Music analysis. Some initial tools


    Are you interested to understand the music that you listen to or maybe the pieces that you play? Are you interested to learn new composition skills? Are you a music theory lover that want to discover in real music about what the theory books talk about? Then, Music Analysis can help you…The question that all my students always ask me is:

    What is the proper way to start an analysis? 

     Well, there is not only one way to face a musical analysis, but in my experience, there is one that could help you to start, to organize and not to forget the important things you have to count on. But firstly, let me tell you some basics, really useful to prepare your analysis:

    Choose one piece you like, one of those who wants to know more. If it is your very first music analysis I suggest you not to choose a difficult or long piece, and if you are an instrument player, maybe it is better to pick up one work written for the instrument you play. 

    Once you know what piece you want to analyse, look for a good edition in which all the things appear clearly, without possible doubts and, if it is possible, with the measure numbers on it. Keep in mind that you are going to use the measure numbers as a reference, if the piece is without them, you would have to count and write down them before to start, maybe is enough only every 5 or 10 bars. Also, you can look for a few good recordings of the piece.

    Not less important is to prepare your writing ware: a good pencil, a few colour pencils, a small rule and, maybe the most important, a really good rubber (you cannot imagine how many times you have to erase your own notes in an analysis, almost as much as in a harmonic exercise) 

    Now you are ready to start the analysis but, what do you think is the first thing you have to focus on? The harmony? The melody? Maybe the form?

    In my opinion, I think it is better to start with the easiest things, the kind of things that you can notice just on your first sight to the piece, as the title, expression and tempo mark, main Key, time signature… Maybe these things may seem so obvious and a lot of people don’t pay attention to them, but you can find a lot of information thanks to them.

    The title of a piece is important, it can be an indicative of what kind of piece is, the style, the character of the piece or the way in which the composer understand it…. For example, a Sonata title can give us information about the musical form, the style (maybe classical or romantic) and the interest in music form by the composer. Also, a title can include some clues about what kind of musical material the piece is made of, for example, if the piece is a Rhapsody, the composer maybe uses some folk melodic themes on it. Sometimes the title includes details about the key or the mode that is why I recommend you to pay attention to the subtitles as well.

    Expression and tempo marks are an infinite source of information. There are as much expression marks as works you can know. Of course, there are composers more imaginative than other when it comes to indicating an expression, but all of them use this kind of marks to clarify the general character of a piece or of a part of it: Cantabile, dolce, expressivo, furioso, doloroso, maestoso…  Maybe one of the composers that use it in a most creative way was Erik Satie (1866-1925), in his works you can find really personal expression marks as, for example, "Dry" that ironically means an intentionally non-expressive way to play. The tempo marks usually not only provide information about the tempo, some of them refer to an expression as well such Allegro.

    The key signature is not only important to know in which key the piece is written, also it offers a valuable information about the musical system the piece is based on and thus, the style. If there is no key signature, it is common sense to think that it is because the piece is in C major or A minor but be careful, also it could be because it is out of the tonal system (maybe modal, polymodal, polytonal, dodecaphonic…) Also, you can find complex key signatures composed of flats and sharps at the same time. The problem is that the information about the key signature is useful but not definitive. Sometimes works with a definite key signature are not necessarily tonal, lots of modal and contemporary music hide its actual composition system and use the key signature for continuing with the traditional way or for another different reason, for example, to help instrument players or singers.

    The Time signature maybe is the weak element of this list but it can be helpful for reasserting some of the information we already have. If we notice that the time signature is so changing we can be sure it is not going to be a baroque or classic period work, and the most obvious is to think that maybe it is a contemporary work or a folk song.  

    With all this information you can start a deep analysis with the advantage to know what you are going to face. And, believe me, this is the secret to do a good and useful analysis.

    To keep discovering more about how to analyse music, what kind of information can give us the different elements in a piece, how to use the analysis to improve your instrument playing skills… and many more things, stay tuned to my next posts and subscribe to my blog.