Triple Harpsichords, Cross-Staff Beaming, revisited

This is a substantial re-write and clarification of a post made January 4, 2010.

Daniel Spreadbury, Sibelius Senior Product Manager and writer of, kindly posted about my story on using PhotoScore and Sibelius to produce a new edition of Bach’s Triple Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1064.

In my post, I mentioned problems I had with cross-staff notes in keyboard parts. Daniel explained that I was going about it the wrong way.

I contend that I was going about it in a way that makes sense to a keyboard player or a composer. I have read the reference manual. In the process, I revealed what I think is a bug or deficiency in Sibelius. Setting aside the the age-old “it’s not a bug, it’s an undocumented feature” argument, let me explain how I did it and how Daniel recommends doing it. At the end, I’ll explain why I wish that Sibelius would handle this situation differently.

Let me use a new, more simple example.

Above are two bars from the grainy PDF of the urtext.

The two hands play an unbroken melodic line an octave apart, in parallel. There are no rests in the line played in either hand. Because the melodic figure goes through some low notes, it’s properly notated by having the right-hand part move down to the bass clef and then back up again, following the arc of the melody. There are cross-staff notes in this example, but there is no need for cross-staff beaming, due to the particular note groupings.

Example One

How I did it

I chose to notate this in Sibelius by entering all the right-hand notes in Voice 1 in one unbroken line, and then selecting certain notes and applying the “Cross Staff Notes” commands to move those from the treble staff to the bass staff.

I entered all the notes in Staff 1 in Voice 1 (blue noteheads). Then I entered all notes in Staff 2 in Voice 1 (blue noteheads), and flipped the beams and stems in Staff 2 down, below:

Next I used the “Move Down a Staff” command on the notes that needed to cross staves. This includes two notes that are not only cross-staff, but also cross-beamed. [Postscript: Yes, I realize I’m moving one note that was not moved in the Urtext. You go to all the trouble to make nice canned examples and then at the end you realize you overlooked one little detail.]

The only problem, below, is funky beams on the cross-staff notes in the second bar:

This is not an error: sometimes it’s the shape you want. In my case, I wanted to adjust them like this, below, which can easily be done by selecting each beam and dragging:

And that’s all there is to it. But the problem, as I will detail below, is that in more complex and dense examples, Sibelius does nothing automatically about collisions in many elements: noteheads, accidentals, stems, beams, and slurs. Here is my example from the previous post:

2. What happens when you tell Sibelius to cross staves

The recommended method

This involves setting things up very differently, like this:

In Staff 1, create notes in Voice 1. Enter 8 16th notes, then a half-note rest, then in Bar 2, a half-note rest, followed by 4 16th notes and 2 8th notes.

In Staff 2, create notes in two Voices. In Voice 1, enter a half-note rest, followed by 8 16th notes, a dotted-eighth, 4 16th notes, and a half-note rest.

Move to Voice 2 (green noteheads) in Staff 2, Bar 1. Enter the line shown below.

Next, select only the two notes highlighted in red, and use the “Move Down a Staff” command on those two notes alone.

See below:

Once the notes are moved, just as in the previous example, drag those funky beams into place:

One remaining problem: This is a convenient fiction. What we’ve notated in the recommended method is three voices and a bunch of rests, whereas in what J. S. Bach actually wrote, there should be only two voices and no rests anywhere. To complete the illusion, we have to find the half-note rests and use the Hide command. Below you can see them greyed-out.

Unfortunately, outlined in red above, Sibelius has spontaneously flipped the stem directions on two beam groups as soon as you use the “Hide” command to conceal the half-note rests that were visible before. So in the last step, below, I have manually flipped the beams back where I want them:

When you print out the score, all the note heads will be black, and there will be no indication to the performer that you have performed a little slight-of-hand by using three voices where there should be two.

Evaluating the recommended method, you can imagine that under certain circumstances it would take more work than my method. Mapping out extra voices, switching note input to different staves, lots of extra rests that have to be hidden after the fact, and problems with beams and stems flipping where you don’t want them. So why did Daniel recommend this method? One more example, and then my conclusion is below.

Collisions: Example 2

Here is another example from the Bach Triple Harpsichord Concerto. In these two bars, there are notes that cross staves inside of every beam group.

How I did it

It makes musical sense to me to enter Staff 1, Voice 1, four groups of four eighth notes, and then go to Staff 2 and create Voice 1, four groups of four eighth notes.

Then, in Staff 2, select the last three notes in each group of four:

Apply the “Move Up a Staff” command. You get this mess:

Flip the beams in Staff 1 Voice 1 where you want them, drag on each of the Staff 2 beams to get the correct orientation and adjust their angles, move the staves closer together, and maybe do some more dragging to optimize things:

The recommended method

Create two voices in Staff 1 and no voices at all in Staff 2.

Hide the whole-note rests in Staff 2.

In Staff 1, Voice 2, select only the first notes in each four-note grouping.

Apply the “Move Down a Staff” command, and the result is this:

Now you can drag the beams into position and move the staves closer together.


I now know the recommended method to use Sibelius in order to get the desired results with cross-staff notes. But I don’t like it. That’s why I’ve gone to all the trouble to document this. Software gets improved when users express their opinions about features.

Sibelius advertises collision avoidance as a major feature that make life easier for you when you create scores. It does. But those features are not implemented at all on cross-staff notes. If you actually use the cross-staff note commands where it makes musical sense, you may create further problems that you have to fix manually. My interpretation of the recommended method boils down to this: avoid using the cross-staff commands whenever possible. Only use them on individual notes when there is no alternative.

In the absence of Sibelius addressing this issue, you need to use the recommended work-around of entering notes in the score in a different order than a keyboardist would play them, creating extra rests and extra voices, and then hiding them after the fact.

The Atlanta Baroque Orchestra Brings Ancient Music Back to Life with Sibelius and PhotoScore

L-R: Daniel Pyle, Michael Bauer, Peter DeWitt, rehearsing the score I edited. Photos by Rich Nuckolls.

Lots of musicians us the Sibelius notation program to compose and publish new music. But what you may not know is that some people use it to re-create music that’s hundreds of years old. This is a technical essay written for musicians and scholars on how I worked with the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra to prepare a piece of music by J. S. Bach that is rarely performed anywhere. This may also serve as a helpful tutorial for users of any music notation software.

The challenge

Ever heard an orchestra with a real harpsichord? How about a concerto with three harpsichord soloists? Johann Sebastian Bach wrote one, and the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra (hereinafter the ABO) performed it on November 21, 2010.

Here’s how I described it in the concert press release:

…[It is] a rarely-heard, dazzling showpiece for three harpsichords and strings that J. S. Bach performed with his sons W. F. and C. P. E. Bach. “I call it the Grand Prix of keyboards,” says Wheat Williams, music copyist and volunteer. “It’s a dizzying display of spirited shredding by three virtuosos that would leave today’s rock guitarists in awe. You won’t believe how many notes they can pack into 16 exuberant minutes.”

I had just signed on as a volunteer working with the orchestra in October 2010, intending to provide them with a new Web site, marketing through email and Facebook, and services like receiving online donations and online advance ticket sales. Then Resident Director Daniel Pyle told me about Bach’s Triple Harpsichord Concerto in C, BWV 1064. “A lot of the music we do is long out of print, and we have to go looking for scores,” he said. “Even when a score is commercially available, it is usually an old printing from worn-out old engraving plates, and the legibility is quite low. So sometimes I create a completely new edition of a score in Finale.”

