Texture in music

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Often when we’re talking about music we talk about different aspects of a piece individually, each of which has their own name. For example, we talk about dynamics in a piece, which refers to its volume, or how loud or soft it is at different points. One of these aspects of music is texture. In music, texture refers to how many separate parts there are, and how they interact. Before we think about texture on the piano, we can get an idea of what it means by thinking about a string quartet.

A string quartet is an ensemble of four players: two violinists, a viola player and a cellist. Each instruments plays a part, or line, in the music. These parts can interact with each other in different ways; they can play together, one instrument can have a tune, they can all play individual parts. This is the texture, and there are special terms to describe different textures.

Monophonic 1

Here is some music notation for a string quartet. In this extract there is only one part playing, the Violin I. This texture, where there is only one part, is called monophony. We could describe this extract as monophonic.

Monophonic 2

Have a look at the extract above. We now have all four parts playing, so what is this texture? Well, if you look carefully you’ll see that they’re all playing the same notes, just in different octaves. Because all the parts are playing the same thing, this is still considered monophonic. On piano, a monophonic texture would be one hand playing a tune on its own, or both hands playing the same notes in different octaves.

Homophonic 1

Now all the parts are playing the same rhythm still, but they’re not playing the same notes any more. If there are two or more parts playing the same rhythm, but different notes, the texture is homophonic. On piano, a series of chords would be a homophonic texture.

Melody and accompaniment 1

In the extract above, the Violin is still playing the tune, but the other parts have a different rhythm. What the Violin II, Viola, and Cello are playing isn’t interesting on its own, it’s just accompanying the tune. This texture is called melody and accompaniment, because that’s exactly what it is! On piano, melody and accompaniment would be the right hand playing a tune, and the left hand playing chords to accompany it.

Polyphonic 1

Now the Violin II, Viola and Cello parts are much more independent. All four parts have different rhythms, different notes and are independent of each other. When the parts are separate like this the texture is called polyphony; we could describe this extract as polyphonic. Because there are four separate parts, or lines, we could also describe this extract as having four part texture. On piano, two hands playing independent lines can be described as two part texture or polyphony.

If you want to take music grades, you have to talk about texture in the aural section of ABRSM Grades 6 and above. Knowing about texture helps you to better understand the music you play and listen to in general, so it can certainly be a useful skill.

Getting started

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Taking the first step to start learning an instrument can seem daunting, but you can have a go without making too much of an investment. Here are some ideas to help you get started on piano, and find out if you enjoy it.

You don’t need to have an instrument
If you don’t have a piano or keyboard then that needn’t stop you from giving it a go. Try having a few lessons, either one-on-one or in a group, where you can learn the basics of playing the piano and ask the teacher any questions you have. If you enjoy it and decide you want to learn, your teacher can help you choose a piano or keyboard that’s right for you.

You don’t need to buy lots of books
If you want to learn to read music notation there are free pieces available that you can start with, before you decide what you want to buy. I use the website Making Music Fun, which has lots of free, easy to read piano music starting at beginner level. Online music shops such as Musicroom will let you buy single pieces, which you can download instantly and are cheaper than a whole book.

You don’t need to know anything about music
Part of learning an instrument is building general musical skills and knowledge, but you don’t need any of that before you start! You’ll start with the basics, and as you improve on your instrument your musical skills will improve as well.

If you fancy learning an instrument, give it a try! It’s easy to get started and you might find a passion that will last you a lifetime.

Staying healthy

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It’s extremely important to remember your physical health when you’re playing. Building good habits helps you to learn more quickly and to play at your best more often. In a worst case scenario, bad habits when playing can cause you a long-term problem. The British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, or BAPAM, provide free information on their website about how you can stay healthy.

The main things to remember are:

  • If you feel any pain, stop what you’re doing.
  • If you have a problem for more than about 2 weeks, you should see a doctor.
  • Make sure you’re comfortable and have a good posture when you’re playing.
  • Take regular breaks, at least 5mins for every 20 or 30mins you practice.
  • Remember not to practice one technique for long periods of time.
  • Stretch before and after practicing or performing, and if you feel stiff.

If you have a problem related to your playing, you can get in touch with BAPAM for specialist advice. I’ve posted some of their most useful fact sheets for pianists below, and you can find the full set – with information on singing, acoustic guitar and healthy eating – here.

Warm-up exercises and stretches to do before you perform or practice.

Healthy habits for people who play instruments.

Information to avoid hearing loss and tinnitus.

Back to basics

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Happy New Year!

