Bach's Musical Signature

Question: How do I calculate Bach’s musical signature? Alfi M. Albert’s reply: Bach often wrote his name in musical notation, sometimes hiding it in his works. In German, the note B-flat is called B, and B natural is called H. Thus, B-A-C-H in German is played B-flat, A, C, B natural: Usually the B-A-C-H motive is written in that order, though sometimes Bach rearranged the notes, as in the ascending (A-B-H-C) and descending (C-H-B-A) examples you posted. Read more »

Bach's Ornaments

Question: Great Web Site! I am studying the Bach B Minor Invention BWV 786. In the Explication, the manner of execution of the trill is very clear, and yet one can find conflicting interpretations in the recordings and in edited manuscripts. It seems that most performers allow themselves creative liberties in regards to ornamentation. Is this a valid practice? Mike (Dallas, Texas, USA) Albert’s reply: This is a really great question (and thank you for the kind compliment! Read more »

Bottom Keys of the Piano

Question: What are the bottom notes of the piano? Adrianna (Texas, USA) Albert’s reply: Assuming you’re using a standard full-sized, 88-key piano, the bottom key plays A. Always remember that the keys are not the notes. Since each of the piano’s keys has to be tuned to a specific pitch, each of those pitches will approximate a musical note. Depending on how the piano is tuned, some notes will be more exact than others. Read more »

Chord Inversions

Chord inversions are “spellings” of a chord with a note other than the fundamental in the bass. Let’s take a simple example: The C major triad consists of the notes C, E and G, in that order: As long as the C is on the bottom, the chord is in root position. Both the above spelling (C E G) and this one (C G E): … are in root position. Read more »

Circle of Fifths

The Circle of Fifths depicts all key signatures in order of increasing sharps and flats: It’s a very easy way to learn the key signatures by depicting them graphically. With C major at the 12 o’clock position, the Circle of Fifths starts with zero sharps or flats, also called accidentals. Adjacent keys are a perfect fifth from one another. You only need to remember a few simple rules. First, going clockwise around the Circle of Fifths, each key is a perfect fifth higher than the previous one. Read more »

Common Chord Progressions

This lesson will introduce you to the most common chord progressions, so widely used that they can be found in virtually every piece of tonal music regardless of genre or era. Astonishingly, the following chord progressions are used as frequently in Renaissance and Baroque music of centuries past as they are in 21st-century popular music. Learning to play common chord progressions comfortably in all keys is a precursor to learning to improvise, and doing so will also greatly accelerate your learning of nearly every piece you’ll ever play. Read more »

Difference Between Motives and Phrases

Question: Hi Albert, Would you be so kind as to help me get clear on the meaning of “motive”? Also can you differentiate a “motive” from a “phrase”? I want to follow your instructions for the proper way to practice but I’m confused on these two terms. Thank you so much for your help. Sharon Demarte (Seattle, Washington, USA) Albert’s reply: In music, a motive is any recurring combination of notes and/or rhythms. Read more »

Difference Between Pitches and Notes

Question: What are the two pitches in music called? Albert’s reply: There aren’t just two pitches in music, there are as many pitches as there are colors. Yet pitches aren’t the same as notes. A given note can be tuned to a different pitch. This means that it can be adjusted slightly higher or lower, but not enough to be a different note altogether. (It’s actually somewhat more complex than that, but I don’t want to confuse beginners. Read more »

Distinguishing Minor from Major

Question: How can I distinguish minor from major pitches? Albert’s reply: Major and minor aren’t properties of single notes or pitches but rather of groups of notes. Major and minor can refer to keys, scales, chords and intervals. Let’s look at them in turn. Keys and Scales The key of a piece or passage is determined by its scale. Generally speaking, if a section of music is built predominantly on the scale of C major, then that section is in C major. Read more »

Double Expositions

Question: Hello Albert, My question today is: Where did the idea of double expositions in piano concertos come from and how did it affect later compositions? Achilles (Malta) Albert’s reply: As explained in Sonata Form Simplified, the first section of a movement in sonata form in the Classical era (roughly 1750-1820) as exemplified by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is called the exposition. The exposition states both of the main themes or (more often) theme groups. Read more »