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Victoria Williams

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19. Musical Devices

Grade 2 Music Theory Lesson 19: Musical Devices

Suitable for:  Trinity Grade 2   GCSE   AP Music Theory Beginners 

Note: the material on this page is tested in the Grade 2 TRINITY exam, but not the Grade 2 ABRSM exam.

 

In this lesson we will learn about three devices or "tools" composers use when they write music. These tools help the composer to create more ideas which are connected to the music that has already been heard. This helps them to write longer pieces of music and also makes a piece of music feel "glued" together, because it uses similar ideas as it goes along.

The three devices will will learn in this lesson are syncopationostinato and sequence

 

Syncopation

Usually, when a composer writes a rhythm, they fit it to a time signature so that the notes which fall on the strong beats of the bar are given a little emphasis, or slight accent, when they are played. This little "push" on the strong beat helps us to feel the beat and to understand how many beats per bar there are as we listen or play.

In all time signatures the beat which is strongest (or has the most accent) is beat 1

In 4/4 time, the 3rd beat of the bar is also quite strong, but not as strong as beat 1. Beats 2 and 4 are called the weak beats.

In 2/ and 3/ time signatures, beats 2 and 3 are both weak.

 

Most rhythms are not syncopated. This means they are written so that notes that are worth more than one beat fall on the strong beats, and not on the weak beats. Here is an example:

4 4 not syncopated

 

As you can see, the notes which are worth more than one beat are the minim (half note), dotted minim (dotted half note) and semibreve (whole note). They fall either on beat 1 or beat 3, which are the strong beats in 4/4.

 

In syncopated music, the long notes are moved onto the weak beat of the bar. In 4/4 this means the long note is pushed onto beat 2. (It can also be pushed onto beat 4 and tied over the bar line, but you don't need to understand this type of rhythm for grade 2).

4 4 syncopated

 

 

Rhythms can also be syncopated if a note which is worth one beat or more is placed between the beats of the bar.

Look at this un-syncopated rhythm in 2/4 - the crotchets (quarter notes) fall squarely on the beat.

2 4 not syncopated

 

Now compare this syncopated rhythm, also in 2/4. This time, the crotchets (quarter notes) fall between the beats - this "in between place" is called the offbeat. The music sounds different because we hear a relatively "important" note (because of its length) in a normally "unimportant" place (between the beats).

2 4 syncopated

 

 

Syncopation was not used very often in melodies written in classical times, (although it was quite common as a element of the accompaniment to a tune). In more modern times, syncopation became more and more used, especially in popular music like jazz, pop and rock, as well as modern art music.

The two syncopated rhythms to look out for in the Trinity grade 2 exam are these:

grade 2 trinity syncopation

 

Ostinato 

"Ostinato" is a repeated pattern in music. Ostinatos (or "ostinati") can be built on a melody or just a rhythm (on a drum, for example). In the Trinity exam you may be asked to find an example of ostinato in a score, or to write out some repeats of an ostinato pattern.

To write out repeats of an ostinato, simply copy the given bar(s) exactly as they appear. Pay attention to the spacing of the notes, as well as things like stem direction, and how notes are beamed (joined) together.

Here is an example question and answer:

Write out one more repeat of this ostinato. 

writing ostinato repeats

 

Sequences

A sequence is a repeated section of melody, beginning on a different note. The interval distance between each of the notes in the melody will stay the same.

Look at this example.

sequences

 

The original idea is a short melody of 2 bars beginning on C. Sequence 1 has the same idea, but this time it begins on a D. Sequence 2 is the same idea again, but it begins on E. A sequence can begin on any note from the scale of the key the music is in.

 

The intervals between each of the notes in the melody stay the same, and the rhythm stays the same.

Notice how the beginning of each repeat has a dotted crotchet (dotted quarter note), which moves upwards by the interval of a 2nd to a quaver (8th note).

sequences notes 1 2

 

Next, each repeat moves downwards by the interval of a 3rd, to a crotchet (quarter note), and so on.

sequences notes 2 3

 


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