Great Beginnings

There’s a literary parlor game: can you name a famous novel from just its first word? It sounds impossible, perhaps, but some novels have opening lines famous enough to make this a potentially amusing pastime. For example, for those who know their classic American novels, the challenge word “Call” might elicit the opening sentence of Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” Or–staying with English, but not America–“It” might well evoke Dicken’s famous “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” from A Tale of Two Cities.

You can see that there are a few conditions needed for this to work as a game. The novel must be well-known, it must have a distinctive opening line, and it must not give away too much (by, say, beginning with a prominent character’s name.) Ideally, there should be only one solution–though that is perhaps not necessary. Jane Austen fans, presented with “It,” would surely recall not Dickens, but the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

It–there’s that word again–occurred to me that the same thing would work with music. Indeed, it might work better, as the first sonority of a piece, notated, actually contains a great deal more information than just a single word, and is more distinctive. In addition to the actual sonority, there’s the relation to the key signature, there’s the language(s) of the tempo direction and expression marks, and there’s the instrumental designation–all can furnish helpful hints. Hence, “Great Beginnings.”

Below, I’ve quoted five beginnings–either of a whole multi-movement work, or (in one case) of a movement of one. Each is a celebrated opening, noteworthy or at least memorable in some fashion. How many can you name?

GB #1
Great Beginnings 1-1
GB #2
Great Beginnings 1-2
GB #3
Great Beginnings 1-3
GB #4
Great Beginnings 1-4
GB #5
Great Beginnings 1-5

I’ll reveal answers in a subsequent post–say, in a week or two. An additional challenge: can you propose any “Great Beginnings” of your own?

WWJD 1.3

For readers who missed the first two parts of this musical parlor game, “WWJD” stands for “What Would Johann Do?”—Johann, of course, being the incomparable J.S. Bach.

The idea is this:  in Part One, I present an actual Bach chorale melody, stripped of its harmonization.  Any ‘players’ there may be send in their harmonization—emailed Finale files will work, PDFs or JPEGs are fine, too, including cell phone pictures.  You can also do as reader ‘thrig’ did:  submit via soundcloud (or some similar service) or on your own blog, by simply writing a WWJD comment giving the link.

In Part Two, I give my harmonization.  (The ‘house’ always plays!  But in this game, the house never wins—although players can win free sheet music downloads.)

Then, in Part Three, we take a look at what Bach did.  (Call it an exercise in humility!)

For navigational ease, I’ve made “WWJD” a category so you don’t have to pick through the front page or through archives.  Just look for “WWJD” under the “Categories” heading on the left sidebar.  Clicking there will bring up all WWJD posts, so you can follow them in sequence.  (Though they appear in reverse order; if there’s a way to change the sorting, I haven’t found it yet.)

Submissions to WWJD 1 came from thrig and, of course, the ‘house:’


WWJD I 1.2

The melody, as thrig noted in a previous comment, is not hard to find in the Riemenschneider edition of Bach’s 371 harmonized chorales; it’s the very first one.  Or part of it, at least—and that’s worth a side-note.

Many Lutheran chorals have been considered to be in ‘bar form.’  The term comes from the German Meistersinger guilds, and has come to refer to a formal pattern consisting of two parts, of which the first (usually shorter) is repeated while the second is not—AAB.  There’s a succinct explanation of this at Wikipedia:

WWJD 1.1 gave the “A” section of the chorale melody—the aufgesang.  You can see (and hear) the complete chorale online at this site:

(You can also read a wealth of material about the chorales, about Bach and prominent Bach interpreter Glenn Gould, and various other interests of the proprietor.)

Without more ado, the ‘reveal’ of WWJD 1:

WWJD I 1.3

Let’s walk through the leading features of this.  Bach opens with a five-chord prolongation of the tonic:  the melody arpeggiates the G major triad, supported by a subdominant-dominant progression in first inversion.

I followed suit, by luck, inspiration, or just possibly by subconscious recollection.  But Bach gets extra points for the artful passing tone figure in the tenor.  Note that it’s a ‘consonant passing tone,’ in which a different triad—a root position vi—results from the tenor motion.  This never would have occurred to me, because as a modern, academically-trained musician, I naturally doubled the root, not the third, of the IV chord.  Bach was more flexible about doublings.

