The Daily Parker

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P is for Pachelbel

Blogging A to ZThis morning, my Blogging A-to-Z challenge post will discuss a composer whose music I absolutely loathe because of its insipid, simplistic, earwormy pabulum, Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706).

You have, no doubt, heard his Canon in D, which, thanks to its inclusion in an otherwise forgettable film 51 years ago, continues to besmirch weddings and other cultural events with its demonstration of what happens when you strip music down to the essentials and add nothing back. In a way, the Canon in D resembles a lot of modern music by providing nothing more than a repeating theme of such simplicity that only a performance by 3rd graders on recorder could do it justice.

So why did I include this composer in a series on music theory? Because in that simplicity is just about all popular music of the last half-century.

Here are the first few bars of the piece:

It is I-V-vi-I6-IV-I-IV-V, repeated endlessly, until someone in the audience starts yelling "Please, for the love of Dog, make it stop!" Notice that the string parts are also boring, and (because this is a canon) repetitive.

When I say it has infected music in the last 50 years, I mean it's like a staph infection that can shut down an entire hospital. Here, to make the point better than I can, is Rob Paravonian:

O is for Ornaments

Blogging A to ZThis morning's Blogging A-to-Z challenge entry will take a quick turn and possibly trill your heart with a brief overview of ornaments.

You got a glimpse of two of the most common Baroque ornaments on Saturday as the Bach snippet I posted contained a grace note and a mordent:

The grace note tells the performer to add the note within the duration of the main note. For example, the grace note in the first measure would be played out as shown in the second measure:

A mordent tells the performer to do a little flip up from the written note (or up if it's got a line through it). This example shows a mordent, then its written-out equivalent, followed by a rising mordent and its equivalent:

The turn comes up frequently as well, and does exactly what it says on the tin:

Let's not forget the trill:

If only there were a single piece of music that put all of them together maybe Bach's Sinfonia #5 in Eb major, BWV 791? Why, yes:

N is for Notation

Blogging A to ZToday's Blogging A-to-Z challenge post will, like yesterday's, take us back in time.

Almost every day I've shown samples of music using modern notation. Any contemporary musician should have no trouble reading them.

Almost a thousand years ago, in 1025, the monk Guido d'Arezzo decided to record music on paper in a way that would enable people to read it even if they'd never encountered it before. He used blocks on lines with stems indicating how the notes were connected, and it looked like this:

The innovation here is that the note heads convey absolute pitch, and the stems convey timing, just as they do today. Someone who has never seen this before could (if they understood the language) produce the music intended by the composer.

During the early 17th century, as instrumental music came to dominate the scene, musical notation became much more complex. By the 1620s and 1630s, scores looked almost the same as they do today.

Specialized music uses specialized notation schemes, however. And non-Western music, which may use entirely different tonalities, sometimes has entirely different ways of notation.

M is for Modes

Blogging A to ZToday's Blogging A-to-Z challenge entry goes back in time a little bit. Before there were keys, there were modes: the original scales used in Ancient Greece that still pertain today.

Our C-major scale roughly corresponds with the Ionian mode. (I say "roughly" because while the fifth, octave, and probably fourth notes would have sounded the same back then as they do now, the rest of them probably would have sounded slightly out of tune to modern ears. This is a topic for next week.)

If you start on D, you get the Dorian mode:

It's not quite D minor, because instead of a flat 6th and natural 7th as in a minor key, we have a natural 6th and flat 7th. You can hear Dorian mode in Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water."

Next comes Phrygian mode, starting on E:

If you start on F, you get Lydian; G, Mixolydian; A, Aeolian (corresponding closely to natural minor); and B, Locrian.

I mentioned Deep Purple because everything old is new again. A lot of modern popular music has reached back to modes, mainly (I think) because they sound cool. Lydian mode has a tritone instead of a perfect 4th; Locrian just

In fact, while Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, and Aeolian pop up a lot, there aren't many examples of the others. But they're out there.

Homework assignment: Find modal pop songs (LMGTFY). Then listen to them.

L is for Legato

Blogging A to ZI don't always have time to write Blogging A-to-Z challenge posts ahead of time. This week I've had almost no free time until just now.

