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Writing about music (instrumental)

June 14, 2008

Introduction

This tutorial is aimed primarily at students who are interested in writing a short technical analysis of a piece of instrumental music.

What markers are looking for

When marking a technical analysis of a piece of music, apart from criteria that apply to all essays (such as answering the question, a well-structured argument, a good prose style etc.) markers will be looking for two main things:

1. Technically accurate comment on the music

2. Technically accurate comment presented in an organised and analytical way.

1 and 2, though related, are not quite the same thing. It is possible to demonstrate technical knowledge without creating a coherent and well-organised analysis. For example, you could work through a piece bar by bar, describing every chord and every note. But if tempted to take this approach, you should ask yourself how interesting and informative the results would be. Would you like to read something like this yourself? An essay that analyses a piece of music is still an essay, and the material needs to be presented in a way that is well-organised and interesting to read.

The aim of this tutorial is to show the different between a well-organised analysis and a not-so-well-organised analysis. While the music chosen is fairly simple I hope the conclusions drawn will be of help when you come to analyse more complex music.

The piece

The piece is a minuet from the Piano Sonata in D major Op. 5 No. 2 by the eighteenth-century composer J.C. Bach.  The score below is a reproduction of an eighteenth-century edition.

JC Bach Minuet from Op. 5 No 2

JC Bach Minuet from Op. 5 No 2

 Bar numbers and references

Bar numbers are referred to in the sample analyses so a score with bar numbers would be of help. If these are not already there you can add them yourself. Also, if as suggested, you try your own analysis, you will need to use bar numbers for references.

Recording of the minuet

I hope to be able to provide a link to a recording of this piece. Best of all is if you have the score and can play the piece yourself (it is not a difficult piece to play).

The question

The sample question is:

Write a commentary of approximately 300 words on Minuetto by J. C. Bach. You should discuss factors such as: form, key scheme, texture and use of motifs. Your answer should be in continuous prose.

Two sample answers

I have supplied two sample answers, which you can read and after you do so think about

• the strengths and weaknesses of each
• what mark you think each sample deserves

I suggest you try writing your own answer, then ask yourself: which of the sample answers is your answer most like?

Note that bar 1(2) means “bar 1 beat 2”.

Sample answer 1

The piece starts with the key signature of D major, two sharps, and stays in this key until the end of the first section. At bar 9 there is a modulation to A major and at bar 18 the key is G major. In the middle section there is a change to the key signature of F major, which is the main key of this section. The melody of the middle section is more interesting than the melody at the start of the piece. In the third bar of the middle section there is a passing modulation to A major, as can be seen from the G# in the bass. This kind of modulation is what we would expect in a development section.

Binary form is obviously very important in this piece, being used for both parts. At bar 21 there is a recapitulation. There are important motifs at the opening, and this is typical of the Classical Style. There is not much counterpoint in the piece and the texture is thin. The piece is a bit like a trio sonata in places, with two parts and a bass. This is especially true of the middle of the piece.

Question and answer phrases form the basis of the melody, which is regular and not like baroque music. The melody sometimes uses a triplet figure, which helps to add some variety to what is not a very interesting melody. There is not much dissonance in the piece. There is a trill in bar 6, which resolves on the tonic. Many of the cadences are Ic-V-I.

Sample answer 2

The piece is in ternary form: ABA. The A section is bars 1-28. The B section is bars 29-52. Both the A and B sections follow a binary plan, with each having two repeated sections. The A section is itself a kind of ternary form: (a) bars 1-8, (b) bars 9-20, with (a) returning in bars 21-28. The overall form of the piece is a minuet and trio.

The main modulations are as follows. Bars 1-9 are in D major. Bars 11-16 are in A major. Bars 17-28 are in D major. Bars 29-33 are in D minor. There is a modulation to F major at bar 34. There is a return to D minor at bar 44. Section B ends in D minor. All these modulations have structural importance. It is particularly striking that the trio uses the minor mode. There are a couple of passing modulations; G major is touched on at bar 18 and g minor is hinted at in bar 42.

The texture is mostly in two or three parts throughout. The change is made quite freely, e.g. bars 1-2. The melody is mostly in the top part, e.g. bars 1-8. Occasionally there is a four-part chord, e.g. in bars 2 and 52. The texture is mainly melody and accompaniment, e.g. bars 9-20, but sometimes the bass has more independence, e.g. bars 36(2)-41(1).

