Category Archives: Music theory

Why bother with music theory?

Image by chrisjtse on flickr

Image by chrisjtse on flickr

Let’s face it, music theory does not have a good rep. It’s like arithmetic and spelling. And actually, that’s the problem…

Most people only ever really encounter the kind of music theory which feels very similar to learning your times tables or how to spell ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’. No one enjoys memorising the letter names for notes on the stave, or what key signature is what.

So why bother?

In the same way as arithmetic can, eventually, lead to the kind of maths that can discover the secrets of the physics of the universe or build a skyscraper, so basic music theory eventually leads on to symphonic masterpieces of every ilk from Ode to Joy to the theme from Star Wars. Just the same, I couldn’t write this blog without having a basic grasp of spelling and grammar – nevermind some of the great literary works of the age from The Luminaries to Harry Potter.

Music theory is the key that opens the lock to the secrets of music. Understanding how to construct and deconstruct chords and harmony has made music more interesting to listen to and look at. Knowing how music works can help me to work out how to fit my own voice into the shape of the music – I know whether I am in harmony or dissonant, on the beat or syncopated.

Even simple things like knowing letter names can help with our communication around music. It’s much clearer to say “I’m having trouble with that high E” than it is to say, “Well, I’m having issues with that note there” or “I’m not sure about the note I sing on the word ‘tree'”.

Lots of what we learn in early music theory is actually about learning how to talk about music with other musicians. There’s a whole language which has grown up as a ‘shorthand’ – it’s quicker to say “at the crescendo” than to say “where it gets louder”, and it’s even easier to know what to play when you’re looking at a pair of expanding lines instead of text that reads ‘get louder here’!

So why bother with music theory? Because it’s actually all about learning shortcuts! And once you know the shortcuts, you can get into the heart of the music so much quicker.

I’m not saying it’s not dull, and I’m not saying you won’t find bits of it boring. But, it’s worth fighting through and getting it into your head so you can discover secrets and create masterpieces.

Why is music theory important for you? What helped you to get interested? Or do you not bother with it?

Should I Join a Music MOOC?

MOOC [mook] n. massive (or massively) open online course: a usually free online course open to anyone and potentially having a huge number of enrolled participants.

Anyone here taken a MOOC? I have just completed my first two MOOC courses with Coursera, one of the major provide of free online courses. The first course was run by the National University of Singapore and called “Write Like Mozart: An Introduction to Classical Composition”. The second “Songwriting” by Berklee College of Music. I was surprised at how much I learnt and how creative each course was in its design.

Online Education

What Kinds of MOOCs are Out There?

MOOCs come in two main types – scheduled and self-paced. Scheduled MOOCs are modelled on traditional distance learning, so they begin and end on a specific date, and usually release course materials one week at a time. There are real deadlines for completing quizzes and assignments. Assignments are usually assessed by other course members. These courses often offer free Statements of Accomplishments or paid certificates. The main providers include Coursera, EdX, FutureLearn and Open2Study.

The second type are self-paced courses. These courses are available to start at any time and all the materials are available right from the start. You can complete the tasks at your own pace. Some courses do have final exams (e.g. Saylor or ALISON), while others provide no proof of learning or tests (OpenLearn, iTunesU).

What Kinds of Skills Can I Learn?

Most of the MOOCs are bent towards maths and science, but there are an increasing number of humanities MOOCs beginning to crop up. This includes music MOOCs. Most of the MOOCs about music are focussed on music theory, harmony, composition, and music appreication and analysis. A music MOOC would be a good place to revise for Grade 5 theory, or to begin to explore composition in a guided setting. For a full list of music MOOCs I have found online, head over to my Recommended Courses page.

How much time will it take?

Most scheduled MOOCs will take about one evening a week to keep up with. Some need a bit more, others less. Most providers will display the time they reckon it will take on the course page. For self-paced courses, the time is more flexible, but if you want to make it through the whole course, you should set aside an evening or a lunch hour each week to work on the materials.

