Finding the Nuts and Bolts of Western Music

I’ve had a patchy journey in music with more than one long gap of several years in between where I hardly touched the keyboard. But I can confidently say that western classical music is an integral part of me, since it keeps coming back to me in different forms, but always with the same intensity.

The most recent pursuit to learn historic improvisation has been the most exciting yet, truly a revelation. And whether I end up being able to improvise in real time or not, the inner workings of eighteenth century music is no longer a mystery to me.

The one thing that has been truly eye-opening is to learn that the music is built bottom-up, the bass being the most important voice. This was totally counter-intuitive to me, always having thought of music as melody-first and all other stuff going on below as “accompaniment” whose only role was to add harmonic colour to the melody.

Also, probably adding to the difficulty in understanding the primacy of the bass is the physiological fact that the higher frequency notes tend to be more prominent in our perception. But to some extent I have started hearing the bass notes and when I sight-read new music I have begun to pay more attention to what the bass is doing.

Of course, I knew of cadences and chord progressions but they seemed more like an analytical superimposition to make sense of polyphonic music rather than actual tools to create music. Getting to know about partimento and playing some of the simplest ones, has therefore been mindblowing.

A partimento, a single voice line in the left hand that holds within it the clues to the voices which need to be sounded above it, is probably the most ingenious pedagogical tool that has ever been developed to explain to the music student what lies under the hood. The best part is that it doesn’t explain it in words but through puzzles which the student has to solve.

And getting to know the nuts and bolts in this way actually means being able to make your own music.

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