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C4. Commenting on Music

Grade Six Music Theory General Knowledge, Lesson 4. Commenting on Music

Comparing and contrasting music is a very useful skill, which will help you to convey the nuances of any music you are performing - it shouldn't be just a theoretical exercise. 

In the ABRSM Grade 6 Theory exam, you might be asked to compare two short sections of the same score, and to comment on

  • any similarities or differences, or
  • how the composer has changed the mood of the piece

 

a) Similarities and Differences
If you are asked to name the similarities or differences between two sections of a score, the sections will normally look quite similar at first glance. You need to look very closely at:

  • the rhythm
  • the melody
  • the dynamics
  • the phrasing or articulation
  • the instrumentation

Here are some questions you should ask yourself:

  • Rhythm. Is the rhythm exactly the same, or have the note values changed?
  • Melody. Has the melody been inverted (turned upside down)? Has it been transposed into a different octave? Has it been sequenced (moved up or down by steps of the scale)?
  • Dynamics. Are both sections at the same dynamic, or are they contrasted?
  • Phrasing and Articulation. Are both sections legato, or perhaps one is staccato? Does one section use accented notes, or any other special effects?
  • Instrumentation. In an orchestral score, the exact same melody/rhythm might be played on a different instrument – has the instrumentation changed? 

 

Here is the opening page of the fourth movement of Brahms’ 1st clarinet sonata. (Can you work out which type of clarinet it is written for?!)

Look at the clarinet part in bars 4-5 and 6-7. What similarities or differences can you see?

 

brahms-clarinet-sonata

  • The rhythm is the same.
  • The melody is the same but written an octave lower in bars 6-7.
  • The dynamics are contrasted – F then P.
  • The articulation is the same.

 (This is for clarinet in Bb – the clarinet part is written a major second higher than the piano part.)

 

 b) Changing the Mood
If the composer has changed the mood of the piece, he/she has probably changed quite a few of the elements we discussed in point a). A mood change can be from racing to plodding, jolly to melancholic, blaring to peaceful or joking to serious. How does a composer achieve this? 

  • Tempo. Has the composer written a new tempo direction? Has the time signature changed?
  • Dynamics. Has the composer used different dynamic markings, or fewer instruments to achieve a change in volume?
  • Rhythm and melody. Has the composer started using longer/shorter note values, or made the melody go a lot higher/lower? The general note range of a melody is called its “tessitura”. You can say the “tessitura has become higher”, for example.
  • Texture. Has the composer changed which instruments are playing? The word “texture” refers to the thickness of sound. A full orchestra with all instruments playing has a thick or heavy texture. If this is reduced to just the strings, the texture is thinner or lighter.
  • Modality. Has the key of the music changed from major to minor?
  • Articulation. Has the composer changed from a smooth legato to a spiky staccato? 

In the following extract from a Menuet by d’Indy, the change of mood is easy to spot with the double barlines showing the start of the new section.

How has the composer created the change of mood though? The piece is orchestrated for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano.

  • The tempo is a little slower.
  • The dynamics are slightly quieter.
  • The rhythm is built of longer note values (crotchets and minims (half and quarter notes), compared to quavers and semiquavers (8th and 16th notes).
  • The texture is lighter because not all the instruments are playing at the same time.
  • The key has changed (to Bb major).
  • The articulation has changed from tongued/staccato to legato.

The overall effect would be that the mood has changed to a calmer, more sedate feeling.

d-indy-1

d-indy-2

d-indy-3

 

 

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