10 Ways To Use Silence In Your Songs

My brother-in-law, Steve Shelander, shot these night sky photos. He is quite the astronomer!
The silence of space inspires my imagination. My astronomer brother-in-law, Steve Shelander, shot these night sky photos. These galaxies are in the constellation Hercules, a scant 470 million light years distant. More or less.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but silence is quite possibly the most important part of our songs.

Silence? Not playing the right notes at the right time?


Not using dynamics, tempo, and all the other artistic tools on our workbench? Silence? Really?


We may think silence is a bad thing, like when a musician forgets what comes next, furrows his or her brow and stops playing. We know they’ve blown it big time.

Or we may look at silence as the holy grail our parents tried to get us to adopt. (”Be QUIET!” -remember those wonderful moments from your childhood?)

But the intentional use of silence in our music is good. In fact, it is necessary. And cool.

Reportedly, the world-renowned concert pianist Artur Schnabel, once made the statement (quoted in many places): “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes, ah, that is where the art resides.”

(I found this again on brainyquote.com, but I’ve heard about the quote for many, many years. Not sure when he said it, but it nevertheless has the ring of truth in it! Great quote.)

Types of Silence

We should start with an understanding that silence is not always exactly, well, silent. There are several kinds of silence. And each has its place in our arsenal. So what kinds of silence are we talking about?

M51 is one of Steve's favorites. It's called a "globular cluster", also within the constellation Hercules.
M51 is one of Steve’s favorites. It’s called a “globular cluster” within the constellation Hercules.

I think of silence in three primary categories:

  • Rhythmic silence happens when a player doesn’t play for a moment but the music is still going on. This is always useful, whether you’re counting rests in the music or playing short, detached notes (staccato, spiccato, pizzicato).
  • Natural silence happens when you’re sitting in the doctor’s waiting room and the background music has stopped, or when you’re sitting in the audience when the lights dim, and you’re waiting for the Concert Master to walk out onto the stage. (Maybe when a tree falls in the forest with no one around to hear it. Jury’s still out on that one…)
  • Utter silence is to be found in the vacuum of outer space. It takes some work for us to really experience utter silence here.

The Ten Ways

And so, thinking about silence in these three ways, here are ten ways to take advantage of intentional silence in your own songs.

  1. Punctuating rhythms. Rests, particularly shorter ones, are inherently part of rhythm. They are to be found within phrases as well as at the end of phrases and should be counted just as deliberately as the notes themselves.
  2. Longer silences between phrases you play will help your music breathe. Just as sung lyrics may invite you to take a breath at the end of each line, leaving space between your instrumental phrases really helps you to shape and group your phrases. It also helps the listener to stay with you.
  3. Breathe between movements. When you finish a major section of the larger work, let silence help you take a breath, don’t rush it. Then start fresh into the next movement or section.
  4. Use silence as a surprise, like building up to a chorus and unexpectedly silencing everything on beat 4 before you crash into the downbeat of the chorus. Really fun, makes the band sound tight!
  5. Build anticipation through a longer period of silence. Particularly in a ballad or slower song, if you hold onto a moment of silence for just a little longer than expected, it can really add to the drama of the song.
  6. Use momentary silence to regroup after a long held chord. When you hold a chord or sing a long syllable as the music comes to a halt, take just a quick moment to be silent before you restart. Might only be a literal second. But an artfully placed moment of silence will make your song sound unhurried and relatable.
  7. Silence is your starting point before you play. The air is, to varying degrees, silent just before you begin. Even if you’re playing in a club, the disorganized sound of conversations and incidental noises in the room are the counterpoint to what you’re about to play. Use it to prepare yourself, expect the listener to be preparing themselves, anticipating something great. (Then it’s up to you to not let them down. Just sayin’.)
  8. Repeating periods of silence can add to a general pulsation of the music that feels like an unstoppable forward movement, like you’re in your kayak on the river, gradually getting closer to the rapids. As silences get shorter and shorter in a repeated fashion, the tension will build.
  9. Utter silence for a beat or a measure can make the listener feel like they are in a vacuum, with a complete absence of sound. It is unnatural and disconcerting. Utter silence can make you feel deprived, like something normal is missing. You long for the next sound to take away the discomfort. I’ve heard this used effectively on pop recordings, but it’s never used for very long. It can be a painful moment, followed by relief when the music comes back in.
  10. Explore silence as an experiment. John Cage always seems to enter the conversation about silence because he famously performed a piece in 1952 that he entitled, 4’33” (”Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds”). No instruments were to play, the whole point was to discover the ambient sounds in the room. Silence, in his view (and mine) is not really silent.

