CGTB 5: Music Theory Checklist

For me, having a process with a list I can check off is critical to getting things done in my personal and professional life. I guess part of this method stems from the fact that personally I am forgetful. It also stems from experiences I had in lessons and teaching students. I would come in and my teacher would ask me about something in the score. Often the question was something I could have and should have known already. There really isn’t a good reason not to have defined a French word in the score that indicated information about expression or dynamics in the piece. This is easy to do with google. By the time I as a grad student I really didn’t have an excuse for not knowing more advanced things like how many lines in a contrapuntal passage where there or which one was the subject.


    Likely part of the reason I was showing up to lessons without having all my basses covered was an issue of maturity. But I also think it had to do with a lack of habit and not knowing what to look for or when to look for it. I hadn’t really trained myself to think about all the different pieces of information I could and should observe about a piece before or while physically practicing it. And I don’t think I am alone in this. Guitarists often discuss whether expression should be added before or after learning the notes. This suggests that there is some ambiguity within the community about when to think through this aspect of playing. It thus does not seem entirely unreasonable that a student may come to a lesson not having thought about expression or the different things in the score that provide information about expression.


    If a musician subscribes to the notes first expression second mentality, its even less surprising that a student would come in without having expression words define. Its the argument of this method that the physical act of practicing is different when expression is added to the notes. Because expression changes the physical motions the body needs to make, its the argument of this method, and an argument presented earlier in this method, that one should think of expression as much as possible before physically practicing a piece and add it to practicing as soon as practically possible.


    My experience is that teachers often think students should know better when they make mistakes like the one I made with the French word in my score. The French word is in the score! Why didn’t the student look it up? It seems like many teachers just resign themselves to the idea that some students get it and some students never will. That may be true, but I think there are many enthusiastic and potential musicians who don’t know what to look for, when to look for it, and what to do with it when they find it. Nobody ever explained two bar phrases, or walked them through analyzing a piece, or taught them how to phrase. I think part of the problem is there is a ton of things to think about and keep track of in a new piece and its easy to forget to think about any of those factors. Its also overwhelming for a teacher to remember them all and walk a student through them. This problem is especially true in advance music like Bach. So part of the goal of this method is to help the reader keep track of everything going on in the music.


    The idea of this section is to have a checklist of things you should do or think about when you first look at a piece. This method is not a theory and analysis book, so I won’t always thoroughly explain all the vocabulary here. I don’t think this means I am leaving the reader of this method hanging. There are plenty of books on these subjects, one could google search any vocabulary in this list, and a good teacher can also provide an explanation and more context. Some of these concepts such as 2 and 4 bar phrases are probably easier to understand and hear with an explanation from a teacher with an instrument at hand.


    This method is focused on where these concepts and vocabulary are applicable in a practice process. In other words, from the time I get a piece of music to the time I perform it, when do I think about certain things such as scales, counterpoint, or words in the score that indicate dynamics. Thats why I don’t want to provide too many definitions here. There are plenty of method books and treatise that explain counterpoint. What I want to target in this method is when does a performer start thinking about counterpoint during practice so that they make sure the music sounds both the way it is supposed to and/or the way the performer wants it to.


    I do present some ideas in the following sections on analysis that may be less familiar even to experienced musicians. In particular, the concepts I present on rhythm analysis are not necessarily original but they are not ideas that are commonly discussed in method books or in some cases even amongst musicians. In places where I present less common concepts I will expand on those ideas more thoroughly.


    The goal of the analysis portion of this method and the lists I present within it are to make sure that all my bases get covered. By “bases” I mean all the mental aspects of a piece and what must be thought of before touching the instrument are already accounted for. I also try to present techniques for experimenting and working out some of these pre physical mental ideas. 


    Having used this method so much in the last two years, I actually find I often skim these lists and don’t necessarily need to write everything in the score anymore. Its about making sure I don’t miss anything. However, when I first started using this practice method I wrote in pencil in the score and noted nearly every detail. I will leave this choice mostly to the readers discretion, obviously I can’t force anything on anyone. But I would suggest being obsessively thorough for a couple pieces. Eventually it is both appropriate and more effective to make mental notes of these different aspects of a piece and skip intensive writing in the score. But wait until observing all these details become habit. The reason I can skim now is because I internalized a habit of looking for all these details.







    One of the goals of this method is to make teaching and lessons more pro active. If a student is working on their first fugue, walk through the analysis portion of this method with the student before they touch the music. Have the student play the different contrapuntal lines individually on the guitar and give them advice about phrasing. Play the two main contrapuntal lines as duets with the teacher and the student so the student can hear the lines together. Then have the student do the same exercises and analysis on their own with another passage for their next lesson. Its my hope to teach musician to fish.


    I can’t stress enough two more important points. First, one of the things that has to change is the idea that a performer is playing an instrument. I think part of the problem of musicianship is that the idea of the instrument and musicality are not treated separately enough. One needs to know how to make a piece sound like it has phrasing, articulation, and musicality before attempting to do so on the instrument. If a performer is not singing a melodic line with correct phrasing they probably don’t have the correct sound memorized in their mind for the passage and they probably can’t hear in their mind what correct phrasing sounds like. If the sound of a passage is incorrect in your mind it will very likely come out incorrect on the instrument.


