Suggestions for Writing About
Two difficulties generally arise when asked to write about music. The
first is that most undergraduate students have insufficient writing experience
of any sort. This problem is best overcome by taking more English composition
and writing a multitude of papers for various courses of study. The second
problem is that most students do not know what subject material to address
during their discourse. This often results from lack of sufficient understanding
of basic musical concepts, vocabulary to describe musical events, or just
taking time to consider music in any depth. The latter is like window shopping
and only seeing the plate-glass window on the outside of the store. You
have to look beyond the glass to see what the store is displaying just "beyond"
the surface of the window. Furthermore, you have to go into the store to really
find what marvelous merchandise it has to offer. The richest and most interesting
merchandise is inside because there is limited room to display everything
in the windows.
When working through an analysis project, there are a number of musical
features that can be identified by Roman numerals, figured bass symbols,
cadence labels, non-harmonic tone labels, key and mode labels, etc. Often
these refer to the surface features of the piece. You don't need to recapitualate
all of them in a running prose commentary of the piece. This is not a sports
event and you are not Howard Kossel. Don't give a "blow-by-blow" description
of the piece.
So what should you discuss? Those surface features which help you to demonstrate
the points you are making in the paper are useful to include, in addition
to the following:
Before discussing the relevant and appropriate musical features, consider
your general writing style. Your paper is an informative discourse on a
selection of music. It is not a chatty commentary. Nobody
cares how the music makes you feel or whether you like the piece per se
--stick to the facts. However your aesthetic response is a good reason to
focus on particular attributes, qualities, passages, etc. A passage may make
you feel sad, tell the reader about the structural features that cause this
response and explain why these features may provoke such a reaction.
Features that are "beyond the surface," that cannot be labeled on the
- This includes large-scale harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic motions.
- What are the features that make this piece unique or characterize
its particular style?
Write and rewrite so that your presentation is as clear and concise as
possible. Avoid unnecessary words and get rid of the clutter. Get a friend--several
friends, a teacher--to read through your paper. Have them tell you if your
discussion is terse, yet lucid and thorough. If it isn't, where does it need
to be revised? Ask them to be specific and appropriately critical (critical
does not mean condescending). The only way you can develop your writing and
analytic skills is through honest criticism and rewriting. Therefore, do not
wait until the last day to write your paper.
ASSUME the best grammar, use of language, syntax, and spelling--e.g. avoid
passive tense, and dangling participles.
Specific items to consider: In your own paper you may need to write at
length about all of these items or perhaps only a few.
*I don't remember who wrote the original document upon which this is based,
but I have revised it somewhat--P. Collaros
- Is there a clear, lyrical melody, or are melodic motives being used
in constructing the melodic interest (e.g. Beethoven, Sympbony No. 5 in C
- Is the melody conjunct or disjunct?
- Is it diatonic or chromatic?
- Does the melody and the supporting harmony show clear and regular
- Are you able to sketch the phrases and periods?
- Can you discuss or show the relationships among phrases/periods/cadences?
- A clear formal diagram may be appropriate and take the place of a
- Is the harmony principally diatonic with some chromaticism for microtonicization
and/or modulation; OR is the harmony highly chromatic?
- If present, what kinds of chromatic techniques or musical events
are found in the piece? Are any of these atypical?
- Is most of the chromatic harmony manifested through modal mixture,
or other chromatic techniques?
- Prolongation--Are there any passages that require explanation because
of prolongation? (See Schumann, By the Fireside, or the end of Schubert's
- Modulations--Are there some unique features that occur during modulations?
- Are less common modulation techniques present?
- Is chromaticism (beyond secondary dominant harmony) fundamental in
facilitating the modulation?
- What about the key relationships? Tonic to dominant is typical, but
is a chromatic mediant, Neapolitan, or relative major/minor relationship in
- THINK RELATIONSHIPS! If this is a middle movement from a multimovement
work, OR a middle excerpt of a larger piece, how does the key of this movement
or passage relate to the key of the overall work.
- What texture(s) are used: homophony, polyphony, monophony?
- Is there a dense or thin texture?
- Are the rhythms generally homogeneous throughout the work?
- Are they thick and overlapping with complexity?
- Is syncopation vital to the style of this piece?
- Are there any rhythmic motives that frequently recur?
- Is the harmonic rhythm consistent?
- Does it accelerate or decelerate anywhere?
- Do changes in harmonic rhythm correlate with other features of the
piece: ends of phrases or sections, dynamics, images or ideas presented by
the text of a song, etc.
- How do dynamics control this piece if at all?
- Do they correspond with other features of the piece?
- If the piece is vocal, what is the influence of the text?
- How is the meaning, emotion, or other images from the text portrayed
through the musical features?
PLEASE E-MAIL ME WITH TYPOS AND
ANY OTHER ERRORS YOU MAY DETECT.
E-mail Pandel Collaros