Bach’s Triple Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1064, frontpiece

I stepped up. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, I’m a musician and consultant working with Roberts Creative Systems out of Franklin, Tennessee, and we are a Sibelius dealer among other computer music and audio services. I offered to create a completely new score for this piece for three harpsichords and string orchestra. It’s 16 minutes long, in three movements, and according to Sibelius’ note-counting plug-in, when I was done, there are 23,828 notes. It was a challenge.

Sibelius 6

Sibelius-certified expert Dave McKay, with Roberts Creative Systems, estimated that my Bach score would cost the ABO $2,500 if they hired an AFM (American Federation of Musicians) union copyist. No chamber group could afford that much for a piece that makes up only 20% of the music performed in a single concert, which is why I’ve discovered that a lot of early music performers are already doing their own work in Sibelius or other notation programs. When Daniel Pyle saw my work, he upgraded his old copy of Sibelius to 6.2 and joined in with the proofreading on his 27-inch iMac.

It goes without saying that virtually all the repertoire of a group like the ABO, which performs the music of not only Bach but all sorts of European composers from roughly the years 1625 to 1750, is in the public domain.

Bach never published any of his scores in his lifetime. It’s safe to say he never expected anybody other than himself and those he hired to perform most of them. Fortunately a lot of hand-copied scores survived. What we have today in published form was mostly engraved and printed in the late 1800s, over a century after Bach died. And his output was so vast that there are plenty of pieces that don’t get performed often, so making modern editions of more obscure pieces is not of much interest to sheet music publishing companies.

So what is a baroque orchestra?

The ABO is an “early music” chamber group, part of the “historically-informed performance” or “authentic performance practice” revival movement, which started in Europe in the late 1970s and has caught on worldwide. The ABO has been performing since 1998, and calls itself the oldest such orchestra in the Southeast of the US. They perform the music of the late Renaissance, Baroque and Classical periods on replicas of the actual instruments used by the composers.

Members of the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra rehearse

Modern symphony orchestra instruments are often easier to play and always louder and harder in their sound, and when a symphony orchestra plays Bach, Handel or Haydn, it’s usually with many more players than the composer would have used. In contrast, in the authentic Baroque ensemble, “sections” are often only one player to a part. Violins and other string instruments use the original sheep gut, not steel strings, and old-style bows and bowing techniques that enable more subtle articulations. Vibrato is used minimally. The fretted, six-string viola da gamba often joins the cello. The lute, theorbo, harpsichord or tracker pipe organ play continuo. Baroque “natural” horns don’t have valves, flutes are made of wood and don’t have keys, recorders are used a lot, and don’t get me started on Baroque bassoons and oboes. As far as performance, much to the astonishment of symphony orchestra players, Baroque-specializing musicians are expected to improvise and embellish their parts according to certain historically-researched guidelines. Everybody tunes down to A-415, not 440, and keyboards don’t use equal temperament, because it hadn’t been invented yet. Overall, the sound that an authentic Baroque orchestra makes is startlingly different than the modern symphony orchestra. You can find many famous examples on iTunes, although the ABO has to date never released any recordings.

Getting started: where to find the music

With regard to finding free copies of sheet music in the public domain online, there are a few excellent resources. Music enthusiasts all over the world have taken old scores, scanned them, made PDF files, and contributed them to Wiki-like sites including:

Here you can find thousands of scores from all sorts of composers from antiquity to the 1920s, presented as PDFs. In addition to the original scores, you may also occasionally find modern arrangements of classics by the great composers whose contemporary editors have released them into the public via the Creative Commons License or some such. I needed to avoid modern arrangements, because I was looking for the authentic original work of the composer.

What I hoped to find was an urtext; that’s a German term that means a professionally-engraved edition that is recognized as authoritative, as close to the composer’s original manuscript as possible. At the IMSLP, I found a grainy PDF of the urtext of the Bach Triple Harpsichord Concerto, published by Breitkopf & Härtel in the late 1800s.

Page One of the original, scanned

Happily, there are lots of folks around the world who are already doing what I’m starting out to do–they’ve already found old scans, they’ve redone the piece in Sibelius or another commercial notation program, and they’ve donated those scores back to the Internet archives mentioned above–sometimes in the source files of the various notation programs, sometimes as PDFs you can print, or if you’re really lucky, the MusicXML format, which can be parsed and converted into the formats of many different notation programs. But there were no such files for the piece I needed.

If you can’t find the score you need in the above sources, there are commercial sites like Sibelius Music where, among the new music, enterprising copyists sell scores they’ve created from old scores. That’s a legitimate thing to do, as you can copyright your own edited edition of a composition in the public domain even though the underlying musical composition belongs to no one.

Finally, there’s scouring or looking for used copies of printed scores from bookstores, purchasing them, and getting them shipped to you. I might add that commercial publishing companies sell new, contemporary printed scores of music that’s in the public domain due to its date of composition, and even if there’s a copyright notice on that printed edition, you are generally free to make your own version of the notes on the page and do with them as you will, without restriction.

If you can find actual printed scores, they’re often enormous. Daniel Pyle provided the original Breitkopf & Härtel scores for three other Bach two-harpsichord concertos that I’m working on. He found them in a used bookstore in London over twenty years ago. These original conductor scores measured about 10-3/4 x 14-1/4 inches (27 x 36 cm). For those, you need a large-format scanner. Daniel and I both own the excellent and affordable Brother MFC-6490CW all-in-one printer-scanner, which can scan and print 11 x 17-inch tabloid or ledger size, and provides a reliable sheet-feeder for scanning dozens of pages at a time. I got mine brand-new last year for only $200.

I do all my work on an Apple MacBook Pro running Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. I use Hamrick VueScan software to process the scans and make PDFs, and I repaginate and clean up the scanned PDFs in Smile Software’s PDFPen. (When you batch-scan printed scores with a sheet feeder, you often find yourself scanning the pages out of order because of the way the book is bound, so a program that lets you reorder the pages within an output PDF file is very useful.)

Getting down to business, and the tools of the trade

Whether you have to make your own scans, or you can find scans ready-made online, the remainder of the process, getting the music into Sibelius, is the same.

However beautiful the original engravings were, the printed quality of what’s available today is usually poor. Stems may not connect to noteheads in places, and clusters of notes in chords may blob together, where accidentals and noteheads are no longer distinct. The people who made the scans may not have been careful: their images are crooked, distorted, or the music on the edges is out-of-focus if they scanned from a bound book and didn’t lay the whole page perfectly flat on the scanner. All these factors can impact what kind of success you have with the next phase.

The process used to get an old score into Sibelius or another notation program is called optical character recognition, or OCR. In this process, a computer program reads a digital bitmap image of a printed page (made with a scanner) and attempts to convert it into notes and words that a music notation program can interpret. Neuratron PhotoScore is the tool I use. It’s designed to work hand-in-glove with Sibelius. You have PhotoScore read a multiple-page PDF file, and then you must edit the results to correct some of the more obvious errors.  Next, you instruct PhotoScore to pass the file off to Sibelius for further work.

Neuratron PhotoScore Ultimate 6.1
Neuratron PhotoScore Ultimate 6.1

The ready-made PDF score that I had to use as the basis of my Bach project was around 72 dpi. The PhotoScore manual will tell you that it won’t handle scores of such low resolution, but it worked pretty well! A 300 dpi scan would be preferable.

