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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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1. Score Reading: Harmony, Melody and Texture

Score Reading - Harmony, Melody and Texture

In the grade 8 ABRSM music theory exam you will probably be asked to show that you understand the actual sounds of the printed notes on the page. You may be asked about the way the sounds combine (“texture”), the feelings they produce in the listener, or technical questions about how sounds are produced or notated.


Essential Harmony Notes

You might be asked to identify whether certain notes are “unessential” to the harmony or not. Basically, a note which is essential to the harmony is one which is not a note of melodic decoration. Notes which fall into the categories of passing notes, auxiliary notes, suspensions, appoggiaturas, anticipations, retardations and pedals are all notes which are not essential to the harmony.


Enharmonic Chords

An enharmonic chord is one which, when spelled a different way, has a different name. The two most commonly seen enharmonic chords are the dominant 7th and German 6th.

In the key of C major, the German 6th chord uses the notes Ab-C-Eb-F#. It is an augmented 6th chord, because of the interval between Ab and F#.
If you respell the chord with Gb instead of F# however, you create the dominant 7th chord in the key of Db!

 enharmonic chords


Implied Suspensions

Suspensions occur when a note in a chord is held over into the next chord, creating a dissonance with the bass note. Suspensions have three stages. The “preparation” stage refers to the note when it sounds in the chord before the suspension. The “suspension” stage is the moment when you hear the dissonance. The third stage is the “resolution”, and is when the dissonance resolves into a consonance – usually by falling by a step into the chord.

An “implied” suspension happens when the suspension is not resolved in the usual way, and the dissonance is left hanging in the air for a moment. A suspension which only resolves after a rest is also an implied suspension. In the following example, the F is an implied suspension over the C major chord. It is followed by a rest, rather than a resolution.

implied suspension


Locating Suspensions

You may be asked to find a suspension within the score. The question often looks something like this “find a suspension on the dominant of the relative minor key”. In a dense score, it may feel like you are looking for a needle in a haystack, but you will make the task easier if you work out in advance which notes you are looking for. 

  • To find the “relative minor key” (or whichever key you need), look at the key at the start of the piece and work out the necessary key from there. (E.g. if the piece starts in F major, the relative minor is D minor.)
  • Work out which chord is the “dominant” of the new key. (E.g. in D minor, the dominant chord is A major.)
  • Work out which notes are usually used in a suspension on that chord. The common suspensions are 4-3, 9-8 (root position chords) and 7-6 (first inversion).
    • In A major root position 4-3, note 4 is a D, moving to C# (note 3). C# will have an accidental on it, which makes it a lot easier to find! Bass note: root (A).
    • In A major root position 9-8, note 9 is B, moving to A (note 8). Bass note root (A).
    • In A major first inversion 7-6, note 7 is B, moving to A (note 6). Bass note third (look for the accidental!)
  • Now that you have narrowed it down to specific notes to look for, you can scan through the score looking for those notes. Make sure what you have found is actually a suspension, by ensuring that the bass note (always the lowest sounding note) is correct.


False (Cross) Relations

A false (or cross) relation occurs when a note is placed in close time proximity to a chromatically altered version of itself, in another part. For example, if in a flute and piano piece, the flute plays a G natural and a moment later the piano plays a G#, a false relation occurs. When music moves chromatically, it is usually done by step, so the G-G# movement would sound fine played by the same part/instrument. When the chromatic change occurs in different parts, the effect will be a slight clash or dissonance.

False relations often occur in minor keys, where the notes from the melodic minor scale can cause this type of dissonance, or in any key where there is a lot of chromaticism or fast key changes.

The following bar from Bach’s Fugue in D major from his “Well Tempered Klavier Book 2”, shows a false relation between D sharp and D natural. Although the notes are played on the same instrument, a fugue is a polyphonic piece built from different individual parts. This fugue is in four parts. The D# occurs in the tenor voice and is quickly followed by D natural in the soprano.

false cross relation


To find a false relation, scan the score for accidentals. Look for notes of the same letter name with different chromatic alterations, which are written close to each other. A false relation can occur within one single bar, or on successive beats across bars. If two chromatically different notes are written in successive bars, but not successive beats, there will be enough “space” between them to prevent a clash, and they will not be considered to be false relations.

The following bars are taken from Bach’s Fugue in D minor (“Well Tempered Klavier Book 1”) and are used to illustrate what is NOT a false relation. The first bar contains Bb and C#, while the second contains B natural and C natural. However, there is enough elapsed time between the notes to prevent the false relation occurring.

non false relation



Music which is written for two or more instruments can be either homophonic or polyphonic. “Homophonic” means “sounding together”, and is used describe music that is composed “vertically”, with harmony as the foundation or backbone of the piece. In homophonic music it is common to find chords or broken chord (arpeggios) as an accompaniment, against a single melody. A melody which is harmonized in 3rds or 6ths is also homophonic, because the harmony line is completely dependent on the melody.

In contrast, polyphonic music is made up of two more individual strands of melody. It is composed “horizontally” and the melodies provide the foundation of the piece. By combining separate melodies together, the end result is often, of course, that chords are formed. However, they can be thought of as a secondary consideration in polyphonic music. “Polyphonic” means “many sounds” and it sounds like lots of (or at least two!) individual parts are being played at the same time. The musical form of the “fugue” is an example of the polyphonic style. The word “contrapuntal” means basically the same thing as “polyphonic”.


Melody Organisation

In this section, you’ll learn some of the vocabulary which is used to talk about the way pieces of music are organised.
The theme of a piece is its principal or most recognisable melodic idea. A famous example of a theme is the “Ode to Joy” tune, from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which begins like this:

ode to joy


A theme can be used to make a series of variations. A variation uses the same overall structure of the theme, but changes it to make something new, but obviously connected. Variations can be made by decorating the melody, making subtle changes to the rhythm, changing from major to minor, and so on.

This is the opening theme from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11, which is the basis for six variations which make up the first movement of the piece. At its most fundamental level, bar 1 of the theme consists of just C# and E. The D is an auxiliary note and of lesser importance. Bar 2 is constructed in a similar way.

 mozart theme piano sonata


The first variation begins like this:

mozart first variation


How has the theme been adapted?

In the variation, the C# and E still take prominence in bar 1, but this time they are decorated by an appoggiatura (B#), a chromatic passing note (D#) and an upper auxiliary note (F#).


Variation three is even more contrasted:

mozart third variation


This time, the parallel minor key has been used (A minor is the parallel minor key to A major). The important notes of C-E (bar 1) and B-D (bar 2) are still there – they are simply decorated with scale-based runs.


In an orchestral score, the melodic line refers to the instrumental part(s) playing the “tune”, as opposed to the accompaniment.

In this extract from the 2nd Movement of Brahms’ 4th Symphony, can you identify where the melodic line is being played? Try to sing through each part individually, then decide which part(s) sound most like a tune. A tune often moves by steps and a mix of other intervals, is not overly repetitive, is rhythmically interesting, does not outline an arpeggio and/or is in a strong-sounding register for the instrument.

melodic line


The melodic line is in the clarinet and first violin part. The flute part is very low in its register and therefore would not be particularly audible. The bassoon and second violin parts are quite repetitive, and the viola, cello and double bass parts outline the harmony.


A reprise is the re-stating of the theme, usually at the end of a piece. It may be adapted in some way, for example shortened, or decorated. In sonata form, the reprise is formally known as the recapitulation, and the initial statement of the theme is called the exposition.


A coda is an end section, which is designed to finish of a piece neatly or with a final flourish.




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