Monday, February 25, 2008

What's the difference between an alto and a soprano?

The term alto is one of many vocal range classifications; it refers to the second highest possible vocal range. Just lower than a soprano, an alto range will typically fall from the E or F below middle C to the C or D an octave above it; it's the voice that falls between a tenor and a low, or mezzo, soprano. Alto singers are typically female, but it's entirely possible for a male to fall into the alto category. One a female, it's a voice rich and deep, one that is easily able to convey any sort of emotion. Though the soprano voice is highly coveted in opera and choral singing, the alto voice is very favorable in rock music or other types of popular composition. Karen Carpenter and Toni Braxton represent the allure of such a voice; they are two of the most famous alto singers in popular music.

Alto singers are often known for carrying the weight of the upper register in a choral ensemble. Though the soprano voice is responsible for the majority of a song's melody, the alto voice is what fills out the chord, creating the harmonies absolutely essential to a song's functioning. It's the kind of voice that sometimes goes unnoticed in a choral ensemble (most people hearing a piece for the first time seek out the primary melody), but one that holds the song together; without the alto voice, a piece would feel unfinished, nowhere near as full. As a result, most alto singers have a heightened sense of harmonic vocalizing; it's not uncommon for an alto to naturally sing a lower harmony to any piece of music put in front of them. This is a trait desirable in almost any musical group responsible for writing its own songs; the ability to harmonize and harmonize well is the very basis of an alto singer's craft.

Friday, February 22, 2008

What is an "acoustic piano"?

From time to time students ask me "what is an acoustic piano? Is it different than a regular piano?

The term acoustic piano is a fancy, more descriptive way of referring to a normal piano. It's typically only called an acoustic piano when being mentioned in conjunction with digital or electronic pianos; without those barriers, the acoustic piano needs no distinction. It is, simply, a piano. It comes in various forms, some better than others, and is usually considered a part of the percussion section; an acoustic piano has the potential to drive the rhythm just as effectively as the drums.

One of the most startling facts for a music-loving child to learn is that an acoustic piano is actually a string instrument; growing accustomed to violins and cellos as rote for the string section, it seems so unlikely to us as children that an acoustic piano could fall in that category. An acoustic piano produces sound by a series of strings stretched on a frame; the strings on a grand acoustic piano are stretched horizontally, producing a thick sound, while the strings on an upright acoustic piano are stretched vertically, tending to make the sound more tinny. The keys on an acoustic piano are attached to tiny hammers; when triggered by pressing a key, these hammers hit a string and produce that familiar acoustic piano sound.

An acoustic piano consists of a large wooden frame enclosing the strings and pedal mechanics and a keyboard which is used to actually play the instrument. The keyboard generally has 88 keys (though sometimes less or more, depending on the manufacturer), each of which corresponds to a specific pitch; these pitches are named after the first seven letters of the alphabet and retain that name regardless of the octave. The 88 keys on an acoustic piano hold roughly seven octaves with the lowest octave starting to the left; the white keys represent the seven natural notes of a diatonic scale, and the black keys function as the accidentals.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Sonata Form

Sonata form is a very rigid method of musical composition; it can refer to either an entire piece of music or the first movement of a symphony. Though sonata form is an integral part of a symphony, sonata form as an entire piece of music tends to be a bit more complicated as more attention and time is given to each individual part within the intricate composition.

Sonata form is generally divided into five parts: introduction, exposition, development, recapitulation and coda. The introduction within sonata form is generally the shortest part of the piece, at times omitted completely if it isn't completely necessary. A sonata form introduction is often dynamic-building, a slower part that increases with weight as it moves forward, pushing the song toward the exposition -- the most important part.

The sonata form exposition is the meat of the song, the area in which the major thematic subjects are introduced. The exposition itself is divded into a series of subject groups. The first subject group in sonata form introduces a theme, followed by a brief transition used to switch keys. The second subject group brings altered melodies into the sonata form in a different key than the first group; it is primarily used to change the piece's mood. It is followed by the sonata form codetta, which revisits various themes within the exposition and signals the end of the part.

Sonata form development is exactly that: development of the subject found in the exposition. In order to make the sonata form development work effectively, however, the subjects have to be very altered, sometimes introducing one or two elements completely new to the song. It is followed by the sonata form recapitulation, which revisits the exposition. It is divided into the same groupings as the original exposition with the parts unchanged -- except for the transitional key change, which is usually abandoned.

The final part of the sonata form is the coda, a part that essentially repeats the end of the song. The sonata form coda can, of course, be altered, but it is rarely so altered as to become unrecognizable.

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