Blog/Archive

Sep. 8, 2018

We know why an organist needs to work at the piano, but why should a pianist learn to play the organ? ...
For starters, you can sub for church services and play for weddings, funerals, and graduation ceremonies when a piano is not available.
You can widen your association with other musicians and broaden your prospects for part time employment for other organ and piano gigs, and attract piano students this way; if you can even play a little at the organ, you'll get calls.
Think about it; a piano has one keyboard and makes one sound; an organ has from one to five or more keyboards, plus a keyboard for the feet and can make many different sounds -- thus you have many more options, plus you get to work your feet on a keyboard.
The piano came into use about in the mid-18th century, but we have manuscripts of notated keyboard music dating back to the 15th century, and those manuscripts contain some pieces likely composed in the 14th century and earlier, thus, you have more music to play.
But there's one more overriding reason, and it's this:
Johann Sebastian Bach didn't have a piano.
If you really want to understand contrapuntal keyboard music, try playing it on an organ.

Jul. 19, 2018

Some biographers and others who write about famous musicians make the claim in their books that, with respect to musical composition, nothing can be created in pain.
This is their own theory because they've never tried it themselves; they maintain that pain leads to a dry spell in a composer's creativity, and the resumption of production of works after such a dry spell is the surest proof that a composer is already out of pain.
On its surface, the thought seems reasonable, and for those in the mainstream who have never tried to compose their own music this myth is accepted as fact.
Whoever is convinced of this is laboring under a serious misconception.
Pain, in and of itself, can certainly distract and may slow a composer down considerably, but it has no effect on their compositional skills, neither does it utterly rob them of the well-spring of inspiration.
The photo shows the J.S. Bach monument by Karl Seffner erected in 1908 on the south side of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.
The subject of this monument dictated his last composition to a son-in-law during a time when he (Bach) was in considerable misery and both of his eyes were bandaged and blindfolded -- he had been blinded and very seriously weakened by 2 horrible, unsterile, botched operations on his eyes and the noxious and damaging medical treatment which followed.
What's important to remember here, is that the awful misery he was in, at the time, failed to derail his composing; it certainly slowed him down to a crawl, no question, but, the fact of the matter is, as far as can be known, he began composing his own music around the age of 18 in Arnstadt and what followed was nearly a half century of white hot creativity right up to the very end of his life.
Since he composed entirely from the mind away from the instrument(s) and compelled the scholars who studied with him to do the same (his pupils have been counted -- there were 81, and at least 46 of them went on to become professional organists), he required no instrument, paper, or ink in front of him, no goose quill pen in his hand, not even his eyesight, to bring a new piece of music into existence -- a well popularized historical fact.
With an immensely gifted musician such as Bach, that gift is anything but a pleasure; it is something to which one is doomed.
This great artist had no choice, each and every day of his life, but to explore the cosmos of his music in whatever physical condition he found himself, whatever wretched performing circumstances he had to work with, how meager his income was, how resentful or obtuse his superiors or authorities over him happened to be, or how deeply in sorrow or despair he was or how bitter his disappointments; he went right on creating because he had to.
His true life has shown us, among so many other things, that the chief ability of a genius consists in pursuing his objectives with a far greater intensity than average people can even imagine.
In much the same way Beethoven, for his part, suffered untold mental anguish as he gradually lost his hearing; it can be argued that much of the mental pain he experienced from that was probably the worst any serious musician could suffer.
If pain had any negative effect on creativity, then many major works of his, which included the 5th Symphony and a host of others that gestated in his mind for years, probably never would have been written; this inference is perfectly logical.
Instead just the opposite happened.
The sapping of our strength by serious illness, the misery and morbidity associated with certain surgeries we may have to endure, the noxious side effects of medicines, our mental state, and other factors related to our health can certainly affect how well and at what speed we can continue composing our music.
And pain is often associated with all of that.
But the truth is, pain has no effect on inspiration or any learned powers to do something competently.
