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How to Read Music: An Example of Expert Music Reading

Let’s revisit the first four bars of Bach’s immortal Minuet in G and explore the variety of ways that an expert musician might perceive and conceive of the music:

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Overall Impressions: The piece looks like classical music. It does not even remotely look like jazz or rock or ragtime or country. In fact, the melodic-looking bass line suggests the use of something called counterpoint, a commonly used device in baroque music.


Phrasing: Judging by both the contour and rhythm of the melody, these four measures are sub-divided into two two-bar phrases.

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Melodic Contours: There is a well-defined contour in the melody that has the very same shape in each 2 bar section. You might conceive of it as a doodle of arrows!

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Rhythmic Motives: There is also a well-defined rhythmic motive that is repeated identically in each 2 bar section:

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Key: Based on the clues below, the piece in the key of G major:

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Of course you should always confirm this by ear. Play and sing along. You will discover that the note that sounds resolved, complete, finished, stable is indeed G! Furthermore, simply listen to the overall sound-feeling and notice that it has a definite major-ish quality.


Time & Rhythm: A quick inspection of the time signature tells us that this piece has an essential “three-ness” to it. We want to conceive of the phrases in the context of this “three-ness” and capture that in our rendition of the music.

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Also notice how this three-ness is perfectly suited to and coherent with the phrasing, rhythmic motives, and melodic contour!


Harmonic Structure: The chord progression is shown below along with the Roman Numeral Analysis and all chord tones circled:

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Notice how many chord tones are in the melody and how many melody tones are in the harmony. You will see this time and time again in every kind of music!


Melodic Analysis: Here is the melody analyzed in functional terms using Solfege.

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Fingering: The expert will see a fingering for this passage that makes physical and musical sense. It should be easy to play and consistent with the flow of the phrases. One solution is shown below. Notice the logical five note groupings with pinkies on the highest note in each phrase and thumbs on the lowest notes in each phrase:

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Putting it all Together. Don’t freak out. you are not expected to be able to do all the above at this point. The intent, for now, is to expose you to the depth of musical understanding that is possible for even a simple piece of music and to give you a sense direction as you develop your musicianship.

All this will come together by osmosis as you learn to recognize the commonly-used patterns that make music tick in your studies of rhythm, scales, solfege, chords, and chord progressions unfold.

Let’s begin that musical journey with the study of scales…

learn more… How Music Works: Scales

7 comments

  1. Hello Frank, the notes indicated in the Melodic Analysis using Solfege, are correct?? Should not be Re, Sol (or So in English, I suppose), La, Si (Ti) Do, … ?

    1. Thanks for asking, Daniel. I have seen Si used instead of Ti. It’s too bad there are multiple names fighting for market share. For the sake of consistency and broadest agreement I had chosen the Do Ra Re Ri Me Mi Fa Fi So Si La Le Ti Do system ascending chromatically and Do Ti Te, La Li So Se Fa Mi Me Re Ra Do system descending chromatically. That said, it’s just a name. Feel free to call it Si or Frank or Daniel or X or Y or orange or whatever. These names are just like bicycle training wheels to be abandoned after we get enough experience to go right to the sound or note on a page or key on the piano. All the best!

      1. Hello Frank, my doubt was not related to the difference in names like “Si” vs “Ti” or “Sol” vs “So”, but in why you used “Do” to name a G note or “Fa” to name a C note, for example.
        I had no idea of the existence of two main types of solfege: ‘Movable Do’ and ‘Fixed Do’ (I have found it by searching the Internet, after seeing you answer because I continued to understand nothing).

        Now I see that in my country (Spain), but also in others, we use ‘Fixed Do’ and the correspondence between the syllables Do, Re, Mi Fa, Sol, La and Si is always the same. I thought that it was something general (C – Do, D – Re, E – Mi, F – Fa, G – Sol, and so on), although with slight differences, like the use of ‘Ti’ instead of ‘Si’.

        But as it seems, it can be a lot more confusing. As I read in wikipedia, in relation to ‘Movable Do’ and Major scale:
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        By the opposite, <>

        Every day I learn something ­čśë
        Regards

        1. Thanks for asking, Daniel. It sounds like you understand, Good work!

          I might add two thoughts:

          1) “Fixed Do” may or may not be useful for naming notes for the 1 in 10,000 humans endowed with absolute pitch (AP) recognition. I, for one, do not see why it is taught at alI… even for those with perfect pitch. What is wrong with calling C C and D D and E E and so on?

          2) “Moveable Do” is how the vast majority of humans… me included… hear, enjoy, and understand music. The basic thing is this: Do is the key you are in. Every note is heard and therefore is analyzed with respect to that key center. Unlike AP, RP is a learnable skill.

          All the best to you in music and life.

  2. Sorry, the text quoted (from Wikipedia) has dissapeared when posting. What I tried to indicate in relation to ‘Movable Do’ and Major scale was:

    ` If, at a certain point, the key of a piece modulates, then it is necessary to change the solf├Ęge syllables at that point. For example, if a piece begins in C major, then C is initially sung on “do”, D on “re”, etc. If, however, the piece then modulates to G major, then G is sung on “do”, A on “re”, etc., and C is then sung on “fa”. `

    And after “by the opposite” I included the following:
    ` In Fixed do, each syllable corresponds to the name of a note. This is analogous to the Romance system naming pitches after the solf├Ęge syllables, and is used in Romance and Slavic countries, among others, including Spanish speaking countries.
    In the major Romance and Slavic languages, the syllables Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, and Si are used to name notes the same way that the letters C, D, E, F, G, A, and B are used to name notes in English. `

    I think that it can be useful to mention it for others like me, used to the ‘Fixed Do’ type.

    Regards

  3. Hi there, mr. Peter

    First of all I want to thank you for your website, you’ve done absolutely outstanding job here. I’m just starting learning piano with not full-size synthesizer and feeling lack of theory in my head (there is some experience in awful free jazz on alto sax) and, whoa, it’s a miracle, one guy told me to check your site (he told it can be a bit special and unusual but it’s fits perfectly). So thank you again, sir.

    Right, calm down, ask your question. Okay.

    So, everything is clear except one thing: why you’re calling the first note of each example “G”? It’s a G-clef, so it’s showing us where is Sol and it points at second line from bottom. So the first note should be “D” (or Re).

    Regards
    John Doe

    1. Three things, JD…
      1) Thanks so much for the words of appreciation. It is not often that I receive any, so they mean an awful lot when they do arrive!
      2) Regarding your question, if I understand it correctly… This piece is in the key of G (based on the combined weight of the key signature, melodic and harmonic analysis, but mostly OUR EARS!). The first note in the melody is “D” (which is So in the key of G).
      3) Regarding clefs… The G-clef shows us where G above middle C is located on the staff. In and of itself, it does not tell us what key a piece is in. I hope that clears up any confusion.

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