Quick Tip – Know Your Function

When we play in an ensemble, we wear many different hats at many different times. Or, we have very different musical roles at different points in a piece. Understanding what those roles are and what to do is a hallmark of a conscientious musician!

If you’ve ever sung in a choir, or played chorales in a band (or chorale sections in orchestra) then you’ve explored one of the most fundamental set of roles in music making – 4 part voicing. So many pieces of music can be thought of in 4, or sometimes 3, musical jobs happening. Most often these will can be boiled down to a melody, a harmony, an accompaniment, and a bass line.


The melody is the one we’re often very good at doing already. It’s catchy, singable, and prominent. If you’ve been following a previous #clarinetquicktip and playing musically with intelligent phrasing, then you’re all set.


A harmony line functions as an embellishment – the tinsel on the melodic christmas tree! It is a secondary line, but functions to highlight the melody and make it sound fuller and richer. A good harmony line also colours the harmonic language of a piece – harmony is often filled with 3rds and 5ths that can be static in motion but give all the colour to the piece. Keep one ear on the melody you are supporting, and one on the voices underneath.


Accompaniment lines can take many forms and can blur roles with harmony lines. The most common forms are rhythmic accompaniment, counter-melody, or harmonic colour lines. When dealing with a rhythmic accompaniment, our role is a bit like a percussionist – we create the forwards momentum that propels a piece on (even a slow piece has forwards momentum when done well). Think of the rhythm section in a big band and how they function to energise time, we all have that role when we see repeated quavers or crotchets! Play with intent and motion to make these sing. 

Bass Line

The bass line is the foundation of all the music. We take intonation, sound quality, and volume often from our lowest voices. The stronger the foundation, the higher the ‘skyscraper’ of sound we can create. If something doesn’t feel right in an ensemble situation, it’s often because there’s not enough attention being directed at the lowest voices. When we are playing bass, make sure everyone else has something to listen to: energised long notes that reflect melodic phrasing, fronts and ends of notes with precision and infallible intonation.

So know your roles and understand everyone’s function in the music!

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