Whether you’re starting piano for the first time in 2014 or continuing to learn, the new year can be a good opportunity to go back to basics, and make sure that you haven’t forgotten anything important. Here are some things you can check next time you play:

Posture

The way you sit at the piano is important. Sitting well helps you to play well, and stops you from injuring yourself. You should always be comfortable: pain is a sign that something is wrong. You should be high enough so that your forearm is parallel to the floor, not sloping up or down. You might need to add a cushion or mat to your chair. Your feet should be flat on the floor – if you can’t reach to the floor, see if you can find a thick book or stool for your feet. Remember to have a straight, tall back and keep your hands curved. Of course you’ll move around as you play, but it’s important to start from the right place!

Timing

If you often play on your own, it can be difficult to make sure that your timing is correct. You might be rushing some parts of a piece or leaving small gaps, but it can be hard to tell when you’re playing. To make sure your timing is correct, you can play to a metronome (a device which plays a regular click). If you don’t have a metronome, there are several free metronome apps available for smart phones and tablets. If you find playing to a metronome hard, then you can record yourself playing on your keyboard, phone or computer and listen back. You might notice a place where the timing changes, and you can try tapping along to your playing. If you have friends who play an instrument, ask them to play with you – it will quickly become clear if one of you is out of time!

Practice time

Make sure you’re getting the most out of the time you set aside to practice. You should warm up with a simple piece or exercise before you tackle something difficult, and take short breaks where you stretch and move around every 20 minutes. Practice the most difficult parts of a piece separately and the whole piece will improve more quickly. For more tips on how to practice see my post Getting the most from your practice.

Goals

Finally, why not set yourself a few goals to accomplish by the end of the year? You might want to learn to play a specific piece, practice every week, learn how to improvise or maybe take a grade exam. Having a goal can help to motivate you and direct your practice.

I hope these ideas are helpful, and that you enjoy your playing this year!

Great composers: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is one of the most well-known figures in classical music. He is perhaps most famous for his work as a composer and for being a child prodigy; he could play and compose music for the harpsichord by the time he was five. He wrote many of the most celebrated Western classical pieces, such as ‘The Queen of the Night Aria’ from the opera The Magic Flute.

The Magic Flute was written in German, Mozart’s main language; however Mozart also wrote operas in Italian, including his earlier work The Marriage of Figaro. This clip is of the overture of The Marriage of Figaro, the opening piece played by the orchestra before the opera starts; you’ll probably recognise some of the melodies.

Mozart was born in Salzburg, in Austria, but moved to Vienna in 1781 where he lived until his death. Mozart made a living in Vienna as a freelance musician, performing and teaching as well as composing. This was unusual, as most other musicians at the time Mozart lived found a wealthy patron, who they would write music for and receive a salary in return. Nowadays this patronage is very rare and most musicians are freelancers as Mozart was.

Mozart lived at a time which is called the Classical Period in music history, and he composed music in the popular style then which is still enjoyed now. You might want to try playing some of Mozart’s piano pieces: there are pieces of all difficulties you could try, including this famous piece, his Piano Sonata Number 16 in C major.

Improvising: ideas to start

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Improvising means playing or singing something you’re creating on the spot; playing your instrument without reading notes and creating the music as you play from your own thoughts and ideas. Improvising is common in lots of different types of music, particularly jazz, but it’s not a recent idea: Mozart used to improvise pieces to impress his audiences! If you’ve never improvised before it can be hard to know where to begin. Here are some ideas to start with:

1. Scribbling
Musical scribbling is a lot like scribbling on a page: just play without worrying what it sounds like, making any old noise and loosening up! Scribbling can help you get over the initial worry of improvising, and if you try it for a while you might find you play something you like, which you can then develop.

2. Improvising on written music
If you can read music, try adding in some extra notes to a piece you know well. You can also change the structure by playing the piece in a different order, and alter other things like the dynamics and rhythm. Keep trying different things, and eventually you’ll have your own version, or maybe even a different piece entirely!

3. Five fingers
This is one of my favourite ways for starting to improvise on piano. Find a note with each of your five fingers on both hands. The notes can be next to each other or as far apart as you can reach, and you can have the same or different notes in each hand. Play the notes you have in different sequences until you find something you like: keep developing it, then start to add more notes as well as the ten you already have.

4. Play the black keys
Another good one for piano: the black keys generally sound good together, so try improvising on them and see what you can come up with. Once you’ve had a go at that, you can start adding in some white keys, and see which ones you think fit in well.

