Music theory: places to start

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You’ll encounter music theory whatever level you play at, because it’s the language behind all music. Some people find theory more interesting than others, but some understanding of it is important for your playing to be the best it can. If you want to take ABRSM Grades 6-8 you have to pass Grade 5 theory, which means that many people jump in at quite a complex level of theory. Here are the elements of theory I recommended for my pupils to learn as they progress, to gradually build up theory knowledge as their playing improves.

Scales and keys

Knowing the patterns of scales, what their key signatures are, and how they’re related is a great start to learning theory as so much else is related to it. As you learn a scale, learn its key signature too, and get used to identifying how many sharps or flats each scale has.

Intervals

Start with identifying tones (C-D) and semi-tones (C-C#), move on to finding 2nds (C-D), 3rds (C-E), and 4ths (C-F), and gradually add in other intervals. Recognising simple intervals makes playing and sight-reading much easier.

Know the names

Try to get used to using the correct names for musical symbols and terms, even if it’s just in your own head. Terms like treble clef, bass clef, time signature, key signature, bar, crotchet, minim, and quaver will quickly become easy to use. As you move on to learning more complicated terms, these will be second nature to you, and you won’t be faced with learning a huge amount all at once.

And finally… try composing

Music theory becomes much easier to understand when you try using it in context. Writing your own simple piece, or writing out a tune that you know, will get you using music theory straight away. You’ll be drawing clefs, choosing the time signature and key signature, drawing notes and bar lines, and adding in dynamics and performance directions. It’s a great way to learn and remember theory, and you might even enjoy it!

Steps, skips and jumps

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When you’re reading music there are a few different techniques you can use to make it easier, and one of them is looking for steps, skips and jumps. This means that as well as reading the individual notes and figuring out what they are on their own, you look at the distances between the notes. The technical name for the distances between two notes is an interval. If notes are close together on the page, it means they’ll be close on the piano, and if notes are far away on the page, they’ll also be far away on the piano. We can use the words ‘step’, ‘skip’ and ‘jump’ to describe certain distances between notes, or intervals.

Step

Moving by step means ‘stepping’ along notes that are next to each other. If the notes are moving by step, they’re moving to neighbouring notes above or below. When notes are a step apart, one is always on a line and the other is always on a space. Steps look like this:

step

Skip

Moving by skip means ‘skipping’ over the neighbouring note and playing the note¬† after. Notes that are a skip apart will both be on lines, or both on spaces. Skips look like this:

skip 1 skip 2

Jumps

Moving by jumps means ‘jumping’ over two or more notes. Jumps look quite far apart on the page, like this:

jumps

Thinking about steps, skips and jumps helps you to read music quickly, because instead of needing to read every note, you can follow the intervals between notes. It’s much easier to read notes moving by step rather than working out each note individually. I hope you find it useful.

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.