The second complete bar is interesting.  I’ve arpeggiated the IV triad, creating a 7-6 suspension in the process.  Not bad—but Bach’s version is, unsurprisingly, stronger.  The V-vi ‘deceptive cadence’ progression is livelier and more colorful.  It also sets up the subdominant on the next downbeat, since in Bach’s version the subdominant has not yet been heard in root position, making it a ‘fresh’ sonority.

There’s another noteworthy feature in the second bar: note how his tenor ‘overlaps’ the bass part on beat two, descending below the preceding bass tone.  Modern theory students are usually discouraged from writing any voice overlaps, but this stepwise overlap is not an isolated example within the ‘371.’

(Of course, modern ‘rules’ for part-writing aren’t meant primarily to reflect the historical practice of Bach (or anyone else), though they may be founded upon that practice; they are meant to provide a relatively simple model that students can use to internalize ‘normalized’ common-practice voice-leading patterns.)

But—returning to the point—it is the second phrase where Bach’s version shines the brightest.  My version is OK—the bass-line’s design is essentially a descent from tonic to dominant, with the dominant function prolonged by a cadential six-four chord in the penultimate measure.

(By the way, readers wanting to brush up on cadential six-fours can do so at the link below.)

Part-writing Inverted Chords: Second-Inversion Patterns II–Passing & Cadential

Bach’s version, though, is really and truly magnificent in its elegance.  In his version, the motion from tonic to dominant is an ascent from the lower tonic.  Its upward sweep generates great momentum leading into the final cadence.  The simplicity and (paradoxically) the imagination of the voice-leading are also wonderful:  the lower three voices move in parallel first-inversion triads, while the soprano follows a contrary scalar pattern.  (Streaming parallel six-three chords had been a popular technique of the early Renaissance, under the name fauxbourdon.)

Again, a couple of doublings result which are not so academically ‘correct’:  the doubled fifth in the viio6 (last beat, fifth complete measure) ‘should’ be a doubled third, and the doubled third in the following I6 is generally viewed as doubling option 3 these days.  No-body would call them ‘wrong’ (I think!)—but they aren’t the first options we’d teach theory students.

But when you have such strong lines, working so powerfully, you don’t complain about the details of doubling—that is not the priority!  Doubling rules are like the “Pirate’s Code” of movie fame, anyway—“more of a guideline.”

But having descended from the sublime to the ridiculous, let me ascend once again, by closing with a realization of Bach’s harmonization for you to hear:

I’ll Take The Fifth

Beethoven’s Fifth, of course—this is a music blog.

But not the first movement.  It gets all the love already, what with that famous “fate knocks at the door/V for victory” head motive, and its very own P.D.Q. Bach spoof, “New Horizons In Music Appreciation.”  (If you like, you can check it out at the link below.  I’ll wait!)

But the third movement has lots to admire, too.  There a just a couple of things to keep in mind as we take a look (and listen) to it.

First, its form:  symphonic third movements during the Classical period were generally examples of either of the “minuet-and-trio” or of its derivative form, the “scherzo and trio.”  This specimen is no exception, falling into the latter category.  The minuet and trio set the formal pattern, though, so let’s look at that for a moment.

A Minuet is in moderate triple meter, and usually in rounded binary form, consisting of a first section—symbolized by the letter A—and a second section.  This second section begins with differing material—‘B’—usually in a different but related key, such as the dominant, or (in the case of a minor key minuet) the relative major.  This ‘B’ section then concludes with a return to the ‘A’ material, so that the overall form of the Minuet becomes A|BA.

The trio—which may or may not be an actual trio by texture, though it often features lighter scoring—is usually likewise in rounded binary form.  It is followed by a restatement of the minuet, making an overall form that is ternary—ABA.

The scherzo follows this general pattern for the most part, but with significant alterations.  First, the tempo is usually faster, and the character is different.  As Wikipedia puts it, “Beethoven in particular [turns] the polite rhythm of the minuet into a much more intense—and sometimes even savage—dance.”

Second, the form usually possesses ‘irregular’ features, accounting perhaps for the term “scherzo” (Italian for “joke.”)  The irregular is the unexpected, and the unexpected is frequently humorous.

Having discussed the form of the scherzo, let’s turn to the second of our points to keep in mind:  tonal language.

Classical harmony tends to operate between two polarized tonal functions:  the tonic and dominant.  The tonic is stability and repose; the dominant, suspense and motion.  Other chords, when they are present, are arrayed around this crucial polarity, mediating between tonic and dominant.  But they frequently fade tactfully away altogether when not required—and they may not be required for surprisingly long periods of time.  This polarization sets up expectations which can become the occasion for ‘play’—for ‘scherzi.’