It can't take away a composer's skills or deny a kiss from the Muse; these will still be operative and forthcoming.

Jul. 11, 2018

(con't from Part II)
The various modes have characteristics that create certain "colors" or moods which may help organ scholars better achieve their goals in composing or improvising.
IONIAN has no characteristic scale degree and is none other than the major scale by another name; it's exactly the same; it's the strongest mode of the 7 to our ears, and its attractive aspect is the tension and release that comes out of the half step between the 6th and 7th scale degrees; this tension is released as the 7th resolves back to the root; this mode produces an uplifting, innocent, happy, and upbeat mood.
DORIAN with it's characteristic natural scale degree 6 feels like a minor scale due to the minor triad up front, but here the 6th scale degree is natural instead of flat while the 7th is flat; this give it 2 curious characteristics: it sound melancholic but brighter and more positive than the typical minor scale, AND the 7th doesn't quite resolve which creates a sense of restlessness.
PHRYGIAN has a characteristic flat 2 scale degree and creates an ambiguous sound that leaves the listener uncertain of what they're hearing; because the 2nd is flat, it sounds strange to most people who are used to a whole step to the 2nd degree as in typical major and minor scales; its diminished dominant chord only adds to this strangeness, which can create a sense of mystery, dread, tension, and an impending negative event while still having a sense of warmth; it's also known as the Spanish Gypsy Scale.
LYDIAN has a characteristic sharp 4 scale degree and varies from Ionian by only 1 single note; while it's first chord is still a major triad the intervals are unexpected and surprising; they vary by 1 note, the sharp 4th, which strongly wants to resolve to the 5th, which should be used to advantage or it would be just as well to write in a major scale; this difference can be exploited very well to keep the listener engaged.
MIXOLYDIAN has a characteristic flat 7 scale degree and also varies from Ionian by 1 simple note; this is a popular mode for solo improvisations when in a major key because it provides a slightly unfamiliar counterpoint to help keep things fresh; it can provide a smoother, less innocent sound to otherwise happy music; it provides the same sense of not resolving like Dorian does if exploited.
AEOLIAN has a characteristic flat 6 scale degree and is familiar enough as the natural minor scale; it provides the sound of sadness, regret, resentment, or despair; it gives a slight sense of the Renaissance era at times due to the 6th and 7th scale degrees being flattened instead of natural; it will easily start sounding like the relative major if we use too many of its chords however, especially if we use its III (mediant) chord too much; this is because Ionian is far and away the strongest mode of the 7; give it a chance, and it will take over.
This is why the minor key uses a major V (dominant) chord and a raised 7th scale degree (leading tone) -- to draw the ear toward the minor tonic and away from the III chord as the relative major tonic (photo).
LOCRIAN has a characteristic flat 5 scale degree which makes it stand out, giving this mode its very dark sound; because so much Western music depends upon the major I and major V chords, we don't hear Locrian very much, if at all, due to its diminished tonic chord; because of this, many composers have gone so far as to categorize this mode as theoretical with no practical application at all; it provides a sense of brooding anger and sadness together, a sound that's much darker and dissident than any of the other modes provide.
With modes, we just have to underline the key chord more than normal; this "key chord" typically consists of the root and 1 (or 2) other note(s) which are characteristic of the mode and differentiate one mode from another.
With Lydian, for example, it's difficult to use more than just a couple of chords before it starts sounding like the relative major key, with just an odd focus on the IV (subdominant) chord.
The same applies to Phrygian and, to a slightly lesser extent, to Dorian and Aeolian.
If we check any tonal composition we find more than one key in it, accidentals, borrowed chords, altered chords, etc.; the same is true with modal music; some composers, such as Debussy, used a lot of modality in their works, but it's doubtful if there are some which are pure modal.
Therefore, in harmonizing a modal melody in pure modal style, we would try not using chords because there is a tendency to use them according to their functionality in tonal harmony.
