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 classicalarchives.com.

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”.


Hello and welcome.

You can click on “About Wheat Williams” above and learn some more about me.

If you are learning guitar, I hope you’ll find lots of material here in the coming months that will be helpful. If you are an established classical guitarist (a member of  a clique of generally stuffy academic elitists who really know how to play music) I hope to make you think about and reconsider things that you take for granted. I have an iconoclastic bent, and lots of ideas about how things could be done better.

Basically, I’m an experienced, classically-trained singer who has never been good enough at an instrument to call himself an instrumentalist. I have determined to become a classical guitarist, late in life. I’m going to approach the whole subject of learning and playing classical guitar from a total “outsider” perspective. I hope to provide some unusual insights and try to change some attitudes and perceptions.

Although I have a Bachelor of Music degree, I have never made much income from being a musician. And I’m a singer, not an instrumentalist. I have an extensive background in traditional church choral music. I also know an awful lot about rock and jazz, having been a professional freelance music journalist for publications such as Guitar Player Magazine and Keyboard. Oh, yeah, I did freelance publicity for Sony Music Nashville in the early 90s, writing marketing materials, press releases, and industry tip sheets, artists’ press kit bios, and the like.

I haven’t made much music in the last ten years, but as part of a total life makeover I’m going through (call it the positive outcome of a serious mid-life crisis) I made a commitment to join a very good amateur traditional church choir in a small Presbyterian church in the North Druid Hill community of Atlanta, Georgia. As I’ve been called up for solos, I have taken up with a voice coach, which will be the first time I’ve seriously studied singing since about 1996, thirteen years ago.

Recently an acquaintance who is a professional guitarist called me up and asked me if I could join his new classical guitar trio. He intends this to be a gigging, money-making side project, playing weddings and casuals.

Now, let me tell you, I am an experienced singer with an extensive background in classical music, but I have never called myself an instrumentalist. I have always been a guitar fancier, and usually had several cheap guitars lying around that were frequently rotated around by selling them on eBay and getting new ones every few years.

I need more musical outlets, very much, so I decided this was it. I have to stop calling myself a singer who plays a bit of guitar, and I have to Become A Guitarist. I’ve done a great deal of research and rumination about this–and I’ve spent more time on those pursuits than I have actually practicing the guitar. I have taken copious notes, and shared a great deal of what I’ve learned with the two other members of this nascent ensemble through email. So I thought I would take this information and post it here on this new blog, kind of a “run it up the flagpole and see who salutes” maneuver.

And so the journey begins.