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Musical Devices.....

Posted By: C H O P I N

Musical Devices..... - 12/07/07 06:33 PM

Part of my music course requires me (and the others who took music) to sit an exam that tests our listening abilities. This is my weakest area, I usualy only get around 60 - 70 %, which is ok, but not fantastic, so I would like to push myself further in order to acheive better grades. Although our teacher tells us about different musical devices, he doesn't really explain what they do in the music.
The hardest part of the exam is when a piece of music is played and we have to pick out the musical devices used in the piece and then explain what "atmosphere" it gives the music and how. Picking out the devices isn't too bad but trying to put what it does for the music is quite difficult (for me). I was wondering if there were any general patterns for certain devices used in music that provide the listener with an inflicted atmosphere. For example:

1.) A pedal is a sustained or repeated note in the bass (usualy), an inverted pedal is a sustained or repeated note higher up on the grand staff. But how does a pedal inflict a mood? does a pedal allways create tension?

2.) Imitation is where a phrase is repeated with a small variation to make it more interesting than the first (original) time. How can a repeated phrase inflict a certain atmosphere or feeling?

3.) Sequencing is similar to imitation except the phrase is repeated at a different pitch.

Thats a handful of musical devices I can think of, but trying to explain WHAT the acheive in the music is very hard... any tips?

In the exam they played the theme from harry potter, and asked what musical devices made it sound "magical"... I wasn't really sure how to approach the question... I mean what does make it sound magical and mysterious?

Any advice on handeling questions like this would be GREATLY appreciated...

Thanks all,

Posted By: Morodiene

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/07/07 07:34 PM

Interesting question, but wow, most of this stuff is just intuitive, and so I never sat down and pinpointed what it does, so here goes:

1) Pedal doesn't always create tension. It can also be very calming, like a drone. It would have to depend upon the context in which it is used. For example, if you have a piece that has harmonic motion to it and all of a sudden you have a pedal, then it will create tension until that harmony changes. However, if a piece begins with this, it will most likely set up a drone-like effect, making it seem very calm and unmoving.

2) Imitation/repetition in this case is not assigned to any particular feeling. Repetition is found in nature and so we repeat because it gives clarity to what is being said (whatever feeling that may be). The human brain is designed to pick up on patterns, so this device makes it interesting for the listener as well. But clarity and interest in and of themselves are not feelings. They are just a qualities.

3) Same as above. The more variation in a repetition, the more interest it gives the listener, like a puzzle to figure out the pattern.

As far as what musical devices make the harry potter theme sound magical (without having heard it recently), my guess would be the harmonic structure (use of secondary chords), instrumentation, and allusions to pieces we already associate with "magical".
Posted By: C H O P I N

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/07/07 09:02 PM

Thanks Morodiene, the questions we get are suprisingly difficult, and hitting exatly what the examiners want as answers seems to be very hard indeed. They also played us the james bond theme (about 5 times) and we had to fill in a table. One side of the table said "musical devices used" the other said "the atmosphere it creates".... I lost count of how many times I repeated myself, saying "so and so made the music exciting"
Posted By: Morodiene

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/08/07 03:10 PM

If this is not a composition class, I can hardly see the point. There is a difference between recognizing something that needs to sound a certain way, and saying what the outcome is of that particular device. Even in composition, I don't teach it in this manner, however.

Are they expecting that each "musical device" has one affect it produces? Or do they think that there might be several outcomes depending on the listener and the context in which the device is used?
Posted By: Gyro

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/08/07 03:57 PM

You're having trouble on the second part
because you're taking it too seriously
and thinking that there actually some real
significance to it. There is none.
This is just typical academic bull___
and has no real-world meaning. The way
to get good grades is to simply parrot
back what the teacher wants you to say.
Trying to strain yourself, looking for
a meaningful answer, is useless, because
there is no meaningful answer except
what the teacher wants to hear--from your
lectures, class discussions, textbook, etc., you
need to figure out what kind of answers
the teacher wants, and then simply give him
these kinds of answers, even if they
might seem completely stupid.
Posted By: pianojerome