So what did you think?

I really enjoyed my MOOC experiences. I found them challenging and inspiring. It was great to get some guided experience in composition, as I haven’t studied this much before. I’m really keen to go on and take a few of the self-paced courses now, like Voice-Leading Analysis from OpenLearn.

So, why not explore the kinds of MOOCs you could take to learn more about music?

Have you taken any MOOCs yet? What did you think? If you’ve taken any music MOOCs, why not link to them in the comments, and I can add them to my recommended courses page.

Trinity AMusTCL Resources

Trinity LogoNow that my AMusTCL exam is over, I’ve collated all the useful links to essays and analysis I’ve found throughout the course of my preparations. Over time, I hope to provide links and book recommendations for the sections I didn’t do as well, along with a series of posts to give some better guidance on preparing for the exam.

Section A – Lutheran Chorale

Tom Pankhurst’s Chorale Guide – Straightforward, step-by-step method for completing chorale-based tasks. Work through all the worksheets and you’ll be on your way to full marks.

JSBChorales.net – Most of Bach’s chorales are online at this site. It’s really important to get a feel for how the original chorales look and sound and this site has plenty of mp3s and MIDI files to help non-pianists listen to the music.

Section A – Orchestration

I’ve yet to find much about this one, but a good knowledge of instruments is key.

Section A – Popular Song

Music Arrangers Page – A blog all about arranging for popular music. Not all of it is relevant, but it’s worth looking through the articles and applying the ideas to your own practice.

Section B – Schubert Symphony No 5 in Bb
Topic list blog post

This was definitely the trickiest section to prepare for. However, plenty of work on identifying chords and musical features is important in gaining the more straightforward marks on part b.

Scott Foglesong – Scott Foglesong works for the San Fransisco Conservatory of Music, and he’s put up a fantastic essay analysing Schubert’s Symphony no 5 in Bb. Saved me a lot of time doing the formal analysis, so I can concentrate on the thematic issues.

Section C – Musicals
Topic list blog post

The best way to approach this section is to watch as many of the musicals as possible. Lots of these are available on Netflix and LoveFIlm, and you can also find various versions on YouTube.

“Inside” series from New Line Theatre – there doesn’t seem to be an index page, but the link will take you to the search which brings up most of the pages. There are articles on Chicago, and Jesus Christ Superstar

Notes, analysis & essays for OCR A level Music – a Scottish-based webpage with useful articles on West Side Story and Les Miserables.

Sweeney Todd: an analysis of the dramatic and musical structure – Someone has very kindly put up their entire PhD thesis on this particular show, with detailed analysis on several of the key songs.

Michael Bennett’s A Chorus LIne 101 – Three pages analysing the songs and structure of the show.

A Chorus Line: Does it Abide By Equity? – Ok, not strictly speaking useful for the exam, but a really interesting read! (link is to a PDF)

Have you taken an AMusTCL? What resources did you find useful? Post them below.

AMusTCL – Topics for Section C

Trinity LogoTaken from the past papers (2009 sample, 2010 and 2011 so far), here are a list of the topics which have been covered by previous essay questions in Section C: Stylistic Development – Musical Responses.

Toccata: Jacques Loussier Plays Bach

  • Spontaneity and improvisation
  • Inspiration from Baroque features
  • Creative limitations of arranging
  • Commonality between Baroque and Jazz
  • Compositions in their own rights?

