How to Analyse Music – Part 1

Why is it important for us pianists to analyse the music we play? Surely analysis is an academic activity that belongs in a classroom? When we dig below the surface to discover how a piece of music is built, we search for its form and structure, and what makes it tick. This helps us not only appreciate the music more, but also helps us to learn it deeply and thoroughly. When we take a bit of time and trouble understanding the shape and structure of a new piece before we rush to the piano to play it, we find not only can we learn it more quickly but we also retain what we have learned over time. Analysis is also absolutely essential for secure memorisation.

Despite the importance of analysis, I have noticed how unwilling many players are to spend a chunk what little practice time they have away from the piano. Practice is only meaningful to them when they are making sounds, it seems. Others are scared of analysing, especially if they have not had the benefits of a thorough musical education. The good news is there are many different ways to analyse music, and you don’t have to get bogged down in complex methods (such as Schenker) to find deeper meaning in the music you are playing, and to benefit from the endeavour. Analysis does not have to be textbook, it can be very free and very personal. Whatever you notice about the music is fine and you can see it from many different – and equally valid – angles.

Last week I offered two mind maps, one of an elementary piece created (with a little help) by an 8-year old, the other of a more advanced piece done by an adult. Each of these is a type of analysis, but they couldn’t be more different from each other. Taking this a step further, I offer a taste of the various ways you can get under the skin of a piece of music in a series of occasional posts. To show just how diverse the different forms of analysis can be, I want to begin by presenting three very different views of a very famous orchestral piece, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Here is an insightful and original take by Antony Hopkins, presenter of the most excellent BBC Radio 3 series, Talking about Music. When I was a schoolboy, Hopkins’ radio shows were one of the highlights of my week. Fortunately a handful of episodes survive and are available on iTunes.

And now to PDQ Bach, aka Professor Peter Schickele, composer, broadcaster and humorist. Here is the Fifth Symphony seen through the eyes of a beer-guzzling, popcorn-chewing sports commentator (and no less convincing for that).

My last example is from another comedian, Sid Caesar. In this extract from a live TV show from 1950s Caesar brings out the dramatic element in the symphony, going so far as to compare it to a marital argument. Not only is this very funny, I think it is also very astute.

If you want to learn more about analysis, Open Music Theory offers a very good introduction. If you have not yet read the Online Academy’s free crash course in music theory by Mark Polishook, I can highly recommend it – I think you will find it as refreshing as it is educational. If you want to attend a class many cities offer courses in musical subjects to the general public, often for a very low cost. Londoners can sign up for a variety of City Lit musicianship courses, and it is also worth looking at what’s on offer at Morley College.

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