Tuesday, March 22, 2011: Spring, Part 2
A, B, C, Sharps, Flats … Too Many Notes?
Q: I’ve never understood why a piece of music has a name with something like “in D Flat.” What does that mean?
A. In order to make music, everyone agrees to sing or play using exactly the same sets of sounds, or tones. In traditional Western music there are eight main tones in a row, called an octave. You may know this as tones that go up in order, from low to high, as “do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do.”
In written music the same tones have letter names, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and back to A again (at the top).
Any piece of music can be written with one of these tones as its foundation base. (For example, a song in the key of C = C, D, E, etc., and C again at the top.)
A tone that’s slightly lower is called a flat, written like the letter b ; or slightly higher, called a sharp, written # . You can see flats and sharps by looking at a piano. They’re the black keys.
A piece that’s played or sung in D flat means that the foundation base for the song are the notes in the octave from D to high D, but actually just slightly lower than that, D flat to D flat.
Q: But sometimes a piece has a name like “D Flat Major.” What’s that?
A: A song can pick the original notes of the octave, and “flatten” some more of them to make a more sombre sound. The easiest way to tell the difference is in the mood of the piece. Pieces written in a major key seem light, basic, or “normal” because they use the basic tones of the octave; pieces in a minor key often seem dark, serious, threatening, or sad because they change some tones to flats.
Q: Well, how can I tell what to expect if the program is printed in Czech?
A: Like this:
Dur = Major (Note)is = sharp
Moll = Minor (Note)s = flat
Antonín Dvořák, Symfonie č 8 G dur op. 88 is Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Opus 88;
Symfonie č 9 e moll op. 95 is his Symphony No. 9 in E Minor
Franz Liszt, Koncert pro klavír a orchestr č 1 Es dur is Lizst’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in E Flat Major oo
Tomorrow: What is Chamber Music?
Welcome, Spring! In observance and celebration of the Spring solstice, Opus Osm brings you this special week-long series. It’s based on the questions and comments Opus Osm has received from our readers. So if you aren’t too sure about what to listen for in classical music … if you don’t quite feel comfortable at a concert … or if you’d like to look for special points when at a classical music concert, these articles may be helpful for you.
You may know all about these topics already. If so, please feel free to add comments (below) or to correct any of our mistakes. In any case, enjoy Spring by attending a classical music concert in your neighborhood.
Photo Credits: Zuzana Pernicová