MJusic Shorts

My talented friend Madelaine Jones, a final-year student at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, where she studies with my piano teacher Professor Penelope Roskell, has begun a series of short films covering various musical genres and concepts, aimed at intermediate level music students (GCSE/A-level).

She begins with Neo-Classicism, offering a clear and concise introduction to the music of composers such as Stravinsky, Poulenc, Hindemith and Busoni. Her engaging manner and approach, interspersed with musical examples played by Madelaine herself, makes this short film both informative and enjoyable. Follow Madelaine on YouTube for updates.




Aural Masterclass Part 2 – Cadences

Cadences are the punctuation marks in music (see my earlier post on Musical Punctuation Marks). Some cadences are very final (.) while others pause for only a moment (,). Some introduce the performer/listener to a new idea or section in the music (:), others leave the listener wanting more (….). Cadences can asks questions (?), and can create surprise (!). They help create suspense and tension in music. And they can even be used incorrectly, which leads to a disturbing or disappointing effect.

Cadences help create the pacing and flow of your music. They can give the listener’s ear a chance to rest at the end of a phrase or help them understand the structure of the music by clearly marking off different sections.

Cadences are easy to hear, but are sometimes difficult to recognise, as there are several distinct types of cadence. A cadence comes at the end of a passage of music and each type of cadence has a particular harmonic progression (see my post on Major Scales for more about the degrees of the scale).

The strongest and most easily recognised cadence is the Perfect Cadence. A perfect cadence sounds final, finished. This is because it is built from very strict harmonic requirements:

  • harmonic progression from the dominant (V) to tonic (I) or “home” key
  • the roots of both chords are in the bass
  • the melody must end in the tonic (“home) key

A perfect cadence is nearly always found at the very end of a piece of music, or the end of a section. Sometimes a seventh is added to the dominant chord, creating what is called a “dominant seventh”. A dominant seventh always wants to go “home”, and when we hear a dominant seventh chord, our ear craves the resolution that comes when the chord moves to the tonic. The Perfect Cadence is often described as “masculine”, meaning that it has a very firm, decisive sound.

The Plagal Cadence is often called the “amen” cadence because it is frequently used as a setting for the word “amen” at the end of hymns. In a Plagal Cadence, the harmonic progression is from the sub-dominant (the fourth note of the scale) to the tonic or IV – I. It is softer and warmer than a Perfect Cadence, and is often described as a “feminine” ending. It is less forceful and more peaceful.

An Imperfect Cadence sounds incomplete because it does not finish on the tonic (“home”), giving he sense of a comma or a question mark. Although there is a definite feeling of pause and rest, there is also a feeling of incompleteness. The imperfect cadence suggests that more needs to be said, either as a continuation or an answering phrase.It creates suspension and sets up an urge to move on to the tonic to make the music sound properly finished. It moves from any chord to the dominant (V).

An Interrupted Cadence is the “surprise” or “deceptive” cadence, because it doesn’t go where you expect it to. The imperfect cadence isn’t successful unless it is set up to surprise the ear of the listener. Because a dominant (V) chord has such a strong natural tendency to move to the tonic (“home”), the easiest way to create the expectation and surprise the listener is by moving from the dominant (V) to anything but the tonic.

The Picardy Third (also known as Tierce de Picardie) is a device where a major tonic chord is used at the end of a passage in the minor key. It can be found in any perfect or plagal cadence where the prevailing key is in the minor. It creates the sense of a “happy ending” in music, and is often used to great effect in Baroque music.

Chopin’s Nocturne No. 6 in G minor, Opus 15, no. 13 makes particularly fine use of suspensions and cadences, especially in the latter, hymn-like section of the piece. Listen to it here: Chopin: Nocturne No.6 in G minor, Op.15 No.3

Theory Masterclass Part 1 – Major Scales

The first in an occasional series of articles on basic music theory.

A scale is a sequence of notes, either ascending (going up) or descending (going down). The most common scale of all is C major, which is made up from white notes only.