    To put it another way, one must learn to play music correctly and then learn to play the music on the instrument. And to be more philosophical, one must enjoy just the music and playing music in addition to and before playing an instrument. So that brings me to a second really important point. Playing melodic lines, bass lines, contrapuntal voices, inner voices in an alberti bass, really almost any part of a passage individually is an important component of this method. Playing a line with ones voice, another instrument, or the guitar, and doing so to work out expression, articulation, and phrasing, is a very powerful tool in the tool box. If you are not a proficient sight singer or sight reader playing the lines individually can help you hear the music and work out phrasing, articulation, and expression. I tell my students to put the music on the instrument not the instrument on the music. If that expression seems a touch nonsensical, I blame the Spanish musicians I have studied with over the years who say things that sound profound but are actually difficult to make sense of. Do you know what “playing from the string” means?













    Below is the first list of analytical things to think about in the analysis portion of the method. This information is to be observed in the score.


Large scale structural analysis.


Mark large sections, phrases, and sub phrases using letters and numbers (A, a, 1, Roman numerals, etc.). 


For large pieces count the measures and give every row of measures and every four measures its number so things are easy to refer to. (Klickstein 44)

Look for the piece’s large structures like binary form, ternary form, ABA, ABACADA, AABA, 32 bar form, 16 bar form, 12 bar form, sonata form, rondeau form, dance forms, etc.


Be on the lookout for 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 12, and 16 bar phrases and sub phrases. (some of this may become more obvious or refined after harmonic and melodic analysis).


Note any double bar lines as these often separate phrases or sections.


Note major key changes. These also mark major changes in sections or phrases.


Note if the meter changes. These also mark major changes in sections or phrases.


Note significant differences in texture between sections or phrases. Many theory classes put great emphasis on brainy concepts like harmonic analysis or interval analysis but many works such as the Bach solo violin sonatas can very easily be visibly broken down by their texture. You could do a macro level analysis of most of the solo violin sonatas simply by noting which parts of the score have one, two, and three voices.


Note any Codas, DS signs, etc.


If you're piece is a dance piece, identify its rhythmic patterns; especially were the accent falls in the measure. This can be an instance where listening to an authoritative recording by someone who specializes in the genre can be a huge help.


Note when different phrases or sections share, repeat, or vary any of the features mentioned in the above list. If a phrase or section at the beginning of the piece is identical to one at the end of the piece, there is now one less phrase or section to practice. It may also be a place to change tone color or use an alternative fingering.


Learn any unfamiliar language, like musical terms from other languages, signs for dynamics or style, etc.


Section and phrase level analysis.


Note any melodic sequences. Sequences might be a key component in a phrase with the end of a sequence also being an end of a phrase.


Note scales being used in a passage (major, minor, harmonic minor, melodic minor, pentatonic, diminished, whole tone, the modes of the major and melodic minor scales). If the scale in the passage can be fingered similar to a scale exercise you have done in your technique practice, you now have one less thing to practice.


Note any sections of 2, 3, or 4 voice counterpoint. A change in the number of voices may mark the end of a phrase or section.


Note any long contrapuntal melodic lines.


Note all the harmonies in each measure. Your left hand fingers will be influenced by the harmonies implied in the measure.


Note any harmonic progressions. This allows you to think and eventually memorize not in terms of individual notes but instead in terms of larger chunks of information in the form of chord progressions. Many sections of Bach look complicated on the page but end up just using many of the same open chord fingerings that a beginning guitar student would know and progressions that a student with moderate experience has done many times such as ii V I or IV V I.


Note any arpeggios you are familiar with. It is possible you may have worked on an exercise that uses a similar right hand fingering to the arpeggio in the piece.


Note changes in harmonic rhythm or phrase rhythm in phrases and sub phrases. (This may become more obvious after harmonic and rhythmic analysis). Harmonic rhythm often changes between phrases.


Note any rhythmic figures or patterns that are prevalent in a section.


Note any ornament signs that are indicated or that would be appropriate even when not indicated. Write in the score the ornament you decide to use. Stealing  ornaments from recordings by master performers or performers who specialize in the genre of music you are working on is great a idea for ornaments.


Be aware of or write in the appropriate use of the following: accents, strong accents, tenutos, brief tenutos, staccato, etc.







Constantly be mindful of the above points. Some analysis will be obvious right away from looking at the score or singing and playing lines in the score individually. Some analysis may become more clear as you continue through the followings sections and spend more time with the piece.


It is not a bad idea to do the large scale analysis portion of the above list before the section and phrase analysis before physically practicing. In other words, get a broad concept of the piece as a whole, but don’t work out section and phrase level details until you are ready to physically practice. My experience was that if I did too much analysis of the entire piece, I would come back to a section I had thoroughly analyzed and remember less. I also found myself changing many of the details on the section and phrase level. But if I did my large scale structural analysis of the piece I could organize my practice time based on how I sectioned off the piece and then do the section and phrase level analysis on passages I would actually be physically practicing soon so that the analysis aided my physical practice and memorization.