Copernique on Classical Music

Part 2

To go back to part no. 1 click here.


First, an aparté :
(The idea of which came to me while listening to Montréal's local "Radio classique" in my car, a few days ago.)

There's a sketch in Monty Python's Flying Circus in which John Cleese, as a police officer (and food inspector - why not ?) is trying to convince Terry Jones, a chocolate manufacturer, that he should label his products differently ; that his best-selling product, Crunchy Frog, should be advertised as "Containing a real, raw, actual frog" or that another product should have a clear warning line that says it "WARNING : This product contains lark's vomit". - "But... our sales would plummet" replies Jones.

Of course, they would.

Now, along the same vein, if you happen to be a "classical radio" listener, I'm sure you are familiar with the following :

Sample no. 1 - Click on the note : (13m53s)

Sample no. 2 - Click on the note : (08m01s)

So familiar that I don't have to tell you who are the composers and the title of each piece.

But I doubt very much that you will have heard this :

Sample no. 3 - Click on the note : (02m14s)

Or this :

Sample no. 4 - Click on the note : (03m54s)

And certainly not this :

Sample no. 5 - Click on the note : (03m26s)

Enough to make you cry, ain't it ?

To go back to Monty Python's, I'm sure that if any "Classical" radio station started playing stuff like that, their sales would plummet ; their clientele would simply melt. Yet, it's absolutely beautiful music except that people don't want to hear this sort of thing which reminds them too much of sadness, troubles, funerals and death even though some of the world's best music was written for and dealt with such matters. Which, amongst others, is the reason why the Kindertotenlieder of Gustav Mahler (Songs on the death of small children) never made it to the top of the charts.

Just thought I mentioned it so that when you begin exploring classical music, tried to avoid beaten trails.

The excerpts :

  1. Maurice Ravel's famous Boléro
  2. The first movement of Beethoven's fifth Symphony
  3. Music (March) for the funeral of Queen Mary by Henry Purcell
  4. Tristis est anima mea ("Sad is my soul") by Orlando di Lasso
  5. Musique pour le retour des cendres (de Napoléeon) by Adolphe Adam.

Now back to our main subjects : Bars, Tempos, Chords, Styles and Modes.


1 - Bars

Further to our previous instalment, I received a message asking me what were those verticals bars and numbers (2/4, 3/4, /4 and even 5/4) that appeared in staffs here and there.

That's easy :

The numbers are - shall I say ? - rhythm annotations indicating how many notes are to be played in a section of a theme (more about themes later on) as well as where and how beats are to be distributed within two vertical bars. In a waltz, for example, three beats are to be considered : "TOM, tom, tom" (3/4). If you ever learned how to dance, you know what I mean : one step forward, two little steps and continue until the next bar.

The number on top is the number of notes (a march would have 2, a waltz, 3, an ordinary tune 4 and so on ; and the number at the bottom, is the length of the notes (in the above cases, 4 or quarter notes).

In jazz, mostly written as 4/4, you'll have a large TOM, an off note, a small TOM and an off note per bar. And a blues might contain, for a single theme, 8, 12 or 16 bars.

Scott Joplin wrote most of his rags (which he called Two-Steps), in 16 bars units and in 2/4 time but you'll find him dabbling in other time signatures. His "Antoinette", sub-titled "March and Two-Steps" was written, for example, in 6/8 and he wrote waltzes as well in 3/4. He even wrote a tango in 4/4.

Now count on the likes of Liberace to play boogie-woogies in 16/4.... sixteen notes to the bar ! - He wasn't the first however : Rimsky-Korsakov beat him years before with his Flight of the Bumblebee. And I recently heard that there are kids out there who can play it at twice the normal speed (playing to bars or32 notes in one single stroke, instead of two separate bars of 16 notes) somewhere at a speed slightly above prestissimo (see next section). I don't want to hear them.

Enough already !

