Text Painting in Jazz Piano

Do you know the musical term “text painting?” It’s when a composer or improviser portrays something “extra-musical” with their music. In other words, they paint a musical picture through sound.

A famous example of this is Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, where he evoked a rainstorm through music. Duke Ellington did this a lot, with pieces like Daybreak Express that sounded like trains, complete with orchestral “steam whistle” and the sound of wheels chug-chugging down the railroad tracks.

In those examples, the composers text painted intentionally. It was planned out in advanced and they accomplished it masterfully.

Sometimes it happens by itself, especially during improvisation. In fact, this happened to me with Herbie Hancock’s tune “Butterfly.” I was playing the tune for a video, and when I got to the Fm modal improv section, I noticed that I was playing these fluttery trills. This took me by surprise, since I usually play more traditional melodic lined during that section, but it sounded so natural that I “went with it” to see where it would take me musically.

After a few more measures, I realized that I was evoking the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings while improvising. Why? I don’t know. It’s obviously related to the song’s title, but I had never though of doing this – it just “happened.” But hey, I’ll take inspiration whenever it comes!

I just tried to stay out of the way and let my improvisation unfold naturally, using these flutterings as they came.

Here’s the video:

Sometimes it’s fun to plan these things out, too. If you’re playing “Take The ‘A’ Train,” why not evoke the sound of a train? If you’re playing “Wave,” paint a picture of the ocean.” You can do it in any musical genre you like. It’s a good way to take your playing and composing to places you might not normally go, and grow as a musician. If it worked for Beethoven and Duke Ellington, it will work for us too!

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