Trimming Down For The Holidays

A family in my street has gone to absolutely no trouble with their Christmas tree whatever. It has virtually nothing on it, except for a few red ribbons and the tiniest string of plain white lights – not the usual dog’s dinner of glitter, baubles, beads, and candy canes. From its vantage point in the bay window of their living room, it looks stunning. The beauty of the natural shape of the tree is plain for all to see, showing that it needs hardly anything to enhance it at the end of its journey from forest to plant pot.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the gaudiness of the tree in the picture above as much as I like the over-ornamented music of the French rococo (when I’m in the mood for it), but sometimes less is more. If a stick figure equivalent of a Christmas tree can be drawn with a few symmetrical zigzags, how about Heinrich Schenker‘s graph of Bach’s C major Prelude (from Book 1)? From this, we can see a representation of the notation pared down to its very barest essentials, enough to give us the highest of aerial overviews:

Schenker Graph (courtesy of
Schenkerian Graph, Bach Prelude in C (Book 1)


Drawing up such a graph takes quite a bit of doing, and is probably outside of the scope of most practical musicians. I mean, we should be practising, right? However, I think we can take the general idea of coming up with a simplified version of a piece of music by first building a hull.  I mean doing this at the piano, we don’t need to write it down.

Definition of hull (noun)

  • the main body of a ship or other vessel, including the bottom, sides, and deck but not the masts, superstructure, rigging, engines, and other fittings.

Suitable candidates for this treatment might be slow movements – music that might confuse us by the complexity of its surface detail, where we might struggle to see the wood for the trees. We don’t need to make a rigid hull (exactly the same each time), we can be flexible by adding or subtracting different things with each exploration.

Let’s take an example, the beginning of the slow movement of Mozart’s Sonata in F, K.332, followed by three possible simplified versions:

Mozart Sonata in F, K.332 (second movement, opening)
Mozart Sonata in F, K.332 (second movement, opening)


Simplified Version 1





I am sure you get the idea – with each successive skeleton we might add more detail, each version giving us a slightly different viewpoint. When we open up the LH harmonies into Mozart’s alberti patterns, we might want to go back to the most basic of RH skeletons and jiggle between the various versions we have come up with until we finally realise the original (i.e. Mozart’s!). This process is fun and very creative, and no two pianists will come up with precisely the same skeletons. And they don’t need to be written down or carved in stone.

As we progress with the piece, if we notice we are obsessing with the surface detail (to the detriment of the bigger gesture), we can go back to our hulled versions from time to time, just to keep things in perspective.

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Practising The Piano will be on holiday until after the New Year. I wish all my readers happy holidays and a prosperous and peaceful New Year!


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