fundamental that you hear when you pluck the open string.

If you create a harmonic at 1/3 of the string length, you will hear the third harmonic  – a note that is one octave plus a third higher than the fundamental.

At ¼ of the string length, you will hear the next octave higher (two octaves higher than the fundamental), the fourth harmonic.

See the chart below for all of the most easily produced harmonics. The waves represent the vibrational width of a plucked string, and also the corresponding appearance of sound waves.

Few musicians realize that you can easily get more harmonics than just an octave. Experimenting with this is fun. Because string materials are not perfect, it may or may not be possible on your instrument to get all these harmonics, but you will probably get some of them.

When playing harmonics, what you are hearing are the overtones that occur whenever a string is plucked. They are there even when you do not “stop” (touch) the string at any point along its length. The reason you can hear them when you do stop the string is because you have stopped the fundamental note from sounding, so they are no longer disguised by its relative volume.

When playing harmonics, what you will not hear are the undertones. Those notes are lower than the fundamental and are very subtle. Making them audible requires some rather esoteric techniques as described in the Wikipedia article here: . Suffice it to say, however, that they do exist and can subconsciously affect a listener’s experience of the music they hear.

You can hear the difference between an acoustic instrument that has a “rich” sound (lots of overtones and undertones) and one that does not. The richness or lack of richness of an instrument may or may not be due to how well it’s made, but some are purposely made to emphasize the fundamental notes. Some people prefer them that way; others prefer richness.

Often, sustain (how long a string rings) is mistaken for richness (preponderance of audible overtones). But they are only related in that a longer sustain can make overtones more obvious.


Sympathetic Vibration

A response often occurs when the sound waves emanating from a plucked string meet another easily-vibrating object, causing that object to also make a sound. Sympathetic vibrations are transmitted through the air or through matter, so this can occur whether or not they are touching each other. Hence, in the case of a plucked string, other strings usually sound because they pick up the vibration. When tuning a stringed instrument, one often must damp the strings not being plucked so you can accurately hear the one that is.

In the case of unrelated (nonmusical) objects vibrating sympathetically, usually it will be only one note that causes the phenomenon in any specific object. A lampshade or a window screen, for instance, might vibrate at 440Hz (A above middle C) but not at 441 or any other note. (Hz is a measure of frequency.)

Sympathetic vibration can be annoying if something in the room is vibrating, or when something on the instrument itself is buzzing when you pluck a string. Identifying the offending part or object can be challenging.

On the other hand, some pleasant sympathetic vibrations are those heard on an instrument such as a nyckelharpa, sitar, or Hardanger fiddle; these have extra courses of strings whose only function is to vibrate sympathetically. Overtones are produced in both the plucked strings and the sympathetic ones. The resulting resonance makes these instruments sound like they are being played in a cathedral. Of course, the sympathetic strings must be perfectly tuned or they will not sound at all because they won’t be prone to picking up the vibrations.

By the way, don’t get the sound of wind blowing through the strings of a harp or lyre confused with sympathetic vibration. Wind is an energy source that causes the strings to ring by exerting force upon them directly. That is different from vibration caused by sound waves meeting an object and causing it to vibrate.

Resonant Frequency

All matter is frequency. This is known in physics. The illusion of solidity is produced by vibration (frequency), rather than the other way around. You may ask, if there is no such thing as solid matter, what vibrates? For one version of a detailed explanation, see . For purposes of this article, let’s simply work with the concept.

Because everything is composed of frequency, and objects and living things are composed of numerous elements, most objects and living things have immeasurable numbers of different frequencies. Living things also have many organs or organelles, each with a set of frequencies. We can think of these coexisting frequencies as being somewhat like orchestras. When the many instruments of an orchestra are in tune with each other, the sound produced is pleasing. When they are not in tune with each other, the sound is terrible. Likewise, the many frequencies of a body are healthy when they are “in tune” with each other.

In a state of illness or injury, one or more frequencies go “out of tune”. This article is not the place to discuss what causes a state of dissonance to occur, but it is known that when dissonance does occur, exposure to former healthy frequencies can “re-set” the dissonant ones. This is not an exact science, obviously, since every individual is different and will therefore respond to different input. But we do know that in general, finding and using general resonant frequencies can be therapeutic. In case this all sounds a bit too far-fetched, please read this:

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…and this:

Musicians certified to play in therapeutic/medical settings often use the concept of resonant frequency, a practice that involves observing what notes seem to produce a positive response in a patient (patients may report a feeling of well-being, or three may be improvements in vital signs among patients who are seriously ill) and then using those notes predominantly in the music they offer to that person. (That is not, by the way, the only skill therapeutic musicians use  –  it’s just one of many.)

