moves pattern notation

Notating exercises for improvisers

The first problem


Moves notation

We always start with your note. Each time you pick up your instrument is an opportunity to seize a note out of thin air, by singing it or imagining it, and then finding it on your horn.

Writing =0 for your note, we can write going up a halfstep like so:

=0 +1

And going down a step like so:

=0 -1

You soon get used to 12 meaning an octave and 8 meaning a minor sixth. The great thing is that these numbers add up like normal numbers, unlike standard interval names (two thirds make a fifth ??!!??). Moves notation need not be restricted to counting halfsteps. Slightly adapted, it can be used to count scale degrees too, if you play an instrument such as Scottish bagpipes. Hybrid chromatic and scale notations can also be devised, though a moment arrives when you will want a computer to read them. 


The basic unit of musical time is a quarter note or a count of one. A movesign represents one quarter note and can be extended by an additional sign > for each count.

To subdivide into eighth notes we can use underline, and double underline for sixteenth notes etc. To extend by an eighth note we use >. Simple, eh?

designing exercises

The idea is to make exercises which take you through all the houses, especially on key-biased instruments. The knowledge you gain on wholetone panpipes, for example, can thus be transferred to saxophone or trumpet.

First you get your idea, maybe from a fragment of popular song:

=0  +1  +1 +1  -3 -1  -1 >

sen-ding me a  Va- len-tine

In this example you have ended on a note a wholestep lower than the one you started on. (You can verify this by adding up the numbers in the phrase, total -2).

Now hanging on to the last note and use it as the launchpad to repeat the same moves. The wiggly brackets tell us to repeat the move sequence

{=0  +1  +1 +1  -3 -1  -1 >}

sen-ding me a  Va- len-tine.

We're not quite there yet, because the =0 sign tells us to repeat the move we ended on. This repeat can be avoided if we abridge the exercise so it becomes:

{-1  +1  +1 +1  -3 -1  >}

Note that you are no longer starting on =0. The -1 move at the beginning (the chaining move) can be ignored the first time round.

This game of looping is one of the most important tools in breaking free of the old key- and scale-bound improvisational styles. Looping the melody means using the last note of the melody as the starting point for repeating the same melody in a new pitch. Adding up the moves (respecting the plus or minus signs) between the wiggly brackets tells us by how many semitones the loop transposes at each pass, up or down. The above exercise has a loopsum of -2, telling us it descends a whole tone at each pass. The fact that this is an even number tells us that it will only visit half the houses. If we want to visit them all we will need to choose two starting points a halfstep apart to ensure coverage.

new terms for new ideas

This word groups together old style scales and arpeggios, and means any stack of intervals with any span. A major scale looks like this {2212221} with the wiggly brackets telling us that it stacks on top of itself. The choice of starting point is subject only to practical considerations and in no way implies hierarchical features such as tonicity.

chaining move
Or topMove if you prefer. The first move in a loop. What to do with the first move of a loop if it happens to be +4? From which note are we to rise by a major third? The solution is to sing/play your note the first time round. Chaining move is also the one you change in order to adjust the transposition.

A keyshift or transposition. A phrase can go through twelve houses, which are the moves equivalent of keys. The difference is that they are known by their (move) relationship to each other, rather than having a name each based on a tonal centre. Houses have no associated key sig or basic scale.

A set of moves within looping (wiggly) brackets, which signify that the moves are to be repeated. E.g.{+1} makes a chromatic ascending scale. (Based on the short scale {1})

The sum of the moves in a loop.

mirror move
A device to stay within the compass of the instrument by octave shift. The following loop visits all the houses and has a loopsum of -7:

{-1 -9 +5 +4 -2 -3 -3 +8 -2 -8 +5 +3 -2 -3 -3 +8} (add it up and check it out)

trouble is it won't work as an exercise because it goes down by a fifth each time round, and we risk falling off the bottom of the instrument. So we make a mirror move by substituting a +3 for that -9, or a +4 for that -8.

A number indicating how many semitones preceded by a sign + or - telling us up or down. F'rinstance +5 means go up a fourth, -12 means go down an octave, while the graph =0 means repeat the last note.

short scales
Moves notation gives us a handy notation for those scales some call "symmetric", or "synthetic", or "modes of limited transposition", at the same time as enlarging the family to include those that don't necessarily stack inside a whole octave. Thus the chromatic scale becomes {1}, the whole tone scale becomes {2}, diminished {2 1}, augmented {3 1}. The difference between a short scale and a loop is that the wiggly brackets here mean "keep stacking this packet of intervals on top of itself".

That's easy. The total of intervals in an array. The span of {2212221} is 12. Compare with loopsum.

Shortcut to Improvising Fluency
Improvisation method written for whole tone instruments, and surprisingly good for all melody instruments. Great for classroom use! Get your kindle version here!

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