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For example, Cerulean's Flight (from the start and throughout):

I've found this to be one of the most common attributes of my favourite music. In my notes I've had to knowingly-misuse the terms "chromaticism" (for the motif's colourful image) and "glissando" (for its directionality) and it would be great to clear up that problem.

Edit: To be clear, it's not necessarily a melody using only the smallest stepwise motions through a scale. It can leap, reset and switch directions. I think leaps help, actually. Juicy little segments running upward and downward are what cause this distinct colourful effect, so a word ought to encompass that boundary somewhat precisely. I think the effect is powerful enough to deserve some formal term.

In the meantime, I've come up with the term helicism (from helix) to describe the kind of smooth-but-twisting linearity I mean. Feel free to steal it.

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  • I think this might be OT here, but do you perhaps mean the term ostinato?
    – Lazy
    Jan 25, 2023 at 10:04
  • @Lazy why would a question about a compositional technique be off topic?
    – phoog
    Jan 25, 2023 at 10:19
  • @Lazy It definitely overlaps with ostinato to some degree. But some examples of ostinato use more convoluted repeating units (from the start: youtu.be/aQzigNXsom0). I'm thinking more of a chopped up (and possibly slowed) kind of micro-glissando, all within the scale, holding its direction until the end of each repeating unit (assuming the tumbling & surging units even repeat at all).
    – Robert B
    Jan 25, 2023 at 10:23

3 Answers 3

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It seems like you're hoping for a name for this phenomenon—a noun. I don't know of one, but there's an adjective that might help: scalar (also stepwise motion). When we talk about the way we move from note to note, "scalar" or "stepwise" means we're moving from one note to the neighboring one above or below, while "intervallic" means we're skipping notes to leap to another one. I might say that the melody of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" is highly scalar—aside from a couple of fifths, it's all stepwise motion. In contrast, I might say that the USA's national anthem is more intervallic: In the first phrase, it moves intervallically 12 times, and stepwise only 10 times. (Note: for some reason, I might say that a melody "is scalar," as a quality, but not "is stepwise"; if we use stepwise it's usually paired with motion.)

Now, I wrote all that before listening to the video. Given your description in the text (fedc-fedc) I might imagine describe a passage with words like "the melody is characterized by short scalar fragments." However, the video is an interesting situation: The first few notes are intervallic, an arpeggio. They then start to get "filled in" with neighbor-notes. The "chunks" still often contain or start with a leap. In fact, the overall effect emphasizes the disconnectedness of the chunks; as a whole, the line is fragmented. I wouldn't describe it as scalar overall. Maybe I'd use a phrase like "the synth line, in an unbroken stream of equal durations, varies the intervallic direction in a quasi-random way that fragments the line into disparate chunks of nearby notes."

Sometimes there's no good one word for something; you just have to describe it.

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  • My aging copy of The Clark New Pocket Music Dictionary defines toccata as "…a piece with a flowing movement of notes of equal value…", but I can't find any other source giving a similar definition.
    – Theodore
    Jan 25, 2023 at 16:33
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    @Theodore I like better the definition from wikipedia: "a virtuoso piece of music typically for a keyboard or plucked string instrument featuring fast-moving, lightly fingered or otherwise virtuosic passages or sections, with or without imitative or fugal interludes, generally emphasizing the dexterity of the performer's fingers." Toccata means "touch," after all. (Does it count if it's programmed?...) Jan 25, 2023 at 16:52
  • Scalar has some potential, because although it seems to technically mean stepwise or conjunct, some descriptions of it seem to allow for slight leaps (which is what I want). It would be nice to have a simple Italian term to describe the piece or movement. Fiume for "river" or "stream". For my notes I think I'll use the neologism helicism (of or related to a helix) for the kind of smooth-but-segmented effect I mean to describe.
    – Robert B
    Jan 27, 2023 at 6:16
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I haven't heard of a particular term, but two related terms may be helpful.

