Category Archives: Musical Grammar


I conducted a short experiment over the last couple of days, concerning who gets what part in the first of our East Lothian Guitar Ensemble arrangements. The piece is in three parts – top, middle and bass. I’ve also created four heterophonic parts so you could say the structure of parts is:

1, 1a, 2, 2a, 3, 3a, 3b

Using Sibelius, I played the score to the pupils at performance speed – which is pretty brisk . In addition to the speed there are two other unusual factors:

  • there are 7 beats per bar – grouped as follows 12 12 123

  • it is based on a very unusual scale (E Lydian Dominant) – resulting in unusual harmonies – one effect of which can be to make the less confident pupil occasionally doubt that they have landed on the correct note

Before the music began pupils were asked to identify which parts would meet the following criteria for them:

  • the part would (eventually*) be manageable

  • it would provide some element of challenge and interest

  • it might appeal to their natural strengths e.g. by being essentially melodic, harmonic or rhythmic in nature

  • it would avoid any feeling of distress

Somewhat to my surprise, every group and individual chose as I would have predicted. This could mean one (or possibly more) of three things:

  • that pupils are aware of their current levels

  • that they are aware of the likely speed of progress over the remaining months (even although some have not yet played in the East Lothian group)

  • that I am unconscious of Derren Brown-style levels of manipulation

Over the holiday, I hope to upload not only play-along midi files but parts of the piece so, if you play the guitar, you could simulate the experiment. For this particular piece, Hungarian Wedding Dance, most of the parts will be in TAB as opposed to traditional notation. This is due to the fact that many of the notes have been relocated onto strings other than the one where they would normally be found. This is done for two reasons:

  • increased resonance e.g. using 2nd string E at fret 5 instead of open E on string 1 – the sound of which is a little thinner

  • the note is more easily reached from the previous note than it would be in its normal location

* eventually, in this case, is the Showcase Concert on Friday 27 March at 7:30 in Musselburgh Grammar School

In The Beginning Was The Song

If there’s one thing I like to see it’s the BBC spending my hard-earned cash on repeats – when they are as interesting as one I wrote about last December. You still have 6 days to Listen Again to Ivan Hewitt exploring the origins of music. This subject, still in its infancy, arouses as much controversy as it does interest.

Timing is everything

I recently read something in Steven Mithen‘s excellently written and thought provoking book The Singing Neanderthals which stopped me in my tracks. The passage concerned the research, by Professor Willi Steinke of Queens University in Kingston, Canada, into the melodic recall of a subject with amusia, following a stroke at the age of 64. The subject was unable to identify many well-known instrumental themes. However, when themes with lyrics were played, recall was normal – even although the lyrics were not present! Steinke and his colleagues concluded that melody and lyrics were stored in different parts of the brain – the prosody of the lyrics helping to summon up the tune, and the rhythms of the tune aiding the reverse.

Suddenly my mind jumped back 42 years to my first piano tutor book, in which every melody featured lyrics – added after the event by the author, John W. Schaum. At the time I regarded them as a slightly annoying irrelevance because I was six years old and knew everything. Now the aspiration behind them seems clear. I began to think that, although the beginners’ materials I use have no lyrics, there may be an argument for adding some – more particularly for asking the pupils to add their own.

By an amazing coincidence of timing, this topic was brought up at our in service on Thursday, by one of my colleagues who was keen to discover similarities and differences in our approaches to teaching rhythm. Recommendations and reservations were expressed – the latter concerning examples where words had been forced to fit rhythms in an unnatural way, and possible confusion arising from the differing prosody of varying accents and dialects.

Still – it’s something interesting to think about. Any experiences, views, recommendations to offer?


How do you solve a problem like Isolde?

Got a spare 15 minutes? Would you like to take part in a national, online survey about how people listen to music? The mission of Feeling Sound Musiclab is to test how we perceive music – and also to gauge the nation’s favourite chord – the result of which will be used to commission a new piece of music.

Why not read about the project, about the staff involved or take the test?

