Wrong Is Right


The best writing advice I ever got was from the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, who famously said, “Wrong is right.” It wasn’t like Monk to explain his statements, but other improvisers have expanded on the idea.

The guitarist John Abercrombie remembers studying with the trumpeter and bandleader Herb Pomeroy in the late 1960s. Pomeroy told him, “You’ve got all these scales and all these chords … but if you hear a melody while you’re playing, if you really hear it and it happens to go outside the chord progression, if you play it with conviction, and you really hear it, it works.”

Another venerable pianist, Kenny Werner, wrote a book called Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within about playing improvised music. It’s also about making art in general. In the chapter “There Are No Wrong Notes,” Werner says:

Appropriateness and correctness are products of the mind. Trying to live within those imaginary guidelines inhibits the flow. I have illustrated this in clinics very clearly by playing ‘All the Things You Are’ in two keys simultaneously. I’ll play the chords in A-flat and the lines [melody and improvisations] in A-natural. Playing in those two keys should create many wrong notes. It should sound tremendously dissonant, but everyone is amazed to hear how fresh and stimulating it sounds! There is a secret here: if dissonant notes are played and the player embraces them as consonant, the listener will also hear them as consonant!

Believing, embracing, committing. Saying things with conviction. Thinking that something “wrong” is right and thus causing it to be right in the minds of others. It’s magic. But first you have to hear it.

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Ralph Lombreglia is the author of two short-story collections, Men Under Water and Make Me Work. His stories have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and the Scholar, among other magazines.


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