PhotoScore screen shot (in Windows)

Re-creating the masterpiece

I have a love-hate relationship with PhotoScore. It did an amazingly accurate job of reading the grainy PDF of the Triple Harpsichord Concerto. Unfortunately, despite the fact that what it does is near-miraculous, after it reads in the score, it’s necessary for the user to do a great deal of editing of mis-read music within PhotoScore before exporting its output to Sibelius–even when working from pristine printed scores. PhotoScore, I’m afraid to say, provides a painfully difficult editing environment. I could write a lengthy blog about all the improvements that I think PhotoScore could make to the user interface. Many functions seem to take many more clicks, key presses, and menu and dialog box selections than are necessary. To give one example, the OCR function frequently makes errors in identifying clefs on any staves that are connected with braces or brackets. The process of manually correcting these errors is onerous. [If you really know what you are doing, before you run the PDF through PhotoScore, you can open the PDF in a program like PDFPen and “touch up” the notation by masking out certain parts like brackets and braces, or filling in broken lines with a pencil tool. But that feels like something you shouldn’t have to do in the first place.]

Howbeit, PhotoScore is still a life-saver. I would be overjoyed if Avid Sibelius would buy Neuratron and its genius programmers outright and integrate PhotoScore directly into Sibelius, with a good user-interface overhaul. Can I get an “Amen”?

Once the PhotoScore output is passed on to Sibelius, there’s much more editing work to be done. In this context, the normal Sibelius workflow gets turned on its head, and you have to re-think things. For one thing, you are not seated at a blank canvas entering a score a bar at a time from start to finish, watching the layout unfold as Sibelius makes automatic decisions about spacing and pagination. PhotoScore hands off to Sibelius, and Sibelius opens up a 24-page score full of music, much of which is necessarily full of errors that you need to correct. The layout of how many bars to each system, and how many systems per page, has been dictated with hard breaks by PhotoScore in emulation of the original printed score, and this may not be optimal. Old scores were optimized to print on the fewest pages possible, and they are often way too crowded for good legibility. You have to find the hard breaks, delete them, and make your own decisions about note spacing, staff spacing, system breaks, page breaks, and other formatting decisions on the fly as you go through the score.

Editing is all after-the-fact and it may not always make sense to start with Bar One and go all the way to the end in order. As you go through and correct errors, you find yourself selecting small passages and using the “Optimize Staff Spacing” and “Reset Note Spacing” commands over and over again, and using Undo a lot as well.

Any text notations present problems, and PhotoScore is not very good at OCR for text in any language, though it purports to support several. If you are working with Baroque scores, you need to think back to music school and remember all your terms in English, German, French, Italian, and whatever else the printed pages may throw at you. Google Language Tools can help.

A useful tip: Set up two monitors, one for Sibelius, and one for Adobe Reader or another program that displays the PDF scan of the score you are re-creating. Using a PDF editing program like PDFPen, number each measure of the original scanned score in the PDF. Old scores from the 1800s don’t use measure numbers at all. Zoom in for detail and work line-by-line. This works much better than having Sibelius on the screen and a printed score sitting on your desk or on a copy stand. Glancing back and forth between the screen and the paper on your desk for hours is fatiguing.

Hairy passages can’t be read correctly by PhotoScore and have to be re-entered by hand (best done in Sibelius, not PhotoScore), which I do using the QWERTY keyboard exclusively. This particular score presented challenges that I do not blame PhotoScore or Sibelius for having difficulty handling. String parts were quite simple, and were a breeze; PhotoScore nailed everything with little manual editing required. However, as you can imagine, Bach wrote the three harpsichord parts for virtuoso showing-off, and the parts are murderously tricky. Cross-staff beaming is everywhere, and the density of runs and trills are dizzying. It’s a breathless roller-coaster ride from start to finish.

I’ve gotten in arguments with an unbelieving expert, but I know of no way around this problem: Sibelius 6.2 does not provide any collision avoidance for two voices that are input on separate staves but then put close together on one staff using the Cross-Staff Notes commands. I had to spend a lot of time intricately editing around illegible blobs of overlapping noteheads, accidentals, slurs and ties, stem directions, and beams.

1. Music on two staves, needing to be cross-staff beamed to one staff
2. What happens when you tell Sibelius to cross staves. Note the overlapping sharps and noteheads.
3. How you want it to look, after you manage to get all the collisions removed. I had to manually shift colliding accidentals and noteheads horizontally using the Properties palette.

Because I had to add and delete groups of notes interactively from passages that were already in the score, it could be infuriating: I flip the stems of a voice in a measure one way, move something where I think it needs to go, and Sibelius spontaneously decides to flip the stems back the other way at a whim. I have to tell Sibelius to flip them back again. This may happen several times as I struggle towards making the passage look the way it does in the original score. I dearly wish that if I overrode Sibelius’ stem and beam flipping on a certain selected passage once, that Sibelius would keep it that way, and not try to change it back, no matter what other notes are added or deleted from that bar.

One thing to consider is whether or not engraving conventions from the 1600s to the 1800s should be updated to the modern conventions that Sibelius’ algorithms employ. This has to do especially with things like rules for groups of beaming and the placement of slurs. One wants to improve legibility; that’s always the goal. However, specialists in Baroque performance practice are already accustomed to reading old notation, so you don’t want to defy their expectations too much. I opted to stick with the original engraving and manually override the sub-group beaming that Sibelius automatically created on numerous dense melodic runs of mixtures of 16th, 32nd and 64th notes. I filled in extra beams across all the sub-groups, because Daniel Pyle felt that the modern sub-group beaming might subtly change the rhythmic emphasis that the players would tend to perform, making the performance less authentic.

Modern sub-group beaming the way Sibelius does it by default
I changed the beaming to the older method used in the original

Even though Bach’s music moves to different well-defined key centers for extended sections within a movement, the original notation does not use key changes. Rather, each movement uses only one key signature, and modulated sections rely on lots of accidentals added to the notes in each bar. Initially I thought to improve things by notating key changes in a few obvious places, but Daniel Pyle vetoed the idea. It’s hard to justify messing with Bach’s notation, even though in his time the music theory regarding key changes wasn’t formally worked out, and we have the benefit of hindsight.

Another mechanical issue with Sibelius 6.2 is figured bass notation, the Baroque version of jazz chord symbols for the keyboard, cello and bass (collectively known as the basso-continuo, the all-important Baroque rhythm section). In this concerto, all three solo harpsichords have passages with figured bass. Sibelius 6.2 can produce good figured bass, but the user interface is buggy: you can’t actually see a figured bass chord symbol while you are entering it, which can take numerous key commands. You only see the chord symbol after you finish entering it and move on to the next chord, and going back and fixing mistakes is awkward.

Figured bass

There is no audio playback for figured-bass symbols: there used to be a plug-in for that, but it is no longer available, presumably because it never worked well. That is just as well, because Baroque continuo players are expected to improvise their part in the period-correct style, following the figured-bass chord symbols, whenever the part is not written-out long-hand.

As far as audible playback for proofreading purposes, Bach’s fast, lithe runs in the violins just won’t play back with the slow attack of the string instrument samples provided by Sibelius–and there are no sample libraries of authentic Baroque string sections on the market anyway. So I found it useful to assign all the string parts to a Rhodes electric piano sound, which won’t miss a lick–and there are a lot of licks. Fortunately, the stock Sibelius harpsichord sampled instrument is good enough, although an impossibly dense score with three harpsichords playing six hands at once presents quite a challenge to the ear. Hard stereo panning, left, center, and right, is helpful. Sibelius can only provide equal temperament at A-440, but this is not an issue for proofreading.