How do you use silence in your own music? Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, music theory, and next-step musicianship to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case

Tuning Your Guitar Has Just Gotten Easier

andrew's gibson min-etune les paul demo_Snapshot (3)So Andrew walks into my studio for his guitar lesson, sits down and pulls out his electric guitar.

A shiny new Gibson Les Paul Min-ETune.

I’m not sure what to think. Looks nice. But what’s up with the name? Oh, I get it, it tunes itself. Sure.

Now I am often an old school kind of guy, not fond of short-cuts or technologies that replace the need for self-improvement. Although there are exceptions, I’ll admit. Like my Snark tuner. Or my peg winder. Or my Shazam app on my phone. Or my digital metronome that allows you to turn down the volume so you don’t have to hear the click, you can just watch the moving needle while you play.

Okay, maybe I’m not as old school as I’d like to think.

My student Andrew and his new Gibson
My student Andrew and his new Gibson

Andrew’s guitar is a nice piece of work, any way you look at it. Hey, it’s a Les Paul. He let’s me take it for a spin. Plays nice, feels good. A decent representation of the typical Les Paul quality.

But when I turn it over to look at the back of the head-stock, I now see the magic behind the curtain. A small box is neatly hidden between the tuners, complete with indicator lights telling me which tuning is now in effect.

“So I can just push a button, and it will re-tune the whole guitar for me?”


Apparently this technology has been around for 6 or 7 years, and because I diligently keep up to date on cutting edge musical trends and toys, I’m coming up to speed on this one now.

Handing his guitar back to him, Andrew demonstrated for me. Take a look.

Andrew’s Gibson

The robotic tuning system really does a n ice job, even with significantly different tunings. It will adjust, then readjust the tension on all the strings, anticipating the tension on each string and how it affects the others. Given the amount of stress on the neck overall, each string’s tweak can and will throw all the others off. But it knew that and compensated.

This tuning system will go from standard tuning to DADGAD and back in a matter of seconds. And I found as I played it, the tuning was either perfect, or really close. If you want to see it in action, check out this video clip. The guitarist uses the tuning function in the middle of a song – he doesn’t play for 4 measures, then comes in powerfully in a different tuning. This opens up lots of new possibilities!

The creator of this system, Tronical, has now created after-market systems for several other makes that got my attention, including Fender (for Stratocasters and Telecasters), Ibanez and even Taylor acoustics. Hmm…

I doubt that I will install an E-Tune system any time soon. But it is a fun development that will, I’m sure, catch on. Now if we could invent robotic picks that never missed a string, we’d really have something.

What’s the coolest piece of technology that has helped you play your own music? You can leave a comment below, or email any questions you may have about music theory, playing the guitar, or next-step musicianship to [email protected]

© 2014 Steve Case


Planning For Change In Life And In Music

Green Lakes State Park
I like change, I look forward to life changing. To new opportunities, new adventures. I grow through the experience of my life constantly colliding with change. Yea, change!

But I also hate change. Fond memories of people and places now relegated to the past when I thought they would be doorways into the future. Losing people I care about because their life changed, too, and now geography, vocation, interests take new trajectories.

I like change when it happens at a pace I can readily absorb and adapt to. When my morning coffee cools just enough, or when most of the colorful leaves are still on the trees in mid-October. I know they’ll fall, but I’m happy to have them take their time this year.

I hate change when it is thrust upon me without my permission, like my ice cream cone melting too fast, or walking into the boss’ office with my job intact one minute, and an hour later, walking out without one.

I like changes in music, because I am easily bored. The refreshment that comes from a new sound, an unusual rhythm, a clever lyric all breathe life into my passion for it.

I hate changes in music when I don’t emotionally agree with them. When the artist seems to have changed something I looked forward to, even emotionally depended on, just so they could do it differently, putting their own stamp of artistry on it.

When it comes down to it, I like change when it results from my exercising free will, when it’s my idea. I hate change when it results from someone else exercising theirs and it doesn’t fit with mine.

Change is inevitable, yet change itself changes. It will happen in all areas of life and takes many forms. And just when you get used the idea of one facet of life changing, get ready to duck for cover. Another change is on its heels.

So how should I navigate the turbulence of change?

With a plan.

Learning To Plan Out The Changes

I was challenged back in my Army Band days by my good friend, Don. He was a kind of spark plug in my life, coming up with crazy ideas, smiling and laughing. He would bring a lighter side of me out, and it was a good thing. He could also scream on his trumpet.

It was 1979, and we were in our jazz band rehearsal for some concert or tour. We starting playing a blues piece, and somehow it came up that Don thought he could write a better one than that. The conversation quickly deteriorated to the point where Don challenged me to write a jazz band piece myself.

