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Music theory hints and tips Archives - Piano Accompaniment Music Backing Tracks

Music theory hints and tips

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A large part of music theory is talking about chords and chord progressions. So first of all, what actually is a chord?

By chord, we are normally talking about a basic triad, which as the name suggests is simply a collection of 3 notes. Usually it is the first, third, and fifth note from any given scale.

In the key of C major, these notes are C, E, and G. So this chord is a C major chord.

c major chord

Or in the key of D major we would get:

d Major Chord

Note that in D major we have an F#.

 

What order these notes appear in doesn’t matter, so the chord below is still a C major chord because it has the notes C, E and G.

c major 2

Inversions

Chords are said to be in different inversions depending on which note is in the bass (at the bottom). If the first note of the scale (the root note) is at the bottom, it is said to be in root position. If the 3rd is in the bass it is a first inversion, and if the 5th is in the bass it is a second inversion.

Describing different chords within one key

When talking about chord progressions (a series of 2 or more chords) we can just refer to them by their names, C major, G major etc. However, that doesn’t really give any idea of how they relate to each other. Instead, we number the available chords within a key, so we can see how they interact. For example, in the key of C the first chord, chord one, is a C major chord. If we then create a chord starting on the second degree of the scale D we get a D minor chord – this is because we are still in the key of C major, so the F is a natural, so in the key of C we have the following chords (usually roman numerals are used to number them):

harmonised scale
We can see that in any given key, certain chords are always major and others minor, as shown when we look at the key of D major.

D harmonised scale
This is the advantage of using numbers to describe chords, because we see the relationship between them without having to worry about what they are called. So a chord progression of I – IV – V – I will be essentially the same in any major key.

Hang on, what did dim mean on that diagram?

Good question; chord VII is always a little problematic because it is not a normal chord. In the key of C, chord VII has B, D and F which is neither a major nor minor chord. B Major should have both D# and F# and B minor would have an F#. We describe the chord as diminished (dim for short) because it is a minor chord where the 5th (the F# in this case) has been dropped by a semitone (diminishing the gap between the root and 5th) because of this chord VII is not commonly used.

Adding notes to a chord

So far we have just been using basic triad chords, however sometimes extra notes are added to the chord. The most commonly added note is the seventh. If we take a C major chord and add the 7th note from the scale we get:

c major 7
This forms a C major 7th chord where the 7th (B) is a semitone below the octave (C). It is unusual to add a seventh to chord I, except in Jazz. In classical music it is commonly chord V which has the seventh added – note that when we add the seventh (F) to chord V, it is a tone below the octave (G) not the semitone we had above.

G7
Whilst the 7th chord is the most common, any note can be added into a chord. Below are some examples:

added notes
Suspended fourths

One final common adjustment to a basic triad is the suspended 4th, Here the 3rd degree of the scale is raised, so in the case of a C major chord the E is raised to an F giving us this chord:

csus4
The suspended chord is an unsettled chord and will almost always resolve back to the basic triad.

As we can hear in this audio example

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In this article I will describe an easy way to recognise individual intervals in aural exams.

Recognising intervals is actually very straightforward. The easiest way is to remember these tunes, and which interval it is they start with.

Minor 2nd. Jaws
Major 2nd. Major Scale
Minor 3rd. Greensleeves
Major 3rd. While Shepherds Watched
Perfect 4th. Away in a Manger
Augmented 4th/Diminished 5th. Maria
Perfect 5th. Star Wars
Minor 6th. Theme from Love Story
Major 6th. My Bonnie lies over the ocean
Minor 7th. There’s a place for us
Major 7th. Over the rainbow (1st note to 3rd note)
Octave. Over the rainbow (1st 2 notes)

It is also important that you practise being able to sing individual notes from a chord. Start of by playing 2 notes on the piano at the same time, and then try to sing the top note. This is not usually too difficult. Then try and sing the bottom note. If you can’t sing the bottom note accurately, then play it on its own and then together and see if you can hear it within the chord.

Don’t worry if this is difficult, keep at it, and once you get used to it this gets much easier.

If you are not a piano player, this diagram will show you which keys to press to get a particular interval. Just look for the pattern of the black keys and make sure you use the C in the middle of the piano.

A Minor 2nd is C – C# and a major 2nd C – D and so on until you reach the octave C – C.

keyboard with note names on

 

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Here are a few hints and tips on things you can do to help prepare for a performance or exam. I will not focus on any specific thing, as the exact requirements vary from board to board (ABRSM, Trinity etc.). But this advice is relevant to any performance, whether concert or examination. There are the usual obvious things, such as good consistent practice and ensuring you know all your scales etc. However, here I am concerned with techniques to help keep you calm and ensure that you perform to the best of your ability.

