Tag Archives: music facts

I Can’t sing! I’m Tone Deaf!

Image by smarles at freeimages.com

Image by smarles at freeimages.com

Too many people say to me “I’m tone deaf”, but I’ve yet to meet someone who acutally suffers with this disability.

Yes, tone deafness is a real medical condition. Tone deafness is an inability to recognise relative pitch, which is a subsection of a condition called amusia. People who suffer with amusia have some kind of neurological abnormality that affects how their brain processes sound.

There’s a very simple test of tone deafness. Ask a friend to sing or play a high note, and then a low one. If you can tell which note was higher and was lower, congratulations you’re not tone deaf! (If you couldn’t tell, do go and see a medical professional…)

People who have amusia can have a range of problems including being unable to recognise differences in pitch (tone deafness), not being able to remember familiar tunes (like Happy Birthday), not being able to tell whether music is tonal (if it harmonises) or not. Because the brain is complex, this the symptoms can vary massively.

Having genuine tone deafness is like having very severe dyslexia which makes it near impossible to learn to read.

So why do people who can hear music normally say they are tone deaf?

“Tone deaf” has become a colloquial term people use when they’ve not acquired the basic musical skill of being able to hear a note and reproduce it. An person with amusia will not be able to do this because they can’t hear the note. Most people who claim to be “tone deaf” can hear the note just find, but they either aren’t listening to it in a way that they can understand the pitch, or haven’t learnt to listen to the pitch of their own voice.

When we listen to someone speaking, we aren’t always really listening. Have you ever found yourself drifting mentally when someone is speaking and then realised you haven’t heard the question they just asked you? It’s the same with learning to hear a melody. Just hearing isn’t enough. People who are “musical” both hear the melody as a sound, and they hear inside their head – they think along with the melody.

Lots of people learn this skill when they are really young through singing with their parents as children, through attending worship services, or through music at school. Some people don’t, and it’s not that they can’t learn.

Calling yourself “tone deaf” does nothing but convince you and others that you can’t learn musical skills. This is nonsense. Everyone who has learned to speak and listen has musical awareness – pitch and rhythm are part of language, and you use these skills every day. Even babies can tell the difference between sounds that clash (dissonant) and sounds that harmonise (consonant).
If you still think you’re genuinely tone deaf, make an appointment to see your GP, and get checked. You don’t want to be missing out on opportunities if you’re not!

I’m Convinced, I’m pretty sure I’m not actually Tone Deaf – Can I Learn How to Hold a Tune?

Yes! The simplest way to combat a lack of musical awareness is to get making music. Join a choir, take up an instrument, listen to more music, sing along to the radio! If you have kids, why not join a parents and children music group. There will be loads of opportunities in your local area to make music with others, and the more music you make, the better you will get. There’s also various online games and even a MOOC on musicianship skills on Coursera, if time is pushed.

Whatever you do, stop saying you can’t, because that’s the biggest barrier you face.

Have you ever thought you were tone deaf? What convinced you that you were, or weren’t?

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.

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.

A History of Music for Singers – Resources and More

So we’ve travelled the best part of 2,000 or 3,000 years as we’ve examined the history of music, and especially the history of vocal music. If you’ve missed any of the posts in this series, you can jump to all of them here:

A History of Music for Singers

However, I hope this won’t be the end of your interest in the history of music. In fact, I hope this is only the beginning. Here are some of my favourite resources as a starting point:



(Books bought through the above links will benefit the running of the Discover Singing blog)


Classics for Kids – This child-friendly website features a different composer each week with a five-minute audio podcast feed and loads of information.

Radio 3 Composer of the Week – Each week BBC Radio 3 features a particular composer with features on them each day. At the end of the week a one hour edited programme is released as a podcast and these remain available on the feed. UK access only, though.

Classic FM Discover – This UK radio station plays classical music all day, every day and is usually considered more accessible than BBC Radio 3 in style. Their website has some great resources on the history of classical music, and suggestions of music for various themes and events like weddings or studying. There’s also a section on film scores, since this makes up a large proportion of the more modern music they play.


Composer of the Month: Georges Bizet

Logo Composer of the Month

October is here and it’s time for a new Composer of the Month

This month, to time with this composer’s birthday, I’ve chosen one of the “one hit wonders” of the musical world. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that many composers who are now only known for one work struggled for years, writing many other things before lighting on their best work.