(By the way, readers wanting to sharpen up on tonic and dominant harmonies in various keys can do so at either of these two articles linked below.  Both feature interactive practice exercises.)

But let’s return to the ‘pre-requisites’ of our discussion.  The final point I must highlight is the technique of ‘modal mutation.’  As I’m using the term here, it means altering the third of a chord to change it from minor to major (as in the most well-known ‘modal mutation’ idiom, the Picardy third)—or, less frequently, the reverse.

Here’s a tiny (synthetic) example of the “Picardy third:”


For the first three measures, the harmonies are clearly those of C minor; but the E natural in the final tonic triad effects the ‘modal mutation’ of the “Picardy third,” creating a C major triad.

So what does Beethoven do with these conventions and norms we’ve been laying out?  Let’s ‘walk through’ the movement and see.

He begins with what sounds rather like an introduction, rather than a theme proper:  a double rising ‘misterioso’ idea that basically forms an 8-bar long i-V progression in C minor.


This figure is repeated and made more emphatic by a two measure extension, and concluding again with a fermata.

We then hear a new theme that certainly merits the term “savage”:  horns pound out a variant of the first movement’s famous “fate” motive.  It begins like this:


Note that although this theme starts out in as clear a C minor as you could ever wish to see, it quickly veers away toward the relative major, Eb.  (The Bb triad ending the cited bit would be the dominant in Eb.)  But the idea doesn’t stabilize; it careers wildly, seemingly toward ever-more-distant flat keys, settling with another half-cadence—that is, a cadence to the ‘suspense chord’ of the dominant—this time, in Eb minor.  (Yes, that would be the modal ‘mutant’ of Eb major, which it initially appeared the passage might make its tonal destination.)

The extended cadential chord is worth quoting—Beethoven embellishes a structural dominant with a tonic:

IITF VEx4This Bb major triad becomes the setup for ‘uno scherzo’—quite literally, a musical pun:  the dominant of Eb is modally mutated to a Bb minor—as expressed by the ‘misterioso’ rising theme, where it functions as a tonic triad.  A dominant is thus ‘turned into’ a tonic, linked by the common Bb root, just as the contrasting meanings of the words in a verbal pun are linked by a similar sound (assonance.)

As it turns out, this section is the contrasting section of the scherzo, articulated not by thematic differences, but by the contrasting key.  The ‘misterioso’ theme—via further extensions and a new transition passage—leads back into the ‘pounding’ theme, once again in C minor; this settles again onto an extended half cadence, this time on F minor.

A similar tonal pun ushers in the ‘misterioso’ theme in C minor, and with it the rounding ‘A1’ section of the scherzo.  Beethoven extends the scherzo with a codetta combining the ‘misterioso’ theme, the ‘pounding’ motive, now—significantly, as it will turn out—soft; and a new ‘scurrying’ theme.  This developmental music crescendos to a last tutti utterance of the pounding motive, concluding in an abrupt, soft, perfect authentic cadence.


Having traced the scherzo in some detail, we can now move a bit faster, simply summarizing the trio.  Though it begins as a fugue—”What would Johann have done?”—it plays out rather closer to the normal rounded binary form than does the scherzo.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s set in the parallel major key of C, in yet another example of modal mutation.  Its main idea is a somewhat syncopated unison theme—the fugal ‘subject’—stated by ‘cellos and basses.  (This theme has become one of the standard ‘audition exerpts’ for bass, and may be one of the challenging bits that Carl Maria von Weber had in mind when he opined that Beethoven was now “ready for the mad-house.”)


The trio also features some play with extended dominant harmonies, rather as the scherzo does.  But it is much more diatonic, rarely straying far from the main key.  Self-deprived of piquant tonal contrasts, Beethoven animates the music with syncopation and contrapuntal play.

The real masterstroke is the handling of the recapitulation of the scherzo.  The ‘misterioso’ theme returns verbatim, and convention would have us expect the ‘pounding’ theme to do likewise.

But what we get—though at first literal enough, in terms of the pitch and rhythmic structure—is in important ways the polar opposite.  The repeated notes are now heard pianissmo, cheeping bird-like on a pair of clarinets, and again in a dry tip-toeing pizzicato, accompanied by short, thin-sounding chords, shot through with silence.  Where are our savage horns now?


