Listen to Music Through Form
How to Listen to Music Through Form
Many of the same principals and rules for writing a book, an essay or a magazine article apply to composing music. It could be as simple as a two minute song or a full symphony with four movements. In music we call this the form, or structure, that the composer has chosen.
This article will demonstrate, through three examples, how the structure of a piece is music is put together by a composer. As we learn, we will be able to listen to music through its form.
John Philip Sousa: The March King
I get excited when I hear the name John Philip Sousa. As a musician I played in many bands and we performed many of his pieces. As a conductor, I performed his marches with several groups.
Taking a passage out of a book called John Philip Sousa, American Phenomenon by Paul E. Bierley: “John Philip Sousa was the symbol of an era and was known as the man who did one particular thing better than any other. He was to the March what Johann Strauss was to the Waltz and he has been described as the “Dickens of Music,“ the “Kipling of Music”.”
I find this book to be one of the best books about Mr. Sousa. Fantastic information about the man, his music, adventures, and his time in history.
In 2007, I had the great privilege of meeting John Philip Sousa lV, the great grandson of the march king. We grew to be very good friends and as we met on several occasions he would tell me stories that were passed down through his family tree. He is a delightful man who continues to promote his great grandfather’s legacy. I appreciated other information that he shared with me about the composer and I will cherish that for ever.
The “Stars & Stripes Forever” is our national march. One of the listening exercises for this article will include a march that Mr. Sousa said was his best, “Semper Fidelis.” I agree!
I could absolutely go on for pages and pages talking about this great composer but will save that for another time.
John Philip Sousa
A March as a musical genre is a piece of music that was originally designed to be played while marching. Many call this type of music a military march because of its origin. It can be slow or it can be fast called a “quick step”. Marches are often heard in a parade or in a regular concert setting usually played by a band.
This particular March called Semper Fidelis, considered by Mr. Sousa to be his best and was adopted as the official march of the United States Marine Corps.
Most all marches have:
- Different sections – called strains
- Several separate melodies (some of which are played all at the same time)
- Contrasting section called the Trio
Form of a Typical March
- Introduction ( fanfare type beginning, usually 4 to 8 measures in length)
- 1st strain (this is usually 8 to 16 measures long, main melody is introduced). 1st strain is repeated.
- 2nd Strain (16 measures in length, second melody is introduced)
- Introduction to the Trio (not always heard in every March, so this is optional)
- Trio: This section is in the middle of the March. It is often played by the woodwinds, the third primary melody is introduced, a Key signature change occurs.
- Breakstrain (often called the “dogfight”.) This is the section between the first time through the trio and the last time the Trio melody is heard again. It is usually a very loud and busy sounding section. In some marches, this section sounds like a battle between the different sections in the band.
- Coda - this is the ending of the March which usually concludes with the trio melody heard again and is much louder than the previous time. You may also hear an added counter melody.
Listening Exercise #1: "Semper Fidelis" by John Philip Sousa
If you’ve never heard this March before you are in for a treat. First of all, the medium for performance is called a band. The band is called ”The Presidents Own Marine Band” From Washington D.C. and is one of five service bands. (Marine, Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard)
Why are you listening to this piece, please follow along with the description that I gave for the structure or the form of a March above and you will be able to clearly hear the sections as they occur.
As you are listening to the trio, see if you can identify four distinct melodies being played at the same time. Sousa’s use of counterpoint was outstanding.
Presidents Own Marine Band - Semper Fidelis
Sir Paul McCartney
Listening Exercise #2: "Yesterday" by the Beatles
To quote Wikipedia, “ballads derive from the medieval French chanson ballade which were originally “danced songs“. In the latter 19th-century the term took on the meaning of a slow form of popular love song and is now often used for any love song, the sentimental Ballad pop or rock”. To be more specific, a ballad is a song that tells a story, dramatic, funny or romantic. The most common today are found in Country and Western and Rock-n-Roll.
Musical form in a ballad is quite simple and that we have different sections and they were identified by the material melody and harmony that are contrasting to each other.
AABA song form
This song form has four sections: An eight - bar section we call “A”. This is followed by a second eight - bar section we call “A“. This is followed by another eight - bar section we call “B“ which is new contrasting material different from the previous “A” section in both melody, harmony and lyrics.
Now, for a bit of clarification here as we need to understand the terminology that I’m using with the word “bar”. In an earlier article I referred to the term “bar line” as a vertical line separating two measures. And space between two bar lines is a measure. Many times certain words and terminologies carry a different name for the same function. This is the case of the word “measure” and “bar” in music. Some musicians call it a bar and some musicians call it a measure. They are one in the same.
In the song Yesterday by the Beatles, we hear a perfect example of the simple song form that is outlined below. Follow along as you listen to a recording of this example and keep track of the number of measures or bars in each verse as well as the bridge.
Introduction Verse Verse Bridge Verse
A A B A
"Yesterday" Paul McCartney
Listening Exercise #3: "Ragtime Piano" Tetris
This exercise is for fun! Try to figure out what the form is in this next piece. I think you will enjoy listening to this very talented pianist as he performs a Ragtime number called Tetris. Ragtime means “ragged rhythm” which is called “syncopation”.
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Reginald Thomas