6. Four chords
Inspired by my post about four chord songs, you can create your own pop song with this method! Play C-G-A-F with your left hand, and keep repeating that phrase; then improvise with your right hand, playing the white keys.

As you practice and become more confident you can experiment and try new ideas. If you’ve never tried improvising before, I hope you give it a go!

Four chords

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If you’d like to play some famous hit songs, then there’s four chords you’ll definitely want to know. This sequence of four chords has been used in lots and lots of popular songs, recently and in previous decades. In the key of C, these chords are: C, G, A minor, F.

If you’re not sure about how to play those chords without music yet, you can still play the sequence: in your left hand play the notes C – G – A – F evenly, and improvise on the white keys with your right hand. See if you can figure out any songs you know!

If you know a bit more about chords, the pattern is I, V, vi, IV, so you can try it in any key. If there’s a song you know that uses this pattern, you could use this as a starting point and then try to work out the rest of the song.

Here’s a video of the comedy band The Axis of Awesome which will give you an idea of all the songs you can now play – but there are more!

Graded Music Exams

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It’s that time of the year when lots of people are preparing for music exams, with the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music graded music exams in full swing. Here are a few things you can do to help yourself prepare for ABRSM exams:

-If you haven’t found it already, have a look at the mock aural tests on the ABRSM website. The answers are given after the tests, and you can listen to them a few times to get used to the structure. Try the tests for any grades which are lower than the one you’re taking: they often test the same skills and are a good way to gain more practice.

-There are some useful exam support articles published by ABRSM, particularly one which takes you through the exam experience. If you’re prepared for the exam structure you’ll be able to focus on performing.

-If you’re studying for Grades 1 to 5, you can download the Aural Trainer app which will help you to practice for the aural tests. There’s a free version, or there are versions you can pay for.

-There’s also a guide called These Music Exams which is published by ABRSM and provides lots of information on preparing for and taking the exams.

Good luck!

How does a piano work?

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It’s harder to see how a piano works than a violin or a guitar, because most of the moving parts are hidden away. It’s useful to know how your instrument makes sound, because you can then understand how your actions are affecting the sound. For example, you’ll know why it is that pressing a piano key harder makes the sound louder.

If you have an acoustic (‘real’) piano, lift the lid and have a look inside whilst you play. You’ll see that the keys move small wooden levers, called hammers; these hit the wires strung in the piano, called strings, and make the sound. That’s why piano keys feel heavy when you press them, because you’re moving the hammers. Look at how the hammers move when you play softly and loudly, and staccato and legato (detatched and smoothly). Try pressing the pedals one at a time, and see what changes inside the piano. This video gives a bit more detail:

If you have a digital piano, it’s still important to know how an acoustic piano works because most digital pianos attempt to recreate the experience of playing an acoustic piano. The player uses the same techniques, even though the sound is created digitally rather than manually. If you play on a digital piano you could ask someone you know if you can look inside their acoustic piano, and you can watch videos like the one above.

This Tom and Jerry cartoon, ‘The Cat Concerto’, might help you to remember how a piano works… although of course it’s not entirely accurate!

Sight-reading tips

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The best way to improve your sight-reading is of course to practice it regularly! Make sure you build up slowly, starting with short pieces which you don’t find too hard. There are a few things you can do to make your sight-reading a bit easier, so here are some techniques which you might like to use.

Don’t panic
If you worry about your sight-reading, you’ll find it harder to concentrate. Try to relax, and remember it doesn’t matter if you go wrong!

Look over the music
Spend some time looking at the piece you’ll be playing. Identify anything which looks difficult and try it out before you play the piece (in exams you are allowed to do this as well). Note any dynamics, and remember to make them clear; also look for places where you need to use the pedals.

Tempo
Check to see if there is any information about the tempo; this could be a metronome mark or other direction such as ‘slowly’ or ‘like a march’. When you play through the piece, remember to keep an even tempo: don’t stop to correct yourself if you go wrong and try not to slow down during the difficult parts. Try to start the piece at a tempo you can sustain through the whole piece.

Key signature
It’s useful to figure out what the key signature is. Some people find it helpful to play through the scale of the key the piece is in to remember the key signature (playing an E major scale if the piece is in the key of E major). You might like to look through the piece and identify places where you’ll need to remember to sharpen or flatten notes in the key signature. Also watch out for any accidentals.

Practice the beginning and the end
The aim of sight-reading is to give as good an impression of the piece as possible, not just to get as many of the notes right as you can. Practicing the beginning and end of the piece before you play it will improve the overall sound of the piece. Before you play the piece through make sure the fingers of both your hands are on top of the first notes you have to play.

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