There is also a discipline called Vibroacoustic Harp Therapy which addresses resonant frequencies in more specific ways. See  and . Vibroacoustic Harp Therapy is usually done in private practice rather than in hospitals and hospices, because it requires solicitation of input from the patient.

In therapeutic music in general, richness of tone is important, because a preponderance of overtones will cover many of the possible resonant frequencies that can be helpful to a patient. An instrument with a broad range of notes is desirable, but remember that each note contains many overtone notes, so even a small stringed instrument can be therapeutically effective.

Sound Pollution

Obviously, not all frequencies are beneficial to living things. It’s not difficult to identify which sounds are harmful: these may be noise from traffic, machines, jets, sonar, angry vocal outbursts, overly loud rock music, explosions, gun shots, chaotic rhythms, and so on.

Usually it is man-made frequencies that are problematic, since most sounds in nature are pleasant and beneficial. That brings up another concept: entrainment, which deserves its own article at a future date. Meanwhile, suffice it to say that our natural body rhythms and frequencies tend to entrain to the sounds around us; you may notice if you live near an unpleasant sound source, you may eventually stop noticing it because your body has entrained to it. When we are surrounded continually by sound pollution, it affects us on a physical level.

In Conclusion

Pythagoras said that all notes are contained within a single plucked string. He experimented with a one-stringed instrument (monochord) to find and document that all chords come from harmonic mathematics, and the diatonic and chromatic scales do as well, because when conditions such as string material are perfect, one plucked string produces all notes. Even in this imperfect world, we can utilize this concept for beneficial effects.

For more detailed info see my book “Singing the Universe Awake” on the books page of my website at

Posted by: rileylaurie | May 31, 2020

Using Dynamics for Expression

What exactly does the word “dynamics” mean in terms of music performance?  Many people assume it means using lots of volume and gesturing, or excessive vocalizing (shouting, roaring, etc.). “He gave a very dynamic performance,” usually means it was excitingly over the top, like an Elton John concert. But that is not necessarily what the word means; the use of dynamics is really much more subtle than that in most circumstances, and does not refer only to volume but to the entire range of sound. In other words, it’s not just the “loud” but also the “soft”, and it applies to every style and every mood of music

Variations in volume are an important element of musical expression. They help give the music the “magic” it needs to bring forth the imaginations and emotions of the listener.  To understand the use of dynamics in music, think about expressive speaking: we’ve all occasionally heard speech-makers who recite monotonously (mono = one; tone = sound),or who shout every word. We don’t speak that way in conversation. Likewise, we certainly don’t want to play our music that way. You can use the interplay of loud and soft (crescendo and decrescendo) as you would when speaking expressively. And, like speech, how you manipulate your music dynamically makes all the difference in its meaning and message.

Think of a sentence such as “I have not been to New York,” and repeat it aloud several times, emphasizing a different word each time. “I have not been to New York” implies that you, rather than someone else, have never been to New York. “I have not been to New York” might be a response to someone claiming you have been there. “I have not been to New York” might imply you’ve only been in the area or have studied about it. “I have not been to New York” can imply you’ve been to other big cities but not New York. The meaning changes significantly through the dynamics you use.

Melodies are set up in phrases; even if there are no lyrics, the phrases are much like those in a sentence. Where the phrases end and begin in music are similar to where the commas in a spoken sentence would be. If the tune has lyrics, phrases are easy to identify, but if there are no lyrics, the shape and timing of the melody will help you figure it out. Choose a short piece of music you know well, and decide which parts you can call phrases. Play the piece softly, but then emphasize the last phrase. Then play it again emphasizing only the second-to-last phrase, and so on. You will find that the meaning or mood of the music changes depending on which phrases you emphasize. You can even do the same with individual notes or short groups of notes.

There is a common tendency to play faster when playing louder, and slower when playing softer. This can negate the intended effects of dynamics. Practice the exercise above using a metronome to keep your beat steady as you purposely change volume. Being able to use dynamics without changing tempo will increase your expressive skills.