Printing It Out

For the individual parts, I formatted everything for US Letter (8-1/2 x 11 inches), and optimized system layout and page turns for each part. I output the parts as PDFs so they could be emailed to each performer for home rehearsal. Because early music specialists are so rare, the ABO works by flying some players in from all over the US only three days before each concert, when they have marathon rehearsals leading up to the performance. Therefore it’s important to deliver parts a month in advance that everybody can print out on common inkjet printers. Custom large paper sizes aren’t practical, and US Letter and A4 are becoming the only sizes that matter. By the way, the conductor’s score isn’t used in the concert–there is no conductor in authentic Baroque ensembles! Usually everybody follows the keyboard player’s head-nods–but there was no continuo player per se in this unusual concerto, since the three harpsichordists are all soloists! Frankly, I don’t know how they pulled it off.

Listen to the live concert recording of the final movement.

I would like to give this piece I’ve typeset back to the world music community, so I’m going to make it available free, with this notice:

© 2010 Wheat Williams Editions for the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra. Permission is granted to copy and distributed freely. Please consider making a donation to the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra at if you find this edition useful.

Here are the files for you to examine.

Movement One Conductor’s Score PDF
Movement One in Sibelius 6.2
Movement One separate parts, PDF, .ZIP

Movement Two Conductor’s Score PDF
Movement Two in Sibelius 6.2
Movement Two separate parts, PDF, .ZIP

Movement Three Conductor’s Score PDF
Movement Three in Sibelius 6.2
Movement Three separate parts, PDF, .ZIP

The original scanned score of the Breitkopf & Härtel edition from the late 1800s that I worked from can be found here, at the IMSLP.

At some point I’m going to contribute my score back to the WIMA or the IMSLP.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tutorial. You can thank me by visiting the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra web site, and making a donation.

The music I just couldn’t learn

Our guitar trio is working up a transcription of a proto-madrigal from around 1490 written by a Frenchman named Pierre Certon. It’s got ridiculously tricky phrasing and rhythm. The other two guys nailed their parts and love to rip through the piece at an excessive tempo. I, on the other hand, holding down the bass part, am just baffled by this piece. I cannot get the hang of it.

So I finally realized what I needed to do. I’ve been a singer all my life, not a guitarist. So what is the secret to the phrasing of a madrigal? Lyrics, of course.

I looked it up, and the Choral Public Domain Library came to my rescue.

The piece is called “Je ne fus jamais si aise”. I found a modern, nicely-typeset version of the original three-part madrigal with the lyrics. I asked my wife, the French teacher, for some help pronouncing the early Renaissance French.

Now I sing the lyrics of the bass part while I’m plucking it out on the guitar. My brain reacts to lyrics, phrases, and sentences, cast as melodic figures, and translates that into what my fingers should be doing on the guitar. Problem solved.

Et la la la la la la la…

How Rock Ruined Songs

More specifically, how guitars ruined singing

Ever since the rock era, singers have gotten a raw deal.

It has to do with keys and tonality.

From the dawn of time, before the ascendancy of the rock guitar, people wrote songs. A song was a melody with an accompaniment. It didn’t have a particular key; whenever an individual singer was chosen to sing the song, he or she got to select the key according to how the melody fit with that individual singer’s vocal range. The accompanists, band or orchestra would accommodate the singer and transpose their accompaniment into whatever key suited the singer.

This is because every singer has a relatively small, limited range of notes that he or she can sing well.

Every song or melody has its own range of pitches–the distance between the lowest pitch in the melody and the highest pitch. This is called the tessatura in classical terminology. Some songs have a small, narrow tessatura and are easy for anybody to sing; others require a wide range of pitches, and the composer’s insisting on a particular key would mean that few singers would have voices suited to singing that melody’s wide tessatura. If you’ve got a band, and a certain singer, and you want to perform a certain song, there’s no point in performing that song in a key that will make the singer sing badly due to the necessary limitations of that singer’s voice.

Pick any classic from the Great American Songbook. Start with Rod Stewart if you absolutely have to. Now find five or six different singers over the decades of the 20th century who recorded that song and had a hit record with it. Chances are each singer chose a different key from all the others to record that song, and the band that accompanied the singer accommodated. Same song, Five or six singers, five or six recordings, five or six different keys.

But this goes way back before the jazz era. There are ample examples of composers of grand opera or oratorios who wrote arias in a certain key but then changed the keys to accommodate the ranges of the particular singers cast in that role for certain concerts and performances. Over time, certain pieces from ancient famous operas have been traditionally performed in a certain set key, but it never started out that way. When a new opera or Broadway show is created today, the key of each song is chosen to work with the singer who’s been hired to portray the role, generally speaking.

The thread running through all this is that composers in the past wrote songs for singing, for singers, without regard to any particular musical instruments used for accompaniment. They wanted to write a song that any good singer could sing and adapt to his or her voice. More generally, orchestral or band musicians of all sorts knew that if they were accompanying a singer in a song, they would need to develop enough musical talent to play a piece on their  instrument in  any key that was called for, at the drop of a hat. It’s still this way in jazz, R&B, country, just about every form of popular music other than rock or folk.

Today, though, rock music has changed all that. Why?

Guitars, and records. Rock music is composed and written to be performed using a certain limited set of techniques idiosyncratic to that strangest of instruments, the guitar, and usually in certain fingerings that cannot be transposed. Everything else in the song, including melody, tessatura, harmonies and arrangements, accommodates the guitar.

In the rock tradition, a band usually writes their own songs, to be recorded only by that band, to make a record that will be marketed and sold. Most rock songwriters only write for their own band and they don’t much care if other bands or other singers want to cover that song in the future. They consider their initial recording to be the definitive version of the song and they don’t much care if other musicians want to adapt that music into some newer creation. Furthermore, fans are accustomed to hearing that song in its original version on the radio or the record player (or whatever medium you’re playing back your recordings on).

Here’s how most rock music gets written. A song is based on a guitar accompaniment, not on a singer’s melody. A guitarist sits down with his six-string guitar, tuned to E or maybe Eb. He plays riffs or licks on his guitar, and because he’s not a technically sophisticated composer, the riffs he plays depend upon fingering patterns based around the guitar fretboard, specifically involving open strings: the notes E, A, D, g, b and e. Most rock guitar arrangements use a lot of those open notes, which is why a great deal of rock music is written in the keys of E, A or D; other keys are rarely used. In other words the particular limitations of the guitar, according to the easiest way to play it, dictate a great deal about the music being composed.

This would not happen if you were writing music in your head, at a desk on paper, or at a keyboard instrument, particularly if you started your composition with a melody and built the song around that after the fact.

The rock guitarist completes the accompaniment first. He may have no idea of a melody at all at this point. Then he brings in the singer in the band and says, “Here are the guitar licks. Compose a melody that you can sing over this exact music.”

The singer  takes what the guitarist has given him as set in stone. Naturally this particular singer is not going to compose a melody that he cannot sing. So he creates a unique melody and tessatura that fits his voice, and his voice only. This becomes the song.

