Tag Archives: theory

Why bother with music theory?

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.

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.

Break a… Pencil? (Good Luck for Theory Exams)

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailThis afternoon is the ABRSM theory exam date, and Trinity are holding theirs on Saturday. Good luck if you’re taking a theory exam this week!

For those of you who are in a twirl, here’s a few last minute tips to see you safely to the end of the exam:

  • Make sure you’re prepared for a broken pencil – pack yourself a couple of pencils, an enclosed sharpener, a good quality rubber and a ruler. Bringing more than one pencil is definitely vital.
  • Know how much time you have for each question – most theory exams are plenty long enough, but it’s best to work out how much time you can spend on the tough questions before you go in, so you’re not rushing at the end.
  • Manage your time carefully – I always suggest candidates start with the hardest question first (usually the compose-a-melody for grade 5). Click here to read my suggested order for Grades 1-5.
  • Look at the marks available – Don’t spend half an hour trying to remember an Italian term which will only actually give you one more mark!
  • Check your work – most marks lost are silly mistakes, so make sure you double check all your details before you leave the exam.
  • Chill out afterwards – do something nice afterwards, whether that’s a mug of hot chocolate, your favourite TV show, or taking time to enjoy playing your instrument.

If you want more tips, click on over to my theory exam top tips post from earlier this year, or if you have one to share, leave a comment below.

A History of Music for Singers – The Classical Era

A History of Music for SingersIf the Baroque Era was the era of music for Kings, the Classical Era was music for escapism. As we learned in the last part of this series, the music of the Baroque era was composed for Kings and Dukes. However, as Capitalism began to rule supreme in Europe, composers became more business minded and began to become more independent.

Fashion in 1700s

From a wider point of view, the Classical Era was a time of social and political upheaval in the Western world. In 1776, after a bloody war, thirteen British colonies joined together to declare themselves independent and formed what would become one of the most powerful nations on earth – the United States. Two decades later, the French declared a revolution and chop off the head of their King. Revolutions were also happening in Belgium, Austria, Haiti, Poland and Ireland. The Swedish and Russians assassinate their ruling monarchs. By the end of the era, in 1820, Britain has been to war with Napoleon twice, both at Waterloo and Trafalgar.

However, in music, this is not the era of Wagner’s Sturm und Drang. No, Mozart is King of the opera house with his tales of love and adventure – escapism akin to today’s trend for comic book superheroes in the midst of financial recession and uncertainty. To be rich enough to go to the opera and enjoy high classical music is to be at risk of being overthrown by the revolutions of the poor. No one wanted to pay money to be reminded how bad life was outside, so the classical composers provided a safe haven where all was right with the world.

Edinburgh Old CollegeThe other key influence on Classical music was the “classics”. Developing on from the Renaissance interest in Greek and Roman ideas, Classical art and architecture drew on the Greek and Roman art which was being rediscovered by collectors. This is the era of the Grand Tour when rich Europeans travelled to the Mediterranean to collect a little bit of history. It’s the era of the British Museum with its classical columns on the outside and Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon (collected 1810-12) on the inside. Classical art is notable for its simplicity, clean lines, formal structures and emphasis on order and hierarchy (an antidote to the challenge to order and hierarchy going on politically). You can see an example of this in the picture of the University of Edinburgh’s Old College which was designed in 1817.

This emphasis on clean lines, simplicity and formal structure extended into music. Classical music is notably less rich than Baroque music, and tends towards a “melody and accompaniment” form. By using this form, there was more scope for other kinds of variety such as greater use of dynamics and changes of mood within a single movement or section. Modulations became more adventurous and more frequent, paving the way for the chromaticism that would be a hallmark of Romantic music (itself leading to atonalism). Here’s an example of classical song by Beethoven:

Instrumentation became more fixed. In the Baroque era, it was common to miss out certain instruments or add in additional ones, and use a “continuo” bass (similar to a modern leadsheet which shows just the chords and leaves the pianist or guitarist to interpret the chords as they see fit). Classical music moved towards a system whereby the music was played as written every time with the same instruments. The “continuo” bass declined as the piano (see right for an example of an early design) replaced all previous instruments as the keyboard of choice for all music. This alone provided a whole new vocabulary of musical sounds as the piano can be played with much greater expression than the harpsichord or organ. This is one of Haydn’s piano sonatas:

For singers, the Classical era saw developments in of both opera and song. Oratorios fell out of favour, and instead, Mozart made opera a real genre of its own with his engaging stories drawing on literature as well as mythology and theology which had previously dominated. As composers were drawn more and more away from the church and into the drawing room, secular songs became popular with composers setting poetry to music. Many of the new art songs were “serenades” dedicated to a specific person. Vocal music in this era was really a prelude to the flowering of the voice as an instrument that the Romantic era would bring. Words were important, but the melody became more important. Here’s a great example of Mozart melding melody with words in the opera The Magic Flute:

For the ordinary people, song became the means of protest. The music of the people was key to uniting them around a cause and expressing the fears of the participants. It’s no co-incidence that the very successful musical Les Miserables is set against a background of revolution with its rousing chorus of “Do You Hear the People Sing?”. Songs had always reflected the political circumstances, but now it was a unifying force for war. (Another thing which foreshadowed the role of popular song in the 20th Century). Here’s a song from the American Revolutionary War which is still sung today:

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

Most of the new forms were for instruments, and these included:

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

  • Simple but beautiful
  • Restrained and elegant
  • Clear in melody and accompaniment
  • Usually singable, with clear phrases

Composers to Remember:

The composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828, Aus) is the most notable “transition” composer who bridged the Classical and Romantic styles.

–> Next week: The Romantic Era

[Introduction] ♦ [Previous Post]

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


  • 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.

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.

How the Voice Works – A Guide for Singers

Following on from the post last week about how breathing works, here’s a quick guide to how the voice works.

There are four parts to the voice the air pressure system, the vibratory system, the resonating system, and the modifying system. Each of these works to create the sounds we make when speaking and singing.

Candle-flame-no-reflectionWe’ve already looked at the air pressure system – it’s the diaphragm and intercostal muscles that pull air into the lungs and then control the outflow of air. You can test it! Imagine there’s a candle in front of you or use the one on the right. With your first breath out, blow over the candle very gently so that you would make the flame flicker, but not go out. Now, with your next breath, blow a strong puff of air as though you’re going to blow the candle out. Manage it? Congratulations – you can modify the air pressure coming out of your lungs!

You can see how the lungs connect to the throat and mouth in this diagram:

So let’s look now at the vibratory system. This is what turns the air into sound – at this stage, it’s just any old sound, though. To create sound, your body has vocal folds (or vocal chords as they used to be called). These are flappy bits of flesh which are normally relaxed when you breathe in an out. When you choose to speak, your body uses muscles to create tension, and the air rushing past them makes them vibrate. The closest analogy in the musical world is the way in which blowing into the reed on a clarinet or an oboe produces sound. If you watch the video below, you can see the vocal folds vibrating as the poor person with the camera down their throat tries to sing for us…

balloon-squeakerOne way in which I demonstrate this for my students is by getting a balloon and blowing it up so it’s full of air. Then I pull the neck of the balloon taught and let the air out – it makes a very loud, but unfocused noise! Try it for yourself next time you are blowing up balloons for a party.

Singers learn to adjust the muscles around their vocal folds and the larynx that protects them so that the quality of the sound is clearer. Learning to sing also involves exercising these muscles to make them stronger and more flexible which increases the range. Because we can’t normally feel these muscles, it can involve some creative exercises and lots of imagination!

Now the body has made sound, we need to make the sound louder. The noise made by vocal folds is quite small, so the body has a resonating system to amplify the sound. Many instruments have a resonating system – for example, the body of a violin or acoustic guitar, or the long length of the tube on a trombone.

In humans, our resonating system is our mouth and nose, or “oral and nasal cavities”. Just as the body of a string instrument allows sound waves to bounce around and get bigger inside it, so the space in our mouth and nose allows the sound from our vocal folds to get larger. You can feel the effect a little if you hum single note in the lower half of your voice. As you hum, relax your lips until you can feel them vibrating. That vibration is the effect of your mouth magnifying the sound into much larger waves.

Part of singing training is making use of this resonance to not only amplify the sound but to modify it’s quality so that it has a lovely tone. We can do this by adjusting the shape of our mouths – lowering the tongue, and raising the soft palate, for example. We might also want to limit the nasal resonance of sound for classical singing – though if we’re singing a country song, some of that nasal sound can be useful!