Don’t be afraid to use the entire dynamic range of your instrument or your voice, from the merest whisper to the loudest note you can make. Only by experimenting with the full dynamic potential of your instrument or voice will you know what it is capable of.


Posted by: rileylaurie | November 22, 2019

Can You Learn Kinesthetically?

It sounds like some kind of game, but “kinesthetic” refers to learned movement that becomes automatic. I’ve been writing about it for years. It’s the result of consistent and focused practice; the point at which a specific sequence of movements becomes a kinesthetic habit is the point at which you can feel the effort decrease, the flow of the music improve, the ability to play expressively increase, and you get the feeling that your movements are on “autopilot”. Professionals know all about this, and it’s at this point and beyond that music playing becomes the lovely thing that makes music playing look easy.

Interestingly, I’ve been slammed for saying so, with claims that musical kinesthetics doesn’t exist. Naturally, there are exceptions to everything, which means that everyone learns a bit differently, and a few never develop a kinesthetic sense.  (Some might, however, if they practice not more but differently.) That doesn’t mean they can’t play; it only means they have to think about and focus on their movements whenever they play. No student should ever get the idea that they cannot or should not play just because something that works for most doesn’t work for them. I teach according to each student’s needs. But those who cannot develop their kinesthetic sense are rare; with practice and patience most players do. It can take a long time if you’re a beginner, so don’t get discouraged.

After many years of teaching ways to develop the kinesthetic sense, I was recently gratified to read in Malcolm Gladwell’s well-known book What the Dog Saw a lengthy and detailed treatise on the subject of learned movement which he calls the difference between explicit learning and implicit learning. Explicit learning is when you are beginning to practice a new physical skill, and it still feels a bit stiff and contrived due to its unfamiliarity. But with time and practice it becomes more automatic and more fluid; it become implicit. One can then rely on it to happen properly and masterfully without having to concentrate too hard on it, which frees up the mind to focus on other important aspects of the activity. Gladwell states that implicit physical learning  –  what I call kinesthetic movement  –  happens in many kinds of physical activities (I would venture to say most). He cites golfers and tennis players as examples. I can cite tying your shoes as a prime example. If you can tie your shoes without thinking too hard about it, you can probably develop a kinesthetic sense for your music-playing.

Gladwell also cites what happens, using actual occurrences, when someone who has developed implicit knowledge (kinesthetic movement) stops trusting it and reverts back to explicit knowledge. It usually happens under pressure. In sports, it’s disastrous. In my personal experience in music it is equally so.  Therefore when I practice for a gig I always purposely practice both ways: with attention to details of movement and patterns, and also on autopilot  –  explicitly and implicitly. I never know until I’m on stage which state of mind I will be in; if I’m nervous it’s always the explicit one, which is far more difficult. Better to practice for that state of mind than to assume I will always be in implicit mode just because I so easily achieve that at home.

The section I’ve referenced is only a small part of the book; Gladwell’s book covers many subjects; it’s about how what we assume or what we consider common sense or common knowledge isn’t always accurate, and how we can benefit from looking at things from other and sometimes opposite viewpoints. His writing is always well researched and responsible, which is why he’s a respected best-selling author. I highly recommend the book.

Posted by: aliveinthewild | June 9, 2019

Instant Gratification: Help or Hindrance?

There has probably never been a music student who didn’t wish they could play their instrument easily and immediately, or any musician who didn’t wish they could play a complex new piece without practicing it. I saw a cartoon recently in which a music student is telling his teacher, “I want to skip ahead to the part where I’m awesome.” Alas, we all must face reality if we are to play well.

When approaching a new musical skill, there are several things to consider:

  1. Developing a new skill requires serious work. It can also be fun at the same time.
  2. It will not sound like you think it should for quite some time; that is normal and necessary.
  3. If you rush or shortcut the process, it will never sound right, because you will never learn it right.
  4. When someone else makes it look or sound easy, that’s because they’ve already had a great deal of practice.
  5. No matter what other skills you already have, or how talented you might be, you might not have a realistic idea of how much patience and focus are required to learn a specific new skill.  Your other skills may not be transferrable.
  6. “Talent” is only a very small part of what makes a good musician. Practice is the much larger part.

