Playing music for contra dances

Music, and then contra dance music.


Here’s some chill music to listen to. I’m using the fourth-separated chords that I talked about in my last post, as well as the other color tones that I mentioned. (Dissertation regarding contra dance music is below the video.)


Now, let’s talk about contra dancing.

For a contra dance evening, there’s various elements that contribute to it being good or bad. I’ll call these elements pluses and minuses, because I think of the end result as sort of an additive effect. For example, if the band is mediocre but the caller is good—or vice versa—the dance ends up being decent. One minus doesn’t spoil the evening, and a plus can counteract a minus. It’s also obvious that the dance experience is affected separately by the caller’s contributions (dance choice and the calling itself) and the band’s contributions (tune choice and the music itself). They each have their own pluses and minuses.

As far as the caller—if they give an incorrect call, teach something wrong, or choose a dance that’s harder than what the dancers are prepared for, then then that’s a minus. But if they give the right calls at the right times, teach what the dancers need to learn, and program appropriate dances, then that’s a plus. There’s definitely more to this aspect, but I don’t know enough about calling to be able to discuss this part further.

Since I’m the one in the band, I have a lot more I can say about the music than about the calling. The goal of the perfect contra dance band is to make the dancing as fun as possible. To do this, they need to give the dancers support, to make the dance feel easier, which helps to offset issues like the dance being too difficult for the crowd—and they also need to make the music exciting, which elevates the overall dance experience.

First, support. Support from the band comes from musical stability, clarity, and ease. If it’s unclear where the beat is or if it’s unclear which part is which, that’s a minus; a strong rhythm and distinct A and B parts are pluses. If the band plays at an inappropriate tempo, then that’s a minus; if they play at a good tempo, that’s a plus. If the band plays a crooked tune or a tune with confusing phrasing, then that’s a minus; a straight tune and intuitive phrasing are pluses. A more subtle example of support is playing the tune in a way that matches up with the dance—this could involve a smooth phrase during a hey, a bouncy, rhythmic melody during a balance or a long-lines-forward-and-back, or a decisive finish to a phrase at the end of a short swing.

Second, excitement. Excitement within a dance is induced through musical variety. I’ll separate musical variety into three types: harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic. Harmonic variety involves the chords that the musicians play; melodic variety involves the melodies that they play, and rhythmic variety involves the rhythm of either the lead or the backup.

Tune choice is important because it can affect, to some extent, how much musical variety the dance will have. Tunes that have energetic chord sequences (for example, ones with ascending bass lines like [A Bm C#m D]) or A and B parts in different keys add some excitement. Melodies that span multiple octaves add excitement. Tunes that have different rhythms in the A and B parts also add excitement.

If a band chooses to play a medley, there’s musical variety during the switch between tunes because of the new harmonies, melodies, and rhythms, so that helps add excitement. There’s also more excitement in the switch if the harmonies, melodies, or rhythms are much different, like if the switch involves a key change (harmonic variety), if the melody is vastly different (melodic variety), or if the band goes from a jig to a reel or vice versa (rhythmic variety).

Musical variety can also be achieved through tune execution. Harmonic variety would be when the musicians change up the chords for a certain part of the tune. This generally adds some excitement, but it’s rather difficult to use more than occasionally. Melodic variety is when the melody player just goes for a different melody, maybe playing one of the parts in a different octave or executing an ending tag in a different way. This can temporarily add or subtract energy, depending on how it’s done—both of which are good because they build excitement. And then there’s rhythmic variety—for example, playing long notes throughout a part one time through, then playing them short and choppy the next time. The rhythm players can also accentuate the backup in different ways, or even drop out temporarily. All of those things add excitement.

I’ll separate contra dance evenings into two categories: local dances and then dance weekends. A local dance is not held to the same standard that a dance weekend is. This applies both to the caller and the band, but I’ll focus on the band here. Specifically, I would say this: At a local dance, people are content if the band provides a decent amount of support, but they do not expect any excitement from the band. At a dance weekend, the expectation is that the band will provide both good support and excitement.

Bullet list summary thing:

  • Musical elements that affect the contra dance experience
    • Support: making it easier for the dancers to dance
      • Rhythmic stability, phrasal clarity
      • Tempo
      • Tune choice
      • Tune execution
    • Excitement through musical variety: harmonic, melodic, rhythmic
      • Tune choice
        • Medleys
      • Tune execution
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