Most students would agree that the C Major scale is the “easiest”, because it has no black notes in it, but renowned composer, pianist and teacher Fryderyk Chopin believed that the C Major scale was the hardest because the notes do not lie comfortably under the hand. So, when he taught scales to his students, he started them on the scales with the most black notes because he felt they were more natural under the fingers and hand.

Major scales are always constructed in the same sequence of whole steps (tones) and half steps (semitones), no matter what the scale is:

Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone (or T T S T T T S for short)

Degrees of the scale

Scales are constructed like the rungs of ladder, moving in consecutive steps. The notes of a scale (e.g. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.) are known as the degrees of the scale: the 1st note is the 1st degree of the scale. In C Major, the first degree of the scale is C, because this is the first note the scale starts on. Each degree of the scale also has a name, which reflects its position and importance in the scale. The most important note is the one on which the scale starts: this is called the key note (or home note) or tonic. The next most important is the 5th note (G in the scale of C major); this is called the dominant.

In general, when writing about music (for example, in concert programme notes), major scales are capitalised (C Major, B-flat Major) and minor scales are lower-case (c minor, g minor, f-sharp minor).

Minor scales will be discussed in a separate post.

‘Curved Lines’ – phrases and how to shape music

Phrases are like musical ‘sentences’, and, a phrase in music expresses a complete idea. In classical music, phrases are symmetrical in length, but in modern music a phrase can be any length. Phrasing helps to shape the music, and to give it life, form and ‘punctuation’. Phrasing relates to the way in which individual notes in a group of consecutive notes are played, and represents the many deviations and adjustments the musician needs to make to bring expression (feelings) to the music, to demonstrate stylistic and cultural awareness (i.e. “where the music comes from”, the context of its composition, and the style of music – e.g. Romantic, Baroque etc). Musicians need to shape (“phrase”) the music in such a way that is obvious and detectable by the listener.

Phrases are usually marked with curved lines (called slurs), indicating that a particular group of notes “belong” together as one musical idea. These can also be legato markings, but not always; notes may be marked staccato under a slur. Sometimes, though, no phrases are marked and it is up to you as the pianist to work out where the phrases should be.

Composers sometimes include dynamic markings in a phrase to show you how they would like you to shape the music. For example, if the music moves up in pitch (gets higher), the composer might put a sign to get louder (crescendo), with a sign to get quieter (diminuendo) as the music moves down in pitch (gets lower). You can get a good idea of how to shape a phrase by singing it out loud: the human voice rises and falls naturally, and the end of a phrase is where you would take a breath if you were singing it.

Music that comes from the Baroque period (17th and early 18th centuries), by composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, tends not to have any phrase markings – or indeed any other markings (unless these have been added by an editor; a score without editorial additions is called “urtext” meaning “original”). This was quite normal for the time: the composer would expect the musician to know how to shape the music, where to add staccato, legato, to get quieter or get louder, and so on.

The opening bars of Bach’s famous Prelude in C from the WTC, from an urtext edition which has no phrase, dynamic or articulation markings (the curved lines in the bass line are ties)

There are two ways in which phrasing can be approached:

  1. Intuitively – i.e. by feel or sense of the music. Intuitive phrasing borrows from the phrasing in spoken and punctuated language – the rise and fall of the voice, the speed of speech. Chopin once said to a student, “he who phrases incorrectly is like a man who does not understand the language he speaks.” If we listen to ourselves and others speaking, we notice that we do not speak in a flat, monotonous way, at the same speed the whole time. Just imagine what we would sound like if we did: very boring! Likewise, music can be shaped, “punctuated” in the same way as language.
  2. Analytically – relying entirely on the written score and one’s knowledge of the way music is structured.

In reality, we probably use both approaches when attempting to phrase music, though the intuitive approach is more useful, in my view, as it produces a more natural result.

As a general rule, it is helpful to remember these points when trying to add colour, shape and interest to a phrase:

  • Phrases end with a ‘breath’.
  • The last note of a phrase is the quietest.
  • The peak is often found on the long note of a phrase, or the highest note of a phrase.
  • Never play two notes in a row at the same level.
  • Two-note slurs (“drop slurs”) are always louder then softer.

Music with phrasing clearly marked by slurs