Musical ambiguity – your secret weapon

Musical ambiguity is the stuff that can spice up your music. Once you get to a point when everything else sounds boring. Because it’s easy to get excited when you’re still young. And flexible. Etc. And, well, early on you’re still basically a limp sponge waiting to be filled with all kinds of shit. Yes, even music. But later on, you’ll need something more. The ever elusive “more”, that brings excitement back into your miserable musical life.

The accents tell a story

musical ambiguityWell they don’t really do, but it sounded cool for a title. Anyway. One way to create interesting music is to come up with ambiguous rhythm (yes, I typed it without help). It’s really all about the grouping of the notes, and the way you use accents. I could list a lot of classical music I’ve looked up in Google, but I’m not going to. Hehe. However, let’s just check out the intro of “Limelight” by Rush, and you’ll immediately know what I’m preaching about. If you start music without accompaniment, the brain will start counting and organizing everything from the first note. Once another element appears, like the drums – a strong rhythmic element – in our above example, it puts the whole thing into a rhythmical frame. One that’s different from what the guitar track alone suggests.
But check out West African kora music as well, for all kinds of polyrhythmic confusion.

Harmonic confusion

That’s the 2nd stage of our ambiguity trip. Whatever music you play suggests a certain kind of tonality. But this tonality might only gets highlighted as the music – the context – develops. For example, if you play a single Dsus2 chord, you can call it minor and major, too. Once you put a melody on top with the F note in it, the minor nature will be highlighted. Until you start playing F sharps. Then it’s suddenly in major. But you don’t even have to play chords for this to be effective. Single melody lines are probably the best way to create ambiguous harmonic environment. Check out just Jimmy Giuffre’s Free Fall album, for example. If you don’t turn it off after the first couple of seconds, you might be able to get a lot of different tonalities out of it. It’s proudly wearing the “not for the faint hearted” label.

What about pitch?

Yeah, what about it? Sure, you can create ambiguous stuff with the meter or the harmonies, but can you create it with the pitches alone? Yes, you can. And I’m not talking about the above situation when you create a harmonic environment with the notes you play. It’s really about the sensation you get from listening to the pitches. For example, there’s microtonality. If you hear a siren (the alarm kind), with its constantly changing pitch going up and down, what pitch are you really hearing? See? That’s what I’m talking about. There’s also the trick of playing around with the overtones; basically an EQ filtering trick.
Instead of trying to decipher the words of what I would be struggling to describe, check out this example:

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