We get the extended half-cadence, and still there are no horns.  We get the codetta, more or less, and there is a tiny bit of horn, but it’s piano too—not at all the same thing we were expecting.  The movement proper closes with a solo bassoon whispering those repeated notes hoarsely to yet more pizzicato strings.  No horns, nothing above a whisper at all.

A listener could feel a bit cheated…

But then the theme comes to rest on a deceptive cadence, and we know that there is more.

Appropriately, for a movement in which functions are subverted—dominant becoming tonic, the prefatory becoming thematic, and the thematic becoming developmental—and in which the emphasis has often been upon the second structural unit, not the first—we get, unexpectedly, a sustained transition that in effect turns the entire movement into a prologue.  At the end of it, we are going to get our brass:  and not just the horns, not just the trumpets, but an entire 7-piece brass section, including, for the first time in symphonic history, three trombones.

And their mood is not savage, but festive, as they announce, fortissimo, the definitive triumph of C major.  But that would be another story, technically; for the transition leads directly into the fourth movement.  (This may be the first time this was done in a symphony; it’s the first really prominent example of which I’m aware.)

But the finale is another story—today, it’s enough to praise the imagination and skill with which this remarkable scherzo serves the larger structure of the most famous symphony of them all.

WWJD 1.2

It is, I suppose, time to ‘put up or shut up.’

Reader thrig, of the blog Anthropocene Daze—and what a delicious title that is, by the way—is the sole respondent so far to the challenge of “What Would Johann Do?”  I need to emulate him, and ‘show my work.’

Thrig posted the following harmonization of the melody given in the first post in this series:


It’s got a few modern features—notably the way the bass and alto step away from the dominant at the final cadence, creating what ‘looks like’ a vii half-diminished four-three.  But as the realization posted at AD serves to document, it’s musically quite serviceable, and the ‘modernisms’ come across as relatively subtle alterations of, or departures from, a predominantly 18th-century style.

There are one or two things a little out of the ordinary in my stab at this, too.  Probably the most notable is the use of a ‘retardation’—an inverted (that is, upward-resolving) suspension—in the 3rd complete measure.  While this is an idiom that’s taught in theory class, I don’t personally recall noticing it in an actual Bach chorale.

WWJD I 1.2

The musical strategy is relatively simple to describe:  the first five beats prolong tonic, using a IV-V progression in first inversion.  This is followed by a bass arpeggiation of the subdominant, leading to the structural dominant at the fermata in measure 4.  The bass then recapitulates the descent from tonic to dominant, the dominant being prolonged by a textbook cadential six-four chord in measure 6.

I’ll admit to having been a bit proud of this, as I contemplated it when ‘freshly pressed.’  The bass seemed to me well-designed and coherent, with the arrival of the dominant caesura effective, and the following descent logical, even compelling.

And actually, I still think it’s pretty good.  If you’d like to check out a musical realization, you can hear a faux organ version here:

But–you should see what Johann did!

And you will, with the final post in this installment of WWJD I.  (That’ll be coming your way in a week or so, right here in this space.)

In the mean time, would anyone care to join thrig and I in the “WWJD challenge?”  If so, just post your harmonization in a comment or an email.  You could even email me a cell phone shot of a napkin jotting, if you really want to go all Schoenberg on me.  Just go to my website,

Metering “I Hung My Head”

One of the ironies of music genre categorization these days is that Sting’s solo work now tends to be termed ‘soft rock.’

Part one of the irony is that that genre is functionally the successor to ‘easy listening,’ which I think has become more or less extinct.  (Correct me if I’m wrong on that, and it’s merely become increasingly obscure and irrelevant.)

Part two is that Sting has consistently challenged genre boundaries, not only by invoking stylistic types at will whenever they serve the narrative purpose of a song’s lyrics—say, the ‘country music’ style of I’m So Happy—but also by using really challenging musical materials, such as composite meters and complex harmonies.  These, too, are often related to what a given song is about.

A case in point is I Hung My Head, the second track on the 1995 album Mercury Falling, which, Wikipedia tells us, “marked Sting’s transition from heavier jazz-inspired rock to the adult contemporary* genre.”  Although the narrative is set in the old American West, the musical style is anything but 19th century:  the original setting of the song is built around a heavily distorted electric guitar riff—one whose rhythm is strangely elusive and unsettled.

The Wikipedia article on the song describes it this way:

The song is written in compound time 9/8.  The curious offbeat rhythm has the effect of alternating 5-beat and 4-beat bars. The drum beat is syncopated, on the 3rd and 8th beats.