Today I'm going to slide into the topic of  markings. Music involves more than just the notes on the page; it's an artistic expression. Composers use a whole palette of markings and (usually Italian) words to convey to performers how to express the music.

Take this snippet of Bach's Invention #1 in C:

First, I should point out that Bach famously almost never added expression markings. In this example, I added a few to convey how I think someone should perform the Invention.

Start with the Italian at measure 1. The word "allegretto" above the staff indicates the tempo. It's a diminutive form of the word "allegre," which means happy; so allegretto means kind of happy. In practice it means a pretty quick tempo but not overly quick. "Allegro" (happy!) would be a little faster. Tempo markings range from "larghissimo" (really big and slow) to "prestissimo" (really fast). Classical FM has a good roundup of tempo terms.

The little "mf" under the staff is more Italian, but this time an abbreviation indicating how loudly to play. It stands for "mezzo forte," or middling-strong. Typical dynamic markings range from "piano" (quiet) to "forte" (loud), which helps explain why the instrument everyone knows and loves is called a pianoforte (because it can play both quietly and loudly).

The lines connecting the first 8 notes and the notes in measures 3 and 4 indicate phrases that should be played legato, or connected. Legato's opposite is staccato, from the verb stacciare, meaning to sift.

Finally, the little squiggle over the B in measure two is called a mordent, indicating a rapid articulation down from the B to an A and back. The little C next to it is a grace note, indicating that actually the mordent should start on the C. (Listen to the midi file for clarification.)

There are thousands of markings in musical scores that assist performers. But dynamics, tempo markings, phrase lines, and ornaments (mainly in Baroque music) are the most common.

K is for Key

Blogging A to ZFor day 11 in this year's Blogging A-to-Z challenge, we take a look at keys. Not the ones on a musical instrument, but the ones on a staff sheet.

A key designates which scale the piece (or part of the piece) uses to establish its tonality. In this year's very first A-to-Z post, I showed you the four principal scales (major, natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor) that Western music uses most of the time. In that post, you may have noticed that the major scale had the notes C through C without any accidentals (sharps or flats), but the three minor scales all had flats in several places. That means the major scale was in the key of C major, and the minor scales were all in the key of C minor.

To avoid writing all those accidentals throughout the score, we can use a key signature, that essentially says "these sharps or flats run from here to the end (or the next time we change keys)." For example, here again is the C major scale:

And here again is the C natural minor scale, but this time with the proper key signature:

Also remember how every key has a relative key? That's easy to see with key signatures. Here's the A natural minor scale; note that its key signature is the same as its relative key, C major:

Though I might get some argument from some modern composers, generally you can have no more than 7 sharps or flats in a key signature. Each sharp or flat on a key signature takes the key up a fifth in what we call the "circle of fifths." Take a look at how that works. Here are the keys with flats in their signatures:

Start with C; up a fifth to G, up a fifth to D, etc. Now the flat side:

Start with C; but this time, down a fifth to F, down a fifth to Bb, etc. So it works the same way as sharps, but in the other direction.

Often pieces will change keys mid-stream; this is called a modulation. Here's a simple example from Bach in which he modulates several times, between C minor and its relative key, Eb major, with a clever modulation to F minor for a couple of bars. And here's a lampshaded example from Beethoven. (Listen to the whole Schickele clip. The first time I heard it I almost pissed myself laughing.)

Tonight is the Apollo Chorus annual benefit and cabaret, which I'm co-chairing, so tomorrow's A-to-Z might be slightly delayed.

J is for Jazz

Blogging A to ZNow that you know everything about harmony...oh, wait. Because regular old harmonies have nothing on jazz. So for today's Blogging A-to-Z challenge entry I'm going to lift up the curtain on some pretty wild stuff.

I'm actually not going to have a lot of musical examples today. I'm merely going to point you toward other places that do it better.