Forensic Linguistics

Interested in language? Shouldn’t every teacher be? Got a spare 8 minutes? Ever wondered what Forensic Linguistics is all about? You can hear a very interesting interview from Radio 4’s Word of Mouth about how language (including texting style) can betray incongruities with the claimed age, gender, social class & native language of the user and how evidence for real life cases (much more serious than copying homework) was gathered. Dr. Tim Grant, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Linguistics at Aston University explains how here (until Tue 13th at 16:00).

Very similar skills and processes are used to determine the composer of an unidentified instrumental piece of music. Details of instrumentation, national style, harmonic & rhythmic language, division of octave etc. are often unconsciously processed, allowing the listener to pin down the historical period, country of origin and, in many cases, the individual musical signature(s).

Locale Association

Pressed for geographical associations conjured up by the guitar, most people would cite Spain or perhaps Latin America when thinking of the nylon-strung guitar; Britain & U.S.A when thinking of rock, and perhaps the Celtic nations and U.S.A when imagining traditional or country music. Do you ever wonder what people, whose culture is not related to any of these, get up to on the guitar? Have a look at the work of Enver Ismailov from Ukraine:[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Sacred Music

Why should religious music be of interest to our largely secular society? BBC 4’s Sacred Music, presented by Simon Russel Beale, visited Notre Dame de Paris to show how two innovations of the 12th Century Notre Dame School underpin what has since come to be known as western classical music.

Members of early music specialist choir, The Sixteen and their director Harry Christophers, demonstrated music’s journey from homophonic (Int 2 concept) plainchant (H Music concept) to polyphony (Int 2 concept). Their lively, committed performances, which maximised the acoustics of Notre Dame’s Gothic architecture made it possible to believe that contemporary listeners would have experienced something of the vitality of the Punk revolution in the 1970s. This fresh approach was pioneered by Léonin and developed by his successor Pérotin.

Aside from the obvious connectivity between music and architecture, the links between music and science (notably physics) were explored. Composers, deciding which notes would best fit those already present in the setting of the plainchant would choose intervals (an Int 2 concept), in order, from the harmonic series i.e. 8ve, 5th & 4th. Although the triad had not yet become the building block of Western harmony, the foundations of the genre had been laid.

Musicologist, Helen Deeming, enthusiastically outlined the possibilities afforded by the second innovation of the time, the development of musical notation. Although the words of the liturgy were written, the associated music was taught by rote and memorised. This meant that, were a new setting to be sent to another cathedral city, a singer, familiar with the music, would have to tag along to coach the choir. Now, the music could be sent and realised from afar.

There remain three more episodes of this promising series. Here are links to details of all episodes, an overview of the series and a reflection on the place of sacred music in a secular world.

Overview of the series

The four episodes: The Gothic Revolution; Palestrina And The Popes; Tallis, Byrd and The Tudors; Bach And The Lutheran Legacy

Richard Langham Smith, Head of Music at the Open University, writes eloquently on Sacred Music in a Secular World.

Room for improvement

Of the three elements in music (melody, rhythm & harmony), the one which most colleagues confess they wish they understood better is harmony. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that they don’t understand the language but there’s a difference between knowing the language and being a poet. Analysing harmony is one thing, writing it is tougher and the ability to improvise it fetchingly (in any key) is relatively rare. What are the features that people would like effortlessly to include?

  • Added notes – those outside the standard triad – and perhaps something a little more exciting than 7ths (0:42 and also at 1:02 – 1:20)
  • well placed inversions -where the naming note of the chord is not always the lowest note – as this can sound a little lead-footed – (0:36 & 0:51)
  • suspensions – where notes from the previous chord are allowed to stay on so that they clash with the notes of the following chord – (0:39)
  • chords built over pedals – unchanging note – usually in the bass – which don’t sound simply lost or unimaginative (2:28 – 2:34)
  • in short anything which adds colour to what might otherwise be a merely functional harmonisation

This clip demonstrates that kind of harmonic language. It’s of Chopin‘s Etude Op 10 No 1. There are more professional performances of this on YouTube but many are so fast that the detail is lost. This one, although not entirely error-free, does have a certain tenderness about it.

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The other thing many music-teaching colleagues confess is that they wish they could access YouTube in class for illustrative purposes such as this.

By the way, did you know that Chopin had a connection with Mid Calder?