2 - Speed and tempos

Tempos are the speed at which music is to be played.

Very easy to understand. Except a little Italian does help.

Before the invention of the dreadful metronome in the early part of the 19th century and which most musicians have totally ignored, the tempo of a piece of music, be it a sonata, a prelude or a symphony was indicated by various expressions that originated in Italy and which remain in use to  this day. Some composers, mainly German, have changed all this to include their own versions but, as a general rule, you'll find on most partitions, some of the following :

It is from Wikipedia. - A complete listing of Italian words common in music can be found at this address :

List of Italian Musical Terms Used in English

You might consider looking at it this way : Largo is about 40 pulsations per minute - like heart beats - which is a very slow tempo. Presto, on the other hand would be more along the line of 140 to 200 with prestissimo at over 180. Andante and Moderato are more common, in the 76 to 112 range.

Here are a few of these indications which, in a single work, might vary from movement to movement or even within movements :

Tempo Translation
What it means in terms of music.
Largo broad Slow and dignified
Larghetto a little bit broad Not as slow as largo
Tempo slowing Becoming slower
Lento slow Slow
Adagio ad agio, at ease Slow, but not as slow as largo
Adagietto little adagio Faster than adagio; or a short adagio composition
Andante walking Moderately slow, flowing along
Moderato moderately At a moderate speed
Allegreto a little bit joyful Slightly slower than allegro
Largamente broadly Slow and dignified
Mosso moved Agitated
Allegro joyful; lively and fast Moderately fast
Sostenuto sustained A slowing of tempo, often accompanied by legato playing
Fermata stopped Marks a note to be held or sustained
Presto ready Very fast
Prestissimo very ready Very very fast, as fast as possible
Accelerando accelerating Accelerating
Affretando becoming hurried Accelerating
Allargando slowing and broadening Slowing down and broadening, becoming more stately and majestic, possibly louder
Ritardando slowing Decelerating
Rallentendo becoming progressively slower Decelerating
Rubato robbed Free flowing and exempt from steady rhythm
Tenuto sustained Holding or sustaining a single note
Accompaganato accompanied The accompaniment must follow the singer who can speed up or slow down at will
Alla marcia as a march In strict tempo at a marching pace (e.g. 120 bpm)
A tempo to time Return to previous tempo
L'issesso tempo Same speed At the same speed

And that's it, as well.


You now have learned to read a partition.

Want to try it out ?

Go to this page and follow the top staff (the bottom is almost the same throughout.)

Alfred Cortot playing the 24th Prelude by Frederic Chopin (opus 28) in 1942

See how easy it is ?

Now here comes the hard parts :


3 - Chords

Chords ("accords" in French) are a pain. So we'll go ever them very quickly.

They're made up of two, three or more notes played together or one after the other. There's myriads of them as they can be played starting with any key, from C to every other keys, beginning with the said C and ending with B, including all variations in between : C♯- D - D♯- E - F - F♯- G - G♯- A and A. That's twelve variations. And since chords can have as much as 5, 6 and even 7 notes, you'll see where we're getting at, particularly since the intervals between notes can vary a lot.

Three notes played together are called triads. - "Tierces" in French. Five notes played together are called "Tetrads" - "Quintes" in French) - And six, seven, nine notes can form a chord.

Triads are built by stacking three notes of a regular scale. For example, C-E-G is a triad by skipping over D and F.

While the interval from each note to the one above it is a third, the quality of those thirds varies depending on the type of the triad :

Major triads contain a major third and perfect fifth intervals, symbolized: R 3 5 (or 0-4-7 semitones).

Listen - Click on the note :

Minor triads contain a minor third, and perfect fifth, symbolized: R♭3 5 (or 0-3-7 semitones)

Listen - Click on : .

