"If it's not moving, it's dead" is a line that applies as much to life as it does to music. Yet all too often composers write background or accompaniment parts that are lifeless and dull. They might have a beautiful melodic line, but then stick a big chord made up of whole notes behind it and call it a day. The result is music that is lifeless, boring, and feels like slogging through mud.
But music should be alive! It should have rhythm, motion, animation, and energy!
Here are a collection of techniques you can use to make your instrumental parts both more fun to play and more interesting to listen to.
The easiest way to give more life to a part is by simply adding more notes.
Here's the basic melody plus accompaniment that we'll use to demonstrate the different techniques:
A simple whole note part can easily be changed into a steady pulse:
All of a sudden you can feel the tempo, energy, and a sense of forward motion.
You can then start to get fancy with it by introducing rhythmic patterns, accents, etc. to give it a particular character:
In a section from John Williams' "Flight to Neverland" from the movie Hook, he gives the brass a quickly articulated repeated notes pattern in the background behind the melody.
The piece is about adventure, fun and excitement. Had he just assigned whole notes to the brass the energy of the whole piece would have been bogged down. Instead the repeated notes keep it alive and active.
A more subtle "repeated notes" method is tremolo. Although the individual notes are not each specifically felt, the blurring articulation gives the music much more energy and drive. This is a good technique to remember if you don't want to articulate a specific rhythm, but you are finding a simple whole note is lacking in meaning:
Similar to the tremolo is the unmeasured trill. You get a much richer chord than the simple tremolo because of the added notes, but of course you have to be mindful of the harmonic context and make sure you choose the right half step or whole step.
Because of the close intervals, trills often work better in the higher register, so in our example it might be best to put them above the melody instead of below.
Another simple method of bringing more life to your parts is to break your chord out into an arpeggio. You get the advantage of the articulated notes like we just saw above, but also can fill in more chord tones.
There are a thousand different ways arpeggios can be implemented, too.
You can keep the chord in close position:
Or in open position:
In the Prelude to Parsifal, Wagner uses both close position and open position arpeggios in the first violins. The advantage of a spread out chord on the violin is that each note can be played on a different string, whereas a close position chord needs multiple notes per string.
An arpeggio can be spread out by skipping tones. The advantage of this technique is that you can fill in a lot more time but still only spread out a narrow space:
You can spread an arpeggios out across multiple instruments:
There are also many ways you can play with articulation.
The arpeggio can be played legato:
Or a mix of the two:
When you think of scales you might remember boring and repetitive drills. But a basic scale can be an invaluable tool for making simple parts more interesting.
A scale can be used to fill in two chord tones, creating a more active and moving line:
Neighbor notes can be used to hover around a central tone, for example in a wave pattern:
And for background or foreground parts a quick run up a scale can add a sweep of energy as a pickup or filler:
Similar to the skipping tones technique we saw with arpeggios, you can do the same thing with scales to form larger and slightly more complex patterns:
The Power of Patterns
One of the reasons that repeated notes, arpeggios and scales work so well for background parts is that they are familiar patterns. As listeners we can easily recognize them as figures, as opposed to the more complex rhythms and movements of a melodic line that doesn't just walk up and down a scale.
But not only are those techniques familiar patterns in themselves (we've all heard C E G a million times), they are often most effective when they are used to construct larger patterns in the music.
When we hear a part that is an obvious pattern we're able to devote less attention to it ("Oh ok, it's the same little figure over and over"). We can then can spend more of our focus on the melody, or whatever other featured element there might be.
For example we very quickly feel like this is a pattern that could just keep on going forever:
And after a short time we don't need to invest a lot of energy into anticipating what might come next.
But this more complex idea requires more energy to listen to, and thus would not function nearly as well as a background part:
Wide leaps, a mix of leaps and steps, movement up and down, staccato and legato, etc. There's too much new information coming at us every moment. Simplicity is key if you want your part to be interesting but not distracting.
Of course there are plenty of exceptions. Sometimes whole notes and simple sustaining backgrounds are exactly what's called for.
For example, you might already have a very active accompaniment pattern, but need some way to fill in some missing chord tones or provide a glue to tie everything together.
And sometimes a lack of life and motion is desired. A lot of film music will use a long and drawn out drone to keep the music grounded in one place. It doesn't go anywhere, it just sits in a feeling of lifelessness.
The point isn't that sustaining background parts are inherently bad, it's that as with everything else they need to be used with purposeful intention.
In a piece where the energy is extremely low and the mood is dark, whole notes might be just right. But if you are intending your music to feel fast, exciting or energetic, boring whole note parts are just going to hold you back.
None of these techniques are particularly complex or difficult to understand, and that's part of the point. It takes just a small amount of effort to make your music more interesting, more animated, and more fun to listen to.
What do you think? Do you rely too often on whole notes and dull backgrounds? Or do you have other techniques for making parts more interesting? Share your thoughts in the comments!