If another singer were to come along with another rock band and want to do the song in a different key, his guitarist would revolt. He would say, “I know those exact licks required to play that song. If you were to raise or lower the key, I couldn’t play those exact licks on a guitar because of the positions of the open strings and the chord voicings used in the original. So it must stay in the same key, because nobody would accept it if I re-voiced the guitar part to suit a different key.” The singer, therefore, may have to strain awkwardly to hit some notes that just don’t fit in his voice. It’s probably not going to sound as good as it could.

Needless to say, all this flies in the face of the entire history of the world’s music before the rock era, and in the face of every other genre of music that’s existed alongside rock.  Rock has created a set of expectations that are rigidly adhered to, but that make no sense to every other kind of music and all other musicians. And rock’s expectations are rooted in lazy guitarists who won’t learn their instruments well enough to be able to play pieces in any key.

All good piano players who work as accompanists can take any song in any key in printed sheet music, or by ear, and transpose it on the fly up or down to whatever key the singer they are working with requests. Furthermore, popular songs that have stood the test of time are usually available in multiple print editions in  different keys; often in editions with keys selected for “male low”, “male high”, “female low” and “female high” vocal ranges.

If a jazz band meets in a club and a singer is invited to sit in with them, somebody might suggest a certain song to sing. The next question goes to the singer: “What key do you want it in?” The band plays the song in that key.

Jazz guitarists, if you are curious, don’t have any problem at all modifying their guitar parts to fit into any key selected by a singer. They learn not to rely on idiosyncratic guitar licks that require open strings. They just take the melody, and the chord progression, and they figure out on the fly how to play good-sounding chords that fit the melody in the key chosen. They don’t care if the licks they are playing are exactly like Eddie Van Halen fingered them on that record; that’s not what jazz is all about.

So what can we do to regain the proper flexibility that good songs and good singing requires? I appeal to all rock musicians; don’t insist that the songs you write must depend on specific fingerings involving open strings on a guitar or bass! That’s a lazy way out. And if you are in band performing covers or arrangements of older songs which you insist require certain fingerings or open strings, use a capo whenever it’s needed to suit the singer. If the singer needs to have the key lowered below the standard E, A or D, get yourself a baritone guitar and put the capo below the E position. Drop the song to Eb, D, C#, C, B, whatever makes the singer sound best. If you have a baritone guitar, you can keep the same fingerings if you insist.

In summary, any good performing group should be able to perform any given song transposed to whatever key is selected by the lead singer. Any good musician should know his instrument well enough to be able to do this. All the other musicians in the world know this, and practice this; it’s time for rock bands to learn to do the same. The music will only get better as a result.

Tenenbaum, Nesson and the RIAA

Tilting at Internet Barrier, a Stalwart Is Upended

published in the New York Times, August 11, 2009

After you’ve read that article, read this.

My response in an email sent to the author of the article:

Dear Mr. Schwartz:

Tenenbaum is a scofflaw and his lawyer Nesson presented no legal defense at all. These points are incontrovertible.

International copyright law is clear, and practically every major government in the world is signatory to it. How can somebody who presents no legally acceptable defense expect to prevail?

If what Tenenbaum did (and millions of other people continue to do every day) is to be declared legal, it will require the legislatures of the world’s governments to pass new laws and draft and ratify a new international treaty. There is no remedy through the courts at any level.

Thus, Nesson is making a fool of himself; it’s clear he already has a fool for a client.

The central issue here is not Tenenbaum or scofflaws like him. The central issue is the music, and that means protecting the songwriters and musicians who make the music, so that they can earn a living. That’s why all the relevant laws and international copyright accords were passed in the first place–to ensure that the musicians can continue to earn a living through collecting royalties on their creations.

Before the present era, roughly around 1920, music was essentially either folk music or traditional music. Folk music made no money, and traditional music relied on patronage–the commissions of kings, courts, churches or wealthy corporations who paid composers, orchestras and performers to perform in court (think Bach or Haydn). However, in the 20th century, the concept of commercial music became possible. This was because of phonograph records, radio and films, but also because of legal frameworks that made it practical to license the use of music and collect royalties. The new commercial music industry became a great engine for economic growth, and a tax base that contributes to economies and well-being the world around.

What the common person fails to realize is that songwriters and recording musicians in the context of commercial singles and albums don’t get paid wages or a salary. Time and time again I have heard ignorant people say “Those musicians already got paid when they recorded the song. They don’t deserve to ‘double dip’ and make any more money off of that. Heck, I get paid an hourly wage for my job at the office and I don’t expect royalties on that”.

The reality is that musicians go deeply in debt to make each recording, and it is only through “micropayments” or a few cents’ royalties on each licensed sale or broadcast, that they earn any gross income at all and have any chance of getting out of debt and turning a profit. And this means that there has to be a legal mechanism for them to collect those few cents every time they are entitled to. They rely on the RIAA, and non-profit organizations like BMI, ASCAP and a plethora of organizations in other countries, to represent them, collect the fees, and distribute them to the songwriters and musicians.

When this system breaks down, as it does with P2P sharing schemes, real musicians can’t feed their families. More and more serious full-time musicians are giving up on their careers, forced to take day jobs and stop creating new music, because their ability to eke out a living a few cents at at time is eroded down to a situation where making music will always lose money for them.

Tenenbaum and Nesson are incredibly arrogant, cruel people who want to enjoy all the great commercial music, and even claim to love the musicians who create it, yet want to facilitate robbing the musicians blind and leaving them indigent.

It’s time to save the music. It’s time to send a clear message to all the millions who steal and pirate music on peer-to-peer networks on the Internet. Grow up, get responsible, and develop some ethics. Pay for the music, because the musicians you claim to love are dependent upon you to do it.

Wheat Williams


John Schwartz wrote back to tell me that he appreciated my letter, and that he recommended that I send it to as a letter to the editor for publication.

I did, but I learned that the New York Times expects letters to the editor to be 150 words or less, and mine was 650 words. I don’t think I wasted any words, so let me append my addendum after I heard back from John Schwartz:

John Schwartz wrote me to say:

“…both Professor Nesson and Joel Tenenbaum believe that musicians should be paid for their work, as my story stated. What they oppose is the structure of copyright law, which they believe produces unjust results; they recommended that I read Lawrence Lessig’s CODE and Remix to get a sense of how to build a network that rewards creativity while restoring fair use and other doctrines that, they believe, gets closer to the balancing act first set by the Founders. Of course, Lessig does not defend music piracy, so their recommendation undercuts their own case.”

To this, I reply:

Lawrence Lessig is not a songwriter or a composer. He has never had to feed his children on songwriting royalties. He gets his salary as a tenured university law professor.

He has not had to spend a hundred years working with his fellow songwriters and composers to lobby for and construct a legally recognized framework under which they could earn a living, prosper, and contribute to the American economy.

Therefore his opinions about how musicians should earn a living are irrelevant.

You might as well accord Karl Marx the authority to speak for all the workers of the world. We know how that one worked out.


Wheat Williams

A nice visit from a pro

Earlier this month I invited Christopher Davis, who writes “The Classical Guitar Blog” at, to have a look at my new blog.

He wrote me a nice private email, with some general suggestions on having a succesful blog. He also made some points where he took issue with statements that I made, so I thought I’d address a couple of them.

No, I don’t dislike classical guitarists! I do find them a bit stuffy and overly formal at times, though. It’s not as bad as it used to be, because most classical guitarists my age or younger came up playing rock (which can’t be stuffy) and then decided to cross over into classical because rock was no longer challenging to them, or they had blown out their ears from all the loud amplification, or other reasons. Now when I was a singer in music college, twenty years ago, I was a classical elitist snob in a school where most of the voice majors were studying jazz, country and pop, so I know what it’s like to be a snob. It took me a long while to come down from that.

