Tag Archive | key signature

Know The Rules…

Well, that’s a headline that sells newspapers…(If you like that, you should check out my self-help bestseller Success – It’s way harder than you think!). I should say from the outset that this is part 1 of a two-part post. Part 2 will be …now break them – something that has much more appeal for our inner rebel.

I’m assuming that you have some level understanding of the “rules” of harmony, melody, how instruments work, instrument transposition etc. That’s not what I’m talking about in this post. Instead, I’m talking about music publishers rules. Actually, they are more like guidelines that they strongly encourage you to stick to, but it sounds edgier to say “rules”. Pick up almost any Concert Band piece and on the front of the score it will say something like “Grade 1” or “Medium Easy”. This tells you how the publisher has graded or rated the difficulty level of the piece.

All publishers grade the difficulty level of the pieces they publish. Exactly how they define each level varies slightly, but most adopt some kind of system that grades pieces from 1 to 5, with 1 the easiest and 5 the hardest. Often publishers will further refine these grades at the easy levels so it’s not uncommon to find pieces graded on a scale of 0.5, 1.0, (1.5), 2.0, (2.5), 3.0, 4.0, and 5.0. Some examples of publishers grading systems can be found at Brolga, Alfred/Belwin, Grand Mesa Music. For each grading level, publishers have guidelines about:

  1. Note choices – e.g. at the very easy (Grade 0.5) level, notes are restricted to the first 5 or 6 notes students learn. More about this later in the post.
  2. Range considerations for both instruments and parts for the same instrument. The 3rd trumpet part will have a lower allowable range than the 1st trumpet part.
  3. Key signature choices – note that key signature is not the same as tonality. A key signature of two flats can mean Bb major, G minor, C Dorian, D Phrygian…
  4. Rhythmic choices – no septuplets for beginners! (amongst other things)
  5. Time Signature choices
  6. Other scoring considerations with relation to solos, cross cueing and other similar issues

Alfred Publishing has its guidelines quite freely available on their website and often on the back of the “folder” music comes packaged in. You can find it here.

I have a hunch that one of the key reasons people have their piece rejected by publishers is because they break these guidelines, either by accident or deliberately (“rules are sooo restrictive man…I just want to write freely”, or “that’s just the way I wrote it, the 3rd trumpet has to play a high ‘C’ pianissimo or my vision will be lost”).

There are good, practical reasons why publishers have these guidelines and a great deal of thought has gone into developing them, even if you don’t agree or like them. It is important to note that sticking to the guidelines in most important when writing for the easiest grade levels. Publishing guidelines mean that:

  1. There is consistency in difficulty level across each part and to a lesser degree within each part. This prevents the situation where the flute part is crazy hard, but the clarinet part is very easy. In this case, either the flutes flounder or the clarinets are super bored. It also helps prevent a situation where 95% of the flute part is quite playable by a second year student, but 5% is only playable by a university graduate. Ok, that may be an exaggeration, but you get the idea.
  2. Pieces correlate to the general instrumental music pedagogy out there in the real world. (woo-hoo, I’ve used pedagogy in a sentence. It may even be used correctly….). Let me explain. Most students in Australia (where I live) and in the USA learn to play woodwind, brass and percussion instruments in some kind of ensemble based program using a band method book as a key part of the instruction. The big music publishers all have their own method book (e.g. Essential Elements, Tradition of Excellence, Accent on Achievement, The Yamaha Advantageand most of these are evolutions of previous method books. This equals a great deal of thought and experimentation wrestling with the question “what is the best way to start beginner students so that they can all play together in a band from virtually their first lesson?”. Inevitably this involves some compromises, with some instruments having to compromise more than others (Oboe and French Horn being two classic examples). If you look at these various method books, you will see that they have all reached essentially the same conclusion. They all start with:
    • the first 5 notes of the Bb major scale, and slowly expanding outwards to the one octave Bb major scale (+ a semitone [half step] below). The first note outside the Bb major scale is usually concert Ab, followed by concert E.
    • note values of a whole, half and quarter notes (semibreve, minim, crotchet), which then expands to include dotted 1/2 notes, 1/8th note pairs, and then dotted 1/4 + 1/8 notes.
    • Time signatures of 4/4, 3/4, 2/4
    • Medium tempos
  3. Notice that this correlates to the guidelines for grade 0.5 to grade 1 pieces. In other words, the guidelines spell out what the students actually know at this point in their learning. You could argue that beginner students could easily play in 6/8 and in concert C major after learning for 9 months, but this is not what students are generally taught in the first year of learning, so to write a band piece in C major and 6/8 aimed at level 0.5 is almost inevitably a doomed exercise.
  4. It ensures similar scoring options across the grade level.
    • At the grade 0.5 level, there will only be 1 trumpet part, 1 french horn part and 1 trombone/baritone part (with Tuba the octave below). This reflects the fact that pitching is tricky for beginner brass players and unison parts for each instrument provides them with the greatest chance of success. There are similar restrictions on the number of woodwind parts.
    • Similarly, the low woodwinds (bassoon, baritone sax, bass clarinet) will be scored in unison with the trombone/baritone/(tuba). This is a reflection of the likelihood of actually having all these instruments present (not very likely) and means that with just one player of any of these instrument means that the bass line is covered. This is very important as small band programs with limited numbers of players are most often just playing easy repertoire.

So, I’d encourage you to try to write within the guidelines for a grade level. It will help ensure that your piece is successfully played by a band and means that your piece is much more likely to be accepted by a publisher. A great resource to help you learn what students can and can’t do at the lower grade levels is the beginner books themselves. The conductor’s score book usually has a detailed listing of what concepts are introduced, and when.