Those who are learning a new instrument in addition to one they already play well are at the biggest risk for shortcutting their learning process. Many accomplished musicians have forgotten how hard they had to work to learn skills that now are so habitual that they seem to come naturally. Backing up and being a beginner again requires humility and focus. Whatever your new instrument, it’s important to begin at the beginning, just as you did with the first instrument you ever learned. You can’t build a house without a foundation, no matter how many other houses you’ve built.

If you already read music well, for instance, it may be very tempting to try to play pieces on your new instrument that are far too advanced for your actual skill level on that instrument. Reading music well is not a substitute for technique, and each instrument has a technique that is unique to itself. You can’t, for instance, transfer piano technique to the harp, or vice-versa; they are entirely different instruments requiring very different techniques and new habits of placement and movement.

Even among new musicians, it’s a common assumption that learning to play is going to be a quicker process than it really will be. It can be astonishing that one can expect some skills to take years to master. Some new musicians feel overwhelmed by the work and tell themselves they can be satisfied with half-learning basic skills. But if you “pretend” to learn now, then five or ten years from now your playing won’t be any better than it is now.

There are those who believe that if you have talent, skill will come effortlessly. “You have such talent!” is a phrase we hear often. I want to say, “What I have is practice.” Many people with a “talent” get left in the dust by those with less affinity but more willingness to practice.

If you don’t have a specific skill yet, you can’t know how much time and patience is required. You might assume it should take a week, when it really will take a month or a year. Everyone learns at a different rate. What’s more, someone who learns faster does not necessarily learn better. Let it take as long as it takes, without the “should”.  Additionally, learning more new music may not take less time as your skill improves. When you have some familiarity with the instrument and maybe have some good habits of technique, adding to your repertoire can seem frustrating because a new piece will still take nearly as much time and effort as the first few pieces did. Many musicians get stuck and won’t learn new repertoire because it feels so difficult compared to the now-familiar feel of what they already know.

Singing is not exempt from this phenomenon, by the way. The voice is an instrument, too, and singing really well isn’t something that comes naturally. One might naturally have a good voice  – a “gift” –  but it’s a guarantee that every voice is made better by learning good singing technique. Why not be the best singer you can be?

Instant gratification seems to be a relatively new phenomenon historically. There was a time when most people understood that new skills require time and patience. There’s something about our culture that has conditioned us to think that we don’t have to put much effort into what we create or learn. Many seem to assume that paying for something means that since you’ve bought it, you will absorb it through osmosis. That’s evident in college students who sue their professors for giving them low grades for not doing their work, or certification-program students who think the certificate is what they’ve paid for. On the other hand, we don’t seem to value instruction that we don’t pay for. We really need to look at value in a different way. The pay is for the instruction, but it’s our responsibility to work for the knowledge.

Whatever your instrument or your intention for playing it, don’t put yourself down when your progress isn’t as fast as you thought it should be. Comparing your actual progress to your expectations isn’t helpful, and expecting excellent skill levels to come before the work is done will only make you feel bad rather than enjoying your own music-making. Instead, enjoy the process. Set high standards, but then let yourself do what it takes to get there.


Posted by: rileylaurie | December 2, 2018

There’s More Than One Way to Learn a Piece of Music

One of the most common questions music students ask is, “What’s the best way to learn a piece of music?” There are many ways! These are the ones I find most helpful:

  1. Sight reading from notation

When you sight read, it means you can play the piece immediately and accurately the first time you read it.

Benefit: Those who are good at sight-reading have an unlimited repertoire, since they can play anything they can read.

Drawback: You need the notation to be able to play the piece.

How to learn this skill: this ability usually comes after years of music-reading, but it is dependent on knowing that what you see physically on the page represents intervals which you can recognize by the shapes and patterns you see. If you’re trying to think of the names for each note, sight reading is less likely to be successful.

  1. Memorizing from notation

This means after studying the music and playing the piece numerous times, you can put the notation away and play the piece accurately from memory.

Benefit: You don’t have to carry around a bag full of sheet music and books.

Drawback: none.

How to learn this skill: Work on remembering one phrase at a time. Don’t read through the whole piece and expect to remember it! And don’t go back to the beginning each time you make a mistake or don’t remember something; start from where you left off.  Memory is often set through struggling with something, so don’t refer to the notation every time you aren’t sure; instead, play around with it until you find the right notes. You’ll be sure to remember it next time! Also, rather than memorizing what you see on the page, memorize instead the sound of the music and the patterns it creates both aurally and in the fingering. If you are seeing the notation in your head, you may as well have it on the paper In front of you!