The middle section uses motifs from the A section. Bars 30 and 32 use the motif from bar 3(2-3), top part. The rhythm of the motif in bar 3(2-3) first appears in the top part in bar 2(2-3) and is also used in the top part in bar 7(2-3). Bars 13-14 develop this motif. However, on the whole the use of motifs is not particularly rigorous.

This piece is by J. C. Bach and was composed in . The style is pre-classical or galant.

(end of sample answer 2)

My comments on the two answers follow.

Comments on the sample answers

Sample answer 1

The piece starts with the key signature of D major, two sharps, and stays in this key until the end of the first section.

The writer has made an accurate analysis of the key structure of bars 1-8, but the conclusions have not been expressed very clearly. The piece does start using the key signature of D major, but two sharps is also the key signature of b minor. Also, the key signature is not necessarily an infallible guide to what key the piece begins in: it is very unlikely in a minuet, but even an eighteenth-century composer might begin a piece in a key other than one of the two suggested by the key signature (perhaps as a musical joke). This first sentence of the sample answer is a roundabout way of saying that bars 1-8 are in D major. The end of the first section should be identified with a bar number.

At bar 9 there is a modulation to A major

Not quite accurate enough: the modulation begins in bar 9 but the new key isn`t really confirmed until bars 12-13. And what kind of modulation is this? A passing modulation? A modulation of structural importance?

and at bar 18 the key is G major.

Yes, there is a suggestion of G major, but at most the smallest hint, certainly no more than a passing modulation. Yet in this answer this modulation is given just as much importance as the modulation to A major mentioned above.

In the middle section

Where exactly? A bar reference is needed: `the middle section` is too vague.

there is a change to the key signature of F major,

See the comments above about the key of the music and the key signature. Here the key is d minor, not F major (see the repeated `Ds` in the bass).

which is the main key of this section.

The main key of this section is d minor. The beginning and end of the section need to be identified with bar numbers.

The melody of the middle section is more interesting than the melody at the start of the piece.

This is too subjective a comment for an analytical answer like this.

In the third bar of the middle section

Quite a precise reference to the music, but it is better just to give a bar number, e.g. bar 31.

there is a passing modulation to A major, as can be seen from the G# in the bass.

The G# is an auxiliary note, i.e. purely decorative: note the two G naturals in the top part of the same bar. The chord in this bar is a dominant 7th in d minor, so the G# in the bass is not a chord note at all (the chord of V7 in d minor contains a G natural, not a G#).

This kind of modulation is what we would expect in a development section.

The term `development section` suggests that the piece is in sonata form, whereas it is in ternary form. Using the term `development section` confuses the issue.

Binary form is obviously very important in this piece, being used for both parts.

Basically right, but this could be more clearly expressed. `Very important` is vague, and so is `both parts`: there should be bar references here.

At bar 21 there is a recapitulation.

The term `recapitulation` suggests sonata form and is misleading. However, the essential idea (the idea of musical material returning) is right because bar 21 is the beginning of the final `A` of an ABA structure.

There are important motifs at the opening,

This sounds like a hopeful guess. Where else would important motifs be except at the opening? And where exactly are the motifs and why are they important?

and this is typical of the Classical Style.

Too vague a comment. The statement is so general that it probably applies to every piece of music written between 1750 and 1800.

There is not much counterpoint in the piece

Too vague: just what is `not much`?

and the texture is thin.

`Thin` is too vague: if comments are made on texture it is necessary to mention things like how many parts there are, are there the same number of parts all the time, are there block chords, is there a melody and accompaniment.

The piece is a bit like a trio sonata in places, with two parts and a bass.

There is some truth in this, but earlier sonata form-type terms were used: now `trio sonata`, a baroque genre, is mentioned. This is confusing and gives the impression that the writer hasn`t made up their mind about where the piece should be situated in the history of music.

This is especially true of the middle of the piece.

Not a bad comment, but `middle of the piece` needs to be more clearly identified.

Question and answer phrases form the basis of the melody,

Quite a good observation, but expressed in a way that is too vague: why call the phrases `question and answer phrases`? In what bars are these phrases?

which is regular

More needs to be said: what exactly does `regular` mean?

and not like baroque music.