Instead, we build our harmony as a result of counterpoint; we learn counterpoint in 3-4 voices (not always easy, it's true, but worthy) and use this kind of harmony, not the tonal one.
We would avoid tonic-dominant relations and, more importantly, we'd want to study the music of the old contrapuntal masters like Palestrina, Byrd, Tallis, and Frescobaldi, etc. (Bach is good too, but he's already tonal).
In modal harmony then, chords DO NOT have a function, so, in a sense, all chords are equal; a chord does not need to resolve to any other chord, but there is still a tonal center.
But because there is no "functional harmony" the chords DO NOT feel like they need to resolve to the tonic; each chord just floats there by itself as a stand alone entity.
In order to achieve this we have to avoid playing the diatonic tritone (all dominant 7th chords have a tritone interval between their 3rd and 7th, which is known as the "diatonic tritone"), which is a very unstable and dissonant interval that wants to resolve; it creates a dissonance which sounds like a dominant chord and feels like it wants to resolve to the tonic chord, thus turning the music tonal.
This diatonic tritone is the basis of all tonal music, so, it's a delicate balance; we have to make the 1st degree of the mode sound like the tonal center, but we can't do it by using the function of the diatonic chords.
One way that composers get around this problem is by building chords with stacked 4ths instead of stacked 3rds, i.e. they use "quartal chords."
By building chords in 4ths they break the tonal anticipation of the dominant chord wanting to move to the tonic and they create a more ambiguous, vague, and modal sound.
Because modal chords don't have "functions," they don't have to go anywhere, i.e., they don't have to resolve to the tonic; they just float around; so therefore, modal songs usually don't have chord progressions; they just state the mode the song is in, and it's the performer's job to play any diatonic chords in the key of that mode and make their own chord progression.
The chord movements are made sparse and simple, not too busy, not too many chords, nice and boring; the chords are there just to create a harmonic underlay; quartal chords are often used to avoid tonal sound.
In a nutshell then, the difference in tonal and modal harmony is that tonality uses major/minor keys, functional harmony, and has a tonal center; modality uses all modes, no functional harmony, and still maintains a tonal center.
There are no absolutes when it comes to theory, especially since modes aren't frequently used these days all on their own; we're more apt to see a Dorian run, for example, in a piece in some minor key, as we find in the coda of the score for the d minor Op. 22 Postlude, or perhaps a short passage written in Aeolian (natural minor) in a piece in some major key, as we find in the 2nd half of the 11th variation of the score for the C Major Op. 4 Variations on a cantus firmus [See menu bar, Free Stuff].
The bottom line is that millions of musicians do just fine never touching the 7 modes; the organ scholar can get away with it too, but if we want to open up an entire extra avenue to help propel our own organ playing into uniqueness, if we want to have the capability of inserting a modal passage into something we're improvising or composing, and if we want to truly understand how early music was composed and why the ancient modal melodies in traditional chant, the Bach chorales, and certain modern compositions have the melodic curves they do, then we should take the time to learn how the modes are built and how to construct them on whatever scale we're using.

Jul. 11, 2018

(con't from Part I)
Ancient church modes were declamatory melodies, sang in unison, which phrases ended with fixed melodic and rhythmic formulas, thus had no cadence as we understand them with our 21st century essentially-tonal ears and minds.
The first real cadences, or clausules, appeared with the gradual development of polyphony, a turning point in Western music which began during the 10th-12th centuries, although we have no clear idea exactly how or when this type of music developed.
These cadences were the proximate cause for the disappearance of modes.
Modal harmonic cadences can be traced back to the 19th century when composers made various attempts to destruct tonality; but tonal culture is so deep-rooted in our minds that we want to make modal music a kind of tonal music transcription, especially due to functional harmony.
It's important to understand that modal cadences are NOT conclusive to the ear as would be tonal cadences and are generally used just to add a transitory color to a musical phrase.