You may not know me, but all my life I’ve been the kind of guy who wants to figure out different ways to do things from the standard method. Kinda funny since I’m a pretty conservative, conventional guy otherwise. Since 1987, I’ve set my computer keyboards to type according to the Dvorak keyboard layout, for instance. After mastering the traditional QWERTY keyboard layout and using it for ten years, I decided to start over from scratch and learn a totally different system for typing. And I became a much faster and more accurate typist as a result. Still, all these years later, I find myself constantly having to justify to people what the heck Dvorak is and why I insist on using it.

Sometimes I obsess about how to be unconventional, and spend more time thinking up different ways to do things than I spend on actually getting anything done. Call it attention deficit disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, if you will.

But that’s why I decided to write this blog. You can get authoritative, conventional advice on playing guitar from a lot of places. I want to offer something different, from my own unique, skewed perspective. I plan on not boring you.

Christopher Davis challenged me by writing “a majority of the classical guitar repertoire is not, ‘music that was written for other instruments and ensembles, ‘transcribed’ to fit onto a guitar.”‘ So obviously I disagree with you on many points,…”

Well, he’s right in one sense. There is of course a considerable repertoire of wonderful music composed expressly for the guitar. But that’s not the kind of music that I’m going to be working on, so I won’t be writing much about it.

I’m working with a group that wants to play weddings and casuals, so we are going to be working on the classic Protestant wedding music (iTunes link provided), moldy old stuff like Pachebel’s Canon in D, which was originally written for a string section and a keyboard continuo. We are going to be working on instrumental arrangements of a lot of music that was originally written for singers. Clearly, though, a lot of what classical guitarists, solo or ensemble, learn to play, is stuff that was not originally written for guitar. Think of Albeniz’ Iberia Suite. It was written for solo piano, but you never heard the original solo piano versions. You hear wonderful, challenging transcriptions for solo or duo classical guitar, like those of John Williams in his classic album Echoes of Spain. And the first classical guitar album I really listened to carefully, when I was only 13, was Christopher Parkening‘s In the Classic Style—Bach, which is all transcriptions, including stuff from Scarlatti, Handel and Couperin, pieces originally written for keyboard. Bach lute suites for guitar, anybody? Bach’s cello suites and violin partitas for classical guitar? Big sellers.

Historically, I believe (take issue with me if you like), the classical guitar was rejected by the larger group of classical musicians and listeners as being a mere folk instrument. Classical guitar gained legitimacy when artists made their own arrangements of well-known classical music written for other instruments. A good deal of the classic Segovia and Julian Bream repertoire is older classical music written for other instruments. This is not to discount the brilliant pioneering work of Sor, Tarrega and Giuliani. And we haven’t even addressed 20th and 21st century guitar music–which, again, is not the sort of repertoire I’ll be working on.

In this blog, I’ll try to write mostly about things that I have direct experience with.

Pumping Iron and Pumping Nylon

Learning classical guitar is only one part of what I’m referring to as my “complete life makeover”.

After a protracted mid-life crisis lasting about six years, in which I went through just about everything in a person’s life that could be considered a crisis (no need to bore you with the details), I recently declared that my mid-life crisis is over. The remainder of my life will be much better.

Last October I was sick, with multiple serious health problems, and weighed 190 lbs (86kg). By February of this year I had worked myself down to 150 lbs (68kg). I did this by making permanent changes to my lifestyle, what I eat, and other stuff, but mostly I did it by working out like mad–initially three hours a day. Hiking, running, deep water aerobics classes, aerobic exercise equipment, lots of stuff. Now I feel much better.

Since February, part of my routine has been doing the Cybex weight training circuit at my local YMCA.


I am now physically stronger than I’ve ever been at any time in my life. How many guys my age do you know that can do 14 chin-ups? That’s the “Pumping Iron” part.

Pumping Nylon, of course, refers to the 1995 modern classical guitar technique bible written by Scott Tennant, best known for his work with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.

nylon 2

nylon 1

I just got this book a week ago, and I’m trying to devote some time each day to absorbing all its wisdom and working through its left- and right-hand dexterity exercises. So far it’s been great. It shows me what I can achieve.

Pumping Nylon is not a beginning guitar book. It’s for a guitarist who already reads music and knows his way around a guitar. Its purpose is to un-learn bad habits, hone technique and correct physical problems that may interfere with your playing your best.

I also got the companion volume, Pumping Nylon: Supplemental Repertoire, Easy to Early Intermediate, which contains etudes and pieces that appropriately illustrate the techniques in the first Pumping Iron volume.

So to anybody in my situation, I recommend both pumping iron and pumping nylon. It’s never too late for either.

Understanding and interpreting your music

Your performance and your learning experience will be better if you do some background research on the music you’ve selected. I’ll demonstrate by example.

The leader of our guitar trio purchased a new collection of guitar trio arrangements:

Trios for Guitars, score and parts, edited by Mosóczi Miklós, from Editio Musica Budapest.

It provides a number of graded pieces, meaning that the first ones are quite easy to play, and they get progressively more challenging with each subsequent piece.

The third piece in the collection is entitled “Lied” by Daniel Friderici (1584-1638).

I was given all the music from the collection written out as a single part for Guitar 3. Here is the first phrase.

Part 3Figure One: Guitar Part 3

As a choral singer, I’m not used to this, and to me it conveys much less information than I need to perform the piece. I want to see all three parts, not just my part. I’ll go into this in detail.

With this kind of notation, I have no idea what the chords are, so I have no idea how my part functions in the harmony. Is any given note a chord tone or a passing tone? Is any given note the root of the chord, or is the chord in inversion, and I’m playing a 3rd, 5th, or 7th? So which notes should I emphasize? Which should I not? Since this is Renaissance/Baroque music, I’m expected to improvise a little. That would be hard to do if I had no idea how any given measure or phrase functions next to the other parts in the ensemble.

Even in Friderici’s day, a bass part would come with chord symbols. They used a different kind of notation back then, called figured bass, part of basso continuo, but it’s essentially the same as what we use today on lead sheets and fake books. You are given each note along with symbols that clue you in to what chord goes with that bass note.

Even more important than this is the big question: What the heck kind of music is this? Where did it come from? Obviously, it was not originally written for three guitars. Was it a song? Did it have lyrics? What sort of mood should our trio try to create when we play this piece? How can I tell what an appropriate tempo and phrasing would be? I’m the kind of guy who needs to have answers to all of these questions before I can play something that’s new to me.

Notation issues

Now, I’m used to reading choral music. In choral music, every singer is presented with a piece of music that shows every staff of music for every part: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, and below that a piano part that might be intended to be played in performance. It might also be a reduction of the various parts involved in the orchestral arrangement, if any. There is also a third kind of piano accompaniment. If the piece is designed to be sung a capella (“without the band”), meaning the singers perform with no instruments accompanying them, then the piano part is a reduction, which shows all four vocal parts written out in such a way that a pianist could more easily play all four vocal parts simultaneously on the piano. This kind of piano part is labeled for rehearsal only. And it is just that. It is for use in rehearsals to help the choir learn their parts.