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/08/07 04:16 PM


Why would professors teach this "typical academic bull____" if it doesn't make any sense, if it isn't meaningful, and if it is just "completely stupid"? How would they even come up with it in the first place, if it didn't make some meaningful sense to them?
Posted By: C H O P I N

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/08/07 08:41 PM

Although Gyro's post may seem "out of the box" it does seem to have a ring of truth... Firstly Let me answer Morodiene. GCSE music consists of a group of kids (some with musical backgounds and a handful with none). To get the GCSE in music we have to compose a piece of music (25%) perform a solo piece and an ensemble piece (25%) then work at an "integrated assignment" which is a mixture of all 3 skills, which is also worth 25%. Finally we have the listening paper. Also 25%.

So to answer your question, nope it's not a composition class, I wish it was! By the looks of things the examiners seem to want a musical device that does one thing... There doesn't seem to be any prizes for your own opinions, and how it makes you feel (because the papers are marked from example answers!!!!) In that respect Gyro's point appears to be right, tell them what they want to hear. But what DO they want to hear?

Seems rediculous to me.

Posted By: keyboardklutz

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/09/07 07:23 AM

I've just started a GCSE music class. I taught OCR for about 10 years but haven't taught any since the boards rewrote their syllabi (about 4 or 5 years ago).

Much of education is as Gyro paints it - the marking is done by independents who are paid by the script. I've heard some subjects are so hard up for markers they're offering it to undergraduates. So yes, find what they want to hear. The questions you posted do seem a bit daft but they're not difficult as long as you have your list of devices and their affects in your head. Ask you teacher for a comprehensive list that you could commit to memory. Which board are you taking?

On a more positive note - that's easily done, the rest (learning about music) is a joy which enriches you.
Posted By: C H O P I N

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/09/07 02:31 PM

I believe I'm on AQA, not OCR (my ICT is OCR though) Finding what they want to hear is quite difficult sometimes, and I do need a comprehensive list like you suggested, wether or not my teacher has one or not, we'll see.

In the James Bond question, with the table, I listed imitation as a musical device, (the tune repeats a lot with different instruments and variations) but I was at a loss on how to explain "what atmosphere" it provides. I mean, surely I'd have to put something like: "The phrase that is repeated gives an atmosphere of excitement throughout the piece" ?

There was also alot of dissonance, Usualy dissonance is used to cause distress, or in this case it seemed to be used as a resolution to the piece's musical climaxes.

Furthermore I ended up repeating my self alot ( especially in these paticular styled questions), the piece was exciting throughout, so what am I supposed to put under "atmosphere" when all of the devices appear to do simillar things?


Posted By: keyboardklutz

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/09/07 03:01 PM

If you can find any youtube or other links with exactly the music your describing I can answer some questions.

With the James Bond, off the top of my head, the initial low chromatic ostinato intro gives an expectant spooky atmosphere - something slithering? sliding?. The second note in the theme forms a tritone (devil's interval) with the accompaniment. The theme itself is stepwise in the minor giving the effect of someone creeping up on you/him. The key, because of the chromatic movement, is not very clear. Again indicating a dangerous/insecure atmosphere.

You should also be able to write like this about your own compositions. Also, get yourself a long list of suitable conjunctions.
Posted By: John Citron

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/09/07 05:57 PM

This sounds more like a music philosophy class than a practical music class.

But I think I know what your instructor is looking for. Music is made up of different textures. By adding and subracting and controlling these textures in different ways through rhythm, tempo, and dynamics, music can represent different moods.

A good example would be the use of repeated strings in a disonant key to represent tension. Dissonance alone creates tension, but by repeating this with stringed instruments, the tension can build up more. Think "Jaws" or some other scary movie where the strings are used like this.

Musical textures can also be used to represent other devices such as bells and tambourines when they are not available on the piano, for example. Mozart does this in his Rondo a la Turca with the arpeggiated bass line and grace notes. These represent the drums and tambourines in a Turkish march.

Scarlatti did this too with his keyboard sonatas. He used batteries of chords and gracenote configurations to represent flutes, drums, and even guitars as he was influenced by the local Spanish music where he lived.