But earlier the music was being compared to a typical baroque genre, the trio sonata.

The melody sometimes uses a triplet figure,

Correct, but bar references are needed, e.g. `in bars 33-34`.

which helps to add some variety to what is not a very interesting melody.

Too subjective a comment. It is enough to say that the triplet motifs add variety to the melody.

There is not much dissonance in the piece.

True enough, but probably applies to almost all eighteenth-century music; if a comment is made about dissonance it should be backed up with a specific reference e.g. that the only dissonant chords are dominant 7ths.

There is a trill in bar 6, which resolves on the tonic.

Incorrect terminology: dissonances resolve but trills do not. Anyway, this detail is an isolated comment and gives the impression of being a hopeful stab at saying something significant.

Many of the cadences are Ic-V-I.

There should be bar references for any comments about cadence types. There should be some comment on the significance of the Ic-V-I cadences, e.g. how do they help us place the piece in its historical context?

Overall

Despite my critical comments, this is not a bad answer. There is plenty of evidence that the writer has carefully studied the music and made a technically accurate analysis, even though the results of this analysis are not always clearly expressed. But what is very striking is that there is no overall organisation to the answer; it is as if the bits of a good answer are there, but lying around like pieces of a jigsaw, waiting to be put together. For example, it is difficult to know what the writer thinks the form of the piece is (despite some insightful comments) and the ideas about the style of the piece are often contradictory, as the writer swings between `like the baroque` and `not like the baroque`. Too many comments have the appearance of hopeful stabs at saying something significant, too many comments are too general, and there are not enough precise references.

Sample answer 2

The piece is in ternary form: ABA. The A section is bars 1-28. The B section is bars 29-52. Both the A and B sections follow a binary plan, with each having two repeated sections. The A section is itself a kind of ternary form: (a) bars 1-8, (b) bars 9-20, with (a) returning in bars 21-28. The overall form of the piece is a minuet and trio.

A good opening. The writer concisely and precisely sets out how they see the form of the piece, backing up their interpretation with good references.

The main modulations are as follows. Bars 1-9 are in D major. Bars 11-16 are in A major. Bars 17-28 are in D major. Bars 29-33 are in D minor. There is a modulation to F major at bar 34. There is a return to D minor at bar 44. Section B ends in D minor. All these modulations have structural importance. It is particularly striking that the trio uses the minor mode. There are a couple of passing modulations; G major is touched on at bar 18 and g minor is hinted at in bar 42.

A good summary of the key scheme of the piece. Note how the writer has distinguished between modulations that have structural importance and passing modulations. There is also a short but effective comment on the effect of the change from D major to d minor (note that this is accurately described as a change of mode).

The texture is mostly in two or three parts throughout. The change is made quite freely, e.g. bars 1-2. The melody is mostly in the top part, e.g. bars 1-8. Occasionally there is a four-part chord, e.g. in bars 2 and 52. The texture is mainly melody and accompaniment, e.g. bars 9-20, but sometimes the bass has more independence, e.g. bars 36(2)-41(1).

Concise and well-referenced comments on texture. Note how vague sentences like `the texture is thin` are avoided and there are precise references to what is happening in the music.

The middle section uses motifs from the A section. Bars 30 and 32 use the motif from bar 3(2-3), top part. The rhythm of the motif in bar 3(2-3) first appears in the top part in bar 2(2-3) and is also used in the top part in bar 7(2-3). Bars 13-14 develop this motif. However, on the whole the use of motifs is not particularly rigorous.

A few accurately referenced comments on the use of motifs. This is not something that there is a lot to say about in this piece, which in general has a simple construction.

Overall

The most striking aspect of this answer is that it is organised in four clear sections: form, key scheme, texture and motifs, which address the key issues raised by the question.

Conclusion

Both answers show technical knowledge but the second answer does a much better job of organising and presenting the results of the analysis. The second answer is not just purely descriptive, but is organised in such a way as to give the reader an overview of how the composer has organised the piece. After having read the second answer we feel as if we understand the piece better than if we had just had a cursory glance at the score. The second answer shows a greater level of understanding by pointing out the difference between, for example, modulations that have structural importance and passing modulations. Comments on the texture are precise and give the impression that the writer has looked carefully at the music. The level of technical accuracy is greater than in the first answer.

Barry Mitchell

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