View Full Version : Block-Writing-vs-contrary-motion

Frank D
11-08-2012, 01:42 PM
EDIT-11-20-12: Here's a link to a new jazz arrangement just posted that uses 'block' voicings as discussed below ... Tadd Dameron's "Lady Bird" (http://www.northernsounds.com/forum/showthread.php/92554-For-Snor-Tadd-Dameron’s-“Lady-Bird”-Arranged-for-Euphonium-w-Sax-amp-Rhythm-Sections)

Hello Friends ...

I noticed this posting a few weeks ago while checking some info for my Christmas arrangement. The 1st-time posting Tim ("tbuechse") was over in the "Jazz Arranging Online - Prof. Chuck Israels" section and I thought it was a very good subject that may have some interest with others. I've taken the liberty to re-post it here in "General Discussion" where many more members will see it. I'll offer my comments in a separate response.

Have at it!


Tim's original posting ...

Block Writing vs contrary motion

Dear Musicians and Writers,

how would you see the function of block writing in traditional Jazz, when it comes to the typical parallel motion of four or more voices of close position voicings in a section.

Classical 4 Part writing like Bach´s chorales etc. tend to use contrary motion etc.
What is the basic idea of parallel harmonization of the melody line, where does it come from, why has it developed like this?

Are there any classical parallels

What´d you think?

Thank you
Best regards

Frank D
11-08-2012, 01:44 PM
Hi Tim,

Since I use quite a bit of block writing in my jazz arrangements, I'll take a stab at your great question.

For those not familiar with the term, block voicings define voicings where all of the voices move in the same direction and rhythm as the lead voice. If the lead line goes up, so do all the other voices, etc.

Note that although the same intervallic relationship can also remain constant with the lead line (exact parallelism), it more often doesn't. Block voicings are also generally close-position voicings (four separate pitches within an octave), voiced down from the lead voice. Since they are close-position and follow the contour of the lead line, there's a constant struggle to provide strong voice leading in the lower/inner voices. It's just not always possible but we always strive, when possible, to do so.

Composer-Arranger Bill Russo coined the term "Thickened Line" for block voicings ... and his definition truly nails the essence of block voicings, and for jazz, why they can be so effective. Because the voicings are generally compressed and move in the same contour as the lead line, think of these voicings as a harmonically-thickened version of the melody/lead line. This is their strength: They present a very defined and colorful presentation of the melody. They are extremely effective at any tempo, but at medium-to-fast tempos, they really excel. They are MEAN and LEAN!!

In jazz, the ability of a group of instruments (either within a family (reeds, trumpets, 'bones), or in mixed combinations) to play and phrase together is critical. Articulations are everything. Intensities and dynamic contours are everything. For a lot of jazz, the ability to swing the line is probably the single most important quality. When everyone presenting a particular line is moving in the same direction (contour) and at the same rhythm as the lead line, the chances for success are much greater. The phrasing of the line becomes much more natural.

Where does this come from? I would say the earliest written jazz arrangements (Don Redman, then later, Fletcher Henderson) were merging the improviser's art with piano transcriptions. But that ability to phrase alike had to be at the core of early block voicings. As far as classical parallels, I'll leave that to some of our more classically-oriented writers.

Just a few points on block writing.

1. - These are simplified comments ... like any compositional/arranging technique, it can get much more detailed!

2. - Block voicings can (and often are) opened up. This helps with potential range problems in the lower voices, and also creates a slightly mellower (albeit slightly less mobile) sound. They're created by taking a voice from the close-position voicing and dropping it down an octave ("drop-2" takes the voice under the lead (the 2nd voice down) and lowers it 8vb. There's also "drop-2/drop-4", and also "drop-3".) Russo also colorfully labels these voicings as "Widened Line". Remember: The wider the spread of the voicings, the less mobile they become.

3. - Block voicings can also double the lead 8vb, further defining the "thickened/widened line". The classic George Shearing sound was George playing 4-part close/doubled lead block chords on piano, with the top piano note doubled with vibes, and the lower (the doubled lead 8vb) melody note doubled with guitar. Love that sound! It's dated but so am I!

4. - Writers vary voicings within a phrase. You can "mix and match" various flavors of thickened/widened line to accommodate the contour (and register) of the lead line. If the line goes high, you may need to open the voicing up so the lower instruments aren't blowing their brains out!

5. - The biggest difference with chorale voicings (in jazz, often referred to as spread voicings), is that they are built from the root up and have the vertical room to use contrary motion, proper voice leading, etc. Even the "widened line" voicings are always built from the top down, and if the root is present, it may not be at the bottom.

6. - The classic example of block writing is Jimmy Giuffre's "Four Brothers" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hK_9otl3sZ0) ... written for Woody Herman's jazz band in the late '40's. The line-up is for three tenor saxes (including a very young Stan Getz!) and a baritone sax. There's a gazillion versions on YouTube!

If anyone else has an interest in this, please comment!!


EDIT: Added "Four Brothers" link.

11-09-2012, 05:47 PM
I like me piano chord-style block writing and me vocalistic contrary motion writing both. :p

How's That for an in-depth response? hehe--- Excellent post, Frank. Sure glad you have power back so you can light up the Forum again.


Frank D
11-20-2012, 03:27 PM
I like me piano chord-style block writing and me vocalistic contrary motion writing both. :p

How's That for an in-depth response? hehe--- Excellent post, Frank. Sure glad you have power back so you can light up the Forum again.


Hey Randy,

Thanks for giving this topic a read. I thought it may have been interesting to more members, but I guess it's relevant mostly to musicians such as ourselves, who deal in music across a fairly large range of genres (with block writing being used mostly in jazz and pop writing).

As far as your response? I agree 1,000%! Block writing is just another tool in the arranger's toolkit! Love to mix it up.

Thanks for your input, and yes, it's great to be 'back-on-the-block'!