“You Only Have to Play One Note”: Learning from Puccini, Miles Davis & Herbie Hancock

Image from Stanford Opera

By Your Salonniere

Borrowing a note or two, pun intended, from the world of music, in Anthony Tommasini’s New York Times video “Musicial Motifs in Tosca” he demonstrates to audiences how the opera composer Puccini developed unforgettable characters through themes, mini-themes, and motifs in his score for Tosca. Puccini employed specific themes to “enhance the emotional power of the work and to trigger responses from listeners.” He demonstrates the most famous leit motif of the opera, which is at the beginning, Scarpia’s theme. Tommasini explains, Puccini uses “three chords a flat, b flat, and e” which “are not harmonically related, which makes Scarpia seem like an out-of-control guy.” Scarpia is the antagonist, who thwarts the romance between Tosca and her lover.

Any reference to Scarpia later in the opera will incite the same chords, and the rest of the characters react to the theme. Puccini later develops these chords subtly in Act II, where they become truncated and repeated, as if they were stuck in a rut to show a shift in character and reveal conflict for Scarpia. Later the chords are borrowed by other characters to reveal Scarpia’s influence. The same three chords are intricately woven and tucked into the main themes of the heroine, Tosca. These motifs are manipulated into different variations to build on emotion and transform meaning and character throughout the opera’s story. Tommasini concludes by explaining, “Characters can borrow, steal from, and adapt from each others’ themes.”

On the same note, on October 10, 2010, KCRW’s Tom Schnabel interviewed Herbie Hancock, who spoke of Miles Davis. Miles once said, “You only have to play one note.” Hancock explains that he realized Davis meant you only have to play the right note. “You don’t have to fill up a solo with a lot of notes, just find the right one.” Hancock says he didn’t just want to play the piano, he wanted to play music. “When you hear Wayne Shorter play, you don’t hear him playing the trumpet, you hear Wayne Shorter. In the deep of my heart it became very clear to me that I had to play music, and let the chips fall where they may.”

Gustave Flaubert spoke of le mot juste, which is the same idea that Davis speaks of and practices. There is one perfect word, an essential note to hit for each character that reveals the moment. Each character has their singular note, and music is made when these notes oppose one another. Point and counterpoint. To create a compelling story, a writer need only to find the right notes and play them against each other.

Here’s some means of hitting those singular notes:

  • How do other other characters generally respond to one another?
  • How would strangers react upon first meeting each of your characters?
  • What color would each character represent?
  • What kind of pacing does each character embody? Is one fast? Another languid? Another stammering?
  • What are the general moods of each character? Think of the four humors and play with them in combination. Or refer to astrological signs. This can help build distinct characters.

For inspiration, follow these masters leads:

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