The point is that in a choir, on the sheet music, a person can see not only the notes for her part, but also all the other musical lines going on around her. If she has some musical knowledge, she can understand not only a note she’s singing at a given moment, but also the chord into which that note will fit. She can see the harmonic progression and the counterpoint, which better enables her to decide how to tailor her expression to blend in with the other parts.

Another benefit is that if there are several measures where her part is silent, while the other parts are singing and playing, she can look at the other parts on the sheet music to alert her as to her next entrance. And if she can’t find a pitch, she can figure it out by the interval of her note from notes in other parts that she can hear. This is important for singers, whose voices do not have frets.

Modern symphony orchestra and concert band musicians are used to getting just what I have displayed above: one part, with minimal or nonexistent information about any aspect of the music other than the notes that one person needs to play.

The main reason for this, I think, is that in performance it’s necessary to enable the musician to play the piece with as few page turns as possible. If the violin player had the full conductor’s score in front of him, there would be a page turn every four measures, and the score would take a great deal of pages. But with just his part, all of the notes he needs to play can be displayed on one or two pages.

When I look at the piece of music we are considering, I notice that there are two voices that are homophonic, meaning I’m playing two-note chords and not much in the way of counterpoint. But I’m already concerned, because those two voices are spaced very far apart. Intervals of a 12th (an octave and a fifth) are in there, and there’s a good deal of contrary motion. This piece of music would be awkward to play. So if I can learn more about the piece, can I modify things to make it more musical?

Learning where the music came from

So the answers to my puzzling questions about the whole piece needed some research.

Research is almost effortless these days, now that we have the World Wide Web, and lots of musicians have put up Web sites with a plethora of information about music. A lot of sheet music is available on the Web for free, and a lot of music is available as MIDI files. We can also listen to recordings of pieces on iTunes, YouTube, and the like. A little Googling, and you can find out all sorts of information about many pieces of classical music. Any time somebody gives you a piece of music, you are obligated to learn more about its background on the Web. Adopt that policy and your musical performances and recordings will improve.

First, the piece is labeled “Lied”. That’s German for “Song”. Now, the part I was sent contains not only a bass line but also a second part, and this makes me curious as to what sort of song it is.

I got the table of contents page from Trios For Guitar and learned that the title of the song is “Wir lieben sehr im Herzen”. Now even if you don’t understand German, all you have to do is to type

“wir lieben sehr im herzen” friderici

into a Google search.

Immediately I found a MIDI file of the whole arrangement at

Then I found a live ensemble performance of the piece on YouTube.

Jackpot. It was a lousy recording (aren’t they all) but a good performance. Immediately lightbulbs went off. This piece is not a song, per se. It’s a chorale. It has parts for soprano, alto, bass and tenor singers, and it has an accompaniment, in this case provided by string and wind instruments. Watch the video and you’ll realize that this is an authentic early music group, playing the piece on instruments that would have been in use in 1600, and trying to perform the piece the way that the composer would have wanted it performed in his day. This is how the piece should feel. It’s a boisterous, celebratory song, with a moderately fast tempo. It may be a tavern or drinking song.

Even though we have three guitars and no singing or lyrics, we should try to do what we can to make our performance feel like the one in this video.

Going even further in Google, I discovered a Web site that is an absolute gold mine for any musicians who want to learn about classical music. It’s called the Choral Public Domain Library.

A link from Google took me straight to the heart of the matter.

Sheet music of the original arrangement, a capella! It’s even in the same key, G major.

Original Score

Figure Two: Original Score

Not only that, but the page has the full lyrics in German. More on that later.

It would also be useful to learn something about the composer; who he was, where he lived, and what sort of other pieces he wrote. Then there’s always the context of the times in which he lived. In this case, I came up empty on Daniel Friderici. Apparently he was not a well-known composer. I’m sure I could find out more in a library that carries the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, but I’ll leave that exercise for another day.

With many of the pieces in the Choral Public Domain Library, the original lyrics in the original language are accompanied by a good English translation. But not in this case.

When I studied singing in music school in college, we were expected to learn to sing in English, Italian, French and German, and there were usually some pieces in Latin that needed learning too. We took classes in the languages and in the pronunciation. Moreover, for any given piece you had to sing as a solo, you were expected to make a complete translation of the lyrics so that you knew the meaning of the sentences and phrases you were singing.

This was in the 1980s, before the World Wide Web, when most students didn’t even use a computer in the first place. We had to go to the library and get musical scores and poetry books to study, and we spent hours and hours picking through the Italian, French and German using translation dictionaries, and writing down what we thought the words meant.

With the Web, most of this is unneccesary for a guitarist trying to learn about a particular piece of music with lyrics. Translations of ancient poems and lyrics abound, and web sites like Google offer automated machine translation tools (which are somewhat better than nothing) for dozens of languages. There are also discussion forums that you can join where you can post questions about music and get advice from other musicians.

Now, it just so happens that I used to speak good German. (I never got very far with Italian or French.) So in this case I was able to write my own translation, with the help of an online dictionary. I tried to retain the German word order, which is strange to English speakers, in order that you can discern the meaning of individual words more easily.

Rough, non-rhyming translation (by Wheat)

We love much in our hearts, three beautiful things so fine
They overcome sorrow and pain when they together are.
Beloved music, a friendly sight, a good, fresh, cool wine
These are three fine things, with which I refresh myself!

In the first place, let us play the instrument well
which on these matters, Art is acting.
The other offers a soft, fine young girl.
These three (things) our host (innkeeper) can provide us with.

Be cheerful about this time!
Drive away sadness and sorrow, drive away sadness and sorrow.

I think you could call this the 1600’s equivalent of a college glee club drinking song. Pretty cool, huh?

Now back to the notation, and how that can directly help my trio play the piece.

It’s clear, then, that the guitar part I was given to play consists of the tenor and bass vocal parts. I guessed, and later confirmed, that Miklós’ arrangement gives the soprano line to Guitar 1 and the alto line to Guitar 2. In order to find this out, I had to contact our trio leader and ask him for the “conductor’s score” which shows all three parts together.

Full ScoreFigure Three: Full Score

Now it’s time to make some changes to that Guitar 3 part.

Looking at the reduction above, you can get an idea about how the four melodic lines weave together. This is a typical chorale. The soprano line is the melody. The alto and tenor lines follow the melody, more or less, providing chord tones below the melody line in close voicing (mostly 3rds and 4ths). But the bass line, as you can see, moves independently and often in contrary motion to the top three voices, and there are wide intervals between the bass notes an the upper three voices.

To see this more clearly, I wrote it out again with the soprano, alto and tenor parts on one staff and the bass part on a second staff. While I was at it, I figured out the chords and wrote in their names.

Picture 8Figure Four: Clarifying the relationship between the voices

Hey, guess what! The alto and tenor parts are very close together and move in similar motion.

I think it would be easier to move the tenor line out of Guitar 3’s part and merge it into Guitar 2’s part. Guitar 2 will play alto and tenor together, and Guitar 3 will play just the bass line, like this:


Figure Five: My new arrangement

I went to visit the other guy in our trio who was assigned to play the Guitar 2 part, and he immediately agreed with me: my arrangement made more sense and would be easier to learn.

So I re-engraved the whole piece in Sibelius with my edits, and printed it out and handed it to the two other guys in my trio.

Here’s the point. If the sheet music doesn’t suit you, re-arrange it! Using modern computer software, it’s very easy.

