Monday, December 06, 2021

Feel and style

Just a brief discussion of the musical terms feel and style. In normal professional musician usage they are often interchangeable, referring to the type of accompaniment to be played by the rhythm section. What kind of a feel do you want on this? What's the style? Swing, Bossa, Funk, Ballad, Calypso, etc. 

Possibly feel is more immediate to actually playing music, style may be more common in general conversation. Or not. That's my impression, different people/communities talk differently. Often terms are never explicitly defined, you just learn them in the field, in the course of lessons, playing, hanging, and rehearsing. 

We also say feel to mean playing in a way suggestive of a meter different from what is written. We may play a half time feel on a tune that is a fast 4/4. Or a double time feel on a slow 4/4. Or a 12/8 feel on a 4/4 ballad.  

In internet drumming conversation feel usually refers to the idea of having some kind of personal groove, a personal “feel.” “I need to work on my feel.” “My playing lacks feel.” I almost never hear professionals use the word that way— maybe in casual conversation, very broadly. 

That amateur usage is nice and non-specific— it's mysterious, so there's no way to be wrong, and you can talk about it forever. And it excuses lack of success, like, I just ain't got it. Usually what will improve a player's so-called feel is to fix their dynamics, time, and accuracy. And listen better, and play better stuff— all the things professionals spend their time thinking about. 

There's a common amateur usage of style is closely related to that— they'll talk about “my style”, meaning “the few things I know how to play, and like to play.”

That's similar to style in terms of being a stylist— not usually a desirable thing for players. It means you do your one thing and that's it. The focus is on creating a style and that's the product. Listen to any rock singer— Sting always does his Sting thing, no matter what he's singing. Watch the old We Are The World video from the 80s— all of those rock guys put their whole personal thing into the four words they get to sing. Billie Holliday is a pretty quintessential stylist as well. 

I don't know how a supporting player even does that, it's more a thing of front line performers— vocalists and some horn players. A telling exchange in an Elvin Jones clinic in Portland— he's normally thought of as being a very high-style player, right?— was when he was asked about developing “his style”, and he was skeptical that he had a style. I had to think for a long time about what's he doing then? 

Elvin has a particular voice, but it's a by-product of doing the real job, which is to build a piece of music with other musicians. It's not something you contrive. 

Among musicians, style is also used more broadly, relating to genre— a set of stylistic features and ways of writing, playing, and arranging that define a genre.

It's good to try to lose those amateur definitions— they just lead to fuzzy thinking about all the wrong things. 

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