I will, however, draw your attention to the greatest jazz musician in history: Bach. He improvised the way that other people breathe. And he influenced modern jazz artists hundreds of years later. Just one example, Nina Simone. Listen to the fugue she injects about a minute in:

Or more recently, here's Donal Fox doing improvising on a Bach prelude:

The problem with this format is that jazz is a topic just as large as music theory. So if this post has done nothing more than gotten you to listen to a couple of jazz pieces, that's a success.

I is for Interval

Blogging A to ZToday I'm going to write about a topic that would have come second in any reasonable course on music theory. But in the Blogging A-to-Z challenge, sometimes the cart does come before the ox. Because even though I've already shown you the German 6th chord, fugues, and a reasonable harmonization of a simple melody, today I'm going to show you intervals.

An interval is simply the distance between any two notes. If the distance is one note, we call that a second; two notes, a third; and so on, up to seven notes, which is an octave. (Two of the same notes are called a unison.)

For example, here are the intervals of the major scale:

In order, they are: unison, major 2nd, major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th, major 7th, and octave. Not surprisingly, the minor scale has minor intervals instead:

Now the intervals are unison, minor 2nd, minor 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, minor 6th, minor 7th, and octave.

Interval training starts basic ear training. Musicians have to recognize intervals not only stacked like these two examples, but also played out. For example, here are a major 2nd, a minor 6th, and a perfect 4th played as a music teacher might do it:

How about a chart of all of the intervals, you say? OK:

Interval C to... Notation
Unison C U
Minor 2nd C#/Db m2
Major 2nd D M2
Minor 3rd D#/Eb m3
Major 3rd E M3
Perfect 4th F P4
Tritone F#/Gb Aug4/Dim5
Perfect 5th G P5
Minor 6th G#/Ab m6
Major 6th A M6
Minor 7th A#/Bb m7
Major 7th B M7
Octvave C U

H is for Harmony

Blogging A to ZToday's Blogging A-to-Z challenge entry builds on yesterday's by adding a third voice to a simple two-voice example to create harmony.

Simply put, harmony is any two notes sounded together. But in practice, harmony involves chords, which comprise groups of 3 or more notes sounded together.

Let's start with a recognizable melody:

Now I'll add a bass line, to give it a little more depth (and, for astute observers, outline the chord progression that we'll hear in step 3):

So there are implied harmonies in there, but let's flesh them out:

That harmony is simply I-I-IV-I, ii-(I6)-V7-I, which is about as simple as it gets.

But you can hear that once we have complete chords under the melody, it sounds a lot richer, and has more direction. And I'll address some of the techniques that make this particular progression work two weeks from Thursday.

Tomorrow: the post that should have gone second.

*The (I6) means even though the chord looks like a tonic chord, it's really behaving more like a passing chord. But hey, it's a simple harmonization of a children's melody.

G is for Gregorian Chant

Blogging A to ZThe Blogging A-to-Z challenge now takes you back about 1,100 years to the beginnings of Western music: Gregorian chant.

Simple plainchants go back before people generally wrote music down. In the late 9th and early 10th centuries—around the time of Pope Gregory I—we start to find some of the earliest written examples of simple monophonic chants.

Some remained part of general liturgical music well into the 18th and 19th centuries, like this example:

Here it begins a performance of the second movement of Mozart's "Great" Mass in c-minor in 2011:

If you have studied music theory, you have written your own ersatz plainchants, because the unit immediately following would introduce you to counterpoint. On Friday I discussed the ultimate expression of counterpoint, the fugue; today I'm going to back up a ways and just show how two lines of music can work together.

The simplest variety, first-species counterpoint, takes a chant (called a cantus firmus, literally a "solid song") and adds another line above or below that begins and ends in perfect consonance. Here's a cantus firmus:

To create a first-species counterpoint, I just need to follow a couple of rules, and voilà:

What does this have to do with Gregorian chant? Well, going from chant to polyphony happened something like that. For centuries the Catholic Church forbade polyphony. Then someone passed the pope a perfect fifth at a party, and he tried it a little, and pretty soon churches all over Christendom had this kind of counterpoint going on. It wasn't quite as simple or formal as music theory pedagogy would suggest, but it did lead ultimately to the polyphonic music we know today.

Come back tomorrow to learn what happens when you add a third voice to a composition.