Bizet, George

Bizet Image



Born: 1838
Died:  1875
Nationality: French
Lived in: Paris, France
Fame Rating: Mezzopiano



Bizet was born in Paris, and lived most of his life there. He showed exceedingly early promise – learning to sing by listening at the door while his father was teaching – and entered the Conservatoire de Paris aged only 9. While there, he won numerous prizes and graduated with a scholarship to travel around Europe.

Bizet’s scholarship took him first to Rome, where he composed an oratorio work – a setting of religious words. However, this was not received very well, and this, along with his atheism meant that Bizet never set religious words again. Instead, he turned to opera, and he requested to stay in Rome for an additional year to work on this further, rather than travel to Germany as part of his scholarship.

Unfortunately, Bizet’s mother fell ill during this extra year (1860), and he was forced to return to Paris to care for her. In Paris, he continued composing, but once the scholarship money ran out, he was unable to survive simply as a composer. Paris, like many big cities with conservatoires, was overrun with musicians and composers. To make things even worse, the main opera houses were very traditional and did not often commission or produce new work. Bizet, like most composers, became a teacher to supplement his income.

Life was not entirely miserable for Bizet – in 1869, he married his composition teacher’s daughter who had been a longstanding friend. He had also, by this time, completed his two other well-known operas, Les pêcheurs de perles and La jolie fille de Perth, which were both staged in Paris. Unfortunately, neither was considered to be terribly good by the critics.

Things did not improve for Bizet. In 1870, war struck France as Napoleon II declared war over Prussia. The Emperor was defeated and deposed by the end of the year, and Paris became subsumed into a civil war. Others fled the city, but Bizet held out for several months before even he decided it was too dangerous and moved out until peace was restored.

On returning to Paris, Bizet was appointed as chorus-master at the Paris Opera, and he also received another commission for the Opéra-Comique. Unfortunately, however, the director of the Opéra-Comique found the subject matter of the opera to be too controversial. Bizet had to wait for the director to resign before he was able to proceed with what would later be considered his most important work.

Carmen premiered to an audience filled with Bizet’s composer friends and peers, as well as critics and ordinary theatre-goers. The reaction was as mixed as the audience. Massenet and Saint-Sans congratulated Bizet on his success, while his friend, Charles Gounod, seemed to accused him of plagiarism! The critics were equally as divided with many of them expressing concern that the heroine of the piece was an amoral gypsy woman.

Bizet, sadly, would never know how famous and respected his work would become. A matter of months after the opening of Carmen, he suffered two suspected heart attacks within days of one another. The second was fatal, and he died on 3rd June 1875. The performance of Carmen was suspended on the day of his funeral, and the eulogy was given by his long-standing friend and competitor Gounod.

Today Carmen remains one of the most popular and famous operas of all time, and Bizet’s other works are also gaining recognition, with Les pêcheurs de perles ranking at number 41 in the Classic FM Hall of Fame 2013

Famous Historical Events During Bizet’s Lifetime:

  • 1845-49 – Irish potato famine
  • 1853-58 – The Crimean War
  • 1859 – Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species
  • 1861-65 – The American Civil War
  • 1870-71 – The Franco-Prussian War leads to the unification of Germany and Italy.

Find out more about Bizet elsewhere online:
Classics for Kids – BBC Radio 3 – Classic FM – Wikipedia

A History of Music for Singers – The 20th Century (& Beyond)

A History of Music for SingersFor most people, when they think of “modern” music, the first things that spring to mind are either contemporary popular music (which is a story for another series), atonalism, or 4’33. For singers, however, none of these ideas really reflect the vocal music produced in the 20th century.

It feels like stating the obvious to say that the 20th century was a century of massive social change. If you’ve ever watched Downton Abbey, you’ll know life in 1912 was very different from live in 2000. Two world wars, one cold war, and a digital revolution. It’s not surprising music changed drastically.

The story of 20th century music begins where we left the Romantic era – Wagner and Gilbert & Sullivan. Wagner was the high point of what we now call “Classical” music. Rich in harmony, full of complex musical features but still tonal. This high art continued to be the favoured style for many musicians into the early 20th century. However, there was a new force on the horizon – modernism. Inspired by, and reacting to the growth of industrial cities, artists who began to abandon the “rules” of their genres, rejecting the idea that their work should reflect the real. Fine art began to experiment with abstraction (Picasso), and  playwrights developed new surrealist theatre (Brecht).