Anyway this is something to think about a little deeper, and probably takes a lot more thought than the one off answers you're coming up with for your exams.
Posted By: C H O P I N

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/11/07 06:30 PM

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4A4D4E24jOU unfortunately not the version I heard in my exam, from what I can remember the version I heard had electric guitars, and cymbals (much rockyer and much more exciting), and started with a pedal, and then jumped into the faster theme. However, i'd still like to hear you're example answers keyboardklutz, any help would be much appreciated.

Thanks everyone for your help,

Posted By: keyboardklutz

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/11/07 06:59 PM

I think it would be better if I asked the questions. So - there are 4 musical themes. Can you describe each one in detail? (using the musical elements but not yet how they create an atmosphere) It helps identify them if you can use some sort of notation (could be graphic) - but do it out of your head not on the piano (that's how you'll have to do it in the exam).
Posted By: C H O P I N

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/11/07 09:05 PM

Right, good idea i'll do them, the four themes I spotted were:

1) The opening theme, which is a chromatic ostinato (going upwards). The tonality of this introduction is minor. When the new instrument comes in, it plays a variation over the top of the ostinato, about 3 times - imitation?

2) The piece reaches it's main theme, with the same (chromatic) ostinato underneath. Dissonance is used where the theme reaches its climaxes. I think I also heard sound effects in the background of the music to.

3) The next theme uses an imitation of the same phrase around 3 times, and I think the melody of this part could be defined as "call and answer" because one instrument starts the tune (calls?) and another finishes it (answer?)

4) Theme 4 repeats the opening theme, with a slight variation over the ostinato. A fanfare sequence of one paticular phrase is introduced to bring the piece to a clause. The piece ends on a dissonant chord.

Well I gave that my best shot, it's probably poor, however if I know where I've gone wrong now, I'll be more prepared for the next time, and thats my aim. Thanks for taking the time to help me, it's much appreciated.


PS - just looked at the posted message, it now looks like each theme hasnt been explained "in detail" at all frown
Posted By: keyboardklutz

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/11/07 09:35 PM

As I said try and draw the themes (I think the guitar theme is no 2 - I think you've got it as no 1 -you do give a good reason for your view, but without the detail. Outside of an exam (i. e. with unlimited listenings) it should be easy for you to give bar numbers. That's very important - it means everyones looking at the same thing.

The musical elements (and you should know this) are:
Pitch, duration, dynamics, tempo, texture, timbre and structure. Remember them as: P, double D, triple T , S and write that at the top of your sheet at the beginning of the exam.

I would quickly draw a spreadsheet - 7 columns for the elements and 4 rows for the themes. Do one theme at a time - not every element will need to be covered. All you then need add is how each adds to the atmosphere.

How many marks? You want one good point per mark.
Posted By: C H O P I N

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/12/07 05:05 PM

After practising with the spreadsheet, I imagine it will get easier and easier, until I dont need to draw one?

I'll make suer I remember those elements, I listed the "devices" used (canon, imitation etc), they're obviously not the same thing, READ THE QUESTION PROPERLY, is the first lesson I've learnt.

I'll get practising soon.


Posted By: keyboardklutz

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/12/07 05:37 PM

Remember 1 clear concise answer per mark. Waffling gets you nowhere. Make sure your clear about the meaning of each device - I'm not so sure you are. Wiki should be good for that.
Posted By: C H O P I N

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/12/07 08:46 PM

so, the musical ELEMENTS are (like you said) Pitch, Duration, Dynamics, Tempo, Texture, Timbre and Structure.

Pitch - how high or low a note is (according to the grand stave), If I was listening for "pitch" would I be listening for changes in pitch? (doesn't music constantly change pitch...)

Duration - (note duration is the length of time a note or chord is held) and the duration of the music is the lenght for which it lasts.

Dynamics - They are the degrees of volume within the music, for example "forte and piano" are two different examples of dynamics

Tempo - The speed of the music. Many pieces include changes in tempo, and of course; "tempo rubato."