  1. Reading with practice

This means after studying the piece and reading it through numerous times, you can play it well while reading it.

Benefit: Confidence while reading

Drawback: You are dependent on sheet music and books.

How to learn this skill: The key is a LOT of practice.  Instead of reading every note you play, see how much you can play without looking at the notation – you might be surprised!

  1. Transcribing what you hear, then learn it from your own notation

If you have a good ear, and if you know how to write notation well, this works for those who don’t like to memorize music.

Benefit: You don’t need to start with hard copy notation because you make your own. And in so doing much of it will stay in your memory.

Drawback: You can become dependent on the notation you create, when you could be continually creative.

How to learn this skill: Learn your music theory and get ear training. These skills are essential as a musician.

  1. Playing by rote – memorizing exactly what you have heard

If you listen carefully to a piece, understand what you are hearing, and have the skill to play it and remember it, this is an effective way for some people to learn.

Benefit: You won’t need notation  –  the tunes are in your head and in your hands.

Drawback:  If someone wants you to play a different arrangement of a piece, unless you also have one of the above skills, you are limited.

How to learn this skill: Some people, especially those who are considered “left brained”, find this easy.  It involves no interpretation,, just an accurate memory for exactly what you have heard.  Memory can be developed by listening to a piece repeatedly before attempting to play it.

  1. Memorizing a melody and then creating your own arrangement by ear

If you listen to and can memorize a melody and a general chord structure, you can create your own arrangement of it, which by choice may or may not sound similar to the arrangement you first heard.

Benefit: You can play pretty much anything within your chosen style and skill level , and sometimes even do it on the fly!

Drawback: If you don’t also have some of the other skills listed here, you may not be able to play notated pieces as written, which can be important in ensembles.

How to learn this skill: Listen and listen and listen some more. The, if you have an understanding of music theory or an ear for harmonizing and chord structures, this is an almost automatic skill.

Probably the best way to learn your music is to choose at least three of the above methods: the one you do most naturally, and two others that will enhance it. There may be some work involved, and that’s a good thing. Really having to work at something will integrate the information and the skill permanently.

Very importantly, don’t let anyone tell you there’s only one right way to learn a piece of music. Everyone learns differently. Music is an art and a science, and we need to be flexible.

Posted by: rileylaurie | October 7, 2018

Successful Recording

How lucky we are to live in a time when anyone can record! Years ago, the only way a musician could create an album for sale was to be “discovered” by a large record company, and if you signed their contract, they took charge of your life  –  even told you what music you could or could not play. In the late 1980s a change came about as recording equipment went digital and became less expensive, smaller, and easier to use  –  which meant it was accessible to more people. Those who could afford the equipment started “independent labels”. This, of course, changed the entire industry and how music was marketed. Now, the industry has changed once again as digital downloads have replaced CDs. The income we used to get from CDs has been slashed by digital downloads that cost the listener pennies. Musicians aren’t making an income from their recordings anymore unless they are super-idols, so we’re sort of back where we started. Big business is once again in control.

As a recording artist, I grew up in the era of vinyl records, survived the cassette tape era, thrived in the era of CDs. I was one of the lucky ones to have a producer back in the early ‘80’s who created the first of the independent labels and was a genius at marketing; I was his primary artist, so before more artists discovered they could do that too, he had a heyday and sold over 100,000 of my first serious album. Later, he got into other things and I began producing my own albums. After more than 30 years of making new albums (whenever the demand prodded me or I felt creative), I’ve just released what will probably be my last album, which gives me a sense of satisfaction. (Shameless self-promotion: “Infinity” is available on the Books and CDs page at the above link.)

But I ramble. Let’s get to the subject at hand…

Recording is very different from performing, and a lot easier. Logistically, the equipment and how it’s set up is different, but so is the atmosphere and the attitude. There’s no pressure. You can relax in the studio, because you can fix anything that’s not perfect, and you get as many re-do’s as you need. Once you understand the logistics, you can concentrate on your music and do your best.

