Berklee Today

Rorschach and Musical Efficiency

Professor Jon Damian '73

I was fortunate to have a wonderful composition teacher named Jeronimas Kacinskas during my student years at Berklee. My most vivid memory is of the day I excitedly brought in the score for a 10-minute orchestral piece that Kacinskas had assigned to me. I was confident of the brilliance of my composition. After several moments of leafing through the score, Kacinskas turned to page eight, pointed to a bar of music, and asked in his cool Lithuanian accent, "Where did this idea come from?"

After some stammering, I confessed that I couldn't trace the evolution of this bar of music. My confidence was shaken. Kacinskas then moved to the first page of the score, pointed to a bar of music, and asked, "Where did this bar of music go to?"

The realization struck that I wasn't holding a composition in my hands. I was holding a string of technical ideas that were unconnected. There was no evolution or development. "You are working too hard," Kacinskas said. "Take advantage of an idea you have and work with it. Don't throw it away and grab another. This is inefficient writing." I also began to realize that my improvisational playing had a similar dilemma—endless technical ideas or licks with no evolution.

So, I decided to search for a musical idea that would be small and flexible enough to develop, yet big enough to possess musical personality. I wanted something that would grab a listener's attention, would be easily recognizable, and could develop. My search ended with the three-note melodic motif. It is small enough to be flexible, and, as you will see when you take my musical Rorschach test, it's powerful.


Musical Examples
Here are three examples from Jon's CD:
• Example 1

Listen: slow | fast

• Example 5

Listen: slow | fast

• "Variations on A Sunny Tune"

Listen: slow | fast


Musical Inkblots

Hermann Rorschach, a Swiss psychiatrist, developed the Rorschach test. It consisted of 10 cards containing abstract inkblot designs that were shown one at a time to patients who would "interpret" the cards and give their initial reaction to them. These 10 impressions were used to evaluate the patient's emotional and intellectual functioning. For example, if the patient's response was "Pizza!" for six out of the 10 cards, than that patient was probably me. I love pizza!

I have created a musical Rorschach test for you (ex. 1). There are 10 three-note motifs—no rhythms, only noteheads. What is your initial reaction to each? As with the Rorschach test, everyone reacts differently and each musical motif can be interpreted in several ways. Do any tunes come to mind immediately? Give yourself five seconds for each motif. Strong connections can be made with this material and there is room for evolution. This example illustrates the power and potential of a three-note melodic motif.

There are many three-note melodic motif possibilities. Add rhythmic interest to them and the possibilities become endless. I needed to have an organized plan to work with these motifs, so I labeled them according to the two consecutive intervals that make up each three-note motif. The first number is the interval between the first and second notes, and the second number is the interval between the second and third notes. In my musical Rorschach test, the motifs are classified as follows, A is a 22 motif, B is a 26, C is a 42, D is a 33, etc. The following are some benefits you'll gain by working with three-note motifs.

  • They are great sparks for your improvisations.
  • They are great melodic building blocks for composing and improvising because they are so flexibile.
  • They can be used backwards, upside down, bent in the middle, and so on.
  • They make great hooks.
  • They are easy to remember.
  • Improvising on three-note motifs found in a tune's melody enables the solo to become a theme and variations.
  • They make strong ear references when you are accompanying a soloist.



When you see this warning, DO NOT PANIC! It is simply a warning that these intellectual ideas are not music unless you make them so by playing them in a musical fashion. Don't just look at the motifs. To start, build them on the degrees of a scale (ex. 2) and play them over vamps. Let them inspire you to write something. Get them into your musical belly by singing them, which is much like eating them. When you sing a musical idea, it is absorbed and you gain a deeper understanding of it. Remember, you play what you eat!


Hook and Variations

The dictionary definition of a hook is "a length of metal, bent to point in the opposite direction in order to catch something." Let's make some musical hooks out of the "original" motifs by bending them in the following ways. First, we will change the order of the notes (ex. 3). Next, let's vary them by changing the octave of some of the motive's notes. This is called octave adjustment (ex. 4).

Example 5 is a light, funky tune that starts with a three-note 53 motif put through some octave and order variations. The same original notes are used throughout this example—just with octave and order variations. The limitations can lead to unlimited possibilities! I labeled and boxed the original and the first two variations; you can label the rest. For a challenge, try composing an example using only three notes and their octave and order variations.


Solo Building Blocks

I want to present one more pitch-motif study. For this one, I used a variation of the opening motif of a well-known jazz standard, hence the title "Variations on a Sunny Tune." I used the motif as a building block for a solo. It could even be a new melody. This motif, which is used throughout the original melody, is built on a 23 motif. I put it through some change-of-order variations. Notice the chromatic-approach notes I used to "jazz" things up: the F-sharp to the G in bar 1, the A-flat to G in bar 3, the G-flat to F in bar 4, and the F-sharp to G in the last bar.

This example shows how using the original melodic material of a tune in your improvisation or development section is, as Jeronimas Kacinskas would say, "efficient composing."


Professor Jon Damian '73, a guitarist and composer, has backed artists ranging from Luciano Pavarotti to Jimmy Giuffre to Johnny Cash. This lesson was excerpted from his book and-80 track CD The Guitarist's Guide to Composing and Improvising, published by Berklee Press.