All this talk of rules and guidelines can feel very restrictive, so in my next post I’ll talk about how to “break” them (successfully). Until then, ponder this question What CAN students do at this level? This quote from Stravinsky (he wrote some stuff that seems to work ok) is also worth thinking about:

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.

Less relevant, but funny, is this one:

Harpists spend 90% of their lives tuning their harps and 10% playing out of tune.

See you next time.

A Piece Is Born

When students see my name at the top of a piece of music, we often have a conversation that goes a little like this:

Student: “Sir, did you write this piece?”

Me: “Yes”

Student: (somewhat in disbelief) “Really?”

Me: “Yes”

Student: (clearly traumatized by this seismic worldview shift) “So you like, wrote this whole piece…”

Me: “Yes”

Student: (in a desperate effort to restore balance to the force) “Did you copy it out from a book?”

Me: “No, I wrote it”

Student: (flailing helplessly in a whirlpool of despair) “like, all of it, or just like, umm, like, the trumpet part?”

This can sometimes continue for quite a while as students wrestle with the concept of a composer who isn’t dead. After the student has exhausted themselves trying to grapple with reality, they ask two other questions:

  1. Student: “Do you make lots of money?” Me: “I make so much money writing music, I can afford to keep teaching you.” (student looks puzzled)
  2.  Student: “How did you write it?” or “How long did it take to write?”

To answer the last two questions, I thought I’d post about a piece as I write it.

So far this (as yet untitled) piece has taken 3 months, and all I’ve got is 5 bars! (Wow, that’s slow progress Tim!) Here’s what’s happened so far.

Three months ago I was taking a composition class at a music camp. The first activity I get students to do is to write a 4 or 8 bar melody in C major using only basic note values. I usually set a fast deadline (i.e. 10mins) to encourage them to just write something and not try to turn it into their great masterwork. The plan is then to see what they come up with and start from there for the rest of the class. As the students were writing their melody, I thought I’d write a few melodies of my own. Here’s what I came up with. 3 Basic Melodies

In order to write a bunch of melodies quickly, I made a choice about tempo, feel, and time signature before starting (C major was a given). Then I wrote the first thing that occurred to me, with my only pitch reference being my own voice. This is a bit like musical brain storming and it can be a useful way to generate some ideas. Most might be rubbish, but something might just be the seed for something really good. These melodies made such an impact  on me that I forgot about them for 3 months! The piece of manuscript ended up in my laptop bag, forgotten – until yesterday when I packed up my laptop to go away. I glanced at the piece of paper enough to be able to sing the first two bars of one of the third melody. Since then I’ve been singing those two bars around in my head and thinking about how to expand them into a piece.

When starting a piece you should think about the level you are targeting. It’s very difficult once you’ve written a piece to make it easier, or harder. Once that is decided, you should think about other main structural/starting point questions around choice of key, tempo, form and length.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about so far:

  • Level: I’d like to try and keep this piece at about Gr 0.5
  • Tempo: I’ve been singing it at approximately 116bpm. This works as a march/fanfare type tempo.
  • Key: Initally it was in C major because that was the starting point for my class, but this doesn’t mean it’s the best choice. So, how to choose a good key? Trumpets make an obvious choice to play the opening two bars. So what key suits the trumpets best? The obvious choices are concert Bb major or maybe concert Eb major. I’m leaning towards Eb major as the higher key makes the trumpets a little brighter and I haven’t written much in Eb.That second one isn’t the world’s greatest reason, except that often choosing a different key or tempo or time signature can help you write something different to what you’ve written before.
  • I am conscious of not going too high or else it will take the trumpets out of a reasonable register for this level piece. I’d like to try and keep the highest note for the trumpets to be a written Bb, with maybe one or two written C’s at the climax. Written D is a no-no.
  • I would like to “tweak” the melody or harmony in some way to try and avoid a straight up, inside, Eb major vibe.
  • In bed this morning I came up with this: Opening 5 bars - sketch, Eb
  •  It’s an Apollo 13 soundtrack (or this) kind of vibe. I like the fact that it’s a 5 bar phrase (3+2) and that’s it’s not a straight major tonality. But, I would rather avoid having the trombones playing such a prominent note in 5th position (Db). So back to thinking about key. Is there a better choice?
    • Eb major – has trombones playing Db in a significant way, early on in the piece. Not a great percentage move.
    • Bb major – it’s getting a bit low. What’s in-between? You can eliminate B, Db and D major straightaway. No-one plays that many sharps and flats at this level. This only leaves:
    • C major – this isn’t a great key signature at this easy level. But,wait a minute, my opening phrase is really a mixolydian phrase! This means I can use a key signature of C mixolydian (=1 flat, aka F major) – way less scary for students at this level.This also makes the low brass and woodwinds enter on a concert C, and then a concert Bb. High percentage moves at any level! Opening 5 bars - sketch, C mixo

So, some take away points from what I’ve done so far are: ·

  • Always write down your ideas – good, bad or ugly. You never know when you might rediscover them. ·
  • If you are stuck, just write something! BUT, make some choices before you start – it will be in G minor, 3/4, a ballad, and I’m going to start on the 5th degree of the scale. Then start writing. See what you can come up with in 10mins.
  • Edit yourself! You must edit yourself! Assume you are not as talented as Mozart and that your first idea won’t be absolutely perfect.
  • Know the capabilities of students at the grade level you are writing for. Try and choose keys and registers that will give your piece the best chance of success.

So get writing and we’ll meet back here in year or so with the next 8 bars 🙂