Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting/chords


In non-classical music, eg blues, you often think of chord progressions. In blues you often tell the musicians the chord progression and then they play some comping and licks.
But I don't think classical music works that way. I know there are chords but I don't think you tell someone a chord progression and they will play like Bach. It seems like when you analyze Bach you should not start with thinking of chord progressions like you would in non-classical music. Do you think it is important that you never analyze classical music like you would with modern music?
And do you think a person who is used to non-classical styles will have difficulties with understanding classical styles? I have heard classical pianist who struggle with easy blues piano. Are these two kinds of music extremely different that a non-classical pianist like me will have difficulties with playing classical piano?

ANSWER: Hello Andrew, and thanks for being patient.  I'm up to my neck in exams and end of term shows.

All Western music regardless of genre is based on a key system which had completely superseded the modal system by the late 17th century, and established its rules during the 18th century. The rules I'm referring to determine what constitutes concord and discord, and how the latter is to be approached and resolved. There was a certain amount of experimentation within the rules, but it wasn't until the 19th century that the definitions changed so that a chord regarded as discordant in the 17th century becomes part of the standard musical vocabulary in the 19th. The rules were first bent, then progressively broken, until by the beginning of the 20th century they could no longer be said to apply and composers either made a conscious decision to return to them or attempted to formulate new systems of their own.

The basis of our key system is that: the octave is divided into 12 equal semitones; the two predominating diatonic scales, major and minor, are constructed in exactly the same way in all 12 keys; the various degrees of the scale and the triads built up on them are of greater or lesser importance in relation to the keynote; and we have the concept of "related" keys, which makes it easy to move from one key to another, either directly or via other, more closely related, keys. (This is modulation, and it is the ability to modulate that makes Western music unique.) So once you have firmly established your home key, you have a network of interconnections and interrelations that underpins every note you write, and its the relationship between chords rather than the chords themselves that is all-important.

Harmonic analysis is therefore a fundamental part of musical training. The common practice era covers 300 years and three successive periods (Baroque, Classical, Romantic) and an understanding of how the harmonic vocabulary changed enables you to identify when and where a piece was composed, and often (in the case of the great composers whose musical "signature" is individual and distinctive) the composer - all within the first few bars of hearing if you really know your harmony.  All serious classical music students are required to compose in various styles, and again, you need a good knowledge of harmonic analysis for that.

But in performance, the classical musician reproduces compositions by someone else and a fundamental precept is absolute fidelity to the score - you play every note exactly as written with no alterations allowed.  Consequently, the majority of classically trained musicians can't improvise, and that's the big difference between them and jazz-trained musicians; then again, no two performances by a jazz musician are exactly the same so they struggle with the 100% accuracy required for classical performances.  Jazz musicians sightread chord sheets if they don't play by ear; classical musicians sightread stave notation.

This wasn't always the case.  Many of the great composers were known for their skill in improvisation/"extemporisation" and, as I'm always telling my advanced pupils, you may enjoy life on the concert platform but that won't earn a living as a pianist; in order to get work you need to be able to a) sightread (and preferably transpose at sight) b) improvise, whether it's as a soloist or accompanying another instrument or a singer.  But both skills need practise and both require a thorough knowledge of theory and aural, which is the bit most beginners don't want to learn.

Hope this helps.         

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you!
Does this mean that blues or country is less intellectual than common era practice music? You may learn country music on a farm but I am not sure you could do that with Baroque music. I am now learning some country and blues piano. Would I need to become more intellctual and theoretical if I also want to focus on Bach? People who study Bach do they often have difficulties with blues since these are two different musical languages although it's played on the same instrument?

Hello again Andrew, and again thanks for waiting.  Two end of year shows, a weekend of exams and four nursery school carol concerts/plays down, one more week of college to go.

Certainly classical music is capable of far more complexity than any of the popular genres, in terms of formal structure, key structure and harmonic vocabulary.  I think you're trying to run before you can walk, though, particularly if you're learning the piano from scratch.  Yes, Bach was master of complicated fugues, but he also composed little pieces for his children which are technically and harmonically simple, as they need to be for a child or beginner to understand and enjoy them.
So you need an understanding of how music "works". (It's the difference between picking up a few phrases in a foreign language and learning the language properly; if you don't acquire a complete grasp of the grammar and syntax you'll never progress beyond baby talk.) But theory and aural training should be part an integrated part of your lessons so that eye, ear and hand are linked - you recognise an inversion of a dominant 7th, for example, on the page, you know what it will sound like and your hand knows how it feels to play it. You gradually learn to recognise intervals, triads/chords and their inversions, diatonic scale construction and the cycle of fifths.  

So far we've stayed in one key, but as I've already said, Western music is unique in its ability to move from one key to another. It doesn't have to modulate - at least 80% of pop, C&W and folk music doesn't move out of its home key and a sizeable proportion of that only uses the three primary chords, which is why most of it bores me to tears after any length of time - but classical music relies on more complex musical structures and therefore more interesting key relationships.  So the first time you learn a Classical sonatina, you learn about sonata-allegro form.          
Provided you keep up with theory and aural, you'll be fine.  Problems start when a pupil doesn't keep up with theory, so they reproduce notes without understanding.  All very well in the early stages, but a serious handicap later on when they start harmonic analysis and are required to compose themselves.  Without a decent understanding of harmony you won't be able to improvise, either.  With an understanding of harmony, if you're classically trained you can play passably in any genre.

Hope this helps.  

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Clare Redfarn


All aspects of the academic/theoretical side of music, including harmony, counterpoint, elementary composition, history, harmonic analysis, aural training, sightreading - the lot! Please note I'm not primarily a composer so I can't help with composition beyond what's required for Grade 8 theory or A'level. And don't ask me about psychoacoustics or music psychology as I have no knowledge of, nor interest in, either subject.


57 years as pianist (soloist and accompanist); 42 years as harpsichordist (soloist and continuist); 10 years as violinist and 6 years as bassoonist (youth orchestras/chamber groups); 45 years as piano teacher, coach in performance/interpretation (all ages, instruments and levels) and private tutor (mainly the old O'level, Grade VI+ ABRSM theory/practical musicianship, A'level and undergraduates); 20 years as ballet pianist (Cecchetti syllabus).

Member of Musicians' Union in Britain 1978-1989 and 1991-2009.

I've been writing professionally since I was 20 - too many programme notes to count over the years and a number of articles. Additionally, from 1996-2000 I was a Music Assessor for London Arts and as such regularly wrote critiques of concerts given by recipients of Arts Council funding.

MA in European Cultural Policy & Administration (Warwick University, 1994)
B Mus with Honours (London University, 1977)
Postgraduate Diploma in Arts Administration (City University, 1982)
Licentiate of Royal Academy of Music in Piano Teaching (1976)
Licentiate of Royal Academy of Music in Harpsichord Teaching (1978)

Studied RAM Junior School (1966-74), then as full-time student (1974-78).

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