Composers began to pull away from the traditional rules of harmony, and tried to invent new ways to create music. One of the most commonly cited examples of this is serialism, where all twelve notes of the keyboard are placed in a random order and are used in that order. For an excellent explanation of how serialism works, click on the first video below (warning: it’s 30 minutes long). If you don’t have time, click on the second video and have a listen to an example of serialist music.

Vocal music was not, however, frequently produced by those working at the cutting edge of modernist music. I suspect this is because very atonal music is not very easy to sing. However, the influence of this disregard for traditional harmony can be felt in many early twentieth century songs which go further than Romantic songs in using chromatic harmonies and playing fast and loose with key signatures. This is an example of an art song by Debussy, who was heavily influenced by modernist ideas.

By the mid-20th Century, composers such as Benjamin Britten, Gian Carlo Menotti and Michael Tippet were using this densely harmonised music to convey the complex and fractured nature of post-war society. Listen to this aria, The Soul of Man, from Michael Tippet’s Child of Our Time oratorio, composed during World War II.

The early 20th century is also where there is a divergence of music into a range of more defined genres takes hold. While the composers of “high art” music were experimenting with atonalism, other composers drew on the bastard child of opera, the operetta, to develop a new genre of sung music – the musical. This genre completely ignored the deconstruction of harmony and retained a regular and familiar feel . Listen to this song by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who are credited with defining the modern genre of musical theatre:

Popular music also began to develop as it became possible to record music, and share it. Music like jazz and ragtime from the black communities of America began to influence popular song writers from other cultural backgrounds, and by the mid-1950s, popular music was no longer just songs learned by ear in the pub – it was an industry and a genre all of its own. Listen to this early rock & roll song by Bill Haley & his Comets, and see if you hear the parallels with blues and jazz.

However, this divide between popular music and high classical music was not completely clear-cut thanks to one last invention in the 20th century: cinema. Since the invention of the “talkies”, background music has become integral to the way in which stories are told on film. This has spawned a whole new genre of classical music which is still listened to by the masses. I’m sure this fabulous piece of classical music by John Williams needs no introduction:

From small beginnings around the firesides and alters of the 14th and 15th centuries, music in the 21st century is a thriving business, thriving on variety as well as popularity. All the way through, the voice has remained at the centre of this development, and now drives the most profitable part of the music industry – popular music.

The key forms of music for voice in the 20th Century era were:

  • New song genres – jazz, pop, musical, blues
  • Musical theatre
  • Rise of ‘popular music’
  • Opera, choral works and religious music still written
  • Non-singing vocal forms like rap develop

 When you’re trying to decide if something is 20th Century music, listen out for:

  • Experimental
  • Often dissonant
  • Based on unusual harmonies
  • Wide variety of trends and styles
  • Development of film and TV music
  • New forms of ‘folk music’
  • Anything goes!

Composers to Remember:


–> Next week: Resources and More

[Introduction] ♦ [Previous Post]

A History of Music for Singers – The Romantic Era

A History of Music for SingersThe Romantic Period in musical history is so termed because it’s an era of music that’s endlessly high on emotion whether in art, music, or literature. Largely, this “Romanticism” is considered to be a reaction to the developing Industrial Revolution which saw machines take over from people and cities grow sprawling and black with coal. Artists wanted to stand against this de-humanising and un-natural direction and instead bring out human emotions and natural themes. Compare the top picture of the Victorian City with the painting by Turner from 1839 below.

Victorian City

For composers, this was the start of two centuries of experimentation. Music became more focussed on emotional communication rather than technical elegance, giving scope for complex chromatic harmonies and vast, dramatic orchestrations. Listen to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 (Pathétique) and compare it to some of the music by Mozart in the previous post on Classical Music – it’s a totally different listening experience.The Romantic Period in music covers most of the 19th Century, the era of Queen Victoria for us Brits, and relative political stability in many countries, although there were still plenty of Civil Wars, and International Conflicts.

However, the biggest changes were social, with everything from the introduction of workhouses, to the invention of blue jeans. This is also the age of the novel, with literature becoming more popular as printing has become mechanised for the masses. Music is also printed more frequently now, and music books develop into the forms we have them today. The Romantic period is generally thought of as ending in the 1910s, as the Great War was looming and political unrest began to plague Europe again.

