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Consonance vs. dissonance: Inborn or cultural?

F or many years, I have taken  issue with the notion (held by  some) that consonance—the  absence of musical tension— equates to combinations of pleasant and  agreeable musical sounds, while dissonance—the  presence of musical tension—equates to combinations  of unpleasant and disagreeable musical sounds. It is  a...
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Women of exceptional accomplishment: eight women composers

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Editor's note: Nicholas Phillips wrote a companion piece recommending intermediate repertoire from these eight composers. You can find it here . Recently I participated in a concert featuring works by women composers at the community college where I study piano. I am an amateur pianist but a historian by profession, and I was curious about the back...
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Unifying techniques in musical compositions

Any musical composition may be analyzed from the perspective of attempting to reveal its various facets of unity and variety . A work may often prove to be satisfying to the listener when these elements are in judicious balance. Notwithstanding that, however, the predominant features of any given musical masterpiece are unquestionably the work...
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Expanding your vocabulary of chords

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  Do you think Johann Pachelbel knew how popular his Canon in D would become? When I discovered the same chord progression in a few familiar songs, my search for more examples began. As you play this chord progression are there songs that come to your mind?  This chord progression is often played with a scale in the bass:  The Canon ...
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Amy Beach: Celebrating 150 years

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Many years ago, while reading an issue of the old music magazine, The Etude, I found an article written by Mrs. H. H. A. Beach: "Ten Commandments for Composers." I had no idea who this mystery composer was, so I began my research to find information about her life and music. During my travels, I stopped at antique stores looking for editions of her...
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Roll over, Mozart: Creative improvisation and composition activities

T he skill of improvisation is often looked upon as the realm of jazz musicians. Many classical musicians would not dream of "riffing" with Beethoven or Mozart melodies. However, incorporating  elements of improvisation and composition in classical pieces can provide students with an active, creative approach for learning repertoire. This "mes...
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Music notation: A brief look at its historical evolution

In early Medieval times, if one wanted to learn a song, one listened to someone sing it.  ​It wasn't until the ninth century that monks began to experiment with various ways of notating music in written form, with the goal of helping people across a wide geographical area remember the many musical accoutrements of Roman Catholic religious serv...
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Beyond major and minor: A composer’s understanding of chords and scales

​Major and minor. Together these form a basic polarity in Western music. Major scales and chords are usually characterized as "happy," while minor ones are saddled with the label "sad." After composing, improvising, arranging, and teaching for more than forty years with these musical materials, I have come to a different way of understanding them. ...
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How do you create solo piano arrangements from a fake book?

​Today's jazz pianists learn to play within many different contexts. They might find themselves in a big band, a combo, or by themselves as keyboard soloists. As soloists, they must supply the harmony, rhythm, and melody while only being given a lead sheet version of a song as a guide. At the professional level, this skill can be quite complex. How...
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Chord Substitution

One thing that has always drawn me to jazz is the harmony. It is fascinating to hear how a single chord change can define one artist's interpretation of Autumn Leaves or Night and Day from another artist's interpretation. Applied judiciously, these harmonic variations will add touches of color to your own arranging and performing. When one chord is...
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Progressive progressions

​Something wonderful happened to me this year: I was assigned a new student, Chris (not his or her real name), who is a very talented pianist, and who studied with a fine teacher. Chris always arrives at every lesson motivated, eager, and excited, but even more fascinating is Chris' desire to start each lesson with scales! Chris asks me for a key, ...
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Robert Schumann and the art of musical composition

F ollowing hard on the heels of the Mendelssohn bicentenary, 2010 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Robert Schumann (1810-1856), a composer who will surely garner his full share of symposia, concerts, and special events reassessing his place in the European canon. To a large extent, Schumann has fared  better in music histori...
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Understanding the jazz language

If you are interested in becoming an orchestrator, there is no better teacher than the music itself. Find an orchestral score and recording of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker: listen, read, and learn! In so doing, you are making a connection between the written page and how it translates into sound. If you want to become a better jazz musi cian ...
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How do you integrate composition into your teaching of music reading?

Imagine an elementary school classroom in which students are taught how to read a written language both out loud and to their selves. They have vocabulary drills, spelling tests, reading comprehen sion tests, etc. Yet these same children are never asked to converse or to write down an original thought. Would they be considered literate? If these st...
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In the mood for modes

M usicians throughout the centuries have been fascinated by modes, their unique structure and sound, and the opportunity for expressiveness they offer. From folk songs (Scarboroug h F air) to pop music ( El e anor R igby) to jazz (Maide n Uiyage ), we have been intrigued by the mystery their distinctive elements create in our ear. Jazz musicians es...
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Jazz suspensions: Bridges to somewhere (usually)

For the past quarter century I have conducted piano teacher workshops throughout the United States and  Canada. Teachers always have a lot of great questions, and one of the most frequently asked questions is "What is a jazz suspension ?" Jazz suspensions in general are bridges to somewhere, at least usually. Suspensions are chord tension-tone...
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Eugénie Rocherolle - An American Treasure

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"One of the fundamental problems," says Eugenie Rocherolle, "is the fact that music in America is viewed merely as an extracurricular activity. We teachers need to reframe it in the public mind as a noble subject which develops character and skill through self-discipline and artistic relations with other people." A composer since childhood, Eugenie...
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How Do You Use Technology to Teach Composition?

​from the series: Tomorrow Today: Technology George Litterst, Editor Current technologies offer students and professionals a clear connection between the notation of a composition and the resulting sound of the piece. I first became excited about composition in high school. My early attempts were very simple and naive, but the results  we...
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