The essential differences between tonal and modal harmony is a deep question, but in these postings we'll try to wade in from the shallow end and provide an answer that's clear:
Early modal music was primarily concerned with the horizontal or melodic aspects of music ... the counterpoint of moving lines, in other words, which preceded chordal harmony ... whereas tonal chord progressions did not come along until later.
The basic principle is very simple: chords are usually built using tones from the current scale, so we just lay them out as they come; if that scale is not major or harmonic minor, then we could say that we've got modal harmony.
Modal harmony, then, is that which uses chords that are built from only the tones available in one of the modes (photo).
Modal harmony is a totally different thing from the "functional" harmony used in major and minor keys.
What we want in modal harmony is chords that don't sound like they want to "lead" anywhere and not create the kind of tension between chords that we have in traditional functional harmony.
One answer is to use quartal harmony where chords are built by stacking 4ths instead of tertian 3rds; this creates ambiguous harmonies, which is exactly what some composers like Debussy and Ravel wanted.
Because our chord language is based on the tertian system, this creates what we call "sus" chords, even though they don't behave as suspensions are conventionally supposed to.
A classical suspension is a tension that has to resolve; a modal chord has no such tendency.
The way many jazz players stop these "sus" chords sounding like they need to resolve is mainly by doggedly NOT resolving them; this creates a kind of static, open-ended feel.
In place of the often frantic roller-coaster of chord progression in keys, modal harmony provides something peaceful ... a single mood.
We find that the major key (Ionian mode) is such a powerful force, that if we use too many chords in it, the whole thing is going to start gravitating towards the major key; thus in some modal pieces we find just one chord with perhaps 1 or 2 other secondary, contrasting chords, to deliberately keep the music vague.
For example, while Lydian is a very stable mode, acoustically it's quite a weak one; that tritone between the root and sharp 4th is always threatening to want to resolve inward or outward to the two semitones adjacent, and if we want to stay in Lydian, we can't let it do that (we can, of course, leave the sharp 4th out of the chord and just use it melodically).
Modes cannot be "applied" within keys through an entire composition as it would make no sense to do so, although a short modal passage inserted in a tonal piece can impart an interesting effect; combining "relative modes" (e.g., using F Lydian in the key of C Major) would make no sense either, because it's pretty much just the same notes ... actually, it's the CHORDS (especially their arrangement in a progression) which govern the modal sound(s), not any specific pattern of those 7 scale notes that we might choose.
Musicians sometimes experiment with modes to evoke a certain mood, and they do it almost intuitively without really knowing why, just recognizing something in that scale that spoke to them, that they wanted to use.
Such experiments have been going on for centuries, all the way through the classical obsession with major and minor keys (a very narrow but fertile application of 2 particular modes, Ionian and Aeolian) right up through the present day.
Therefore, in a way, we have modes in our blood, our genes, our subconscious; when we hear them, they sound natural in some way, slightly strange, but also deeply familiar.
The major scale (and the whole European system of "keys") is a historical anomaly in the story of world music; in a sense, it's like a hothoused plant -- one particular mode, bred in captivity, forced into flowering into the amazing abundant display of classical music, which bloomed phenomenally and productively for 200-300 years (a tiny blip in human history).
Ionian mode was the seed, and the concept of tertian harmony (stacking chords in 3rds, basically) was the fertilizer.
In other words, there is a lot that is artificial -- not natural -- about the key system, believe it or not.
Equal temperment, which is necessary to enable us to modulate between keys at will (without retuning) is an awkward compromise -- a "genetic modification" of Ionian, if you like [See blog, Temperaments and Tuning, Parts I-V].
This centuries old obsession of the West with harmony and tonality has mostly deafened us to the qualities of other kinds of music; we're in the habit of describing other kinds of music as "primitive" just because it doesn't use chords.
We're so wedded to the notion that harmony is the king, the sole criterion of sophistication and artistry in music, that (traditionally at least) we still feel Beethoven (et al) is superior to anything the rest of the world can produce.
Naturally we are only being loyal to our own cultural history, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Everyone feels that the kind of music they grew up with is "natural" - and it is, to them.
