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Analyzing the Music

15 January, 2016 - 09:13
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Bring to bear all the resources that are available to you as you try to analyze the harmony and try to understand how it affects the music.

Useful Resources

  • Find recordings of the music and listen to them.
  • Find written versions of the music that you can read, for example full scores, piano or guitar lead sheets, or song sheets with chord symbols.
  • Get out any instruments that you play and read through the music, play along with the recording, and/or try to play the music by ear, to get a feel for the melody, chords, and voicings.
  • Look for analyses of or essays about the piece by other musicians or critics. What do they say about the harmony? Is it relevant to your question?
  • Look for useful general discussions of the subject. Can you find a good text about jazz harmony or about modulation or cadences that would shed light on the music and the question you are trying to understand?
  • Is there a teacher or musician available whom you could ask specific questions when you get stuck? If there is an instructor available to help you with this inquiry, you may also want to ask for suggestions as to what specific pieces to choose, what sections of the pieces to analyze, or what aspects of the harmony you should study most closely.

You may already know what aspect of the harmony interests you. If you are not certain what it is about the harmony that is creating the effect that interests you, here are some useful things to ask as you analyze the music:

  • What chords are being used? What is their function in the key?
  • What type of chords (major, minor, seventh, suspensions, etc.) are being used?
  • What chord progressions are used; in other words, which chords tend to follow which other chords?
  • How often do chords change? Every beat, every measure, every few measures?
  • What chord voicings are being used: Which notes are on the top and bottom of the chord? Are all the notes of the chord being used? Are they clustered close together or spread out over multiple octaves?
  • What instruments are used to play the harmony parts? Is the harmony played in a high, low, or medium range? How would you describe the timbre of the harmony?
  • What kind of texture is used to create the harmony: block chords, arpeggios, counterpoint, a bass line that simply implies the harmony?
  • Are the answers to any of these questions different for different parts of the music? (For example, do chords change more often in the refrain than in the verse?)

As you listen to, look at, read about, and otherwise study the music, you may find yourself struggling to answer some of these questions. If a question does not seem relevant to your investigation, you can ignore it. If you feel that understanding it may be the key to your inquiry, however, you may end up focusing your investigation, for example, on understanding counterpoint, chord voicings, or how a bass line can imply an entire harmony.