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Sharon Bill Author & Music Tutor

Music Under The Microscope


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We are all familiar with certain pieces of music, but what actually makes up the music we know and love? What makes “Away in a Manger” so very different from “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”?

Of course, the words to the songs are different but even when we take the words away each piece is still distinctly recognisable and certainly very different. Although there are a limited number of notes in a musical octave the possibilities are endless. This is what makes music so magical. Every piece is unique and evokes a different emotional response. Even when two people play exactly the same piece of music the result is never quite the same. How is that?

Music is always a combination of several different elements and, like the game ‘Othello’ (for those who remember it) it can take a minute to learn but a lifetime to master. When playing any piece of music a performer is always thinking about combining aspects of ‘pitch’ ( how high or low a note is), ‘rhythm’ (how long or short a note is), ‘articulation’ (if the note is played smoothly or detached and spiky), ‘dynamics’ (if the music is loud or quiet) and ‘tempo’ (if the progression of notes is fast or slow). In addition to this the number of beats per bar creates a specific mood as the first beat of a bar is always the strongest. For example, three beats in a bar can have a waltz feel (UHM-pa-pa) whereas two beats per bar creates a march effect (LEFT-right). Even the instrument itself creates a certain effect. This is referred to as ‘timbre.’ Think of the sound of a bright, silvery-sounding flute compared to the rich warmth of a cello, or compare the quality of a rich tenor compared to a soprano soloist.

If we apply these considerations to “Away in a Manger” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” we can see how effective such different combinations can be. “Away in a Manger” follows a slow three in a bar and so a gentle waltz-like lilt gives a lullaby mood whereas “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” is in quick four time which creates a brisk, foot tapping effect. “Away in a Manger” is played smoothly and quietly whereas “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” is brisk and bouncy. Of course the actual melody lines are different too. These two songs give very simplistic examples of musical variety but most music moves through a variety of moods painting a musical picture and carrying us on an ever changing musical journey. It is the constantly changing combination of all these details which makes music so captivating.

Next time you listen to your favourite piece of music - whether it’s classical, pop, rock or jazz - notice the use of fast and slow tempo, melody lines ranging from high to low, smooth and bouncy tempo - all of the aspects which combine to make a piece. Consider how the different instruments convey the mood of the music. Even periods of silence count towards the unique character of a piece of music. The possibilities are endless!