The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

V is for Voice Leading

Blogging A to ZWe're finally putting together a lot of what I've covered in this year's Blogging A-to-Z challenge. Today I'll touch on voice leading (known as "part writing" in the UK), which describes how individual voices in a composition work separately to create a musical whole.

We already talked about counterpoint, in which we saw how two vocal lines interact while moving independently of each other. That's the essence of voice leading. But when you add more voices, the rules become a bit more complex.

Open Music Theory has a good explanation of the problems that voice leading aims to solve:

The “fundamental musical problems” we will address in the study of counterpoint center around the way in which some basic principles of auditory perception and cognition (how the brain perceives and conceptualizes sound) play out in Western musical structure. For example, our brains tend to assume that sounds similar in pitch or timbre come from the same source. Our brains also listen for patterns, and when a new sound continues or completes a previously heard pattern, it assumes that the new sound belongs together with those others. ... These abilities are also what allows music to have the emotional effect that it does on so many people. Whether or not a composer or songwriter is aware of the science and psychology of hearing, a masterful composer mediates and plays with these basic concepts.

In short, voice leading "leads the ear" in service of the music as a whole.

The general rules are:

  1. Favor small intervals
  2. Avoid crossing lines
  3. Avoid parallel fifths and octaves

Here's a simple example that demonstrates how each voice can have its own life and still form a cohesive whole:

So what's going on in there? All four lines have their own melodies (particularly the soprano and tenor lines), I've avoided parallel 5ths and octaves in a couple of tricky spots while still maintaining a decent chord progression, and none of the lines cross—though they do, occasionally, trade notes. Notice the tenor D on the second beat of the 3rd measure followed by the alto D in the next beat.

(There's also a joke buried in there. Play each of the vocal lines separately and you'll find it. The joke explains why there's a bit of clunkiness between the second and third measures.)

But that's just me demonstrating a concept. Here's what a genius does, in the first of his nearly 400 surviving chorales:

(Bonus pdf file.)

U is for Unison

Blogging A to ZThe Blogging A-to-Z challenge entry today starts with a joke: what is the definition of a minor second? Two oboes playing in unison.

Sorry, oboes.

We already know what unison means: it's two voices sounding the same note. And earlier I mentioned that different instruments use different clefs. And we've covered key signatures. Now I'm going to tell you a dirt secret of the orchestra: unison sometimes looks like a bunch of completely different notes.

The problem comes from the way that certain brass and woodwind instruments work. Different instruments naturally play in different tunings. For example, if you play a natural scale on a French horn, you're actually playing (usually) an F or Bb scale. So we say that the horn is "in F" or "in B flat." Which leads to the part that string players and singers struggle to understand: music for the French horn is written as if C is F. Or Bb. In other words, horns fall into the class of transposing instruments, because they naturally transpose the notes written on the page.

To illustrate, here is how we write an F major scale played in unison—exactly the same notes—between a viola and a French horn in F:

The viola starts on F, but the horn starts on C. Except that the horn's written C is actually sounds like F.

It gets even crazier when you combine a bunch of instruments that transpose in different keys. Here's the opening of Brahms's Symphony #4 in e minor:

The flute, bassoon, and strings are in C, so when they play the note written as C they actually play a C. The clarinets are in A, so when they play what's written as C out comes an A. The key signature has to change, too; theirs is in C minor, because when they see a C the sound they make is actually E. Opposite issue for the French horns, which Brahms wanted in E: when they play the note written as C (as they do for four bars), they're actually playing G, which is also why their staff is in A minor.

It's all finally coming together, isn't it?

Coors Field, Denver

Sunday night I visited my 30th park. I have to say, Coors Field is better than Coors Beer.

The Phillies won, because apparently I am a curse on all the ballparks I visit. But that's OK. Being in Denver on 4/20, and having walked past the 4/20 Festival earlier in the day, I really didn't mind all that much.

It's hard to tell, but while I had a really great seat, the foul screen meant my photos weren't perfect:

The weather nearly was, though. And it was a fun game.

Just two parks left: Toronto on June 28th, and St. Louis on September 27th.

