Monthly Archives: July 2012

How to Create a Sortable List of Works

P.davydov is IMSLP’s head librarian.  That means that he is in charge keeping everything on IMSLP standardized.  In addition, he is known for creating complete catalogs of composer’s works called ‘sortable lists’.  A sortable list of works is a chronological list of compositions by a certain composer that can be sorted by key, date, forces (instrumentation), and title.  About one year ago I asked Mr. Davydov how he created such splendid lists, like that of Tchaikovsky, and he politely answered my inquiry.  Without further delay, here is the method in his own words:

“1). I get them into Excel first, to get the formatting and sorting right.

2). Then I import that into Microsoft Front Page, which converts them to HTML

3). Then I usually cross-check that list with another source, to check the detail.

4). Then I copy the HTML code into a text editor to do a search and replace for the Wiki markup

5). then I copy that into the Wiki worklist, and tidy it up a bit.”

He finished the conversation by saying was “Simple really”.  But when you have thousands of works to sort through, it is only simple for our great librarian master, P.davydov.  I hope his words of wisdom help anyone in the future who wishes to complete a sortable list: us morals really can do it with a measure of hard work, a pinch of luck, and a dash of love.

WIMA Project Complete!

The 28th of August, 2011, marked an important day in the history of two websites: IMSLP and The Werner Icking Music Archive (WIMA).  After months of collaboration, it was officially decided that the immense collection of roughly 65000 PDF files and the collection of audio files from WIMA would be merged with the collection IMSLP.  From the start, we knew this would be a project of of Herculean proportions; but, after almost a year, the project is finally complete!

I would like to thank Christian Mondrup and all other WIMA contributors for their hard work – it really paid off. Before the project, IMSLP had just over 100,000 files.  Now we have more than 210,000.  In addition, the WIMA transfer improved IMSLP in ways that we could have never foreseen. As Carolus, a member of the IMSLP staff, pointed out, “The WIMA transfer has also resulted in improvements in the way IMSLP handles things – notably in the area of collections, whether of a single-composer or multiple composers”.  This couldn’t be more true.  The WIMA merge also improved IMSLP’s representation of early music, which before the transfer was probably our least prolifically represented time period.

I think I can speak for us all when I say that this project was far more work than any of us had anticipated.  As a result of the largely different ways WIMA and IMSLP organized their music, conflicts arose almost every day.  Sometimes there were over one thousand files to review in a given day, and each one of these had to be processed.  I think nobody described the inundation of files better than Carolus, when he called it “The Great WIMA Tsunami”.

But now that it is all over, I realize that the hard work was worth it.  Thanks again to the WIMA staff, it really did pay off.

A Logical Approach to Ear Training

Even Beethoven used ear training.

By Nicholas D. Lewis

The Soviet system for very early music education: divide groups of young children into those with a ‘good ear’ and those with a ‘bad ear’.  Kids with a good ear learn to play a stringed instrument; kids with a bad ear learn to play the piano.  The Soviets realized early on that the genetic propensity for developing relative or perfect pitch was important for a musician, and they were right.   Briefly, relative pitch is the ability to discern intervals, identify qualities (major, minor, diminished, augmented), and and sing melody when given a starting note; perfect pitch is the ability identify a note without a reference point.  I argue that everybody can attain relative pitch.  Today I am going to propose a new systematic approach for ear training that should be started during the early stages of musical training.

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The first stage: The first stage in ear training is to establish a basis for pitch. To do this, sound a pitch for the pupil. Tell them to think about the pitch and wait about ten seconds before playing a second pitch that is either higher or lower than the first. The student’s objective is to identify whether the second note was higher or lower than the first.  While this may sound easy, I’m always surprised how many people cannot do this at first.  And that’s OK.  This step may take anywhere from one week to a month, depending on the student.

The second stage: The second stage is called the ‘tone matching stage’. The piano is a percussive instrument, which means its sound will eventually diminish.  For this reason, it is important to be able to remember the sound of a pitch and be able to ‘audiate’ (sing) the pitch.  Like before, the teacher should play a pitch on the piano. The student should then sing that pitch. Once a student can do this perfectly with any pitch (within their range!), they are ready to move onto step three.

The third stage: The third stage is called the ‘pitch recognition stage’.  The teacher should play a given pitch-class (ex. ‘C#’), and play note over and over again, while having the pupil audiate (sing) the note aloud, and then internalize the pitch. Once the student does this, the teacher should play a set of two notes, including the pitch they have internalized.  The student should then try to identify which is the pitch that they were supposed to remember.  Once student can do this successfully many times, the teacher will move on to three notes, four notes, etc. once student can successfully pick out a given note in a set using this method, the pupil can graduate to the fourth stage.

The fourth stage: The fourth stage is called the ‘half step phase’. This stage requires the pupil to sing a half step above a given pitch.  For example, if the teacher sounds a ‘C’, the student should sing a “C#”. The reason this stage is crucial in addition to the other stages is because it establishes a basis for later stages in terms of triads and intervals. In addition it will also help a pupil’s ability to sight read. This stage will take anywhere from two weeks to four weeks from my experience.

The fifth stage: The fifth stage is the ‘whole step phase’. The procedure is the same as the previous stage.

The sixth stage: The sixth stage is called the ‘classification of intervals’. This stage helps a student identify whether an intervals is dissonant, consonant, or perfect. This will later help a student to recognize specific intervals. For this stage the teacher will play an interval and the student will classify it as either dissonant (which would of course be sevenths, seconds, and the augmented fourth though the student need not know this theoretical jargon yet), consonant (Thirds, sixths) or perfect (perfect fifth, perfect fourth, unison, and octave).  It is easy to tell the difference between dissonant intervals and non-dissonant intervals, but it can sometimes be difficult for a student tell the difference between a consonant interval and a perfect interval.  This stage can take many weeks.

