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The Basics of Music

The basic components of music are rhythm, melody and harmony. Rhythm refers to the controlled movement of music in time. The duration of tones, the extent of their repetition, and the pattern with which they are sounded determines the rhythm of a musical passage. Rhythm is concerned with the duration of pitches and regulates all the relationships within a composition. We naturally hear sounds with a regular pulse, strong and weak beats, and respond to rhythm with our reflexes or other physical movements.

Musical time is usually organized with a basic unit of length known as a beat; some beats are stronger than others and are referred to as accented beats. Beats are perceived in groups known as bars or measures, which each contain a fixed number of beats.

Syncopation refers to an intentional upset of the normal accent; the accent, instead of falling on the strong beat of the measure, is shifted to a weak beat (for example, normal accent: ONE, two three; syncopation: one, TWO, three). It is one of the popular compositional techniques for avoiding monotonous rhythmic patterns.

Melody is the element of music that the listener usually remembers. A melody is a succession of tones perceived by the mind as a unit, an impression of a conscious arrangement. The listener doesn't respond to tones separately, but perceives them in relation to each other.

Harmony pertains to the movement and relationship of intervals and chords, hence the familiar do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-si-do scale. The tones of an interval may be sounded in successively or simultaneously. A chord is a combination of three or more tones that constitute a single unit of harmony. The melody sounds above the supporting chords that provide the harmony.

Dissonance is responsible for the tension in music. It's easier to think of dissonance as restlessness and activity, and consonance as relaxation and fulfillment. A dissonant chord creates tension and a consonant chord resolves it. Each complements the other, and both are necessary.

A key refers to a group of related tones with a common center or tonic. The tones of the key serve as the basic material for a given composition. If a composition in D major, for example, it is based upon the family of tones that revolve around and gravitate to the tonic D. This relation to a central tone is known as tonality. When speaking of atonal music, one is referring to music that intentionally lacks a tonal center.

A scale is a series of tones arranged in consecutive order: ascending or descending.

The key signature at the beginning of a piece declares the number of sharps or flats that prevail in that particular composition, establishing what key it is in (C major has no sharps or flats, G major has one sharp, F major has one flat, etc.). These major and minor keys comprise the standard Western harmonic system.

The contrast between keys and the movement from one key to another is an essential element of musical structure and is known as modulation. It is one of the most important sources of variety in music.

Reading music is like reading another language. Musical notation is the result of an evolution that reaches back to antiquity. Through the centuries, it has adapted to the new systems of musical thought.

The procedure of variation is one of the oldest performing principles that have endured without interruption from the earliest known music to the present day. Variation is a technique by which successive statements of a theme are altered, or presented in different settings. The theme itself may vary in length. The process of thematic modification depends on the type of music (classical, non-classical, jazz, popular, blues, etc.) and the performers (instrumenal or or vocal) who are involved.

Arrangement can either refer to the alteration of a composition from one medium to another--such as a popular song arranged for solo piano--or the simplification or elaboration of a piece, with or without a change in medium. Although the term transcription is often used interchangeably with arrangement, it tends to imply a more literal transference, rather than a re-composition or paraphrase reflecting the arranger's choices instead of the composer's.

The combinations of letters and numbers that follow many compositions refer to a catalog listing. They serve to organize the works of a composer and help to establish a chronology. Unfortunately, the available historical information is not always accurate, so a higher "opus" or "catalog number"  does not necessarily indicate that the work in question was composed later in a composer's lifetime. Regardless, such catalogs are useful in accurately identifying a composition that has a generic title such as "Piano Concerto" or "Symphony." The most popular catalog listing is an opus number, abbreviated "Op." Others typically refer to the music historian who produced the particular catalog. Some of the more frequently seen abbreivations for these types of catalogs are: "K" numbers for Mozart (Ludwig Koechel, an Austrian botanist with an immense admiration for Mozart), "Hob" or "H" numbers (Anthony van Hoboken) for Haydn, "D" numbers (Otto Deutsch) for Schubert, "RV" numbers (Ryom Verzeichnis) for Vivaldi and "BWV" numbers for Bach (Bach Werke-Verzeichnis, a thematic index compiled by musicologist Wolfgang Schmieder; originally, "S" numbers were used for J.S. Bach).

The following are general descriptions regarding the standard symphony orchestra concert and commonly-used terms to describe the musicians. Certain works require atypical seating arrangements, and conductors often have individual preferences to secure the best balance of sound, dependent mostly on the acoustics of the performance space.

Baton: A thin, tapered stick (usually made of wood or fiberglass), used by the conductor of an orchestra or smaller chamber ensemble.

Concert: A public performance of musical compositions, usually presented by an orchestra or chamber ensemble, that does not require scenic representations. For a smaller-scale performance, the term "recital" is usually used (piano recital, vocal recital, etc.).

Conducting: The direction of a musical performance by visible gestures intended to secure unanimity of execution and interpretation. The conductor beats time and indicates the entrances of the various instruments, the shadings in volume and numerous related details that serve to clarify the structure of a given work. The conductor's right hand is mainly used for beating patterns that indicate the tempo of the music; the left hand is generally used for interpretive instruction (such as the relative loudness of the music, the phrasing, etc.) to capture the character of the composition and to effect the composer's direction. A conductor's facial expression and other body movements are essential in communicating his or her musical desires to the orchestra. The conductor works with a score, which consists of multiple staves, each representing one or more instrumental or vocal part. In performance, some conductors choose not to use a score, relying entirely on memory (an astounding accomplishment!).

Conductors were not necessary until ensembles began to increase in size and music became more intricate, necessitating broader interpretation. Modern conducting, with a lightweight baton, began in the early 19th century, but the practice of beating time for the purposes of rhythmic direction dates back to the Middle Ages. In the 18th century, performances were directed from the harpsichord or an earlier version of the piano, and ocassionally by the leading violinist. Mozart. for instance, directed his concertos and operas from the keyboard and Haydn presided at the pianoforte when his symphonies were performed. Notable 19th-century conductors include Felix Mendelssohn, Hector Berlioz, Hans von Bülow and Richard Wagner. Modern traditions of interpretation are realized by the conductor's own insights into the character of the work and the accepted performance practices for the particular period of music (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, post-Romantic, etc.).

Within the confines of the concert hall, conductors have a certain amount of power over the musicians they work with. A good conductor will hopefully make the orchestra and soloist(s) feel inspired, excited, and proud to be making music.

Philharmonic: A name used by many musical organizations, literally meaning  "music-loving" (from the Greek, phil = "loving" and harmonic = "concerning music"). The titles "Symphony Orchestra" and "Philharmonic Orchestra" are often used interchangeably.

"Pops" Orchestra or Concert: "Pops" is short for popular. A pops concert usually features well-known "lighter" classical compositions as well as music from the theater, films, jazz, rock, etc. (often referred to as crossover repertoire).

Chamber Orchestra: A chamber orchestra is comprised of fewer players (approximately 20 to 40 instrumentalists) than a standard orchestra.


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