Not to let the gauntlet lie on the ground unattended, I picked it up.

from page 1 of my score
from page 1 of my score

For the next couple of weeks, I wrote and wrote. I remember pulling at least one all-nighter.

But what came out was cool.

I had never written anything as ambitious as this before, a 4-minute barn-burner that sang, that grooved, that gave Donny a chance to scream up high again. I had a riot.

The piece changes structure and form several times in those 4 minutes. Yet there seems to be a cohesion that, for me at least, works. And so, in writing it, just going with my stream of consciousness wasn’t enough. I needed a plan.

The Map

I took time to ruminate on it, to play with chords and melodies in my head. Then I created a map. I would list it something like this:

Intro- 6 beats soli / 2 measures drum fill / 6 beats soli / 2 bars drum fill / 3 bars harmonized soli / 2 bars drum fill crescendo uptempo

Section A- 8 bars bass trombone lead / 1 bar drum fill / repeat lead melody in all sections, harmonized /

Section B-

And so on. I had dreamed up the whole thing before I wrote a note.

Next, I grabbed a jazz band manuscript score from a local music store, and started to write. But I had never written for trombones and saxes before. So I would write whatever lead line in each section first, then I added scale degree numbers in a vertical line across all instruments, indicating what voice in the chord they should be playing.

The last step was to actually fill in the notes, transposed for each instrument.

It took some work with each section in the band to make sure what I had written was 1) actually playable, and 2) good. But we did it. The band master subsequently included my piece as part of our songbook, and we performed it several times in concerts and on tour.

The Song

Here is part of the recording, done on a boom-box (so you know the quality will be top notch). I titled it, appropriately enough, In Pursuit Of The Storm.


The plan is what kept me on track and sane with all the possibilities spinning around me. Next-step musicians are the ones with a plan. They don’t just spin in place, and they aren’t satisfied with status quo. Next-step musicians look for the new twist, the next level, the air that becomes even more refreshing as your reach the summit.

Expecting Change

Even with my love/hate attitude toward change, I know more is coming. Time to plan for another step or two.

And after all these years, I’m glad I answered Don’s challenge. It gave me great confidence to complete such a huge project and have it come out so well. Gave me the confidence to keep writing and to keep taking risks.

And I think he bought me lunch.

Are you a planner or someone who shoots from the hip? How has planning helped you in your music? Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, theory or next-step musicianship to [email protected].

(c) 2014 Steve Case


Stepping Up: 5 steps To Transpose Your Song

Raising the pitch
Raising the pitch

Someone once said that every time you play a song in a new key, it’s like visiting a new country.

I agree.

The landscape is different, the feel is different. It can really be refreshing.

There may be mechanical reasons to change the key of the song. Maybe it’s too high for you to sing comfortably. Or maybe you could play the song a little easier in a different key than the original. Or maybe you just like it somewhere else.

On the guitar, transposing can be as easy as using a capo (a clamp-type device placed on the neck to raise the pitch of all the strings equally). If the capo works for you, by all means, use it. I’ll use mine on occasion. But a capo has limitations.

What I’m going to describe is the actual process of transposition, that is, intentionally moving a melody and its chords up or down as much as you want. You’ve got complete freedom, yet the song remains intact.

The big idea here is to use numbers as the common ground.

5 Steps For Transposing

1. Build the major or minor scale for the key you are in, and number each scale tone. (Which chord can you finish the song on? That’s the key.)

Let’s say we’re starting off in the key of C (easy place to begin). Here’s the scale with its corresponding numbers:

1    2    3    4    5    6    7     8

C   D   E   F    G    A    B    C


2. Translate your melody into numbers, representing each note’s place in the scale (we call these scale degrees, fyi).

For this example, we’ll use one of your Top 10 favorite folk songs of all time, “On Top Of Old Smokey”, although this technique works for all styles & genres:

1    1    3    5    8       6       4    4    5    6    5

C   C    E   G   C       A       F    F   G   A    G


1    1    3    5    5       2        3    4    3    2    1

C   C   E   G    G      D       E    F    E    D   C


3. Give each chord a number as well, again taken from its position in the major scale. Be sure to add whether it’s major or minor (capital Roman numerals for major, lowercase for minor).

In “Smokey”, the chords are as follows:
F (IV)                                    C (I)

On top of old Smokey, all covered with snow

G (V)                                C (I)

I lost my true lover from courtin’ too slow.


4. Decide if you want the song to be higher or lower, and how far. Build that scale.

Let’s say that the song just gets a little too high for me to sing, so I’ll need to lower it a bit. (I know I titled this blog “Stepping Up”, but you can go either direction. Work with me.) If I take it down a whole step, now I’m on Bb:
1     2     3    4     5    6    7    8

Bb  C    D   Eb   F   G    A   Bb

I = Bb major

IV = Eb major

V = F major


5. Now apply the numbers you assigned for the melody and chords to the new scale. Keep all rhythms the same as they were.