For singers, the biggest change that happens is that composers begin to use the voice as an instrument. Art songs, a trend which began in the Classical era, develop into a huge genre with its own internal divisions (English songs are quite distinct from German Lieder and French Mélodie). The lyrics are mostly poetic settings, written by Romantic poets, but the words are subsumed into a soundworld that tells the story whether or not you can understand the words. Have a listen to this beautiful setting by Fauré. The poem is by an anonymous Italian, but was translated into French by Romain Bussine.

The other main feature of the Romantic period for singers is the rise, rise and rise of Opera, reaching its zenith with Wagner at the end of the 19th Century. Wagner is responsible for the image of the opera singer as fat, Viking-horned, singing full pelt with plenty of vibrato! However, there were plenty of other kinds of opera on offer which are slightly less intense. Here’s an aria from Verdi’s opera, Il Trovatore that shows the dramatic potential of high romantic opera.

Popular music was also developing new trends. As published music became more accessible and pianos more affordable, the broadside ballads of previous eras developed into parlour songs for the rich and music hall for the not-so-rich. Mass employment in factories led to more people living in cities, and more people with set working hours that gave them distinct leisure time – and people with leisure time wanted entertainment. Music Halls provided a good sing-a-long of bawdy songs and comic sketches for the work-weary masses. Here’s an early recording (1907) of music hall star Vesta Victoria singing a well known song Wating at the Church.

Music Hall and Parlour Songs also gave rise to a new type of musical show – the operetta. Operettas had more of the feel of the music hall, while still keeping the kinds of stories and orchestrations of opera, and borrowing spoken dialogue from theatrical plays. The masters of this genre were Gilbert and Sullivan, and here’s an aria you might recognise.

The final trend related to song that was a huge part of the Romantic period was nationalism. Nationalism was a huge issue in the 19th Century as modern nation states began to take shape under their own governments. This often led to an interest in the cultural heritage of the people who made up the modern nation, and (in the wake of the Grand Tour of the classical era) interested individuals began to “collect” traditional music. In countries across Europe and beyond, composers collected volumes of songs sung by ordinary people, writing them down and sometimes arranging them as art songs, or collating different versions into a “best” version. One of the most famous collectors of them all was a Scot by the name of Robert Burns. Burns collected hundreds of Scottish folk songs and arranged many of them into the tunes that are now so famous. The clip below is the result of Burns listening to a dozen different versions of Ae Fond Kiss, collating them together to select the most effective combination of words and music from different versions, and then publishing his work. Burns is possibly one of the most famous editors in all of history!

The key forms of music for voice in the Romantic era were:

  • Opera
  • Operetta and early musical theatre
  • Songs (lieder, chanson) often about love, nature, or both
  • National anthems
  • Transcription of folk songs
  • Parlour songs and music hall
  • Almost complete separation of religious song from mainstream composition

When you’re trying to decide if something is Romantic music, listen out for:

  • Dramatic, emotive & descriptive
  • Virtuosic
  • Full of contrasts
  • Thicker texture
  • Complex harmonies with chromatic movement
  • Lyrics which are as descriptive as the music
  • Draws on national musical traditions

Composers to Remember:


–> Next week: The Modern (20th Century) Era

[Introduction] ♦ [Previous Post]

A History of Music for Singers – The Baroque Era

A History of Music for SingersLast week, we began journeying through the history of music with the Renaissance period. The Renaissance slowly transitioned into the Baroque (Bar-RO-ck) period around the start of the 16th Century. The name Baroque developed from a Latinate word meaning “rough or imperfect pearl” and was actually initially used to make fun of the elaborate style of music and art which became popular. Now, it is just used in a more technical sense to talk about the creative arts in the century from about 1650 to about 1750.

Fashion in 1600sIn Britain, the Barque era saw the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (which included the English Civil War) and the union of the English and Scottish Parliaments to create the United Kingdom. This was a time when many Empires were being built, and the aristocracy were enjoying a golden age (that would soon come crashing down around their ears…).