A brief overview of studio logistics:

As in a stage performance, the sound engineer sets up your microphones and runs the control panel, but in a recording studio there is no audience and you’re in a quiet atmosphere, so every nuance of what you do is audible  –  and that’s a good thing. Great playing isn’t just about accuracy but is also a sum of sensitivity and nuance.

After everything is recorded, the engineer will go over the material and remove as many imperfections as he or she may find that didn’t get corrected during the recording process, the tunes will be placed in the order you request, and the volume and tone of your instrument will be set to best levels. You will be given a “master”, which you will upload to whatever duplicating company you choose (browse online for “CD Duplication”). Your CD is now called “Product”. From most duplicators you can get as many or as few pieces of product as you wish, or you can just go through the process of doing mp3 downloadable tracks.

But what about how you feel and how you play when recording?

As mentioned above, you can relax in the studio. The engineer isn’t judging you, and the only other thing listening is a machine that doesn’t care what you do. You are free to play your best and to play expressively, to sound the way you want to be heard by those who will eventually be listening to your recording.

In a recording you have no visuals. The musician’s facial expression and body language can make a difference in what a live audience perceives they hear, but when those factors are absent, the music is all that’s left. So we need to make sure our expression is also in our music, not just in the visuals we usually create. You want your personality to come through.

If the musician is uptight while recording, that affects musical expression. I recall during the recording of my second album, the sound engineer (who was also a good friend) said, “I know you as an expressive musician. But you’re playing dryly. Why?” I thought for a moment and realized that I thought I had no right to play expressively for a recording when my skills were not, at the time, as high as those of some other recording artists. I had to laugh at myself. Expression is part of skill.

I think the most important thing I can tell you is: keep it simple. If people like your performances, that’s what they want to hear on a recording. Some recordings are overproduced, which hides the personality of the musician. Sometimes there is too much reverb, or too many other instruments, or the balance of volume of voice vs. instrument isn’t natural. More than once I’ve bought recordings that had world-class production quality but sounded nothing like the artist does in person. Another thing that can affect whether the recording sounds like you is if the sound is “equalized” too much (the range of frequency is condensed). Resist the temptation to make your recording sound commercial. It usually doesn’t work. It’s good to get a sample mix of what you’ve recorded, and take it home to play for several trusted people who know your music well (preferably also musicians) and can give you an honest critique before you approve the final version.

Another bit of advice: It helps immensely to remember that if you are playing your own arrangements, your listeners do not know what you heard in your head as the “correct” way to play each piece. In other words, if you play a note or chord you didn’t expect, or play the sections out of order, nobody is going to know you didn’t intend to play it that way, unless it’s disturbingly disharmonious. The listener isn’t expecting what you expected. If it sounds OK, let it go. You have more important things to do than to correct little things that sound fine. Timing and tempo do matter, however. If you have hesitations or tempo irregularities, fix them.

Most importantly, be yourself. Have fun. Enjoy the process!

Posted by: rileylaurie | September 17, 2018

I’ve just introduced a new harp playing stand!

Usually I just use this page for my blog, but I’m so excited that I had to let you all know about my new product – an innovative, unique, ergonomically designed, beautiful playing stand for small harps!  In the links at the top of this page, click on “Best Playing Stand for Small Harps”.

I’ve been busy with this project, and that’s why I haven’t blogged for a while. Look for a new blog post soon. And if you have auggestions for blog subjects you’d like me to write about, please email me at

Posted by: aliveinthewild | July 28, 2018

A little unabashed self-promotion

My new CD “Infinity”, and the sheet music for my composition “Island Girl” are now available! Please click on the Books & CDs link above.

Posted by: rileylaurie | June 21, 2018

Brilliant Accompaniment

Brilliant Accompaniment

For those who play or want to play accompaniment to other instrumentalists or to singing, here are some concepts to consider. There are two types of accompaniment discussed in this article: 1. When you accompany another musician, and 2. When you play a full arrangement on one instrument. On a single-line instrument (such as a flute), accompaniment must be from another instrument; while on an instrument where your two hands play separately (such as harp or piano), you play your own accompaniment  –  one hand plays melody while the other determines the nature of the piece. Mood, tempo and style are all determined by the accompaniment.

Much more than just a nice backdrop, accompaniment creates the mood, rhythm, and style of the piece, and is therefore the major determining factor of the presentation. Unfortunately, many musicians think anything added to themelody it is just enhancement. But listen closely to any professionally produced piece of music that contains accompaniment and you will hear how important it is.

