I am a competent composer. I am trying to improve a particular skill: creating sequences of very fast notes that sound pleasant.


Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu

Chopin's Etude Op. 10 No.5

I have both read neuroscience articles and measured the speed at which the fastest notes can be (1) distinctly perceived versus (2) perceived at all as anything tonal or musical. Many of Chopin's pieces (including as those cited above) surpass the speed at which notes can be distinctly perceived yet are slow enough they are still musical/tonal.

My question: does anyone know of any books or resources that discuss the experience of fast notes? I am looking for something that might give me suggestions for how to make pleasing fast note combinations.

Remark: If you have never tried, creating fast sequences of notes isn't like creating a standard melody. As I mentioned, the brain processes the notes differently and so creating such sequences is actually a distinct skill in itself.



By "fast", I mean notes around 86 milliseconds in duration. That's about 698 ± 24 BPM and 11-12 beats per second.

  • 1
    Definitely an interesting topic, and I know what you mean but I'm not entirely in sync with the idea of 'surpass[ing] the speed at which notes can be distinctly perceived yet . . . still . . . tonal.' To me that basically manifests itself as the phenomenon of knowing the chord that was just outlined, but not knowing precisely the order in which the notes where played (yet still maintaining awareness that the notes WERE played in sequence). I posit that once a person has intuited a particular passage enough these sequences become obvious and are immediately recognizable. So, practice ;p Commented Dec 20, 2014 at 7:25
  • 1
    How fast are the notes we're talking about? 16th notes at high tempos? 64th notes and faster? Hundreds of notes per second? Thousands of notes per second? I think most of us haven't read or heard of the research you're taking about, so we'll be able to help you more if you described it a little.
    – Kevin
    Commented Dec 20, 2014 at 14:42
  • I think one important concept for this is the notion of these sequences not being melodic but gestural. Each individual note is important, but they are not being perceived as individual notes -- the entire sequence (in the case of Chopin) is perceived by the listener as one.
    – NReilingh
    Commented Dec 20, 2014 at 17:27
  • Not qualified for a full answer, but you can get some clues from chopin to be sure: when he sweeps across the entire keyboard, the intervals tend to be larger at the bottom and smaller at the top -- this is consistent with how the ear likes to hear harmony (see harmonic series).
    – NReilingh
    Commented Dec 20, 2014 at 17:34
  • As you mention Chopin I assume that you are thinking about high-speed playing on a piano. The fastest note sequences I can think of would be trills (look at Ashkenazy, especially when he was younger) and glissandi. Also, although they are usually very short, ornaments in much of Bach's music (and others around that time). I think Glenn Gould's playing would be a great example of that.
    – JimM
    Commented Mar 11, 2017 at 20:44

2 Answers 2


You need to have a clear concept of what constitutes a "pleasing" sequence. For some people, the sequence should be all diatonic. For others, entirely dissonant intervals are more preferable.

As others have noted, the speed of the sequence is gestural and not melodic, therefore greater attention must be paid to beginning / ending notes of the sequence (registral resolutions / counterpoint as well as the over-arching harmony / tonality of the sequence).

I'd also like to point out that BPM's of 698 are just silly. At a certain point, around 224bpm, the brain starts perceiving beats in terms of hypermeter.

That said, you'd want to focus your research toward music "semiotics" - specifically looking for melodic sequences. I would say that a basic knowledge of Schenkerian analysis would help you as well.

  • With respect to your first sentence, isn't that what I am asking though? I am assuming it's probably not likely notes between 86-100ms are melodic so typical ideas about constructing melodies dont apply to them. Thus, in the absence of some sort of scientific or theoretical analysis, I was hoping some musician who is experienced in runs had published something discussing them. Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 22:30
  • My point is that you need to determine your own definition of "pleasing" - someone cannot answer that for you as it is subjective. Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 3:48
  • I disagree with that to some extent. One could say all of music is subjective but clearly that isnt true. There's a reason why Chopin or Mozart's music has stuck around. It's because it's good. And there are definite patterns to what makes melodies pleasing. Although not absolute, learning the basic principles helps. And therefore I believe the same could be true of runs. Now, I grant that because runs are gestural, perhaps this means there is less of a pattern. I dont know. Maybe there are no principles for gestural music. But where are arguments for or against by ppl knowledgeable about it? Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 4:05
  • Music is subjective - I can point you to pieces that make you question what you think is music or not. Opinions like "good" are subjective as everyone has a different definition of what that might sound like. Patterns are contextual, and yes, there are principles for gestural music. You came here looking for answers. Perhaps when you receive them, you should think on them instead of just entrenching yourself in your original views. Commented Dec 22, 2014 at 16:06

One idea would be to explore the Chopin Polonaises. Freddy wrote parts in the polonaises that gave the impression of snare drums. In the Opus 44 Polonaise, he uses a four 32nd note pattern to imitate drums (in 3/4 time). I'm not sure what his rule for the notes was. Mostly I see the first two and second two intervals sort of outlining a V-I or V-I pattern in a key closely related to the next note (not necessarily the key the passage is in.) I think as the pattern is rhythmic rather then melodic per se, a dissonant pattern would work well.

I've tried the same idea to represent an "arrastre" in tango arrangements. The arrastre is a method of playing a note on a string bass where the bow is started slowly and speeded up during the note, without increasing bow pressure. I've been using either things like Chopin or just outlining the vii0 or bii7 around the note (both allow for a semitone approach as the last note.) Of course this doesn't work in the deep bass where a slower approach is more appropriate.

Another place in Chopin to examine fast passagework would be the big runs in the polonaises and Ballades. These are long fast runs over several octaves. Usually the seem to outline little figures. I know pianists who will replace these with glissandi on bad arthritis days.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.