Diminished triads contain a minor third, and diminished fifth, symbolized: R♭3♭5 (or 0-3-6semitones)

Listen - Click on :

Augmented triads contain a major third, and augmented fifth, symbolized: R 3♯5 (or 0-4-8semitones)

Listen - Click on :

The same sort of things takes place in chords made up of five notes or "quintes" (very common in jazz), seven notes and even nine and eleven notes.

And that's where consonance and dissonance come into the picture. Two new words !

To quote Wikipedia, in general, a consonance is a combination of notes that sound pleasant to most people when played at the same time; dissonance is a combination of notes that sound harsh or unpleasant to most people. This is a cultural concept as musics other than those from the western art music tradition, e.g., Balkan, Arabic, Chinese, do not follow this definition . And contemporary western composers are finding more and more use of dissonances in their music (*)..

Want to hear consonance and dissonance ? Try the following 1 minute 30 seconds video (You Tube)

Consonance and dissonance

(*) Nothing new. Composers such as Mozart experimented with dissonance in one of his major quartets which is referred to as "The dissonant". Here it is :

Mozart quartet no. 19 - K465 - Adagio and allegro

But then, Beethoven surpassed him in his Opus 59, no. 3 quartet (first segment) :

Beethoven quartet no. 9 - op. 59, no. 3 - Introduzione - Andante con moto - Allegro vivace

And what about Chopin. I guess he wanted to surpass the both of them in a study (étude) he wrote in 1837 (Opus 25, no. 5) in which he wrote a series of quick, dissonant minor seconds which earned him the honour of having his étude nicknamed "Wrong Note"...

Chopin - Étude Opus 25, no. 5

Well, when you're a genius...

But, as we adapted our ears to the "dissonances" of the 18th and 19th centuries and started to find them not that dissonant, we were preparing ourselves to new experiences in The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, the works of Shöeberg or that of Hindeminth. A question of conditions, conventions, and perhaps even education. Personnaly, it took me a while to get used to Bartók, for example and I just can't end this segment without, at least, letting you hear, one of my favourite music of his, that of the second movement of his second concerto.  It is ravishingly beautiful :

Béla Bartók - Second movement - Second concerto


And now, having covered all that, the fun begins.

34 - Styles and Modes

Modes, we'll skip or say just a few words about them at the end. Easily the most boring subject in music.

Styles is a different thing because, notwithstanding the indications, annotations, advices and even composers having recorded their own works, musicians have their own idea as how a piece of music ought to be played, that is : in their own way. By that, I mean, they will play certain segments of a piece louder, insisting on the power of their left hand or their special skill in handling their instruments. They will play faster, with very little pause, slower, softer than usual... which eventually leads to different interpretations and reputations.

Fans will follow Rubinstein instead of Arrau, Martha Argerich rather than Horowitz and so on.

We'll deal with them later, but out there, believe or not, some musicains have made careers in playing, inventing as they went along, French Can Can à la Stravinsky, Strauss' Blue Danube à la Chopin (Nocturne), Bach's fugues à la Brahms, Pachelbel's Cannon in a renaissance Style, down to Happy Birthday à la Beethoven, à la Mozart and à la Chopin.

Here's one I found cute :

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star as a Bach Fugue

But before we go into actual styles in classical music, here's something I'd like you to hear. It's from a radio program that's aired every Saturday morning on CBC at 9h00, The Vinyl Café, with host Stuart McLean. What follows is an excerpt of the 29th of January 2011 program in which Stuart discussed the quality of a piano with Canadian pianist John Shear.

As they're talking, the subject goes to the styles that can be played on the said piano and well, Stuart challenged John to play the same tune in ten different styles. The tune that was chose was the Vinyl Café theme and the rest was, as they say history. Amongst the styles chosen by Stuart and John were those of Anton Kuerti, Scott Joplin and Gleen Gould (à la Mozart). The Scott Joplin is a marvel, but, as a whole, it is meant here to indicate how the simplest song can be played differently.

