adult piano studies, adult piano teaching, attentive listening, blogging, blogging about piano, piano

Theory and Harmonic Analyses serve musical expression

Theoretical analysis has been part of my personal immersion at the piano since I began studies at the New York City High School of Performing Arts. As a student enrolled in the the Music department, I had three years of Sight-singing/Ear training, extensive exposure to harmony and musical structure, all within a performance-centered curriculum. And while I obsessively mapped out my piano pieces for every vestige of primary and secondary dominants, pivot chords leading to modulations, deceptive cadences, first and second themes, variations, points of Development and what characterized every section of a composition, I didn’t fully understand how to synthesize these analytical ingredients into expressive playing. (At that point in my adolescent life, I was more of an “intuitive” player.)

It was after years of study at the Oberlin Conservatory with its enriched courses of Theory, Music history, Eurhythmics, Keyboard Harmony and Piano Literature, that an expressive musical dimension surfaced as a resonating theme in my approach to learning piano works of varied historical periods. I would no longer compartmentalize what I considered to be a unity of elements in pursuit of beauty.

I still inveterately mark up a “new” composition with harmonic tracking, structural annotations, and fingering choices that comport with what I believe serves the best realization of phrases and this unshackled habit is fully fleshed out in the attached score. (Enrique Granados, Valse Poetico No. 1)

In synch with these scribbles, I dared to upload a video on my second day of practicing as I slowly waded through the music, bar-to-bar, separate hands, no less, with in-depth scrutiny of harmonic and interval analysis; symmetries of phrases; what was different?–how certain harmonic progressions created an “emotional response.” The iii chord, for example, known as the “Mediant,” was a heart-wrencher as it was poignantly “unexpected.” And in this cosmos of “affect” linked to harmonic events, expected and unexpected, I’d been taken by the book, Emotion and Meaning in Music by Leonard Meyer.

In tempo reading:

In a second video posting, which was my reconnection with Burgmuller’s “Barcarolle,” Op. 100, I embraced “Elements of Expressive Playing” that underscored awareness of pivotal harmonic junctures (modulations) that necessitated an emotional and physical synthesis. (i.e. How to “delay” the approach to certain sonorities in modulation; how to use a supple wrist to soften the impact of after beat chords, and to sensitively advance tapered cadences; how Rotation factored into a bridge back to a Recapitulation; how the beginning and end of the Barcarolle must be related, with a sense of reflection, mood connection, etc.) All identified key departures had an embedded affective significance that was bonded to choreography. In this pursuit, labeling a key shift needed translation into the physical playing experience with the “singing tone” as an underpinning.

In summary, a music-learning journey should deeply plant the seeds of cognitive, affective and kinesthetic awareness in the earliest phase of exploration. It must ideally include an array of analyses that serves the highest form of musical expression and shared human emotions.

5 thoughts on “Theory and Harmonic Analyses serve musical expression”

  1. Shirley
    Great to see your music scores covered in scribble/notes. My tutor has complained to me that i have too much scribble and it impedes memories. When does writing on scores become too much. I’m a beginner with just a year’s experience and am working through Alfred’s books.


    1. Seems like my reply magically disappeared. I totally endorse scribbling. In fact one of my students has multiple highlighters in different shades to remind her of various structural and theoretical aspects of her music.. and even more reminders.


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