Popular Music

  • Worldwide appeal
  • Variety of cultural backgrounds
  • Innovation
  • Distinct musical sound
  • Musical qualities that lead to success
  • Non-musical qualities that lead to success (video/fashion/publicity etc)

Film Music

  • Hallmarks of film music as a specific genre
  • Importance of music in film as an art form
  • Integration of music within the film
  • Music and emotional response
  • Relationship to Programme Music
  • Role of music in enhancing drama

Musicals

  • Conflict between speech and music v. unified artistic whole
  • Treatment of ‘the outsider’
  • Social and contemporary issues
  • Role as ‘Protest music’
  • Ingredients of a successful musical
  • Popularity of the music v. other reasons for success

For details of the full questions, the past papers can be purchased from Trinity. I have no insider knowledge, so this is by no means a guarantee that these topics will come up again. However, it should give an idea of what kind of areas to focus on in preparing.

I hope this is helpful if you are preparing for this exam. I’m hoping to get a resources post up soon with links to websites I’ve found useful.

AMusTCL – Topics for Section B

Trinity LogoTaken from the past papers (2009 sample, 2010 and 2011 so far), here are a list of the topics which have been covered by previous essay questions in Section B: Stylistic Development – Set Works.

Schubert Symphony no 5 in Bb major

  • Relationship to music which came before and after
  • Treatment of sonata form
  • Chamber-like nature
  • Hallmarks of the classical symphony
  • Markers of later symphonic form

Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms

  • Novelty of orchestral features
  • Use of orchestration to provide colour
  • The setting of the text
  • Innovation in the music
  • Neo-classicism
  • Latin as a language choice

For details of the full questions, the past papers can be purchased from Trinity. I have no insider knowledge, so this is by no means a guarantee that these topics will come up again. However, it should give an idea of what kind of areas to focus on in preparing.

I hope this is helpful if you are preparing for this exam. I’m hoping to get a resources post up soon with links to websites I’ve found useful.

A Brief History of the Crotchet

When learning to read musical notation, the representation of pitch is pretty logical. When the blobs go up, the pitch gets higher, when the blobs go down the pitch gets lower. So far, so good.

However, what’s less clear is rhythm. Most musical theory works start with the crotchet, or quarter note, and then work outwards. In reality, starting with a crotchet is a little bit like learning the alphabet by starting with the letter M, or learning to count starting at 5!

So let’s go back to where our modern notation came from.

Pre-staff notation

Unsurprisingly, like the notation in this picture, it started out being blobs and lines going up and down. This was all very well for someone who already basically knew the songs, like a monk who sung the same psalms over and over again. Not so great, though, if you’re trying to learn a new song from what’s been written down without having heard it.

As a result, a system of representing rhythm developed. At first, this was by joining groups of blobs together with bars. The direction and number of blobs joined told singers which rhythm the notes were supposed to be sung to.

The blobs became the basic count and were called “breves” because they were short (or brief) compared to the “longa” or long note. The breve was a black blob, and the longa was a black rectangle with a little tail. It’s not exactly clear why they used those, but so it was.

As music got more complicated, singers needed new divisions of notes. To show a semibreve, the breve was drawn as a diamond. Then to make it shorter and create a minima (tiny note), an upwards line was added. Then a little tail on the top.

White mensural notation

Somewhere around the 15th century, scribes added in an extra level by beginning to draw the longer notes as open shapes, and filling in shorter ones with black centres. This allowed another level of notes, open with a stick, and closed with a stick, before the adding a tail.

The shape of the heads slowly became less important, thanks to the use of tails and the open/closed distinction. As music writing ceased to be the exclusive realm of trained monastic scribes, they became round, like the notes we know today.

So, if you’re trying learn your way around note values, remember the breve (which we rarely use today is the basic block. Chop a breve in half, and you get a semibreve. Chop a semibreve in half and you get a minim (remember – minimal, tiny note!). Chop that in half and you get a “fusa” which is now known as a crotchet. Half of that is a semifusa, now called a quaver.

Finally, it’s worth remembering all this if only to totally confuse anyone who uses American terms. After all, it’s really the breve that’s the “whole note” and semibreves are “half notes”, half notes or minims are really “quarter notes” and so on…!

Want to know more about how to read music? Discover Singing offers theory lessons in Leith, Edinburgh.