One of the key aspects of music at this time is that it was mainly funded either by the church (as it had been in the Renaissance) or by the aristocracy. Musicians were employed by courts, or by theatres owned by rich noblemen, and they worked on commission. One of the most enduringly famous works of George Frederick Handel (the epitome of Baroque composition) is Zadok the Priest, which was composed for the coronation of George I of Great Britain in 1727:

The patronage of the upper classes encouraged the growth of formal ceremonial music, but it also saw new forms develop. The leisured classes wanted entertainment, and so the genres of opera (for secular stories) and oratorio (for religious and mythological texts) developed. In the early days, operas looked very similar to modern musicals with dance sections, scripted elements and songs. Here’s a song from Purcell’s early opera King Arthur.

Chamber Music

Chamber music also developed as a way for the rich to enjoy music in their own homes – in their “chambers”. Chamber music has a very small orchestra because the whole group had to fit in someone’s living room. Many of the chamber works at the time took inspiration from dance music like minuets, gavottes and sarabandes.

Church music also continued to be popular and important. One of the most influential writers of church music was J S Bach. Bach wrote hundreds of choral hymns, which are now known as “chorales”, and some of them are still sung in chuches today, and others have become famous in their own right, like Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.

Ordinary people too, were exposed to this church music. The Reformation had changed Sundays forever, and people were now singing hymns and psalms like never before. One of the principles of the Reformation was that every man should learn scripture and choose faith for himself. Singing hymns was one way to help the average Joe in the pew memorise bible verses and scriptural truths.

Outside church, broadside ballads still ruled popular music, and they would come to play an important role in motivating the general population to take sides in everything from the Reformation to the Civil War. The governments of the day also paid writers to produce warning songs about excecuted criminals. It was a little bit like setting the news stories found in The Sun to the music of Adele!

There were a number of popular vocal forms during the Baroque period. Some, like masques, masses and oratorios were new. Others, like Monody, were developments from Renaissance inventions like the Air:

These forms also developed for chamber orchestras:

When you’re listening to decide if something is Baroque music, it’s likely to have some of these features:

  • Elaborate – usually embellished with ornaments like trills and turns
  • Rhythmic – it’s easy to hear the beat
  • Complex and detailed – the different parts all keep moving around
  • Dramatic – thick harmonies, and changes in dynamics and tempo
  • Follows all the ‘rules’ of harmony – no chromatic chords, or strange arrangements

Composers to Remember:

–> Next week: The Classical Era

[Introduction] ♦ [Previous Post]

A History of Music for Singers : The Renaissance

A History of Music for SingersThe Renaissance – a time of grandeur, of experimentation and of scientific progress. For me, the Renaissance (ruh-NAY-sonce) conjures up grand Italian and Spanish courts with explorers and architects lining up to impress the monarchs. (Well, unless you pronounce it REN-ess-ahns, in which case, it’s bad wench costumes and spit roast pig in an American field!) I don’t, generally, think of Britain, or the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland, as having much to do with this flowering of culture.

However, Henry VIII (1507-1547) was considered to be just a much a “Renaissance prince” as any other monarch. Yes, England was a little late to the party, thanks to a long running civil war (the Wars of the Roses) and a dour king who favoured an austerity policy (Henry VII). Scotland didn’t fare much better with the Stuarts getting themselves imprisoned by their own people (James III) and defeated by their old enemies (Battle of Flodden Field 1513). Yet, James V (1513-42) was a keen lutenist, and supported the growth of the arts in his country just as other European monarchs did.

The term Renaissance means “rebirth”. Around this time, there was a rediscovery of lots of Greek and Roman thinking and ideas which is what gave the inspiration for the term “renaissance” (which first appeared in the 19th century – it wasn’t used at the time). Another important element at this time, which matters for our story, is that the landed elites – the rulers of the day – were developing a system called “patronage” for funding the arts. Artists no longer had to either work for the church, or sell their wares. Instead, they were given a commission by a patron to create their work. Some were even paid on a retainer as court musicians, artists, poets and even scientists. Finally, there was also a grand new modern invention – the printing press – which made it easier to distribute music on a mass scale.

At the top of the social scale, music began to branch out beyond the church music that had dominated high art before this time. There were new ideas about composition which flowed from the rediscovered Greek and Roman thinking – music became more complex, and during this time the modern scales we use today were slowly refined. New forms of harmony also developed – polyphony (the weaving of multiple melodies) became more complex and homophony (block chords as used in hymn tunes and contemporary popular music) started to be included.

