Music Theory: Tune Lengths, Part Three

November 27, 2018

This is the third post in a series of posts about tune lengths. Our first post of the series explained why jazz songs* should be kept to 3-4 minutes, including improvisation. The second post included formulas for calculating the length of a song. If you did not read these articles or have not done so yet, do so, because these are the background for today's post. Even if you did read them, it will not be a mistake to review them, especially the second one, so that you can fully understand this post.

 

Now, let's get into this article. We're going to build a song step by step, and construct everything within the 3-4 minute time-frame.

 

We're going to begin with a medium-tempo song - we'll say, according to our mathematical principles and formulas we used in our second post in the series, that a song played at 128 beats per minute with 32 measures per chorus (AABA format) will have choruses a minute long each. That brings us to 4 minutes, and if we add an ending, we're over our 4-minute limit. We'll solve this "problem", however, and the upcoming diagrams will show how we do it.

 

So, here's our format for one chorus of an AABA format song. (Remember, the A's are 8 measures in length each, and each one is similar in structure. The B is also 8 measures in length, but its harmonic structure is different from the A's. In other words, each letter in the following diagrams represents 8 measures.):

 

A A B A

 

And here's our format for two choruses. Choruses will be separated by vertical lines:

 

A A B A | A A B A

 

So that's two choruses so far, or 2 minutes. Now we will add a third chorus:

 

A A B A | A A B A | A A B A

 

Predictable so far. Now watch this last chorus that we're adding to the song:

 

A A B A | A A B A | A A B A | B A

 

So, the first chorus is the tune. We play that. Then the second chorus is improvisation (e.g. that's where someone gets a one-minute solo), and the second chorus is another improvised solo, and then that last chorus, instead of going to two A sections and then a B section, just goes straight to the B section of the tune. This saves 16 measures, or half a minute. So our total number of measures is 112, and according to the formulas we're using, that gives us 30 extra seconds for an ending or whatever we want to do, and we will end with a total song length of 4 minutes. Makes sense so far?

 

So, now, we have to decide who solos when. We'll use color-coding on the diagram to make this easy to understand.

 

Red = tune at the beginning

Purple = final half of the tune at the end

Blue = solos (improvisation)

 

A A B A | A A B A | A A B A | B A

 

This makes it look simple. It gives us 2 full choruses for improvisation. Now we have to allocate them in a way that musicians might not like, but is best for those listening and is better than no opportunity to solo at all.

 

We'll begin with the trio setting. There's a pianist (primary soloist), bassist, and drummer. The bassist and drummer are primarily there to provide rhythmic support (and, in the case of the bass, some musical support) for the pianist to do what he chooses.

 

The pianist plays the tune, and then he continues to play the following format:

 

Red = tune at the beginning (played by pianist)

Purple = final half of the tune at the end (played by pianist)

Blue = piano solo

Green = bass solo

Gray = drum solo

 

A A B A | A A B A | A A B A | B A

 

I know this doesn't give out as much solo time as many musicians would want or expect, but we can make up for this by playing more songs later. And honestly, one minute is enough time for most pianists to improvise and have many ideas, especially at this tempo. Then we'll go to the bass solo, which is 16 measures, again plenty of time unless the bassist is known for his/her solos. Finally, the drum solo is 16 measures, and again this should be enough time. Then the last half of the tune is played by the pianist and the song ends. Both the audience and the musicians, in an ideal world, would be satisfied by this type of song layout.

 

If you have a quintet, you won't need to give the bassists and drummers solos on most tunes and you have two new instrumentalists, so there is a different layout for a quintet:

 

Red = tune at the beginning (played by saxophone and/or trumpet)

Purple = final half of the tune at the end (played by saxophone and/or trumpet)

Blue = saxophone solo

Green = trumpet solo

 

A A B A | A A B A | A A B A | B A

 

The pianist doesn't get a solo this time, but we can make up for that on another song by sacrificing the trumpet solo or the saxophone solo. Or we can do the following:

 

We try a faster song, with the same structure, but instead 256 beats per minute, so it's up-tempo (and still 32 measures - some faster tunes have twice as many measures to make up for their speed, and this song won't for the purposes of this post and an upcoming one). So, going back to the older post where established (badly**) how song lengths in minutes and beats are related, we established (actually, should have established) the following principle:

 

A song's total length (in minutes) and its total length in beats are directly related if the tempo is constant. For example, if a song's total length is 128 beats, we can assume that if a song is 1 minute long, the tempo must be 128 beats per minute.

 

We will modify this principle and get the following:

 

A song's tempo and its total length in beats are directly related if the song's total length (in minutes) is constant. For example, if a song's total length is 128 beats, we can assume that if a song is 1 minute long, the tempo must be 128 beats per minute.

 

We will continue this in a future post - at least, that's the plan.

 

WILL BE CONTINUED

 

* In this post, song is used for the whole piece of music and tune is used for just the first chorus.

 

** Note: in our previous post in this series, our initial example was incorrect. We said the following (the word in bold is incorrect),

 

A song's tempo and its total length in beats are directly related if the song's total length (in minutes) is constant. For example, if a song's total length is 128 beats, we can assume that if a chorus is 1 minute long, the tempo must be 128 beats per minute.

 

The statement that includes the phrase in bold is non sequitur, since the length of a chorus has nothing to do with the total length of the song. There is a reason for the mistake, but still we were not justified in making it. We apologize for anyone who was misled by the mistake. To correct it, we have replaced the word "chorus" with "song" and done so in this post.

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