The organ scholar might wonder how a piece of music in a mode such as Lydian or Mixolydian is supposed to sound so different from the progressions of what they and the rest of civilized society are already used to when their differences are literally as minimal as Western music allows ... only 1 scale alteration, and only a half step to boot!
Of course, they'd be right in that modal differences are not huge, but, then again, nobody is really saying they are (there's a lot of mythology attached to modes); and yet, it has ramifications for how the harmony is organized (what kind of chords we can string together); that's where the differences between "keys" and "modes" start to have real impact.
If we're actually listening and not just contemplating differences "on paper," that one note alteration actually makes all the difference, and that's the whole point; when we think about it, 1 note in 7 is quite a high proportion of the material.
As for "only a half step," we can try looking at the difference between any parallel major and minor chords, such as C Major and c minor, to convince us that the mere difference of a half step can have tremendous effect; if someone thinks only a half step is a trivial difference, then it can be strongly argued that they're not really listening.
(con't in Part III)

Jul. 1, 2018

The kind of harmony taught in most college and university music courses deals with what is known as the "common practice" era, i.e. the kinds of things the majority of composers did during the period approximately 1650-1850.
After 1850 composers started to experiment more with harmony, but prior to 1650 the major/minor system was not in use and in its place a system of modes was employed to construct diatonic melodies.
Today an understanding of modal harmony provides the organ scholar with many advantages, not just in the analysis of early music but also because we find the modal harmonic system as used during the Renaissance still employed today in composition and improvisation.
This modal system derives from ecclesiastical chant and traces its roots through the following developments:
In the late 4th century Ambrose, bishop of Milan, defined 4 modes beginning on D and moving upward to G to which he gave numbers; the nature of each one of these Ambrosian modes was defined by the position of the semitones (half steps) in the scale:
1st tone ... d e f g a b c d
2nd tone ... e f g a b c d e
3rd tone ... f g a b c d e f
4th tone ... g a b c d e f g
This system was modifed under the direction of Pope Gregory (pope in the period 590-604) by increasing the number of modes to 8.
The 4 additional modes were produced by starting each of the Ambrosian modes a 4th lower, so that the keynote or final note appeared in the middle of the scale.
These 8 separated into 2 groups: the 4 ancient Ambrosian modes were called authentic, and the new modes were called plagal:
1st tone ... authentic ... D e f g a b c d
2nd tone ... plagal ... a b c D e f g a
3rd tone ... authentic ... E f g a b c d e
4th tone ... plagal ... b c d E f g a b
5th tone ... authentic ... F g a b c d e f
6th tone ... plagal ... c d e F g a b c
7th tone ... authentic ... G a b c d e f g
8th tone ... plagal ... d e f G a b c d
This was the system specified for Gregorian chant.
It used only what we would now think of as the white keys of the piano and consisted of only a single melodic line.
Around 1020 the Benedictine monk Guido of Arezzo (c. 995-1050), who spent his life in Italy studying and writing about all that was known about music up to that time, and while other theorists were still working with the 4-note scale (tetrachord), he gave names to a modal hexachord (6 scale degree) pattern he established, which was another step toward the modern diatonic scale of 7 steps.
Among the many other innovations he introduced to music (including the most formidable achievement of the introduction of a practical system of musical notation), Guido compiled a set of names for a 6 tone (hexachord) scale pattern matched to the 1st syllables of each line in the Hymn "Ut queant laxis" composed by Paul the deacon c. 774 for St. John the Baptist Day:
UT queant laxis
REsonare fibris
MIra gestarum
FAmuli tuorum
SOlve polluti
LAbii reatum
Sancte Johannes.
Thus the names of the first 6 scale degrees became UT, RE, MI, FA, SO, and LA.
In Guido's time this became an extremely practical aid to singers; by associating the names of the notes of the scale with these syllables, singers would have a clear idea of how each note of the scale was supposed to sound in relation to all the other notes.