Old notes:                                 C    D    E    F    G    A    B    C

Scale degrees:                          1     2     3    4     5    6     7    8

Now become:                           Bb   C    D   Eb   F    G    A   Bb


Chords now change to:
Eb (IV)                                 Bb (I)

On top of old Smokey, all covered with snow

F (V)                                 Bb (I)

I lost my true lover from courtin’ too slow.

Thinking about the melody and chords this way allows you not to just transpose to a single key. It allows you to transpose to every other key. When you think about numerical relationships, it applies to all keys. The more you get used to thinking in numbers, the faster this process becomes.

Your Turn

Try transposing a verse or chorus from one of the songs you already play. Use these 5 steps, and you’ll be able to put any song in just the right key for your voice or your instrument. Or try taking the last chorus of your song up a half step for some added energy at the end. (Barry Manilow made a career for awhile out of key changes in his songs! It was a bit overused, but it worked for him. He’s really a fine musician, by the way.)

How have you used transposing in your music? Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about transposing, music theory, or next-step musicianship to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case


When Shortcuts Aren’t Shorter: Training Takes Time

Apple peeler
A time-saver we all appreciate

We’re always looking for shortcuts, aren’t we?

We check our GPS to see if there’s a faster route (or we might step a little heavier on the accelerator). We buy gadgets that will perform tasks for us with less effort. When it’s the middle of apple-picking season and our apple peeler/corer/slicer breaks, we start planning on how to get a new one. Really.

Saving time and effort usually seems like a wise course of action. To wit, my life is full of clever innovations.

I admit, I have myself become dependent on (addicted to?) lots of gadgets in my life. Many of them are musical. I really appreciate my Snark tuner, for example. It allows me to tune my guitar during a performance or in a noisy room, and it will always be pretty close to concert pitch. But it also makes me lazy. “Where’s my Snark? I didn’t bring it? You mean, I have to tune up the old-fashioned way, by listening?”

pick stamperOr this handy gadget. On the top, it reads, “Pick’s 4 Life”. It’s a pick-stamper, meaning if I ever need a pick to play my guitar but can’t find one, I can just pull out some old credit card and punch out a new one. No kidding, it’s pretty cool! And, if Dave Ramsay should read this, it’s a great way to actually use your credit cards for something helpful instead of buying lots of stuff you can’t afford.

I like shortcuts. I use them. I promote them.

But they are not always the best answer.

Training Takes Time

The thing is, when it comes to music, there are very few shortcuts that are worthwhile. Listening to music is one thing (I still use my iPod a lot), but creating it, playing it, singing it – now we’re talking about training yourself to reach new heights with a personal skill set, not a new toolbox.

Getting your fingers or your voice to take on new, complex tasks where very small details matter is not easy. Step by step, almost anyone can learn to play or sing, but only through diligent practice.

I have students, for example, that struggle with counting aloud while they play. It’s an important technique to learn, but it can be hard to learn.

Now for you woodwind and brass players, your approach will have to be different for obvious reasons. But playing guitar, piano, cello, ukulele – this is now an axiom in my studio:

If you can say it while you play it, you know it. If you can’t, you don’t.

Saying note names or counting aloud as you play are both difficult when you first start doing it. It feels like juggling. But those techniques really help you clarify in your mind what you are doing. Saying what you’re playing puts your thought process right out in front of you like nothing else.

You’ll notice your mistakes faster and know what to practice.

Then you’ll play more accurately.

And then, you’ll learn new songs faster.

If you find you can’t do it, that means there is something still too fuzzy about the whole thing. Maybe your technique is distracting and not dependable. Maybe the whole counting thing doesn’t make sense yet.

But the axiom is true. If you can say it while you play it, it is clear in your mind and will stand a better chance of coming out correctly. If you can’t, you don’t know it well enough. Not yet.

It Pays Off

Listen, you don’t get in shape for a race in a day. You practice, you train, you repeat it over and over. There is no shortcut, no way to bypass the blood, sweat and tears of personal training. But every time you repeat it, you train not only your reflexes but your thought processes as well. It will get better if you stick with it.

Let me encourage you today, if you feel like practicing gets you nowhere and you’re getting tired of the struggle – take a deep breath, regroup, try it again. You can do this music thing. Take smaller segments of the music. Try a slower tempo. Take a break and come back in a few minutes.

It’s going to take diligence, time and focus. And there aren’t any shortcuts.

How is your own practice time going? Is progress slow, or have you found some methods and mindsets that work well for you?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you may have about music, practicing, or being a next-step musician to [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case