Have you ever noticed, when you’re listening to, say, a good cover band (a band that plays popular songs), how the introduction is usually what an audience will recognize even before the song starts? One great example is “Layla” by Eric Clapton. Listen here (The intro stars at about 12 seconds into the video):

Or Loreena McKennitt here:  Those first bars of intro make it very clear, if you have ever heard it before, what song she’s about to sing.

Or Dougie McLean’s “Ready for the Storm” at

Although two of those examples include whole bands, the same can be true of any solo arrangement, such as Dougie’s solo guitar.

These musicians don’t just start right in with the melody; they use a strong introductory theme, which may also repeat between verses, and which does not reiterate the melody at all. They are a separate thing entirely – a second and equal voice.

An introduction could, on the other hand, be a section of the melody; not necessarily the beginning, but perhaps the chorus or the last line  –  the part that identifies the melody best. A good example would be if you were playing Silent Night, you could introduce it with the last phrase because that is so recognizable. Your intro will identify tune, key and tempo, and it’s like an appetizer before the entrée.

The introductory theme can also be repeated between verses, and/or in pauses between phrases.

Additionally, there are possibilities for countermelodies and/or parallel harmonies behind a melody.

Most often, for songs we’ve heard before, we choose to play whatever chordal backup or pattern we’ve heard and therefore expect to hear. For instance, in the tune “Greenleeves”, a harpist might play rolled chords on each strong beat, or a cellist might play continuo, to emulate what we think of as a lovely Tudor-era love song. But what if you gave it a tango-rhythm backup instead? Or a Paraguayan Galopa-style backup? You’d change the entire nature of the tune without having to change the notes of the melody. That is the power of accompaniment.

In an ensemble of similar instruments (such as a harp ensemble or a cello quartet), you will often use scored arrangements for each piece, but some ensembles play from one arrangement; in other words, everyone in unison. Sometimes that sounds lovely, but you can do more. You can break it up into parts, and you can even do that without having to transcribe each part. Let’s look, for instance, at a harp arrangement: it will have the right hand and the left hand parts (right hand is usually melody or treble clef, and left hand is usually accompaniment or bass clef). Let’s say the melody in the printed arrangement contains same-hand embellishment (ornaments and/or chords), and the accompaniment (other hand) consists of chords, counterpoint, single-note harmonies and/or rhythmic patterns. Rather than having everyone in the group play all of it, the basic melody can be played by one or more of the harpists, and the embellishments to the melody can be played by others. Or the beginners can play only the treble-clef notes that appear as the first beat in each measure, while the intermediates play the whole melody. For the beginners the accompaniment can be broken down into single notes (i.e. read the lowest notes only), or maybe just the chords that appear on the downbeat or the backbeat. The rest of the bass clef notes/chords/rhythms can be played by intermediates. Advanced players can play the full arrangement. Breaking it up this way produces a more “three-dimensional” effect.

If you are creating your own accompaniment to someone else’s playing, be sure that what you do enhances rather than distracts from what they are doing. Don’t get good playing mixed up with overdone playing; if you play well, you can also play with subtlety. Keep it tasteful and understated, unless and until there is a solo break for you; then you can shine. But remember that the rest of the time the primary focus is on the main performer, not on you. You’ll know you have succeeded when your part fits so seamlessly into theirs that people can hardly tell the two apart.

The same is true for session playing. If you are not the session leader and it’s not your turn for a solo, aim to blend in, not stand out. This is true especially for drummers. In many Irish sessions, for instance, the bodhran (drum) is commonly regarded with some disdain because too many players play it too loudly and unrelentingly. If you want to be appreciated, be subtle!

If you are a solo singer, your voice alone will not always carry you if your accompaniment is not all it can be. An instrument should be more than a prop. I cannot stress enough: learn to play your instrument well; don’t settle for “good enough”. Your instrumentation should be as good as your primary voice or it will detract rather than enhance.

There could be volumes written on accompaniment skills, but my point here is simply that there is so much that you can do to make an accompaniment interesting, enhancing, and tasteful. Treat it as equally important as the melody or voice, but don’t make it distracting. And most of all, enjoy your music and that of those with whom you play!

