Musicology and Culture

Musicology was once a comparative pursuit. Western musicologists used to essentially compare the music of other cultures to their own and, quite often, tried to portray one as advanced and one as primitive. This has changed over the years and musicologists now travel the world collecting samples of the unique musical expressions of the world’s peoples. You can learn a lot about music by listening to it as performed by other cultures.

Understanding Ear Fatigue

While you’re listening to music from other cultures, you’ll experience your own cultural predispositions as you’ve likely never experienced them before. One of the most common manifestations of this is called ear fatigue.

A great deal of the music you’ll hear from other cultures will seem out of key to you, if you’re accustomed to Western music. It’s important to give yourself a break now and then. If you find yourself not taking in the music because the contrasts with what you’re accustomed to are becoming all that you can hear, take a break. World music deserves to be appreciated and, like cuisines from other cultures, it’s sometimes an acquired taste. The old adage “the appetite comes with eating” sometimes applies in this regard. As you hear more and more exotic music, you will develop a feel and an appreciation for its unique qualities.

Time and Distance are the Same

Musicology doesn’t just address the differences in music relative to culture. It also addresses differences in music relative to time. For example, madrigals, Gregorian chants, fugues and many other forms are all European in their origins, but are vastly different due to the separations in time that exist between them.

Studying historic forms of music is another way to explore the music of different cultures. The cultures that produced the grand symphonies of Mozart and the elegant waltzes of Strauss were very different ones than exist today, and deserve to be explored and understood based on their own merits.

Analyzing without Bias:

When you compose a piece of music, much of the work is dedicated toward providing the right balance between comparison and contrast. The same holds true when you’re listening to music from other cultures or time periods. Start by comparing it with what you do know. You’ll use the same skills you’ve used to develop your skills as a musician thus far. Ask some basic questions about the music as you listen.

Remember that listening to music and enjoying music can be two separate things. While you’re exploring the music of any given culture, remember to listen to it from an objective standpoint. In some cases, you may not enjoy some music from other cultures that much. This is fine, but you should still be able to listen to and speak about it intelligently and in terms that go beyond your opinion of it. This is called appreciation and it’s a fundamental component of any serious musical study.

In order to appreciate music, you must study it. If you need sales, repairs, flutes, piccolos, recorders, new instruments, or used instruments, you can easily find a solution to your needs.

Growing as a Musician

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Growing as a Musician

Developing the skills it takes to be a rounded musician can take years. It’s important, however, to realize that practice is what makes it happen. Practice is what leads to great shows. It generally takes most human beings about 10 years to reach the skill level of a master in any subject. Music is one of the most challenging pursuits imaginable, but also one of the most satisfying. To reach your own personal best at music, you’ll have to start by expanding beyond your current horizon and by embracing some challenges.

Reading Music

Reading music is a skill and it’s one of the most important ones that performing artists have. That being said, not all musicians—even in classical settings—are expected to read off of music. If you’re a blues guitarist, for example, it would probably look a bit strange to your audience if you were reading a song off of sheet music, especially considering the fact that the relative simplicity of the music doesn’t necessitate that it be read off of sheets.

When you’re reading sheet music, you’ll want to work the way a politician giving a speech works: you read ahead of where you actually are in the music. As you may suspect, this takes some considerable skill. A combination of being familiar with the piece and with being able to sight read music is what makes very experienced musicians able to read very complex music without missing a beat.

Singing and Sight Reading:

Some people are very intimidated by singing. This is natural: hearing your singing voice is sometimes quite a shock and there’s some embarrassment when you hit a note wrong, especially when it comes out comically wrong. However, the vast majority of professional musicians can correctly sing the notes within a comfortable octave for their voice and there’s a good reason for this: When you can reproduce those tones on demand, you can hear sheet music in your head as you read it and, thus, you can reproduce it correctly, every time.

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Music Stress, Melody and Harmony

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Stress

Stress gives music its rhythmic feel. There are plenty of slang terms used to describe the feel of music, but the experience is generally very hard to describe and very easy to understand. A 3/4 waltz from the Baroque era, for instance, will have a hard first beat and two less-emphasized beats in every measure. A piece of modern dance music, particularly electronic dance music, will usually have 4 beats in every measure and, most often, those beats will have the same stress, which lends to the music a stomping, driving feel.

In traditional usages, the first beat of a measure is stressed. In 2/4 time, for instance, the traditional method of playing the beat would be strong, weak/strong, weak.

