Part 6: The Music

Now that the individual elements of my method have been explained above, I will show how they work together in a single movement.  For that purpose, I will use “21 - Ms Pat”.  Here's the original bit:

In approaching a comedic bit, I first make a detailed musical transcription of the comic’s delivery. Here's a MIDI mockup:

Once the transcription is done, I analyze the bit’s structure, dividing it into sections.  My analysis of this bit goes as follows.

  • 1) 0’00” - 0’14”:  Introduction (made up of the following sub-sections)

    • 1a) 0’00” - 0’06”: “And I’m doing like most people do…”

    • 1b) 0’06” - 0’14”: “I’m stealing a hundred dollars a day out of the register”

  • 2) 0’14” - 0’51”: Setup (made up of the following sub-sections)

    • 2a) 0’14” - 0’29”: “I had just stole a hundred dollars…”

    • 2b) 0’30” - 0’39”: “In walks president Jimmy Carter…”

    • 2c) 0’39” - 0’46”: “And I remember Jimmy Carter’s face…”

    • 2d) 0’47” - 0’51”: “He get to my register…”

  • 3) 0’51” - 1’04”: Punch line and following pause for laughter (“N***** where the f*ck I know you from?”)

  • 4) 1’05” - 1’17”: Closing - resolving tension unleashed by punch line.

In order to realize this structure in a perceptible and musically meaningful way, I wanted to make sure that each section had its own consistent musical identity, that it was sufficiently differentiated from the other sections, and that it contributed to the ebb and flow of energy and tension as defined by the source material.  I arrived at the following musical map, including a plan for the treatment of each musical element.


1a) “And I’m doing like most people do…”

  • Treatment of speech material:  Speech melody is perforated and presented in the first violin part.

  • Rhythm:  Top three parts in rhythmic unison, using dynamic swells to emphasize the stressed syllables.  Cello holds long sustained pitches.

  • Harmony:  Interpretation of source material to create allusions to a jazz-influenced harmonic language.

  • Character/Timbre:  Inchoate musical identity - introductory.  Evoking a classical quartet sound.

1b) “I’m stealing a hundred dollars a day out of the register”

  • Treatment of speech material: Use of speech material to extract and prolong a repeating pattern.  Speech melody can be mostly found in second violin part.

  • Rhythm: Repeating rhythmic pattern that is parsed according to speech accents.  Unison in all four parts.

  • Harmony: Single melodic line expanded to four or five note chords

  • Character/Timbre:  Driving, aggressive.  Momentum plummeting forward.


2a) “I had just stole a hundred dollars…”

  • Treatment of speech material: Extreme fragmentation of speech material, distributed amongst top three voices - usually just one or two notes per gesture.

  • Rhythm: Regular pulse in cello (almost like a walking bass line) against which the jagged syncopations of the speech material lie in relief.

  • Harmony: Defined by interactions between the speech fragments.  Those interactions can suggest a specific harmony, which is reflected in the addition of new pitches in the top voices and the choice of pitch in the cello line.

  • Character/Timbre: Frenetic.  In addition to the harsh fragmented gestures, noise sounds are produced to mimic the noisy unvoiced consonants in the speech material (like “s” and “t”).

2b) “In walks president Jimmy Carter…”

  • Treatment of speech material: Viola solo presents the speech material in its entirety.

  • Rhythm: Based on the implied meters of the speech melody, the violins and cello accompany the viola solo with a charged, rhythmic texture.

  • Harmony: Suggestion of a very traditional harmonic language based on pitches from the speech material.  This is made possible by the fact that Ms Pat’s delivery here is already very musical.

  • Character/Timbre: Rollicking, bumptious, unabashedly fun.

2c) “And I remember Jimmy Carter’s face…”

  • Treatment of speech material: Perforated, fragmented and distributed amongst top three voices.

  • Rhythm: Mostly rhythmic unison - lilting.

  • Harmony: Defined by the interactions between the fragmented speech material.  Cello provides a bass note which resolves harmonic ambiguity in the upper voices.

  • Character/Timbre: Starting soft, nervous, and off-kilter.  Growing more aggressive and self-assured.

2d) “He get to my register…”

  • Treatment of speech material: Presented in second violin solo - chewed up and partially digested.

  • Rhythm: Regular pulse in cello evoking the walking bassline from before.  Accompanimental noise and impulse gestures in first violin and viola.

  • Harmony: Pitch is only present in cello and second violin.  Cello is presenting a single static pitch.  Pitches in the second violin part beyond what is taken from the source material grow out of interactions between the cello pitch and the speech melody.

  • Character/Timbre:  High tension and anticipation.  Heavy noise components.


3) “N***** where the f*ck I know you from?”

  • Treatment of speech material: The pitch and rhythmic patterns of the single bit of speech material set in motion all of the unfolding musical processes that spin out and bristle with energy throughout this section.

  • Rhythm: Dense rhythmic counterpoint based on the interaction of clashing tempos.  Gradual slowing of rhythmic gestures throughout section.

  • Harmony: Chaotic flurry of pitches that develop based on patterns in the original speech material.

  • Character/Timbre: Excess - a completely unreserved and cathartic release of energy complementing the point in the bit where all of the accumulated tension is punctured by the punch line.


4) "Secret Service bust out laughin'...."

  • Treatment of speech material: Beginning with a straight-forward presentation of speech melody in the cello, followed by a fragmentation and distribution of the speech melody in the violins.

  • Rhythm: Following the rhythmic chaos of the previous section, the closing starts with sustained pitches in the violins and viola followed by a texture in which the cello calls back to its regular pulses earlier in the movement and the top three voices present their fragmented, syncopated gestures.

  • Harmony: Opening with a suggestion of conventional harmony based on the speech material followed by a treatment, reminiscent of that used in section 2d, in which the pitch played by the cello interacts with those of the speech melody to generate new pitches.

  • Character/Timbre: Picking up the pieces after the outburst in section 3.  Restoration of a sense of clear speech-melody, followed by a recap of earlier material, thereby tying together several of the movement’s themes.

A final thing worth noting is the fact that, despite the radically different texture, moods, and styles evoked in this movement, I made a concerted effort to create relationships within it that would bind it together.  For example, the regular pulse in the cello started in section 2a is echoed again in sections 2d and 4; the evocation of a traditional harmonic language used in section 1a is suggested again in sections 2b and 4; and the use of speech material to set a developing musical process in motion found in section 1b reappears in section 3.  To further unite the disparate sections, I use a single reoccurring harmony.  It appears at 0’32”, 0’41”, 0’49”, and at the very end of the movement.

In the end, I think that my musical adaptation of this bit amplifies and expands upon the musical intentions and intuitions already present in the comedic performance while creating something substantively new with its own musical coherence and purpose.