Globe Life Park, Texas

Friday night I got to my 29th (out of 32 planned) baseball park: Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas. I didn't realize until I got there that they're tearing it down at the end of this season. (That might affect the Geas if I don't get to both Toronto and St. Louis this season.)

It was too busy at the start of the game to get the front-gate photo I always try for. But here's the view from my seat:

And the whole park:

Things didn't go well for the (then) last-place Rangers. Their in-state division rivals the Astros beat them 7-2.

But that didn't bother my neighbor, 4-year-old Leilee. She spent a good bit of the game figuring out, through trial and error, how to use binoculars:

It was a decent park, and we had really good seats as you can see. But hey, American League, right? And next year will be truly horrifying: the new Globe Life Field will have artificial grass. Sacrilege.

T is for Tritone

Blogging A to ZToday's Blogging A-to-Z challenge post sits right in the middle of everything.

The tritone is the interval between the perfect 4th and the perfect 5th. Depending on which direction you're going, it's either an augmented 4th or a diminished 5th. And it's always going somewhere.

In the C major scale, the natural tritone is between F and B (where it's an augmented 4th) or B and F (where it's a diminished 5th). B, remember, is the leading tone in the key of C, so it really, really wants to resolve to C. The F (subdominant) wants to resolve to E (the mediant). Therefore, if you have an augmented 4th, it wants to resolve to a minor 6th (which is also the tonic chord in first inverstion):

And if it's a diminished 5th, it resolves to the major 3rd:

Remember ethnic 6th chords? Tritones all the way down. Even in a basic I-V7-I progression, the V7 has the tonic chord's tritone in it:

The tritone is between the first and second lines from the top. Just as in the very first example on this post.

S is for Syncopation

Blogging A to ZThe Blogging A-to-Z challenge will get a little funky today as we look at syncopation, which is nothing more than an unexpected rhythm.

Here's a simple example. Take this clunky melody:

Now let's syncopate it a little, by shifting some of the notes off the beat:

Instead of hitting 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, now it hits 1, and, and, and, 2, and, and, 4. It's harder to dance to but more interesting.

More examples? How about Mozart's Symphony #40, third movement:

Or the Rolling Stones? Beethoven? Scott Joplin?

Syncopation is every——where!

Agents of what, exactly?

Most members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) last week fired their agents because of the intrusion of finance into their business. Large agencies, some owned by finance companies and no longer partnerships, no longer appear to represent the writers they claim to represent, as the agents have interests on both sides of many deals.

The Association of Talent Agents (ATA) has responded to all these principals firing their agents with questionable logic:

For those of you who haven’t been following, the WGA (for which, until recently, my husband worked as a magazine editor) wants the talent agencies to sign a new code of conduct to ensure the agents do their jobs — getting their clients the best deals possible — and that’s it. No using clients as part of an overall package deal or working with affiliated production companies; too often, the WGA contends, these practices result in writers getting shafted.

The ATA says the agencies will not be signing any such code because the WGA is not the boss of them and writers actually benefit from packaging, which has been going on for years.

So the WGA instructed its members to fire their agents, which almost all of them have, and announced it is suing the four major talent agencies.

In response, the ATA accused the WGA of trying to throw Hollywood into “predetermined chaos” and instructed its members to keep a list of any writers trying to get work without using an agent because, according to ATA reps, this is illegal.

So just to recap: Writers are unhappy with how major talent agencies have been repping them. When confronted with this, the agents refused to make any changes, so the writers fired them. Now the agencies are saying the writers cannot do this because, according to them, writers are legally bound to be represented by people who they believe are shafting them.

Even by Hollywood standards, this is Absolutely Insane.

It's going to be interesting as lawyers and accountants start representing writers.

Note: I'm still going through photos from this weekend, so I'll have the official Park 29 and Park 30 postings up today or tomorrow.

R is for Rondo

Blogging A to ZToday's Blogging A-to-Z challenge post will take a look at common musical forms.

We've already seen some examples of common musical forms, even though I didn't call them out: the canon and the fugue. Both are imitative forms, though as you've seen the fugue is far more complex than the canon. "Row Row Row Your Boat" is a canon (but, of course, someone made a fugue out of it).

