Michel Blows a Serpent (Practice Playing In Tune)

Michel Godard
Image via Wikipedia

The serpent is an ancient low-voiced instrument similar to the Medieval cornetto, and  it produces a mesmerizing sound in the hands of a master like Godard (see the vid below or listen to the mp3).

Godard’s ear and lip control put him completely in tune with the singer. Learning intonation is a skill more students should practice, but practicing with a tuner to achieve intonation is like chewing crayons to understand color. There is a mismatch of sensory input. With a tuner, you use your eyes to see if you’re in tune. You want to be using your ears! So how do you practice intonation? Using drones is a good place to start.

Jazz trumpeter Ingrid Jensen turned me on to drones. She said she’ll use a piano with the sustain pedal down, or, better still, a tanpura (actually, a recording of a tanpura). Learn more about practicing with drones in Chapter of The Practice of Practice

Play along w/the tune (more hints on its mode below). If  you’re a brass player, buzz along with it, it’s in a great range. Figure out the melody. It has only two main phrases, each one repeated (AABB). The serpent voice states the full melody, and then is joined by the vocalist, Linda Bsiri ,who also sings the full melody. Then a mad serpent solo by Michel Godard over the  rhythm pattern laid down on the tef by Jarrod Cagwin; the full form of the melody is sung again by Linda Bsiri (w/ Godard riffing in the background) and it’s over.


This piece uses the D Phrygian mode for most of it. Keep your ears open. There are at least two ways to think about the group of notes that is the Phrygian mode. When in a mode like this, it can be useful to use the root and fifth, as well as the notes resolving strongly to these notes. These are where you find the interesting half steps in this mode. Here’s the Phrygian used for most of this tune (these are concert pitches, so transpose it if you need to):

  • Easiest: It’s a scale from D to D, with the notes D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb-C-D. The half step comes between the 1st and 2nd degree- and 5th and 6th degree of the scale. The 2nd leads into the root; the sixth wants to resolve strongly to the 5th. Play with this relationship. Another easy way to get this in your ear is to play E to E using only the white keys of the piano. It’s the same relationships of whole and half steps.
  • If you know your major scales, start on the third degree of the major scale and play an octave using the key of the scale. You’ve just played a Phrygian mode. The concert Bscale from D to D works for this tune.
  • All of the modes–including the Phrygian mode used here–are covered in Chapter 26, “Scales a la Mode” from the newly updated Basic Music Theory: How to Read, Write and Understand Written Music (4th ed.).

Find recordings by Michel Godard


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The Practice of PracticeBasic Music Theory: How to Read, Write, and Understand Written Music, by Jonathan Harnum



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