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Horizontal and Vertical Thinking - Part 1
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Horizontal and Vertical Thinking
Part 1 Vertical Thinking
By: Kole

In the world of music (especially when we are talking about Western music) there are two primary ways of thinking about, analyzing, and composing music.

The first school of thought is taught at most classical conservatories and is specific to that style of music, although it can be applied to many other genres.  It is called “Horizontal” thinking and differs quite a bit from the way that most of us think about music who have grown up in a popular music world.

The second school of thought is usually gained by personal experience through listening or playing popular music styles like Rock, Blues, and Jazz; however it can be and is taught in many different modern music schools.  It is called “Vertical” thinking and this is usually the most familiar and comfortable way that most of us listen to, analyze, and compose music.

Let me start by saying that neither method is superior to the other; they are just different.  However, if both methods are used or at least understood then you (the player or composer) can use the benefits of both Schools of thought to more fully express your musical intentions.

Without further ado, I will introduce and explain “Vertical Thinking”; which is usually the most familiar way of analyzing and composing music for many of us. 

When one listens to or composes music vertically, they are interested in what is happening at that moment in time.  They are more interested in the sound as a “whole” and how each different instrument interacts with one another to create a unified “sound.”  This way of thinking is used very often in popular music styles like Pop, Rock, and Blues; where chords/harmony are the backbone of the composition.  This is not to say that “Horizontal” thinking can’t be applied to popular music, nor does it mean that harmony does not exist in “Horizontally” composed music.

This is also why you see a lot of lead sheets in Jazz, Pop, and Rock, with just the chords listed and every now and then a rhythmic figure that is usually played by all the instruments involved.  Also, groove is usually much more prevalent in music composed “Vertically,” because a great amount of attention is placed on a short rhythmic pattern which is usually repeated many times (a common technique in popular music).  Depending on the style, this can be classified as a Riff, Groove, or Clave.

Please take a look at the Vertical Thinking example below as I demonstrate how a string quartet part may be written for a common Rock song.

Vertical Thinking Example

As you can see in this example, the Melody is in the highest voice (violin) and separates itself from the rest of the instruments by a different rhythmic pattern (1 half note followed by 2 quarter notes).  The rest of the instruments playing in a lower register, are holding whole notes and filling an accompanying roll.  Their purpose is to do nothing more than create a Harmonic foundation for something melodic to happen on top of it.  You could think of it as a Castle being built on top of a giant dirt mound.  The dirt isn’t very exciting compared to the castle, but it’s necessary that it stays solid so that the Castle can be built and decorated with all the things that make Castles cool.

You will also notice that the chord symbols are placed above each measure, as is common in popular music styles.  This means that if a guitarist or pianist comes in to the recording session, they know the chord to play at that certain time.  The rhythm they play is usually simple and improvised, as is also common in “Vertically” composed music.

Last but not least you will notice the note I made *Does not contain proper voice leading found in Horizontally composed music.  This isn’t always true, because a lot of Jazz stresses some voice leading; however most popular music styles are ignorant of or ignore the rules of voice leading.  If you would like to find out more about the topic of voice leading, please read Mike Philippov’s article here

For those of you familiar with the concept of voice leading, you will notice that many “rules” are broken; however I will just point out one.  If you take a look at the notes contained in measure 4 (the last measure) you will notice that the intended chord is a G7.  However, there is no third (B) held by any of the instruments and the 7th of the chord (F) is doubled by both the cello and viola, which is a big “No-No” for dominant 7 chords if you follow the rules of voice leading.

This concludes Part 1 of this 2 part series on “Horizontal and Vertical Thinking”.  I hope this article helped you better understand and become more aware of the Vertical School of thought and composing.  Look out for my next article on “Horizontal Thinking” in the future, especially if you aren’t familiar with that school of thought.

Until next time, take care and keep on composing fellow artists!

Kole is a Composer for Media, Guitarist, and Instructor living in Los Angeles, CA. To find out more visit his main site at:

Exile CD CoverNew CD

Kole has just released his debut album “Exile”. To listen to examples, find out more information, or purchase the album click here.

Other lessons and articles by Kole

Are YOU Unique?
The Art of Pre-Composition - Part 1
The Art of Pre-Composition - Part 2
The Theory of Appreciative Comparison - Part 1
The Importance of Musical Exploration
Horizontal and Vertical Thinking - Part 1 Vertical Thinking
3 Ways to get out of a Songwriting Rut!
Getting into the Flow: Opening yourself to the Muse
The Minor 2nd (The often misunderstood and under appreciated interval)
Adding Color to your Music
5 Priceless Composition Tips for the Young Composer
3 Uncommon Guitar Practicing Ideas
3 Keys to Successfully Writing Music

About Kole

KoleKole has been playing and composing for over 12 years with half of that time being spent at some of the world's most respected music institutions... the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University and the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California.

Kole has co-authored an instructional e-book for guitar titled “Serious Improvement for the Developing Guitarist.”  Kole has also just finished a new instructional Jam Tracks CD titled “Improve your Improv.” This product is perfect for aspiring lead guitarists or anyone who needs backing tracks to play over.

If you would like to find out more information about Kole, his music, articles, or lessons feel free to visit his site at If you have any questions, comments, or requests for articles please send your e-mails to, he answers all e-mail.

Copyright 2008 Kole (Kyle Hicks). All rights reserved.

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