Texture - The general "feeling" of the piece (rough, staccato, smooth, legato),also different textures include, monophony, polyphony, and homophony (I think). Texture can also be described with terms such as "contrapuntal", "broadly harmonic" etc etc

Timbre - Timbre is what gives a note it's quality of sound, individual voices or instruments all carry a different timbre, for example your Steinway will have a different Timbre to my Yamaha wink

Structure - Musical form? the way in which the music is organized, to name a few forms, theres Binary; AABB, Tennary; ABA, Rondo form; ABACA... Sonata form; (Introduction), Exposition, Development, Recapitulation, (Coda)

I think those definitions are about right... (fingers crossed), but how could you put "pitch" into your answer, if the question (like the one you gave me) asked "describe the musical elements of this piece of music" - what could you say about the pitch? (tritone?)

Sorry I'm working you hard keyboardklutz, but your help's already proving invaluble, unfortunately I don't have a very good music teacher at school, which I won't get into.

Thankyou for your help! (again)

Posted By: keyboardklutz

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/12/07 09:06 PM

For pitch you could draw the contours of the 4 themes. Are they diatonic? Chromatic? How many pitches make up each theme? Are they low? high?

The point is, the questions are probably 15 or 20 marks each. One answer in each square of a grid of 7x4 wold be more than enough. Another tip - don't write sentences - very short points is all you need.
Posted By: Morodiene

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/12/07 09:15 PM

I guess my biggest problem with the questions is that they 1) are obvious to anyone who has studied music and 2) not necessarily able to be put into words, but universally felt. You don't need to identify that some "device" makes the James Bond theme exciting. All one needs to do is to listen to it to tell it is exciting. Sometimes trying to fit something like music into neat little boxes dilutes the power it has. Do we do this as we study piano? Of course. We look/listen to what the composer wrote, and think, "Why did he/she do that? Is this something we should bring out, or have in the background? What feeling does the overall piece (or this section) convey?" All are legitimate and necessary in understanding a work.

But one must teach you these things, and every piece is unique. If this teacher is looking fro specific things like this, they must have a list of things they want you to look for. Otherwise, what are they teaching you?
Posted By: C H O P I N

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/13/07 05:00 PM

Thanks for your help everyone, I know what you mean Morodiene, it's very confusing. The probelm is allways putting them into words - bullet points like keyboardklutz suggested is a very good idea. Guess i've just gotta get on with it.

One more question for keyboardklutz: If a question asks for "musical effects" caould that mean both elements and devices?


Posted By: Betty Patnude

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/13/07 05:48 PM


Search on the "ELEMENTS OF MUSIC" and more than you ever wanted to know will come up. Skim through for keywords and create your categories for further study from there.

Devise a worksheet of how you will examine and write about all things. Ask questions. Answer questions. Use outline form, or check off boxes.

The "Essential Dictionary of Music" by Alfred Publishing Company, is a small reference book of vocabulary, theory, composers bio's. It costs about $4.95 and can be found in many music stores in the US, or ordered on life. It's easy to use and simplistic in definitions. This might help you organize your work.

So you are getting lots of interest and help here with which to do your enlightened listening.

One thing I've noticed when shopping is how avidly my ear listens to anything being played - and because of listening capacity (analysis) just about everything captivates me, whether I want to go there or not. This kind of thing is a form of "entrainment".

Posted By: keyboardklutz

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/13/07 06:50 PM

Musical effects is asking two things:

1) what effect that has on the listener
2) the elements/devices

For one mark you need to say emotion 'X' was caused/because/through the use of/invoked by (that's why I said you needed a list of suitable conjunctions) music 'Y' (description using elements/devices)

note - devices are made from elements (i.e. imitation is exploiting pitch/rhythm by repetition by another voice)
Posted By: Steve Chandler

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/13/07 07:30 PM

You seem to have some confusion about how pitch can be a musical element. One person mentioned diatonic vs. chromatic which is certainly one possibility, but no one has mentioned register. Low strings communicates one thing, piccolos something quite different.
Posted By: C H O P I N

Re: Musical Devices..... - 12/13/07 08:09 PM

Thankyou very much Betty, and thankyou Keyboardklutz and Mr Chandler, I think you've all done as much as you can to set me on the right path, everyones help in this thread has proved, or certainley will prove invaluble to me.

Thanks again,

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