Finally, if you are in a guitar trio or other ensemble of instruments with the same ranges, consider learning to play all three parts, up to tempo; not just the part you are assigned. You’ll understand the piece much better and your performance will be more informed–that’s the point of this whole exercise.

A Framework for Understanding Classical Music

What is music?

Music is sounds organized in a framework of time. But that’s a topic for another day.

What is “classical” music?

A gross misnomer, that’s what. In the US, when we say “classical music” we speak about it as if it were a genre, such as rock and roll, R&B or country music. But think about it. Classical music encompasses almost all of Western music from about 1500 through today–more than 500 years, representing all styles of music from every country in Europe, including Russia, and North and South America as well. It encompasses songs written in dozens of different languages. It even incorporates music by Asian and African composers who have been influenced by the Western style.

So you think of your radio stations in your home town as “the classical station”, “the rock station” or “the country station”. Well, the rock station only plays music from England and the United States, sung in the English language, from about 1964 to the present, for instance. 45 years of one narrow genre of music. The country station plays practically nothing but music written and recorded in one city, Nashville, Tennessee, with much greater cultural restrictions even than rock, spanning a similar time period. But your “classical” station plays 500 years of music from the whole of Western culture, from all nations and all languages. All the other stations on your radio dial, put together, only play a tiny fraction of the songs and musical styles played on your one lone “classical” station.

Now, the most effective method of categorizing music comes from economic principles. The world over, there are three kinds of music:

1) Traditional music
2) Folk music
3) Commercial music

Of course these types of music cross-polinate and influence each other.

The first category has been with us since the dawn of civilization. The second category has been with us even longer than that. But the third category, as we shall see, is a recent innovation.

Traditional music is expensive to write and perform, and is paid for by patronage. Composers and musicians can earn a living performing this music, but the music itself (concerts or recordings) does not break even or generate a profit. This has been the dominant form throughout the world for centuries. Composers, performers and orchestras depend upon the largesse of kings, nobility, governments, and church organizations to fund the making of the music.

Western traditional musical forms include, but are not limited to: chamber music, choral music, art songs, opera, music for ballet or the theater, symphonies and other orchestral music. And those are all topics for other days.

Nowadays traditional music is funded by donations from large profitable corporations, in addition to governments and churches. We are not only talking about what you might consider classical music. This also covers Broadway musicals, for instance. Yes, traditional music is music which never even comes close to covering the cost of making the music based on ticket sales, album sales or the like. It requires heavy infusions of cash from wealthy sources that don’t expect any return on the investment other than having more music to enjoy, or perhaps the prestige of having been benevolent in funding the arts.

Folk music, which is inexpensive to write and perform, is made by people with little or no expectation of earning any money from it. It is created solely for reasons of esthetic and cultural satisfaction of the composers, performers and listeners. Of course there always has been and always will be folk music, in every culture around the world.

Commercial music is the newest category. It can be thought of as a specialized form of folk music. Commercial music only came into being with the advent of radio, mass-produced phonograph records, motion pictures and then television, and the increased ability to levy and collect royalty payments. It really only came into flower in the early  1920s, so it’s scarcely 90 years old. Commercial music is music that finances itself, is marketed, and earns a profit from listeners. The profits go to the musicians, sometimes, but mostly to the financiers. The 20th century economy and technology created ways for musicians and their financiers to earn a great deal of money by developing and marketing new forms of folk music. For the first time, music became an industry and an engine of economic development and wealth. Commercial music as we knew it in the golden age of the 20th century may be moribund in the current digital age; that remains to be seen. But if commercial music fails, those styles of music created during this brief, explosive period will revert to being folk music again.

Jazz, interestingly enough, seems already to have gone the other way; it started out as commercial music but is now traditional music, in that it no longer makes money–it usually loses money–and is often funded by non-profit organizations and cultural ministries within governments.

Western Music History

For proper nomenclature, we are talking in this essay about Western traditional music, what is commonly called “classical” music.

Western music is that which evolved from sources in Europe, and which invented and developed the concepts of harmony and chord progressions. I want you to think about that for a minute.

Indigenous African music is based on very sophisticated rhythm and some melody. It has no harmony or chords whatsoever. East Indian music is based on extremely sophisticated melody, with a good dose of rhythmic sophistication thrown in, but again, it has no harmony and no chords. Western music, on the other hand, has tremendously, stupefyingly simplistic rhythm compared to many other musics in the world, and its melodies are generally much shorter and less elaborate as well.

No, what we call “tonal harmony” or “functional harmony” is an invention of Western civilization that began in the 1400s and has developed steadily since that time. It is an intellectual achievement of the collective conscious of a culture over six hundred years. Before that time there were no harmonies or chords in the world–there were only melodies and some rhythm. Harmony and a system for using it had to be invented, although this invention was a naturally evolving process involving millions of musicians, dozens of cultures, and centuries of time.

Nowadays, of course, musicians outside the West, in other parts of the world, have been influenced to some degree or another by Western folk, traditional and commercial music, and therefore there are musicians in Africa and India, for instance, who are composing Western-style songs and compositions that use harmony and chords. But if you look at the roots of it all, Western music, with its harmony and chord progressions, is essentially a recent technological innovation.

Traditional African and East Indian music, for instance, are far older and have evolved less. The Indian ragas that are played today, which have always been court and church music paid for by patronage, are thought to be many centuries older than the oldest melodies extant in Western music.

So what is “classical” music, and why is “classical” a gross misnomer?

Western traditional music, as I have pointed out above, is a vast subject. “Classical” is a catch-all term that, when you look at it, really doesn’t tell you much. To help with this, we divide Western traditional music up into “style periods”. These eras are generally in keeping with terms we use to describe not only the music, but also the architecture, literature, visual arts, in fact all of culture in that time period.

We usually refer to:

Ancient and Medieval (before about 1400)
Renaissance (about 1400 to 1600)
Baroque (about 1600 to 1750)
Classical (about 1730 to 1815)
Romantic (about 1815 to 1910)
20th-Century, Modern, or Post-modern, take your pick, anything after about 1910.

These time periods, by the way, are named and delineated by historians well after the era has come and gone.

The dates are of course not set in stone, and they don’t always describe the music of a particular composer, location, or tradition. They are generalizations. Haydn’s lifespan and working career as a musician spanned the Baroque and Classical periods and touched on the Romantic, but Haydn didn’t wake up on January 1, 1751 and say, “Aha, the Baroque period has ended. I must no longer write in that style. I must write in the new Classical style, whatever that may turn out to be.” Beethoven certainly gave no thought as to whether he was a Classical composer or a Romantic composer, and historians feel that he was both.

You will note that the “Classical” era is the shortest of them all. In fact some historians restrict it even further, saying that the “Classical” period began and ended with Mozart, who was born in 1756 and died in 1791 at the age of 36. So if it’s the shortest period, why do we lump all these centuries of music together and call it “classical”? Beats me. Seriously. I have no idea.

Within each era, or “style period” as it is usually called, the next way we divvy things up is usually by country or language. Thus we talk about “British Renaissance” (though we make a distinction between “Edwardian” and “Elizabethan”) or “German Baroque” or “French Romantic” styles. Then we may look at types of musical composition, such as “Italian Classical opera” or “German Baroque chamber music” for instance.

Remember that all labels, genres and style periods are artificial constructions made by historians simply for the purpose of dividing and conquering the knowledge that is to be studied, and the music that is to be listened to. And now you understand the framework under which we use the term “classical music”.