Renaissance singersSo what did this mean for vocal music? Well, the biggest change was the development of secular song. Traditional secular music had existed for a long time (see last week), but now the printing press allowed mass distribution. For ordinary people, this came in the form of the broadside ballad. Broadside ballads were new lyrics to popular tunes and followed the same themes as our pop music does today. There were political songs about current affairs (“Times, they are a-changing” – Bob Dylan). There were comic songs with lewd lyrics (“Thong song” – Sisqo) and without (“Earnie, the fastest milkman in the west”). Gallows songs, about the fate of criminals were very popular (“03 Bonnie & Clyde” – Beyonce & JayZ), as were the ever popular love songs (uh, everything else?). Broadside ballads were posted up on pub walls where those who could read would share the lyrics with everyone else. Here’s an example:

At the more elite end of music, songs began to be produced. Even Henry VIII wrote a few, with Greensleeves being one of the most famous to be attributed to him. This period saw a flowering of English composition. Works by Dowland, Byrd, Morely and others still appear on singing exam syllabi today. Many of these songs retain the characteristic uneven time signatures and slightly irregular tonality of this period, making them more challenging to sing than music from the classical era, for example. You can hear one of Dowland’s compositions below:

Music also entered into the fledgling world of theatre. Shakespeare’s songs, for example, have no surviving music, so large numbers of composers have set the same lyrics to different tunes. You can hear some selections of settings of “It was a Lover and his Lass” from As You Like It in the playlist below.

So we know that vocal music came in a wide range of different forms (click on each one to go to an example on youtube):

When listening to Renaissance music, here are the key features to listen for:

  • Renaissance musicModal harmony – use of different modal scales (see future post on modes)
  • Acappella singing – limited use of instruments – recorders and lutes were popular
  • Polyphonic sound – interweaving melodies
  • Contrapuntal – use of imitation
  • Word pictures – the music matches the words (the word “flying” might be on the highest note)

Composers to remember:

–> Next week: The Baroque Era

[Introduction] ♦ [Previous Post]

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.

Bagpipes Sound Weird for a Reason

Once or twice, I’ve had students insist to me that a Cb is the same as a B. Each time, I have to remind them that, actually they’re not the same note at all and as singers it’s very important to remember that.

Now, many of you may go “huh? I thought a Cb and a B were the same note? They’re the same key on a piano!”. They are indeed the same key, but they’re not actually the same note. As a t-shirt I bought in Thailand says “Same Same, But Different”.

About 300 years ago, Western music adopted Equal Temperament. In essence, this is where all instruments (pianos in particular) are tuned so that all intervals are exactly the same*, even though in the natural world, they’re not. So your beloved piano is, by the wonders of modernity and our desperate need to enforce order in a chaotic world, tuned slightly flat at one end and sharp at the other. So, in the world of equal temperament, yes, a Cb looks and sounds and sings like a B. But it’s not a B.

Outside our crazy, regimented Western music, a Cb is fractionally higher than a B. Which brings us back to bagpipes. Bagpipes are not tuned to equal temperament! They’re tuned to Just Intonation (or, as I like to think of it, left in their wild slightly-unharmonious natural state). This is why their intervals sound slightly strange to us, as though they’re not quite in tune. In reality, the bagpipes are actually -in- tune, and the rest of our music isn’t. Kinda.

Acappella singing also tends to drift towards just intonation. I suspect this is why it’s blindingly obvious when TV shows and films like Glee and Pitch Perfect use voice samples plugged through a keyboard to fill out the acappella singing. It just doesn’t sound right, and I wonder if it’s because actually, true acappella singing is justly intonated, not equally tempered.

So there you have it, a short explanation of why bagpipes sound weird, and also why the voice is the most flexible instrument out there – it can be equally tempered and justly intonated without any trouble.

If you want more, the Wikipedia pages are pretty good, and I believe Ross Duffin’s How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony and Why You Should Care comes pretty well recommended.


*The intervals are not all the same length because the frequency ratios differ slightly for each pair of notes. Equal Temperament is an average ratio, based on the ratios of the note A, which has nice neat frequencies of 110hz, 220hz, 330hz, 440hz etc. For a more detailed explanation, see the Wikipedia page, or speak to a music teacher!