Overplaying – the butter notes

Overplaying is like a sickness. Kind of like a chronic medical condition, actually. For some musicians, there is hope. Hope that the condition of overplaying doesn’t stay with them forever. For others though, it remains, killing every little chance for music to sprout out of their ill seeds. It stays in their everyday lives, like a bad diet. Okay, so I’ve painted a rather dark picture, and it probably sounds like exaggeration. Let’s just say that from a musical viewpoint, overplaying is pretty bad.

Overplaying – don’t play the butter notes

And what the heck are those butter notes? Well, that’s the question Herbie Hancock asked, too. In the interview below (4:50), Herbie was asked what was the best thing Miles David ever said to him. He replied that Miles told him once, in his whispery voice “don’t play the butter notes!”.

Let me tell you, Herbie was just as puzzled as you are now. At that time, he was depressed about reaching a plateau with his music, unable to take it to a new, more interesting level. He didn’t understand what Miles was saying at first, but the trumpeter said it must mean something, just try to figure it out. So Herbie did. Butter = fat. Fat = excess. Excess = overplaying. Let’s try to leave the notes out of the chords. Notes that would make them sound really obvious. It’s a way of vertical simplification, that can effectively prevent overplaying in a chordal way. But Herbie didn’t stop there. From then on, whenever he took a solo, he tried to leave out those notes as well. The ones that would give away the tonality of his lines in the most obvious way. And it worked. Herbie got his biggest applause in a while.

Overplaying – don’t play the butter notes

overplayingWhat’s the message of that story regarding overplaying? It’s that you should stop clinging to notes. Showing your technique off with playing as many of them as you can will weaken the energy of your music. Placing too many notes in your chords will cut back on their expressive power. The human brain can perceive only so much before it starts losing track. It means that there’s a limit to perception. Just like there’s a limit to expression as well. If you play notes that you really meant to play, your music will be in perfect balance. If you play the notes your fingers learned without further control, you will sound boring. Notes are not music. Just like silence is not music either. It’s the combination of both. The yin and yang of the two, if you will. But what matters the most is not that you should keep some sort of mathematical balance between notes and silence to fight overplaying. It’s more about the honesty in your notes and your silence gaps. As Herbie said, “purity”. Or we can just say “taste”.

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