Once musicians began to work with a diatonic scale of 7 notes, SI as the name for the 7th scale degree was not agreed upon until the late 1600's (the "S" was taken from the S of Sancte and the "I" from the old J, written like an I, from Johannes); in some Western countries this SI has become the syllable TI.
The use of the more sonorous syllable DO was substituted in place of UT around 1673 by Giovanni Maria Bonocini, but this practice, to this day, has not been universally adopted.
This system of solmization is in widespread use today.
As polyphony developed through the Middle Ages the tritone between B and F became a problem (because of its imperfect 5th); this was solved by the introduction of the note Bb, which originally was not thought to be a different note, as we do today, but as a modification of the original note B.
As time passed additional modifications were allowed, although the strict church system still allowed only Bb.
The system we use today is based on the compositional practice of the Renaissance period.
In the 16th century Glareanus assigned Greek names to each of the existing modes which were not connected to any system actually in use in ancient Greece.
The distinction between plagal and authentic has for the most part been abandoned in favored of the Renaissance system of 7 modes (photo):
IONIAN ... c d e f g a b c ... scale pattern 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
DORIAN ... d e f g a b c d ... scale pattern 1 2 -3 4 5 6 -7
PHRYGIAN ... e f g a b c d e ... scale pattern 1 -2 -3 4 5 -6 -7
LYDIAN ... f g a b c d e f ... scale pattern 1 2 3 +4 5 6 7
MIXOLYDIAN ... g a b c d e f g ... scale pattern 1 2 3 4 5 6 -7
AEOLIAN ... a b c d e f g a ... scale pattern 1 2 -3 4 5 -6 -7
LOCRIAN ... b c d e f g a b ... 1 -2 -3 4 -5 -6 -7
Thus, with a key signature of no sharps or flats, 7 possible modes, or scale patterns, can be represented (the Locrian mode, because the 5th degree of its scale is not perfect, is of theoretical interest only).
Any starting note can be chosen -- every key signature can generate 7 possible modes; in the Renaissance however, not all notes would have been allowed as starting notes.
When these 7 Renaissance modes are tabulated using C as the starting note, each mode starting on C will have a different key signature:
C Ionian ... C D E F G A B ... no flats or sharps
C Dorian ... C D Eb F G A Bb ... 2 flats
C Phrygian ... C Db Eb F G Ab Bb ... 4 flats
C Lydian ... C D E F# G A B ... 1 sharp
C Mixolydian ... C D E F G A Bb ... 1 flat
C Aeolian ... C D Eb F G Ab Bb ... 3 flats
C Locrian ... C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb ... 5 flats
In early chant we find the most commonly used modes being the Ionian (same as major scale), Dorian (with minor 3rd and major 6th), and Mixolydian (with minor 7th); the Aeolian is not too uncommon, but the Lydian and Phrygian are extremely rare; the Locrian is never found.
In the Baroque period all modes except the Ionian, Dorian, and Aeolian were pretty much discarded by composers; the Ionian and Aeolian were renamed the major and natural minor scales, respectively, however, in actual use, the Aeolian began to be modified by the use of a raised 7th degree leading tone, creating the so-called harmonic minor scale.
This change derived from the medieval and Renaissance use of "musica ficta" -- adjustments made to certain notes (what we now know as accidentals) -- to avoid forbidden harmonic relations such as the tritone (augmented 4th) or for other reasons dealing with vertical harmonic relationships.
Since traditional chant consisted of a single melodic line only, without harmony, musica ficta was never used, hence raised leading tones in the Dorian and Aeolian modes were never encountered in chant.
Since the augmented 2nd interval resulting from raising the 7th degree of the natural minor scale to create a leading tone was found difficult for singers, Baroque composers also made a further modification to the harmonic minor scale by also raising the 6th scale degree a half step in ascending; this created the so-called melodic minor scale.
This same melodic minor scale, in descending, reverts to the natural minor scale and simply follows the key signature of the passage.
(con't in Part II)