When we talk about other forms, we usually note large sections of music with letters. So a form of, say, A-B-A means that you have a theme first, then another theme, and then the first theme comes back.

The basic musical forms all show up in symphonies written between about 1760 and 1830, in the Classical and Early Romantic periods. Haydn codified the symphonic template, Mozart perfected it, and Beethoven took it up a notch.

The first movement of a Classical symphony usually uses sonata allegro form. It starts with an optional introduction, progresses to exposition, through development, then a recapitulation, and concludes with an optional coda. In short, A-B-A1, because the recapitulation usually doesn't strictly repeat the exposition.

The first movement of Mozart's Symphony #25 demonstrates this beautifully. The exposition starts immediately, stating the bold g-minor theme in several forms for the first 90 seconds or so. Development ensues, taking us around several related keys and themes (including the primary theme). The recap begins at 5:05, once he's brought it back to g minor. Note, also, that Mozart wrote this at 17.

Second and fourth movements often use rondo form, which is A-B-A, A-B-A-C-A, or A-B-A-C-A-B-A. The A just keeps coming around, you see. Here's Haydn's 49th symphony, second movement. It deviates from a typical classical symphony in that the second movement is fast, not slow as was common in the period. But it's a complete A-B-A1-C-A2 rondo, as well as an excellent example of the Sturm und Drang ("storm and stress") period in the late 1770s-early 1780s.

Third movements generally follow the minuet and trio form, which uses 3/4 time and a simple A-B-A or A-B-C-A form. Example: Brahms' Symphony #3, third movement. Even though Brahms wrote this decades after Mozart and Haydn had died, it still maintains the minuet and trio form—though with lusher orchestration and harmonies than either classical composer would have used.

Listen for these forms the next time you hear a symphony. They're in there.

Park #29

My official post, with photos, will appear Sunday. I just want to put a marker in the sand that tonight I went to what passed for a baseball game at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas. I didn't realize that they're tearing the park down after this season because it's—wait for it—25 years old.

Really? Twenty-five years? You know Wrigley and Fenway are both over 100, right?

Whatever. This was Park #29, and apparently the Geas won't end this year because I'll have to go to Globe Life Field next year. Or maybe that will just be a coda. (You know, I've been to DFW airport about 40 times and only left it twice? Maybe I should explore.)

Anyway, photos and more commentary Sunday. Tomorrow: 4/20 in Denver.

Q is for Quaver

Blogging A to ZToday's Blogging A-to-Z challenge post explains how musicians keep time.

Through all the examples I've posted this month, you may have noticed that a note's stem has a relationship to how long the note sounds. They do. Starting with a whole note (open, with no stem), each change to the stem reduces the length of the note by half. This also works when you start with a whole rest, except a rest means "don't do anything here." Example:

(In the UK, those notes are called whole, half, quarter, quaver, semiquaver, hemisemiquaver, and hemisemidemiquaver. Don't ask me why.)

You can also add a dot after a note, which increases the length by 50%. The dotted quarter notes in this example are the same as three 8th notes:

On the same subject, let me draw your attention to the numbers (and sometimes letters) that follow the key signature in a staff. That guy, called the time signature, tells performers how to count.

The most common time signature is 4/4. That means there are 4 beats in each measure (the top number) and the quarter note gets one beat. It's so common that it can also be represented by the letter C, as in the top example above. Sometimes you'll see a C with a line through it. This is called cut time, or 2/2, in which there are two half-note beats per measure.

The second example above shows 6/8 time, in which there are six eighth notes to each measure. Typically musicians count 6/8 as two beats per measure, with the dotted quarter getting the beat, so it feels like a march.

The time signature 3/4 has the same number of eighth notes per measure, but since the quarter note gets the count, there are three quarter-note beats per measure. This is the time signature for waltzes.

Almost any combination of beats and notes can form a time signature. I've seen 7/4, 3/16, 1/1, 9/32...literally anything as long as the bottom number is divisible by 2 (or is 1). That said, the most common time signatures by far are 4/4, 6/8, 3/4, and 2/2.

And here, for your listening enjoyment, is a piece that flouts all the rules and somehow works—as humor: