Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What to listen for in music

What to listen for in music: Aaron Copland, 1939

The book summarizes the basics needed to understand and appreciate music at a reasonably deep level. It focuses mostly on western classical music, with some mention of jazz. It covers the process of listening and composing, the 4 major elements (rhythm, melody, harmony, tone color) and musical structure (4 major forms in western classical music). Was written in the 30s, so the focus and writing style reflect that.

Well worth the read for someone (like me) with no formal music training.


Most people have the prerequisites to developing an appreciation of music, though they may not be aware of it.
  • Short sequence recognition:  Ability to recognise a melody i.e. a short progression of notes 
  • Long  recognition: Ability to relate what happens in a section of music to what happened before and what happens after

    How we listen to music

    There are different ways in which one may attempt to listen to music:
    • Sensuous plane:Listening without thinking, a diversion.
    • Expressive plane: The feeling that the composer is striving to express, or the feeling that the listener feels. The meaning of the music. A controversial topic because of the difficulty in identifying what a musical work expresses.
    • Musical plane: The manipulation of the notes: sequences, combinations, speeds, patterns. This book deals with this plane

    The creative process 

    Music works are composed using different methods. Types of composers include:
    • Spontaneously inspired: Composers begin with a composition that is close to completion. E.g Schubert
    • Constructive: Continuously refinement of themes. E.g. Beethoven, as deduced from his notes.
    • Traditionalist: Starts with a pattern, rather than a theme. The pattern may be, e.g. the music style of the age/place. E.g. Bach
    • Pioneer: Opposite of traditionalist. Is experimental, adds new harmonies, new principles

    Elements of music

    4 essential elements:
    • Rhythm
    • Melody
    • Harmonic
    • Tone color


    Measured music system: 

    • Rhythmic units are divided into measures separated by bar lines
    • The bar line generally has 4 instants.
    • Number of notes between the bars is used to define the system: E.g. 2/4, 3/4, 5/4, 6/4
    • Stress/Accent: Some notes are stressed/accented (down beat)
    • Meter vs. Rhythm: The stressing of note defines the meter


    • Measured music system started around 1100 AD. Prior to that most music had rhythm that was based on words (Gregorian chants).
    • End of nineteenth century was when newer features started:
      • Combination meters (2/4 + 3/4) were used e.g. Tchaikovsky
      • Grouping of notes within a bars (2-3-2/8)
      • outside the bar
        •  Polyrhythms Two simultaneous different rhythms, e..g 2/4 coincides with 3/4
        •  Sometimes with non coinciding first beats (length of musical unit is different?). E.g one rhythm is 2/4, which overlaps with 3/4
        • Frequently used in Chinese, Hindustani, African music, madrigals (rhythms from words)


    • Progression of notes in time, has a skeletal frame
    • Exists within a scale system
      • Scale: Set of notes between a tone and its octave
      • Octave: 12 equal semitones,
      • CC#DD#EFF#GG#AA#BC
    • Chromatic scale 
      • 12 semitones, i.e. all notes
      • CC#DD#EFF#GG#AA#BC
    • Diatonic scale
      • 7 semitones from the 12: 2 whole tones, half tone, 3 whole tones, half tone
      • 12 possibilities,starting with each semitone
      • Starting tone is called the key or tonic
      • Key may be major or minor mode (?): 12 scales in major mode, 12 in minor mode
      • CDEFGABC
    • Four scale systems:
      • Oriental, Greek, Eccelesiatical, Modern
    • Scales center around the tonic, dominant order is 5th, 4th, 7th degree is the leading tone (leads to tonic)


    Started in the ninth century
    • Organum: Same melody repeated at a 4th or 5th interval above or below
      • Interval: Distance between two notes
    • Descant: Two independent melodies moving in opposite directions
    • Faux bourdon: Intervals of 3rd and 6th
    • All chords are built from the tonic, upwards in a series of intervals of a 3rd
    • Triad chord: 1-3-5, 7th chord:  1-3-5-7, 9th (1-3-5-7-9), 11th (1-3-5-7-9-11), 13th (1-3-5-7-9-11-13)
    • Return to the tonic is a principle in all early harmonic work
    • More recent developments:
      • Atonality: Feeling of central tone lost (Wagner), Abandoning tonality (Schoenberg, Debussy). Opens questions of consonance, dissonance
      • Polytonality: Use of multiple tones (right hand plays in one key, left hand in the other)
      • Most work today is diatonic and tonal

     Tone color (or timbre)

    • Quality of sound from the medium e.g. musical instrument, or voice
    • There is a characteristic way of writing for each instrument
    • Single tone colors: Sections of an orchestra
      • Strings: Violin. viola, cello, bass
      • Woodwind: Flute, oboe, clarinet, basoon
      • Brass: Horn, Trumpet, Trombone, Tuba
      • Percussion: Drums
    • Mixed tone colors:
      • Combination of single tone instruments
      • Sting quartet: 2 violins, viola, cello
      • Melodic line passes from one section to another in an orchestra
    • Jazz: Some instruments provide rhythm (piano, bass, percussion), other harmonic texture, one solo instrument plays the melody

    Music Texture

    • Monophonic: Single melodic line, No harmony. E.g Chinese, Hindustani, Gregorian chants
    • Homophonic: Principal melodic line + Chordal accompaniment
      • Contrapuntal view: Two separate melodies progressing in time
    • Polyphonic: Separate and independent voices in the chordal progressions
      • 2-3 polyphonic voices can be perceived independently
      • E.g. Choral prelude (Bach), Jesu

    Music structure

    • Structural background of a lengthy piece of music. Various structures (sonata, fugue) have evolved over years.
    • Sections have a hierarchy. 
      • Large sections denoted by upper cases (A-B-C etc) called movements or sections
      • Smaller sections denoted by lower case (a-b-c..). Analogous to sections and chapters in a book. The classification is made based on how repetition happens

    Larger sections:
    • Exact repetition
    • Sectional (Symmetrical ) repetition: 2, 3 part, rondo ,free sectional
    • Variation: Basso ostinato, passacaglia, chacome, theme
    • Fugal: Fugue, Concerto grosso, Chorale prelude, Motets & madrigals
    • Development: Sonata
    • Free
    Smaller sections:
    • Exact: a-a-a-a
    • Minor alterations: a-a'-a''-a'''
    • Repetition after digression: a-b-a, a-b-a'
    • Non repetition:a-b-c-d

    Fundamental forms I: Sectional form

    Work is divided into distinct sections
    • 2 part form: A-B-A-B. E.g. Scarlatti's sonata, No 413 (Dminor), 104 ( C major), 338 (G minor)
    • 3 part form: A-B-A, B is sometime called the trio, A is the minuet. Nocturne, ballad, elegy, waltz, intermezzo, are likely to be 3 part forms E.g. Minuets of Haydn (String quartet, Op 17, No 5) and Mozart. Beethoven's Scherzo (Piano Sonata Op 27 No 2)
    • Rondo: A-B-A-C-A-D-A-.... i.e. sections separated by return to A. E.g. Haydn's Piano Sonata No 7 in D Major
    • Free sectional form: Any arrangement, e.g. A-B-B, A-B-C-A Chopin's Prelude in C Minor, No 20

    Fundamental forms II: Variation form

    Piece is composed as a set of variations on a theme:
    • Basso ostinato: Short phrase repeated over and over in the bass section, while upper parts proceed, E.g. Soldier's violin form Stravinsky's The Story of a Soldier
    • Passacaglia: Repeated bass part, but the bass part is a melodic phrase, not a figure, with some variation in each section, the work starts with unaccompanied bass theme. E.g. Bach's organ Passacaglia in C minor
    • Chaccone: Very similar to Passacaglia, no starting unaccompanied bass theme, so sounds like the first variation of a Passcaglia. E.g. last movement of Brahm;s Fourth symphony
    • Theme and variations: Variation of a simple, direct theme. Theme is usually a 2 or 3 part form. Five types of variation: Harmonic, Melodic, Rhythmic, Contrapuntal (Combination). E.g. Mozart's A major Piano Sonata: Theme and six variations. Variation 1 s a florid melodic variation, Variation 4 is a skeletonizing of the harmony, Variation 3 is major key to minor key harmony change

    Fundamental forms III: Fugal form

    • Polyphonic/Contrapuntal in texture: Separate strands of melody concurrently. Needs repeated listening to be able to acquire the skill to differentiate the strands. Types of contrapuntal devices:
      • Imitation: Voices follow a leader, may enter at a different note. Only one melody, but spaced in time.
      • Canon: Imitation from beginning to end of piece
      • Inversion: Melody inverted, one voice follows the melody in the opposite direction. E.g. when the original moves one octave forward, the inverted one, moves an octave downward
      • Augmentation: Double time value of notes, slowing it down
      • Diminution: Halves the time values of notes
      • Cancrizans: Melody read backward
      • Inverted cancrizans: Melody backward, then inverted
    • Types:
      • Fugue proper: 3-4 voices
        • First voice enters, Second voice enters, First voice adds a counter melody,, then starts a free voice,
        • Exposition, Subject, Subject, ...Stretto, Cadence
          • E.g. Bach, Well Tempered Clavichord
      • Concerto Grosso:
        • Two groups of instruments: Large (Tutti) and smaller (Concertino) E.g. Bach's Brandenberg Concerti (6 each having a different concertino)
      • Chorale prelude: Originated in choral works in Churches. Melody is kept intact, harmonies are made complexer. Bach's Orgelbuchlein
      • Motets/madrigals: Choral forms, Vocal fugal form. Motet is based on scared words, madrigal on secular works

    Fundamental forms IV: Sonata form

    • 3 or 4 movements (fast-slow-fast, fast-slow, moderately fast, very fast)
      • Created by Karl Bach (JS Bach's son) (Prior to Bach, a sonata was a instrumental work, contrasting with the vocal cantata)
      • 1st movement: Sonata Allegro:
        • 3 parts (ABA):
        • Exposition (abc): First theme is in tonic, dramatic, second theme is feminine, in dominant, closing them in in dominant
        • Development: Free section, combines material in the exposition, new and foreign keys
        • Recapitulation: Repeats exposition but in dominant key
      • 2nd movement: Slow movement, may be a slow Rondo
      • 3rd movement: Minuet or scherzo, A-B-A, three part form
      • 4th movement: Extended rondo or in sonata allegro
      • Sometimes preceded by introduction and followed by a coda. E.g. Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata
    • Symphony: Sonata for orchestra: E.g. Beethoven's 9 symphonies
    • String quartet: Sonata for 4 strings
    • Concerto: Sonata for solo instrument + Symphony
    • Overtures: First movements of a sonata

    Fundamental forms IV: Free forms

     Does not belong to above structures
    • E.g. Preludes (for Piano). E.g. Bach's prelude, fugue
      • Clear progression of chordal harmonies from beginning to end without repetition of any themes. E.g Bach's B minor Prelude in Well Tempered Clavichord
    • E.g. Symphonic poems: Program music (as opposed to absolute music)

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