Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting/harmony


I have a book on piano pedaling (by Ludvig Schytte). It was published in 1891 so I guess the harmony is based on common practice era music.
There is one exercise (in C major) that I can play but I just don't really know how to understand it theoretically.
1 bar: I, V6, IV6, I6/4,
2 bar: IV6, then a chord with B-F-A, then ending on I
These are two of the 4 bars (and the left hand plays only a C octave).
I do not understand the B-F-A. All I know is that if you move B and F one half step you will end on C and E.

How should one view the B-F-A chord? Cause we are thing in chord, right? And what I learn in school was that when taling about inversions you must look at both the left hand and the rght hand. So if there is a C octave in the left hand then all I (or C) chords will be said to be in first inversion?

I was told by a person who knows very little about music theory (also by people who knows theory) that if you only look at the harmony from a theoretically perspective you will never really understand the music. Do one look at such harmony from a theoretical point or should one sit at the piano and feel the music?

One way to look at this is seeing a melody. The top note of the right hand could be playing a melody that is being harmonized with chords. Is this how you would analyze it?
This is an exercise so there is only four bars. But if you look at BWV anh. 114 the first and second part are 8 bars each. It seems like he wanted this. But I had wrote a melody I would have look at a 8 bar blues and tried to fit it into the progression. I know Ludvig shytte wanted just four bars cause it's en exercise. But did the classical composers care about how many bars they had or is this just modern musicians who think about this?

ANSWER: Dear Hank,

Thanks very much for your interesting question. However, without actually seeing the music there is very little I can tell you. No doubt you have explained it in words to the best of your ability but without actually seeing the music it simply isn't possible to make any comments. Could you possibly scan the bars in question and get back to me? I don't guarantee I can answer your question but I'll give it a good try!

As to your second point, I think if you look at harmony in only one way, then you might miss something. OK, it's relatively easy most of the time to analyze a chord or even to describe the texture of the chord. But in real life, chords don't exist in isolation, they are part of a cycle of musical events like lines in a play. The important thing in the end is the relationship between chords, for this is what gives music its character and colour. There's a phenomenon well known to composers and sometimes called "harmonic tension" which describes the way a succession of chords creates a sense of tension in the listener. Another series of chords can have the opposite effect.On balance I'd say that you can have a deeper understand and appreciation of music if you perceive it from different perspectives, both theoretical perspectives and also have an awareness of the music's expressive quality.

To give you an example, try listening to the first few minutes of the second movement of Barber's violin concerto to see how he creates sumptuous harmonic effects which also have huge expressive power. You can perceive Barber's skill in this technique in his Adagio for Strings - possibly his most well known piece. Find a recording of either of these works on YouTube.

I'd like to comment on your last paragraph but again, without seeing the music it's not possible. I'll leave it to you. Perhaps by now you have found the answer anyway!

Best wishes


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

QUESTION: The question is about exercise nr. 2 lento.

ANSWER: Dear Hank,

Thank you for sending the scan of the music. Now I can understand your question. Let's take bars 1 and 2 first. In these parts the composer uses a very common composing device called "pedal notes". Now, confusingly these have nothing to do with piano pedaling. The name comes from organ music in which the pedals are used by the feet to play the bass notes. In organ music it is quite common for composers to write a single note in the bass part and then write a moving series of chords (for the hands) above. On an organ this works well because the bass note sustains. It doesn't work quite so well for the piano because of course the sound of the bass notes dies away soon after it has been played. (Incidentally, this is why on some more expensive pianos there are three foot pedals instead of two. The extra pedal sustains bass notes but doesn't influence any other notes.)

So, back to bar 1 and 2. We'd describe these bars as having a "pedal C" in the bass. In the treble part we have seven chords. Your harmonic analysis is correct in that we have a I, V, IV. In this case the inversions do not matter because the pedal C dominates in the bass. In bar 2, we find another pedal C. The first chord in the treble is a IV of course. Then we come to your troublesome chord! If he had harmonized the bar conventionally with regular bass notes instead of the pedal C, what notes would we expect to find in the bass?

Well, in the first chord, we'd expect to find an F because it is a IV chord. I would expect that under the second chord there would be a G, making it a V9 chord. That is, a dominant 9th which (as usual) also includes the 7th. The F is the 7th and the A is the ninth counted up from the imaginary G. You'll notice that the 7th correctly resolves down to the E in the next chord, the A resolves to the G and the B resolves up to the C. All perfectly conventional. It is tricky to recognise, because of that pedal C in the bass.

In bar 3, he uses a pedal A in the bass for the first 3 beats. The second chord is actually a V7 chord with a missing G sharp, perhaps omitted because the composer felt there's be an unpleasant clash between the G sharp and the pedal A in the bass.

I hope all this makes sense. If I haven't explained it clearly enough, feel free to get back to me. Have an interesting day!

Best wishes

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

QUESTION: I like your idea about the V9 but we do have a C octave in the bass. Should one just forget the C octave?
All I could see was a Bdim7 chord. Is this also correct or is it wrong?
Did Shytte and other composers really care about the right answer to this question? Wouldn't just have been happy to have found what sounds good?

Dear Hank,

It is most definitely a V9 chord. We would describe it as "a dominant ninth over a tonic pedal bass." It is not a Bdim7 chord. The important thing about these pedal notes (which I described earlier) is that you could write all sorts of harmonies in the top parts, some of which could even clash with the pedal bass note but if the chords resolved appropriately, the ear would accept them. Bach used pedal basses frequently in his organ works and often quite complex harmony in the upper parts unlike the Shytte exercise, which is actually quite simple. The pedal bass was a very common device (and still is).

Turning to your second question I think most composers want to write something which sounds "good". There is little purpose in doing otherwise. But we must accept the fact that what sounds "good" to one person may not necessarily sound "good" to another! Mr Shytte was clearly aware of what he was doing and obviously liked the effect. Competent composers and arrangers don't need to think too much about the theories of harmony. They have moved on, and it has become second nature. It's just like professional writers or poets - they don't usually have to stop and think about about the rules of grammar.  

Best wishes,

Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting

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Dr Colin


I can answer questions from students of "classical" composing, arranging, notation problems and music theory, writing for instruments and voice and writing music for education. I can answer questions about orchestration but I do not cover questions about pop or rock music, pop song writing or electronic music.

I taught for many years in UK up to "A" level theory and composition. I have spent many years in music education, initially (like everyone else) as a teacher. Then I moved on to advisory work (teaching teachers!) and also lectured, giving many workshops for teachers in developing music education skills and techniques. For a time I worked as a teacher-lecturer at London University's Institute of Education and eventually worked full-time as a Music Education Adviser to schools in part of London, offering advice on music education and curriculum development.


I started composing music at the age 14 (it was mostly rubbish, since you asked) and now have a large number of compositions to credit as well as many publications, especially for instrumental music and choral music. I have also written several acclaimed works for large orchestra and choir. My work has been published particularly in the UK (under different names)(notably by Boosey & Hawkes, Novello, and Schott) but also in the USA and the Netherlands.

My music for elementary players (several publications) has been performed and broadcast worldwide. I am now retired from my previous job as Music Education Adviser. These days I spend most of my time composing and arranging. I am currently working on instrumental arrangements of world national anthems for my National Anthems website and also completing a suite of very easy piano solos and duets for elementary players. For many years I have used the music program "Finale" for all my music writing activities.

International Society for Music Education; Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

"The Times" Educational Supplement; "Hi-Fi News and Record Review". For several years, I used to write for many of the state music education periodicals in the US and I also wrote several influential articles on instrumental music teaching for "Music Teacher" magazine in the UK. (UK).

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