To me, this technique is a nod to the minimalist style. And Philip Glass, one of the most famous minimalist composers, has described minimalism as "music with repetitive structures." If "repetitive structures" is good enough for him, it may well be good enough for your purposes.

Slightly outside of minimalism, the composer György Ligeti used what the music theorist Miguel Roig-Francolí calls "net-structures." In his book Understanding Post-Tonal Music, Roig-Francolí says that a

net-structure is a continuous web of finely woven lines or repeated patterns in a constant, interactive process of transformation. (292)

I'm not sure your example has this process of transformation, nor do I think it's "finely woven" in the sense that Ligeti's music often is (often with faster note values; a related term is "micropolyphony," which I think is suggestive). Nevertheless, the process is certainly related.

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Edit: To be clear, it's not necessarily a melody using only the smallest stepwise motions through a scale.

By my reading this contradicts what you describe in the title. Your "edit" note and continuing description make things unclear, because nearly all music will involve lines that go up and down in short conjunct segments along with some leaps.

It's hard to know what you mean, because your not really describing in musical terms what in the music you're focused on. The extra words like 'tumbling, surging, juicy' don't help either, not until those words are connected to the musical devices that produce those feelings.

The step-wise motion you describe in the title would be called conjunct motion. Disjunct motion is moving by leaps. Both of those terms are generic and don't get into things like rhythm, length of the passage, or tempo.

Conjunct motion of short duration, like 1 beat, might be called various turns, and German has many specific turn names based on the contour of the turn. There is another German term, fortspinnung, for stringing together short turns and other motifs. It's associated with German Baroque music.

Those are the terms that came to mind immediately upon reading the title of your question.

When I listen to the recording example all of that goes out the window and I immediately thought: minimalism. When the track continues to the electronic dance music beat it isn't really minimalism, but the first 10 seconds sound very similar to stuff like Steve Reich's Piano Phase.

Phase and phase shifting seem like terms to apply. The idea is to take a fairly simply motif, repeat over and over and over in more than one part, phase (or time) shift the two parts slightly to create a composite line which has new melodic features. Things like dissonant seconds create rhythmic accents, or you can start to hear repeated pitches, things that aren't in the original motif played alone. Minimalist music achieve the phase shift in actual performance, the players would sort of go out of sync rhythmically. Your sample track does something similar, but it's using some kind of electronic delay.

In your example, it's hard for me to aurally separate what actually was played (probably on a keyboard) from what was generated by delay. I don't know if that matters to you, but personally I want to separate what was played from what any effect settings were, because I would want to know how to do it. That might have some bearing on terms to describe it.

One thing I hear is a polyrhythm effect. Polyrhythm is playing two "conflicting" rhythms simultaneously like groups of 3 against a base of 4. The performance versus effect question comes up hear, because I can't tell if that is played or just the result of the delay. Regardless, polyrhythm may be a term to apply. It diffuses the sense of meter, and with out the solid feel of a well established meter, this might account for what you hear as "tumbling/surging." Also, when meter/rhythm are diffused it lends for a lot of repetition, because it's harder to aurally identify the repeating pattern.

You probably want to not describe with as chromaticism, because this stuff sounds very diatonic. In fact if you do this phase shift, delay on actual chromatic motifs, it will likely create unpleasant dissonance. Harmonically this stuff isn't that exotic. In modern styles harmony pretty much extends to playing nearly all diatonic tones together. A diatonic thirteenth chord without the eleventh is pretty normal provided certain voice spacing and inversion aspects are handle right. A strong, clear bass part - which this example track has - with nearly any combination of diatonic tones in the upper range/voices can work well. I don't mean the upper parts are haphazard, we can't discuss everything in a Q&A, but you can generally say the upper parts can enjoy much more freedom that the bass. You might say there is a kind of board interchangeable tolerance of tones in the upper parts. I think that free treatment and tolerance of dissonance, when confined to a diatonic palette, in the upper parts contributes to the "twisting" and "colorful" sense of the music.

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