John Shear and the Vinyl Café


In a more appropriate classical mood, Paul Dubé, on the 8th of June 2009, in his regular column, gave us an aperçu of how different pianists played Chopin's 24th Prélude (Opus 24) following note for note the partition. The result was uncanny.

Here is his column :

Pas un mais quatre enregistrements cette semaine. - Ne vous en faites pas : ils sont tous courts, moins de deux minutes et demi chacun. - Le truc consiste à deviner qui joue.

Les interprètes ? - En ordre alphabétique (mais pas nécessairement dans l'ordre où nous vous les présentons) : Claudio Arrau, Martha Argerich, Wladimir Ashkenazy et Garrick Ohlson.

La pièce ? - Le 24e prélude de Chopin (opus 24).

Je ne vous en dis pas plus. À vous de choisir l'interprétation qui vous convient.

L'idée est de démontrer qu'on ne peut pas, qu'on ne doit pas acheter n'importe quoi, n'importe quand et surtout se méfier des compilations des "Meilleurs de" ou, comme c'est la mode, en ce moment, "Les grands succès de, choisis par X"...

Numéro un - Cliquez sur la note : version MP3 :

Numéro deux - Cliquez sur la note : version MP3 :

Numéro trois - Cliquez sur la note : version MP3 :

Numéro quatre - Cliquez sur la note : version MP3 :

Nos versions favorites ? - La quatre pour ses qualités sonores, la deux pour son interprétation, la trois pour sa qualité en général.


That's all very nice, you might say but what about "modes" ?

Oh God, I thought you would have forgotten by now...

Simply put, modes are different ways of singing and/or playing music. As with chords there are myriads of them. Let me quote a few :

Jazz, classical and Bebop ; blues ; flamenco ; gypsy ; Neapolitan ; Diva Style ; Spanish ; French Renaissance ; English Baroque ; Slavic, Russian ; Eastern Europe ; American Brass like...

And some are invented every day. Some musicians gave their names to modes : Glenn Gould, Anton Rubinstein, Jasha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin... so much so that you hear two notes from their instruments and you know it's them.

Add to that The Furtwängler, Leonard Bernstein, Toscanini and Karajan of this world and there you have it.

And this is where horse manure appears again.

With some exceptions, the above could be called "styles" as there are genuine modes of music which are inserted in classical music. They're of various origins but mainly from Middle-Age Church music.

Seven of them with names barely pronounceable :

1 - The Ionian scale also known as major scale
      Played : 1234567
      With the following intervals : Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone-Tone-Semitone

2 - The Dorian Scale also known as a natural minor scale
     Played : 12f34567f
     With the following intervals : Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone

3 - The Phrigian Scale, also a minor scale
     Played : 12f3456f7f
     With the following intervals : Semitone-Tone-Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone

4 - The Lydian Scale, a major scale
     Played : 1234sharp567
     With the following intervals : Intervals : Tone-Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone-Semitone

5 - The Mixolodian
     Played : 1234567f
     With the following intervals : Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone

6 - The Aeolian
     Played : 123f4f56f7f
     With the following intervals : Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone

7 - The Locrian, a major scale except for its diminished 5th key (F)
     Played : 12f3f445f6f7f
     With the following intervals : Semitone-Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone-Tone

Told you.

What I can say about this mode is that if you intend to become a full fledged musician and aim composing the masterpiece of the 21st Century, you should study them carefully but, for me, I have always and will continue to ignore them.

End of this instalment

But let's do a recap, shall we ?

In instalment no. 1, we learned how music is written and the importance of scales in understanding what Major and Minor means in music.

In this instalment, we learned about the meaning and importance of bars, speed and tempos, the importance of chords and why some are consonant and dissonant ; we also reviewed styles and glanced at musical modes.

In our next innstalements, we shall learn about musical instruments and types of musical compositions.


Back to lesson no. 1

And, to go back to the current edition of Le Castor™ :

Last revision : 2014-11-14