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musical observations

Topic: a short, critical writing assignment, using your very best prose and addressing some musical observations that helped you relate one or more of the works you heard in the concert to the topics and styles we have discussed in class.

1. For written assignments in this course, it is necessary to read the textbook and follow lectures and section discussions. You need to INCORPORATE this knowledge (concepts and terminology) into your writing. It is also important HOW this terminology is used. 1.b) It is not enough to just throw in some sophisticated words which you don’t fully understand.

2. It is very useful if you include the following in your writing:
– 2.a. put the piece in HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE. What is the period, and what are the musical characteristics which make it typical (or not) of that period? Also, what is the nationality of the composer?
– 2.b. what is the PERFORMING FORCE (instrumentation, voices, type of ensemble …)
– 2.c. what is the FORM (first define it by yourself, then check it online, if you find it)
– 2.d. what is the TEXTURE
– 2.e. and ESPECIALLY what is the CHARACTER of the piece (and how does it change in different sections; write about contrasts); define the character with musical terms (if it is lively – find how is that related to rhythm, melody, articulation, maybe ornamentation, tempo, harmony …; for example, if the character changes in the second section of a piece, think about how the composer achieved this musically)

3. Be SPECIFIC: if you are writing about how tempo or dynamic changes, how melody descends, about dissonances or anything else, always write (3.b.) WHERE (in which part, section) certain things happen in the composition, and what precedes that or what follows it! 3.c. Also, relate the details to the bigger picture.

4. Do not write too DESCRIPTIVELY. Don’t just describe everything that happens in the music. Choose some more important and SIGNIFICANT elements or events, then see how they are interrelated (how are they COMBINED) and how this contributes to a specific character or the meaning the composer wants to convey. Try to make some meaningful conclusions.

5. Avoid SUBJECTIVE writing! Write about the music, not what you think of it. If you must mention whether you like or dislike a particular composition you can mention that AT THE END (although it is really not necessary!), but don’t make it the main argument. We are interested if you UNDERSTAND it! Similarly, avoid writing about your subjective feelings or images related to particular music. Avoid using superlatives. You don’t need to mention that you went on the concert because it was required for MUS10. Try approaching these assignments as if they might appear in the program notes, not as if they are a personal diary. And don’t write about how you are not sure about certain things (you must check the information and stand behind what you write).

6. Do not SPECULATE about what the composition or certain parts or sounds in it represent. However, you can write about that in the following cases:
– if the piece is programmatic (you can tell that from the title, or if you know from other sources that the composer wanted to represent or portray specific thing, feeling, or idea).
– If you notice the use of word-painting (or tone-painting): how music corresponds to text (only in vocal or vocal-instrumental music—not in instrumental music!).
– Conventions of the style: for instance, in baroque (and also some other periods), trumpets would signify victory, triumph, celebratory occasion or similar things.
In all the cases, it is important HOW you write about that. Don’t write as if this representations are natural (they are always culturally and historically defined, learned). You might want to mention if it is the composer’s idea (find proofs for that), or speculate about “as if” composer wanted to express something in particular with certain sounds etc.

7. Grammar: you should take care that your writings are COMPREHENSIBLE and your thoughts stated CLEARLY. Don’t repeat words or ideas.

8. Related to grammar is the use of the tenses. If you report about a music concert, you should always use past tense (REPORTING LANGUAGE)! If you combine it with the discussion about the composition you can switch to the present tense but be careful how you make these transitions.

9. Avoid using PASSIVE VOICE (example from last quarter: “Antonin Dvořák’s individual upbringing and personal experiences were used as stimulation to compose his unique works”; awkward not only because of passive voice).

10. Do not write as if you are taking an exam: you don’t have to define every word (polyphony, passacaglia …). Do that only if it is necessary (when you compare different types of polyphony, for instance). Also avoid discussing very obvious and self-evident issues.

11. SONG – song is a particular vocal-instrumental piece in a strophic form; usually found in popular and folk music styles. In classical music the words composition, work, piece, opus number, or movement, are used, or just the title. These words are more specific and are important in clarifying your writing.

12. ESSAY FORM (not for logs): introduction; thesis at the end of the introduction; central part – focus only on supporting your thesis in musical terms; conclusion)

13. How to develop a THESIS (dialectics) – we will discuss that before writing your essays.

14. PREPARATION: before listening and writing, make some previous investigation (about the composer, piece, period, performers; know the concepts and terminology from MUS10 …); make notes during the concert/listening; jot down all the ideas; then select the most interesting and important ideas to write about; always try to make a point – especially in essays!

15. If you are writing about the concert performance, always include the basic “journalistic” information: where, who, when, what, + how.


– form
– texture
– melody (theme, motives – smaller parts of the theme; thematic material; contrastive theme; subject and answer; counter-melodies or counter-subjects in polyphony)
– rhythm
– harmony
– articulation
– dynamics
– instrumentation

+ how they are interrelated in meaningful combinations!

– genre (how certain elements illustrate or maybe deviate from the norm)
– period (how certain elements illustrate or maybe deviate from the norm)
– character of the piece or of particular section
– contrasts (and transitions); you can find contrasts in all the musical elements
– climax
– performance
– extra-musical meanings (only if the peace is programmatic, or if uses word-painting)

ADDITIONAL issues (more for the essays): historical background about the composer, composition, performance style, relation to the society …

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