Schenkerian Analysis of Pat Metheny's "Bright Size Life"

Title: Bright Size Life
Artists: Pat Metheny (g), Jaco Pastorius (b), Bob Moses (d)
Album: Bright Size Life

While I was at University of Oregon, I took a lot of music analysis classes, ranging from text and music to post-tonal, and got my feet wet with a few other crazy theories, including a neo-Riemannian analysis method (check out Krista Abrahamson's upcoming dissertation for more on that!). However, my favorite was Schenkerian analysis. I also didn't get it very quickly, which made it infuriating to learn (I'm usually pretty good at analysis), which I think led to it being my favorite.

From Wikipedia, Schenkerian analysis' goal is "to interpret the underlying structure of a tonal work and to help reading the score according to that structure". A very simple way to put it is that it helps you reduce music to it's most basic form (mi-re-do in the melody and I-V-I in the bass) and discover different ways that the music is internally cohesive and consistent. Tom Pankhurt's site says that this method "show[s] how music can be grouped into elaborations such as auxiliary (or neighbor) notes, passing note progressions and arpeggios" and "that these patterns are not just on the surface of the music but that they also span much larger passages." I really enjoy it from a composition and improvisation perspective because it allows you to determine and explore motivic elements in music in an extremely logical way. You can look at music in an almost three-dimensional way; the first layer being the aforementioned mi-re-do, and everything else in ascending layers of complexity or elaborations. These in turn help you identify both motives at a fundamental level you may not have noticed in the upper structure, and vice versa.

A lot of words, I know, and I would recommend checking this site out for more info and detail:

For now, I'd like to get into an analysis I did of a Pat Metheny tune. Why I chose this tune is beyond me, really, and why I chose to analyze it is also a mystery. However, I had wanted to analyze a jazz tune using this method for a while to see how it worked. It was easy to get started, too, because then I got to listen to Pat and Jaco shred, and that's great.

First, I'll post the lead sheet to the tune, and then the analyses to let you look at them:
(Download the graphs as PDF's)

Download the graphs as PDF's

If some of these things look insane, I don't blame you. I do recommend you check out that website earlier, to try and get a little deeper into the topic before proceeding. But the best way to learn to swim is to jump in, so I won't stop you either.

In this analysis I only focused on my transcription of the melody and bassline of the tune (the head) and one motivic idea I found throughout. Finding motives and their prevalence in the music is the big reason I like to analyze in this way. The motivic motion that I found compelling in this was that it was mostly based on falling groupings of notes (mainly three-note groups). I have used the symbol "∂-(x)" to signify the motive, with the (x) being the amount of descending notes in a row.


There's not much to see here, besides that it follows a fairly standard form: A A B A, with the B standing alone due to it's beginning on the dominant. Looking at it this way, the music seems so simple right? The form almost follows exactly "Hot Cross Buns" if you repeat some notes. (I will now apologize to my Schenk professor for making that reference [sorry, Dr. Boss]). Also, the motive appears here, too, but considering every piece should reduce to a ∂-3, I won't count those.


In the foreground, there are a few examples of this motive, but they don't really stand out too much more than anything else. This is usually why I start looking around in the middleground for the goodies. (we'll come back to the foreground later).


  • As you can see in the treble line right off the bat at A1, reducing the ascending fifths at the beginning of the tune gives us a ∂-3, followed by a ∂-5, and then a ∂-4; continuing to A2, you get the same set but followed by another ∂-4. The sheer density of this descending motive in the music is what made me notice it. The melody, with few exceptions, always jumps from the bottom of that descending pattern up to the start of another one, never using an ascending pattern or a large arpeggio to get there.
  • At B, you get a ∂-5, followed by a ∂-7, which encompasses both a ∂-5 and a ∂-3 (separated due to different phrases). So now this motive nests within itself, making even larger structures.
  • At A3, you get ∂-5 followed by the grand-daddy ∂-9, encompassing a ∂-4 followed by a ∂-5.

Just looking at these motives and how they start small and begin to snowball larger and larger as the piece goes on lends credibility to why this piece feels complete: presentation of the motivic idea, and then expansion and increasing complexity (nesting) of motivic idea.

Foreground (The Reckoning)

So as we saw in the foreground, there was motivic stuff happening, but it doesn't pop or try to reveal itself within the context of the tune. We do see this same expansion/increasing complexity of the motive throughout (A1/2: ∂-3; B: ∂-4; A3: ∂-5), as well as some inversions (written as ∂'-3), where the motive goes up instead of down.
However, there is one thing in particular that I want to point out in the bass that I feel gets to the very point of thinking of this music motivically. The bass part, unlike the melody (or maybe not?), is improvised within the chordal framework. However he reveals a glimpse into what we're talking about in the beginning of A3, where he plays a ∂-3 in the very beginning, when before it's just been long tones. Did Jaco subconsciously feel this motive in rehearsing or learning this piece? Would analyzing the rest of the piece reveal this insight to be total crap? Maybe, but there is something to be said about this and how it relates to improvisation in tunes; when we're improvising, how much are we thinking about motives?; how small of an idea can constitute a motive?; does this internal consistency make certain music feel more "effective" than others?

I always have difficulty building cohesiveness into my improvisation and feel that looking at larger forms and motivic ideas can enhance an otherwise unfiltered stream of ideas, or lack thereof, as well as give me an impetus for creating ideas by working within those frameworks. What do you think?