In three quarters time, the beat would traditionally be strong, weak, weak/strong, weak, weak. Syncopation refers to obscuring the beat by emphasizing notes that are normally stressed less. Some music, such as gospel, creates a very energetic feel by emphasizing the second and fourth notes in a 4/4 measure rather than by emphasizing the first and third notes.

Melody

Melody and harmony are staple elements of Western music. A series of pitches that are arranged in a deliberate way to get a specific effect is called a melody. There are rules to melody and mathematical notation is used to varying degrees to describe it in more coherent terms when the language of aesthetics is insufficient to quantify a melody. Melodies, like sentences, have coherent structures, use modifiers to clarify statements, reiterate important themes and, on the whole, constitute a form of language that can express what words sometimes cannot.

Understanding Pitch

Pitch is the quality of sound that is described as being high or low. The pitch of any given note can be understood in both scientific terms and in subjective terms. The various notes of the scale are called degrees and are separated by whole or half-step intervals, which refers to the amount of change in pitch between one and the next. The pitch of a tone can also be described as its resonating frequency. The standard, concert A4 pitch, for example, is officially defined in most places as being exactly 440Hz.

Pitches are also relative, however. In practice, following a very low tone with a very high tone has the effect of making both sound more extreme. Most melodies stay within an octave or two and most of them try to avoid jarring shifts in pitch. When there are significant changes in pitch, the jarring nature of it is usually offset by the creative use of rhythmic devices. In some cases, pitch and rhythm can be used quite creatively. Cartoons, for instance, oftentimes use ascending pitches and the appropriate rhythms to create a soundscape for a character ascending stairs.

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How Pitch is Divided

In Western music, there are 12 notes in the chromatic scale. These notes are grouped together in systems of scales and modes, which offer composers a palate from which to work. Each scale and each mode has its own particular flavor. Today, there are two scales that are in use more than any others: major and minor. Modes are antiquated, but the Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian modes are still used, to some extent, with the Dorian and Phrygian modes being popular in some Spanish and Latin American music. Most often, however, you’ll only deal with major and minor, which correspond to the Ionian and Aeolian modes, respectively.

In the modal system, each mode is defined by the note on which it starts and its particular feel derives from the arrangement of whole and half-steps between the notes. The Ionian mode—or the C major scale—for instance, has a bright feel. The Dorian mode, which starts and ends on D, has a somewhat darker feel and sounds more exotic. Modes are not particularly important in modern music, though some contemporary musicians use them extensively, as they provide a rarified palate of tones. The modes are as follows.

  • Ionian (C Major): C, D, E, F, G, A, B
  • Dorian: D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  • Phrygian: E, F, G, A, B, C, D
  • Lydian: F, G, A, B, C, D, E
  • Mixolydian: G, A, B, C, D, E, F
  • Aeolian (A Minor): A, B, C, D, E, F, G
  • Locrian: B, C, D, E, F, G, A

The modes you need to most concern yourself with, however, are the Ionian and Aeolian modes, as they are the only two in common usage. There were other systems for naming the modes, but most of them have fallen by the wayside over the course of the years.

Major and Minor

For most people, major and minor modes are the equivalent of light and dark themes in music. This is not necessarily the case, and only using one or the other for such narrow purposes diminishes their flexibility. For your first melody, however, these definitions are adequate. If you want a lighter sounding melody, use the major scale; for a darker sound, use the minor scale. Use C Major or A minor, as neither requires sharps or flats.

The C Major scale is:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B,

The A Minor scale is:

A, B, C, D, E, F, G

When you’re writing, you can use a system of numbers to help you understand which pitches in which combinations will create particular effects. This system is very easy to use and understand. You start by assigning numbers to all of the notes in your scale, and they’re always assigned in the same way.

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Phrasing

Phrasing is one of the most important elements of music. Phrasing defines the way the audience perceives certain passages and  can make a piece a great one or an awkward one. Phrasing is sometimes defined within sheet music and sometimes left up to the musicians.

When you say something with spoken language, you join the words together in what’s called a sentence, which is made up of individual phrases. The phrases have their own meaning and work together to make your point clear. The same is true in music. A musical phrase is a set of tones that are played together as a unit. Using Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as an example again, the first two measures of the piece—which form the leitmotiv—constitute one of the most well-known phrases in all of music.

It sometimes takes time to develop a sense for the proper phrasing for any piece. Practice generally makes it apparent, though some musicians alter the phrasing of the pieces they play a bit as a way of interpreting them in a unique way.

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