Last of all, the human body is designed to be able to shape the sound we make into distinct forms that allow us to form words.This is the modifying system. Every time you form a word, you use your lips, tongue and teeth to form and pronounce different phonics. Babies are born with the capacity to make all the sounds used in all the languages in the world, but they very quickly copy adults to learn what sounds they need to be able to use to communicate in the language their family speaks. Young children will start to sound like their parents, not just in language, but in accent because they copy the sounds around them. That’s why teens are so easily mistaken for their parents on the phone!

Here’s a labelled diagram showing all the parts of the resonating and modifying systems:

Head and cavities

You can experiment very easily with this modifying system by comparing the letter P and T. P, when pronounced as “puh” uses the lips to control the sound. T, when pronounced as “tuh” uses the tongue at the roof of the mouth. We also use our soft palate (the soft part of the roof of your mouth at the back) and the glottis (the flap that closes the airway when we swallow) to form different sounds.

Singing lessons help singers to learn to form letters in a way that still allows the sound of their voice to resonate properly, and doesn’t change the air pressure or vibrations of their vocal fold. This can involve learning to modify vowels, for example, to make the mouth and throat more open on a high note. Compare singing the sound “ah” to the sound “ee” for an example.

Each exercise a singer practices aims to develop control over different parts of these systems. Great singers have developed excellent control over these systems so that their lungs produce well controlled pressure, their vocal folds vibrate free from strain that might damage them, they can direct sound to the places of best resonance and then modify it to communicate not only sound but words to the audience. A good teacher will develop all of these skills in their students.

Want to know more about how to make the most of these vocal systems? Why not take singing lessons? Discover Singing provides lessons based in Leith, Edinburgh.

An Adventure into the Advanced, or, studying for an AMusTCL

Writing Musical Notes in PencilI didn’t discover the joys of Trinity Guildhall’s theory exams until after I had already taken the slow and arduous path of studying for ABRSM’s Grade 6 and 7 exams. I passed both of them, but the materials available for study made the whole process seem both mysterious and dull.

Then, I discovered Trinity’s exams and have hence forth switched over to them for all my students. Trinity’s Grade 8 is considered by ABRSM to be equivalent to AB Grade 6, and as I had already passed that exam, it was the diploma syllabus that caught my eye.

The AMusTCL is the first level of the diplomas offered by Trinity, and I’m planning to attempt it in November this year.

The syllabus has three sections:

Section A covers the harmony material required by ABRSM. There are five different questions, and candidates attempt either two or three depending on what they’ve chosen for section B. The options are: harmonise a Lutheran Chorale, orchestrate a piano reduction for a classical orchestra, complete an early romantic piano piece, compose your own melody using non-traditional harmony, and complete a popular song from the chords given.

Section B is a little different. This is a question on a set work. Currently, the set works are Schubert’s Symphony No 5 in Bb minor and/or Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Candidates can study one or both. Those who study both do two questions in section A, and those who study one do three questions in section A. There’s an essay question about the general form and shape, and then a more detailed analysis question on the harmonic structure in a given phrase.

Section C is a “listening” question, with options to choose from two set arrangements of a piece, a selection of modern popular music albums, a selection of film soundtracks and a selection of musicals. This is an essay question only, drawing mainly on the listening/watching and the relationship between the music and wider issues – everything from character and plot to the politics of the age.

Trinity don’t give much in the way of study guides, with only some brief notes and one past paper over and above the syllabus, so it’s going to be an adventure! The exam is in a little over 15 weeks, but I’ve bought my score for the set work, obtained copies of all the musicals and worked through the Trinity books up to Grade 8.

By taking the AMusTCL, I’ll have a theory qualification that will allow me to take an LRSM exam in teaching in the future, and I’ll also be much better equipped to teach my students not only about harmony, but also about reading scores and understanding music in context.

If you click on one of the social network buttons on the top, you can keep up with my adventure into advanced theory by liking Discover Singing on Facebook, following on Twitter, or adding my RSS feed into your Feedly (or other rss reader) account. I’ll be back in soon to let you all know how it’s going. Wish me luck!

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!