There is a special element of great duo or group musicianship that, to an outsider, can seem uncanny; something more than just two or more people who are able to play the same piece at the same time. When the music is flowing out of them expressively and with an almost electric energy, it’s as though the group members can each read the others’ minds.

Well, they can. It’s not something that happens among just any two or more musicians. Finding those with whom this intuitive musical communication can occur is a bit like finding a new romance; it’s “chemistry”. It’s possible with two musicians, and occasionally with three or more. I’ve played in duo and in groups throughout my life, and have been very lucky to have found this magical quality in many of the people I’ve played with. It adds an extra element to the music that makes it effective and exciting for the listeners.

My first musical partner was my sister. We were trained by my mother in stage skills and vocal technique. Mom was a tough tutor. We cried a lot. But we learned important skills, and since we shared genetics as well as environment  –  nature and nurture  –  we developed that ability to communicate without signals or instructions. We could add an indescribable element to our music that made it more than the sum of its parts. I remember that on many occasions we’d be performing some song that we had carefully practiced in a specific way, and would suddenly get an idea for some enhancement or change. We’d just look at each other and know exactly what the other had in mind, mostly because we both had the same idea. It was like having one mind. We could adapt our arrangements on the fly in a performance without planning or verbalizing the idea for the adaptation.  There was nothing insecure about this. It felt the same as though we’d planned and practiced it.

Later I ran into a group of folk-rock musicians who gelled instantly. When we met, we really, really liked each others’ music. The first time we met, we were all playing at the same concert, we got together backstage and decided to try out a tune together. We quickly worked out four-part harmonies and blended accompaniments, so easily it was as though we’d always been together. You know what it’s like when you meet a special person and the conversation just flows, and you get each others’ humor, and you can’t stop talking? That’s’ how it was musically with these fellows. Over time and with focused work (we practiced five days a week, three hours a day) we got quite good and became very popular. We didn’t get along personality-wise, but our music was wonderful.

Many years later, I had the honor of playing with the Chieftains, the supergroup from Ireland. Their harpist, Derek Bell, had passed away suddenly, just before an American tour which they could not cancel, so they asked me to play with them for their first concert without him (other harpists played with them in other cities on that tour). Due to union regulations we had exactly ten minutes to practice the four tunes I was to do with them, which of course would normally not be adequate for developing a rapport. We would have to depend on our expertise and experience and trust that it would work. They had me start the pieces (probably to see what tempos I was inclined to use), and for two of those pieces, their flutist Matt Molloy then joined in with me before the rest of the group did. I didn’t know in advance that he would be doing that, but I was open to whatever they did. What happened in those moments of flute and harp together astonished me. I had not met him except to wave hello at the ten-minute rehearsal, and I only knew his playing from hearing their recordings. He was so far across the stage from me that I couldn’t even see him in the dim light. But the sound system was good, so we could hear each other very well. The magic of his paying was such that it almost made the hair on my neck stand up, and the two of us played together as though we were one musician. I felt as though there were a bridge of energy arcing across the stage between us, pulling the music together into a flowing stream of sound.

This magic can happen in sessions, too. My nephew Victor Provost, who plays jazz steel “pan” (google him and listen  –  he’s phenomenal) often posts remarks on Facebook about how it feels to play with some of the great contemporary jazz musicians. I can well imagine the almost physical sensation, the electricity that makes the whole body tingle, when these musicians get in the zone! I’ve seen him in concert. It’s indescribable.

This phenomenon is also common In Celtic sessions, if the musicians are experienced and are attentive to each other. It doesn’t work at all when someone is trying to stand out, show off, or play too fast or too loud. But when everyone is in sync, it’s like the groove on a bobsled run  –  it just carries you along. The key is to aim for the blend, to listen to each other and become a seamless part of the whole. This magic cannot happen unless we get away from just concentrating on reading the music and counting beats, and start really listening to each other as we play. Hear the way the music flows and moves. Feel the harmonies interact and the notes bounce off each other. Take cues from the tonal quality, nuances and subtleties of your partner’s or group’s playing. Music is so much more than a sequence of correct notes!

I relate these stories because I know of no other way to describe the phenomenon. If you wonder whether you’ve ever felt it, the answer would be that if you have to wonder, then you haven’t. But you probably will. As you truly master your instrument, as you listen deeply and respectfully to other musicians, it will come. When you feel it, you will know it. It cannot be forced or faked. And when you find it, nurture it.

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