Sunday, July 22, 2012

Musical Exercises: Week 2

Last Sunday I put up a post on Musical Exercises. If you haven't read it, go have a look as this one is meant to be a continuation.

One of my theory and composition professors used to like to do what he called "ear training" sometimes. The standard kind of ear training involves learning how to write down intervals, melodies, harmonies and rhythms from hearing them and also singing melodies from sight. His kind of ear-training was to play for us very unusual pieces of music and see how we reacted. What I am doing here with my "musical exercises" is trying to show ways to develop musical or aesthetic sensitivity. It is not so much concerned with the "nuts and bolts" of the music as a standard ear-training course, but more the overall feel of the music. More fun, less work!

Week Two: Rhythm

I'm giving shorter examples this week, but you should listen to each one several times to really get a feel of the rhythm. A note on terminology: in music we only use the word 'timing' to mean the minutes and seconds that a track on a CD lasts. The 'timing' of such and such a movement is 5'23. It describes duration only. For the actual rhythmic structure of music we use different words. The beat is the repeated pulse that underlies most music. Sometimes the exact speed of this pulse is indicated with a metronome marking of so many beats per minute: M.M. = 60 tells you, for example, that there is a beat every second. The meter is a group of beats in which the first beat is accented slightly. 3/4, 4/4, 2/4 and 7/8 are all examples of different meters. Three-four is a very well-known one as it is the meter of the waltz: oom pah pah. Four-four is the usual meter of rock and so on. The last term is rhythm itself, which is the pattern of long and short notes that are the musical surface. Now that you are thoroughly confused...
  • Day one. I started week one with rhythm, then added harmony and counterpoint. I'm going to go back to rhythm now, but on a different level. Here is some flamenco to start with, that uses a shifting texture of 3 beats versus 2  beats in a measure. See if you can hear it:

  • Day two. Now for some fancier rhythm: Stravinsky in the Rite of Spring:

  • Day three. Both of those examples use a complex (very complex in the case of Stravinsky) pattern of accented and unaccented beats. This is also the case with the music of Steve Reich, but his rhythms are very repetitive instead of always changing:

  • Day four. Let's simplify things a bit with a menuet by Haydn. Menuets are in 3/4 meter, meaning that the beats come in groups of three. You should be able to hear them quite clearly here:

  • Day five. Now for something in duple time. Here is the first movement of the first piano sonata by Beethoven.  If you tap your foot along with it, you will be tapping half notes. This meter is called 2/2 and it is indicated with a funny little time signature (how the meter is shown on the music) that looks like a half-circle with a vertical slash. This is a holdover from the middle ages and indicates that, while there are four quarter notes in each measure, it is the half note that we feel as the beat and tap with our foot. It is called alla breve meaning, "with the breve" or half note. Here is the Wikipedia article on alla breve.

  • Day six. The two basic meters are duple, any multiple of 2 such as 4 or 8, and triple, any multiple of 3 such as 6 or 9. When we go to 6 or 9 then we get into some interesting meters we call compound meter. If you have six beats, you can group them in two different ways: two groups of three or three groups of two. The menuet by Haydn we listened to on day four is three groups of two, shown as 3/4 in the time signature. If we group it differently, in two groups of three we don't get half-size measures of 3/4, but one measure of 6/8 in which there are two groups of three and the first one gets a stronger accent. Here is a piece in 6/8, see if you can hear what I mean. You will hear the pattern Doo dah dah doo dah dah. The second "doo" is not as strong as the first.  Compound meters, like 6/8 or 9/8 tend to make for a nice dance feel and they are often used for the last movement so we will go dancing home from the concert. 

  • Day seven. Since compound time is a bit tricky, let's just listen to another one. This is the first movement from Beethoven's Piano Sonata, op 7. The accompaniment sounds like "pah pah pah, pah pah pah" which is a whole measure of 6/8 and I've put in a comma to show it is in two groups of three. The melody, when it appears, is the same, of course. If you listen to this movement a couple of times you will have a good sense of what 6/8 feels like.

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