The seventh stage: The seventh is the ‘harmonic tendency’ stage. The goal is for the student to be able to sing the harmonic resolutions to given intervals or (later) chords.  This stage can take several weeks to master.

The eighth stage: The eighth stage is to be able to recognize intervals based on their size. For example, being able to recognize seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths, and octaves.  This stage can be difficult, so it may be useful to give the student some famous songs or jingles that utilize those intervals.  For example, something commonly used for the major sixth is the opening to the “NBC” theme.  I generally dislike this method for younger students because it is more useful for people to identify intervals instinctively rather than having to rely on remembering something else.  It is an extra step.  However, for older students, this approach may be more useful because it is more unlikely they will be able to fully internalize the sounds of intervals.

The ninth stage: The ninth stage deals with triads. At this time it is appropriate to apply the concept of the previous step to triads.

This course of study can continue now alongside regular theory training.  In more advanced stages the students can begin melodic and harmonic dictations, but the discussion of that is beyond the scope of this article, focusing on the very early stages of ear training.

Do think about it.

A Case for Contour: A Clarification

By Nicholas D. Lewis

“This is nothing but random noise.  A baby stomping around on a piano could do this.  It’s like the Jackson Pollock of music”, so said a good friend of mine about the sixth piano sonata by Russian composer Ustvolskaya.  And indeed, many friends of mine have said similar things upon hearing the piece, and they have all been dead wrong. Many of you may remember Ustvolskaya from my previous article, “What’s Important In Music?”, and many of you may also think I went off the deep end talking about the importance of contour. I am going to hit on some key questions that have been raised about the main idea presented, and also dispel the myth that avant-garde music is “random” in the process.  Today you are getting to get an earful of thinking aloud.

Maybe the 6th sonata wasn’t the best thing to show my friend at first.  After all, it is one of her ‘messier’ late pieces where the counterpoint evolves beyond single notes to tone clusters.  To give my friend the benefit of the doubt, the piece probably does just sound like random banging to most people.  But that doesn’t mean that it is.  This piece is fascinating, well constructed, and original.

One of the most interesting things about the piece is that you can hear the ‘consonances’ peeking through those clusters and severe dissonances after a while – part of it almost sounds like F# major to me. More than in her earlier pieces, I’m strongly reminded of Webern by her thematic subjects – a minor second in one octave plus a major second in the other, and she builds from there.  Analysis of the piece reveals that a lot of the chromatic lines in the piece are derived from that thematic subject.  Immediately this reveals that the piece cannot be “random”.

Another thing that makes this piece so fascinating is that the writing is so minimal.  It is exactly as much as it needs to be, no more and no less, and completely freed of any trappings of ornamentation or phrasing that even a lot of modern music pursues.  It is blunt, hard counterpoint.  The ‘harmonies’ that result from it are secondary; we only hear any of it as harmonic because we are inundated with harmony from other music.  The tone clusters are not harmony and are not really separate notes.  I almost have to introduce the term “macro-note”, because it’s treated as one tone and moved around in a unit; it’s not separated or constructed.  It’s an atom.

Her sixth sonata – and her music in general – is basically anti-harmonic; she breaks off anything that could possibly resemble a phrase, and there are no cadences in her music.  And this realization is what brought me to my original article, but I I did not explain myself well enough.

In Ustvolskaya’s sixth sonata, one starts to see the basic structure of a phrase, including contour and cadence, as a result of the necessity to follow through with certain harmonic prerequisites, and this is carried over into most modern music distorted beyond normal recognition.  Xenakis, for instance, uses phrase/cadence structures in most of his pieces, and only a minority of them really break down beyond the level of the recognizable phrase.  Yet they still sound so alien – it’s an incredibly flexible idiom, I suppose it seems that way to us because it is so human.  We instinctively think of music as consisting of a pull between tension/resolution, even the most simple rock music has it, a ‘settling’ of one particular key, and on the level of shape or contour.  Most avant-garde music also has it: Stockhausen,Ligeti, Penderecki, Varese (of course), and even Boulez (especially the second piano sonata).

I am talking about a more basic necessity than something harmonic, as the term tension/resolution is usually applied – it goes much, much deeper than that.  And this is what I only hinted at in my past article.

Ustvolskaya approaches it from the opposite direction: she deliberately creates counterpoint and voice leadings that follow some of Dmitri Tymoczko’s ‘rules of tonality’ (move by short distances).  But that counterpoint is freed from most of the trappings it has traditionally had in Western music. It doesn’t usually create any kind of voice-leading resolution, and there’s certainly no harmony to help you out; she writes so concisely in that absolutely nothing is drawn out at all.  It is as though she decided to take one key element out of the Western classical tradition – counterpoint – and develop it in a vacuum, reducing it so much that barely anything else remains beside it, each note sounds pure and concentrated.  Free. (paradoxically, since each one is placed precisely and firmly by the counterpoint).

There are very, very few composers who have ever been able to free themselves from human music enough to look on it as something of an outsider and manipulate it with full consciousness of what they are doing.  Cage may have been one, and Ustvolskaya was one of the few others – one of the only who could really stand untethered by the music that came before her, even though she borrows from it.

The extreme avant-gardists were really much more tethered – for the most part, they were trying to create something as different as they could, to explore a completely alien soundworld.  But most of that means doing something totally different from what a ‘normal’ human composer would do.  Therefore they are still reliant on the music that came before them for a sort of anti-inspiration.

And that is a discussion for another day.