Nerves:

Nerves are the biggest problem we have to contend with when performing. It is perfectly natural, and everyone gets nervous, but there are ways to cope with nerves so that they do not impact on your playing.

It is very helpful to be aware of what being nervous will do to you, physically. When we are nervous our system releases extra adrenalin, so our heart rate increases, we may sweat, feel shakey, and so feel tense. Because of this extra adrenalin, we sense time differently than we would do normally, so everything seems to take longer. In exams, this usually means that we rush and try to play things at a tempo we are not used to. It is important to be aware of this, and to consciously slow yourself down so you play at the tempo you’ve been practising at. A few deep and slow breaths before you start will help to calm you down, and also helps you focus on what you are doing.

In an exam or performance we want to get things over and done with as fast as possible. In exams, this often means we don’t listen to instructions properly and rush into what we are doing. For example, we may play a major scale rather than a minor etc. Before you do anything take 2 or 3 breaths to think about it before you start. Although it may feel like a long time to you, sitting the exam, it really isn’t.

In the same way, when performing a piece, stop for a brief pause before you start and think through the first couple of bars of the piece to ensure you are focused on what you are playing and that you have the tempo firmly set in your head.

Waiting to perform:

One of the worst bits before an exam or performance is waiting for it to start. Try not to over worry, and don’t think too much about what you are about to do. I would not suggest playing through your actual pieces too often just before performing, as this can make you panic about any tricky bits and actually often cause mistakes. Instead, play through some scales or other easy pieces (maybe from a previous grade) simply to keep your fingers, instrument, etc. warmed up and to help you relax. Make sure you do not over practice, particularly if you are a wind or brass player, as you do not want to go into a performance with tired lips.

If you have to wait somewhere where you are unable to play, try to have a friend with you who can stop you from panicking.

Ask questions:

If you are asked something in an exam that you don’t understand, then ask for clarification. Examiners are very helpful, they do reaslise most people will be nervous, and they will not penalise you for misunderstanding or mishearing. This is particularly important for younger children, who may get flustered in exams and forget what it is they are supposed to do at each stage and are nervous about asking a stranger questions.

Smile:

Smiling makes you feel happier, relaxes you and also helps embouchure on wind instruments. Audiences and examiners do not enjoy performances if they think that the performer is miserable. If you are enjoying playing then the audience/examiner will enjoy listening.

Some performance tips:

  • Start clearly, confidently and positively – it is better to start too loud than to fade in gradually over the first few bars.
  • Keep going – if something goes wrong then keep going. You can get away with a few wrong notes, but if you stop it is obvious you have gone wrong.
  • Don’t wince! – Often the only reason an audience know that you have made a mistake is the look on your face. Remember, the audience don’t have the music in front of them and they will only know you have made a mistake if you tell them – grimacing or pulling a face will definitely let them know, not to mention it looking unprofessional.
  • The ending – don’t cut the last note short, and remember the piece is not over until all sound has stopped. On the piano, do not hold notes on the pedal whilst you look around the room. Keep your hands on the keys, and release the keys and pedal together. If you are being accompanied, then the piece does not stop until the accompaniment does.
  • Pay attention – every moment you are visible to an audience you are performing if you have 4 bars rest do not spend them looking around the room and scratching your head because people will notice.
  • Enjoy yourself – as mentioned above, if you are having fun the audience will be, too.

Recap: the two most important things are:

  1. Don’t rush! As I said above, most mistakes occur in performances because people try to do things too fast. Slow and right is always going to be better than fast and wrong.

  2. If it goes wrong, it is not the end of the world. You would be amazed the mistakes that go unnoticed by an audience, and you can always resit any exam. Even the greatest of musicians have had bad performances. Try not to get upset and just think ahead to next time and learn from your mistakes.

Good Luck!

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The time signature of a piece of music is shown by the two numbers that appear at the start. The most common time signatures you will come across, especially if you are a beginner, are 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4. The top number tells us how many beats there are in each bar, whilst the bottom number tells us what sort of note it is that we are counting.

When we start learning, we are told that a crotchet is a 1 beat note, a minim 2 beats and a quaver half a beat,beatlengthscrop
However, this only works in time signatures that end in 4  (2/4, 3/4 etc). These are termed simple time signatures. In other time signatures, we count different note lengths and this is what the bottom number signifies.

  • 2 = minims
  • 4 = crotchets
  • 8 = quavers
  • 16 = semiquavers

So, a time signature of 4/4 means we are counting 4 crotchets in each bar, but a time signature of 6/8 means we are counting 6 quavers. This means that a crotchet is only really a one beat note in a simple time signature, but in a time signature of 6/8, it would actually be 2 beats.

The Important thing is that the ratio between the notes never changes. There are always 2 quavers to a crotchet, and 2 crotchets to a minim.

