Few concepts can raise the level of your playing more than an understanding of note grouping. And few concepts are more difficult to convey in writing. But I hope this short article will stimulate your interest in this intriguing subject.
Note grouping is a way of giving meaning to notes by accenting some and deemphasizing others. This idea has a long history. Baroque musicians sometimes talked about “good” and “bad” notes—the idea being that some notes should be given more weight than others. Think of it like this. Consider the following sentence:
“What do you want?”
A simple question of only four words. But now consider the different shades of meaning you can get by emphasizing different words:
“WHAT do you want?”
“What DO you want?”
“What do YOU want?”
“What do you WANT?”
“WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
The words themselves are unchanged, yet each new inflection changes the meaning of the sentence. In fact, inflection alone can radically change the meaning:
“What? Do you want?”
While the analogy between language and music isn’t precise, it does tell us a bit about how a musical passage can change its meaning through how it’s inflected. Take, for example, this passage:
On the page, this is nothing more than a string of undifferentiated notes, and a literally minded player would perform them that way. But an imaginative player might do something more interesting:
This is an example of what musicians call “upbeat grouping.” In upbeat grouping, the last beat of one measure is accented so that it sounds like it’s driving toward the first beat of the next measure. How is this done? The textbook definition of note grouping typically says the accenting is done by slightly altering the timing of certain notes. Here’s a visual representation:
But note grouping also can be conveyed through dynamics, vibrato, tone color—indeed, through any means or combination of means a player wants to employ. To hear samples of upbeat grouping, click here.
Now let’s hear upbeat grouping applied to a melody. To hear it, click here.
For my taste, not enough guitarists pay sufficient attention to note grouping. Some guitarists apparently play for years without really considering which notes should be connected and which should be detached. The reason becomes clear when you realize that, for guitarists, breathing isn’t something we need to worry about while playing. Oboe players, on the other hand, must constantly control their breathing. For them, knowing where to put a breath is a vital part of their musicianship—a breath in the wrong place can make the music sound disjointed. In fact, I would recommend that all guitarists who aspire to better musicianship should listen to good oboe players. Working with a good singer is another good idea. English guitar virtuoso Julian Bream said that only after working with tenor Peter Pears did he really understand phrasing.
Of course, there’s far more to this subject than just upbeat grouping. But my goal in this short article is to draw attention to how note grouping can energize a musical performance. As you apply this in your own playing, always remember that note grouping is about nuance. Done correctly, listeners should be aware that something is going on, but without quite knowing how it’s done. If listeners can hear the effort behind note grouping, then it’s being overdone. Also, there’s no formula for deciding where and how much note grouping to use. Different players can take this same concept and come up with entirely different performances. As in other aspects of musical interpretation, everything is influenced by the skill, taste, and imagination of the player.
To hear note grouping in a performance of a Schubert Ländler, click here.
James Morgan Thurmond: Note Grouping—A Method for Achieving Expression and Style in Musical Performance, Meredith Music Publications, 1982, ISBN:0942782003