Dissecting the Melody of “America The Beautiful”

A companion-post to this is “Motive: Beyond Simple Identification“.

The song America The Beautiful by Katharine Lee Bates and Samuel Ward is the topic of a lovely NPR feature, Rob Kapilow’s What Makes It Great. It can be heard here. Designed for public radio audiences, it is very accessible to people with no musical training or knowledge of specialized jargon. What Kapilow did  was describe the song’s use of melodic motive in plain English. The song is so saturated with motive that I think it’s worth translating the description back to jargon to explain it with more depth.

Here’s the sheet music (click the image to enlarge and click here to download it as a PDF).

America The Beautiful

The music starts with two motives that we can label  and y.

America The Beautiful motives_0001

Notice how neither motive is constricted by bar lines; the pick-up note is part of what makes these motives clear. Also notice that important traits distinguish these motives: x has a distinctive rhythm (Kapilow calls it “short-long… a dot”) and a special downward-skip melodic contour.

Motive y has a plain rhythm of six steady notes, and its contour is different every time it appears. It’s often noted that rhythm is the most important parameter for making a motive identifiable; everyone points to Beethoven’s Fifth’s DA-DA-DA-DUMMMM as an example. But what is noteworthy (no pun intended) about the simple rhythm of  America’s six notes? It’s that they occupy a special place in the musical hypermeter — the  “location” of these notes in the phrase. In this case, all phrases are in a traditional folky pattern of four bars in length with the music coming to repose (the “cadence point”) on the downbeat of every fourth bar.

America The Beautiful summary_0005

Take a moment now to examine the music, labeling each occurrence of x and each occurrence of y. Unlike in most songs, when you are done you will have labeled every single note of the tune as being identical to x or y or a variant of it. Examine how the variants are related to their first occurrences, or to each other. Then consider this question: what else in this melody provides the elegance that has led this song to be a cherished America classic? After you’re done, return to this page and read the rest.

Continue reading Dissecting the Melody of “America The Beautiful”

Modulation: An Introduction

math-compass-clipart-46820_compass_lgBasic definitions

Modulation – moving from one key to another – occurs in many forms of music. In classical music, it is often an important dramatic feature, and is a structural element in certain musical forms (especially sonata and rounded binary form). Like modulation, tonicization implies another key as a tonal center; the difference is that a modulation is confirmed through a cadence in the new key. A key or chord may be tonicized in the middle of a phrase, with no cadence to confirm it as a modulation.

There are two basic methods of modulation: pivot and direct.

  • A pivot modulation is found in the middle of a phrase when one harmony or a single pitch is “reinterpreted” to function in each of two keys.
  • A direct modulation tends to be found when a new phrase suddenly begins in a new key. There may be one or more turnaround chords (explained below) that soften the transition between keys. Turnarounds are not technically “pivot chords” since they do not occur in the middle of a phrase.

Continue reading Modulation: An Introduction

Journaling for Composition Lessons


Ten out of ten composition lessons that I teach end with me jotting down a short list of repertoire for the student to study over the coming week. Most often, these pieces are chosen because their instrumentation or compositional approach is similar to that being used by the student. They also tend to have the secondary goal of broadening the student’s experience and leading them toward more adventurous and distinctive writing.

As far as I can tell, my students almost never follow through. To the professor (that’s me, but I think most composition professors do this), it is one of the essential parts of the lesson. To the student, it seems like extra work when all they really want to do is sit down and make stuff up.

With this in mind, I decided to create this page and direct students to it. What follows is a list of questions that must be answered for each piece of music assigned as listening. Some of them are “due diligence” to make sure that a score and recording were, in fact, located and perused. Others are designed to help guide the student’s study of the score and suggest practical ways that hearing new music can help a musician progress as a learner and gain new tools for composition.

Continue reading Journaling for Composition Lessons

Key Modulation: Elgar’s “Moths and Butterflies”

elgar-cover

Learning to follow key changes is not easy for many students, especially when they are asked to locate modulations themselves and distinguish between different methods of modulation. Here is a step-by-step guide that uses a charming example of Romantic music: Edward Elgar’s Moths and Butterflies from The Wand of Youth Second Suite. More practice is also available on this site in “Modulation Practice: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.”

Step One: Get to know the music

Begin by hearing a recording [here’s one on YouTube] while reading the sheet music [it’s on imslp.org — Moths and Butterflies is the third movement]. Please note that this piano reduction has two mistakes! The right hand chord on beat 1 of bar 3 should have a D♯, not a C♯. In that same bar, the left hand should return to bass clef; its two notes are both E, and the bass clef continues until treble is restored in bar 5 as shown.

Continue reading Key Modulation: Elgar’s “Moths and Butterflies”

Decoding the “Love On Top” Modulations

For the last few years, whenever I teach modulations, the song “Love On Top” (Beyoncé Knowles/Terius Nash/Shea Taylor) is brought up by students. It’s a modulating tour-de-force insomuch as it moves through five keys with surprising swiftness, and it doesn’t hurt that modulations like this are uncommon in R&B.

As impressive as it is, there’s just one trick used four times. Here’s how it goes.

Continue reading Decoding the “Love On Top” Modulations

Modulation Practice: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

I find that students often feel “thrown into the pool” when confronted with analysis of modulations in a full piece of music. It is one thing to describe modulations in the context of a short passage (especially when it is in a simple chord-by-chord format, as it was for most of my undergraduate theory education), and another thing altogether when in the context of real, textured music.

To bridge this gap, I offer this “play-by-play” analysis using an example from the first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Here’s a PDF of the sheet music, which is in a piano reduction by the composer Paul Dukas. We’ll be looking at bars 39-76, which begin in the fourth bar of the third system of page 3. Here it is as a jpg, too (click to enlarge).

Continue reading Modulation Practice: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

Modulation: Don’t Believe What You’ve Been Told!

I love teaching modulation, but I am not satisfied with the common approaches to teaching it. We used to use Kostka & Payne at WCU (my experience with this book stops at the fifth edition, which is what I quote below), which is the text I learned from as a student. They seem to represent the consensus, that there are two kinds of modulation-by-pivot techniques:

Pivot modulations

Modulation by common chord. This is always taught first, which reveals a bias toward classical practice. It gets lots of ink in the textbook because it is something that can be broken down into steps and explained ad nauseum. The technique is to find the first harmony that works for the new key (usually its dominant) and back up to find the pivot harmony that works equally well in both keys. Students hate this… they never can remember that a common chord is common to both tonalities. But who can blame them? To a listener, the modulation begins with a chromatic shift. Continue reading Modulation: Don’t Believe What You’ve Been Told!

Studying Art Song

Preparing to teach a unit on Copland’s Twelve Poems Of Emily Dickinson to a class of composers who will, in turn, compose the “thirteenth song” as a style-study exercise. Thanks to Robert Maggio for the genesis of this unit and for most of these ideas!

And, for a quick link, here are the complete poems of Emily Dickinson.

When studying these songs, be sure to consider…

Continue reading Studying Art Song