Compound time signatures

Time signatures with an 8 at the bottom are called compound time signatures. These are ones where we count quavers.

In 6/8 we have 6 quavers in each bar, but we could also have 6 quavers in a bar of 3/4, so what is the difference?

bar of 3-4 + 6-8crop

As we can see, it is all about how the notes are grouped. In 3/4, we have three pairs of quavers which we count as 1 and 2 and 3 and but in 6/8 we have two groups of three quavers which we count as 1 and a 2 and a.

This means that in 6/8 we have two beats in each bar, but that each beat has three quavers in it. This means that a crotchet is not a one beat note any more, but is actually only two thirds of a beat.

So, our simple time signatures are 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4, but the compound time signatures are 6/8 (two beats in a bar), 9/8 (three beats in a bar) and 12/8 (four beats in a bar).bar comparisons crop

If we look at the music for this piece (Mozart C major Piano Sonata), we can see that it is in 4/4.mozart 44crop
You can listen to it here (try to count along to feel the 4 beats in each bar)








Here is a second version where I have changed the time signature to 12/8.

mozart 12-8cropI have had to add notes to ensure that there are three quavers in each beat, however the general feel is unchanged, apart from having the more flowing feeling of a compound time signature.

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What is a Key?

The Key of a piece of music refers to the scale that the notes used to make up a tune are from. For example, if we look at the tune below, we see that the B in the tune is flattened, which shows that it is using the scale of F major.

 

happy birthdayMajor vs Minor

Major and Minor are the two most common scales used in western music. There are actually lots of different scales, however most music is written in either a major or minor key.

Major keys are often described as being “happier” in feel, whilst the minor keys are usually referred to as “sadder”.

All minor keys are related to a major key and use the same sharps or flats, so whenever we see a key signature, it shows us that the piece is in one of two related keys.

How are they related?

To find out which major key a minor scale is related to, you simply go up by 4 semitones. For example, in the case of A minor we go up 4 semitones (A-A#-B-C) and find that it is related to the scale of C major (no sharps or flats). So, if we play the notes of a C major scale, but start and finish on A, we are playing a pure A minor scale.

Unfortunately things aren’t quite that straightforward as there are different types of minor scale. The most common type of Minor is a Harmonic Minor, and this is all we will be talking about here. For this we play the pure minor we have just worked out, but we also sharpen the 7th note so our A minor scale becomes this:

a minor scale

The reason that the 7th note is sharpened is quite complicated, so we won’t go into it here, but if you want to find out more see this article.

The sharpened 7th note does not go in the key signature of a piece, instead it is placed in the music. Thus, as we said earlier, each key signature could be one of two keys. For example, an F# and C# could be D major or it could be B minor. If it is B minor we would expect to see lots of A sharps (the seventh note of a B minor scale).

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First of all, what is a fifth?

circleoffifthsthumbnail

Click for large pdf version

A fifth is an interval (a distance between notes). It is simply the distance between the first note of a scale, and the fifth note of that scale. For example, in the key of C a fifth is the distance between C and G. It is very important to remember that it is not just
counting up 5 notes, but five whole notes including any flats or sharps in that scale. For example, in the key of B Major ( which has F#,C#,G#,D#,A# ) if we counted up five notes, we would get to F, whereas in this scale the fifth is infact F#. That is because B major has an F# in it.

What does the circle of fifths do?

The circle of fifths is used to work out what the correct accidentals (sharps or flats) are in any given key, and to show the relationship between the various keys.

How does it work?

At the top of the circle we start with C, with no accidentals, then we simply move up a fifth each time as we progress around the circle in a clockwise direction.

Each time we move one step around the circle, another sharp is added to the scale, so C has no sharps. We then get G which has one sharp, then D which has two, E that has 3, etc.

When we reach 7 steps round the circle we have obviously run out of sharps to add to the list, so now we need to add the flat keys. To do this we follow exactly the same procedure, but going round the circle in an anti-clockwise direction, only this time we go down a fifth each time. So from C we go down to F which has one flat (Bb), if we go down a fifth from F we reach Bb (remembering a fifth is not always simply five notes) and so on.

The sharps or flats ( accidentals ) are always added in the same order. It can be remembered using this rhyme;

F
ather
Charles
Goes
Down
And
Ends
Battle

reading down the rhyme gives us the order of the sharps and reading it backwards

Battle
Ends
And
Down
Goes
Charles’
Father

gives us the order of the flats.

So G major has one sharp F# and D major has two F# and C#, and so it continues…

Using this method you should be able to work out the key sigature for any major key.

The diagram also shows the minor keys which are related to each major key. For more information on how minor keys work,
go to this article.

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Here is a pdf file for a large print stave. It is useful for young children to practise music writing, or for writing examples.

To download a copy, click here.

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