I conceptualize it a bit differently.  Nine-eight time is normally (as the article says) a ‘compound’ time signature, meaning that the beat unit is not a simple note value such as a quarter note or half note, but rather a dotted note value—in nine-eight, the dotted quarter note.  The implication is that the measure consists of three beats, each further subdivided into threes:  “ONE two three FOUR five six SEV’N eight nine”—or “ONE and-a TWO and-a THREE and-a.”

That’s a very different beast from the ‘curious offbeat rhythm’ we hear in I Hung My Head.  My interpretation proceeds partly from the ‘drum beat’, which evokes the familiar rock and roll “back beat” drum ‘hits’ on beats two and four:  “one TWO three FOUR.”  Here, though, we’ve got an extra eighth note inserted into beat three:  “one and TWO and three and-a FOUR and.”  Thus the meter becomes a ‘distorted four.’

Transcribed in the resulting ‘composite’ meter, the vocal melody looks like this:

I Hung My Head--melody (excerpt)

It’s really unusual.  Even in styles where composite meter is fairly normal—say, the Rumanian folk music whose melodies Bela Bartok famously collected, and which so influenced his compositional style—it’s much more common to have the ‘augmented beat’ (the one with three subdivisions) fall at either the beginning or the end of the measure, where its tendency to create an accent makes a great start or ending.  Inserted in the middle, it’s unsettling, destabilizing.

It’s also appropriate.  Like the narrator, we listeners wait for clarity—we, too, have “time to kill.”  (An innocent-sounding phrase with a sinister double meaning—“Early one morning/With time to kill” starts first and last verses, framing the entire song.)  That ‘time to kill’ is inserted right into the middle of each and every measure for us.

But there’s more.  Consider the bass line in conjunction with the melody:

I Hung My Head--Melody & Bass (Excerpt)

That bass line is part of the guitar riff mentioned above, performed on the lowest two strings of the guitar.  (The higher bits of the riff are omitted from the transcription for clarity.)  The accented quarter notes ending each bar help to stabilize the meter, setting up the coming downbeat.

But if focused upon—if the listener concentrates on the bass and lets the melody recede into the perceptual background—those quarter notes can induce an alternative metric scheme, a whole new meter.  It’s still composite, but now it’s one in which the second beat is the augmented one, and “beat three” arrives not on the 8th  eighth note of the measure, but on the 9th.

You might say that beat three of the ‘distorted four’ is perpetually disrupted, torn apart, by this conflict between different layers in the musical texture.  Again, it’s unsettling, disruptive.

And again, it’s appropriate:  the whole song revolves around a moment which, ‘inserted’ into the narrator’s life, disrupts it—in fact, utterly derails it.  And the metric structure I’ve been describing gives us a compelling analog for that—one that helps us feel imaginatively what is felt by the narrator.

In setting a musical text, it doesn’t get much better than that.

*”Adult contemporary is rather a continuation of the easy listening and soft rock style that became popular in the 1960s and 1970s with some adjustments that reflect the evolution of pop/rock music.”  –Wikipedia

Sting’s performances of I Hung My Head:

The 1995 original:  (Mercury Falling version)  (Click on links to navigate to Youtube videos.)

A 2010 performance with the Royal Philharmonic in Berlin:  (Royal Phil)  (Many other performances from this tour are also online.)

You can really pick out the bass line; the whole symphonic bass section is playing it.  And that guitar riff is still there, if much farther back in the mix.  There are a couple of good shots of Dominic Miller, Sting’s long-time guitarist and collaborator, flat-picking it on his white Les Paul.

Johnny Cash version:

A very interesting alternate version is Johnny Cash’s 2002 cover.  In that recording, the characteristic meter is changed to straight 4-4, and the harmonies are simplified as well.  Some listeners prefer it; Sting is said to have considered the cover an honor.  My take on it is that the unsettled, disrupted quality removed by these changes is taken on by Cash’s vocal performance.  Readers here can judge for themselves, if they wish.

2002, American IV:  The Man Comes Around: (Johnny Cash version)

WWJD 1.1

“WWJD” has become a Christian catchphrase summarizing an ethical test:  faced with a difficult decision, one is to ask “What would Jesus do?”

But in the present case–and with all respect to the original case–what I’m proposing is a bit of a musical parlor game:  “What would Johann do?”

Bach, that is–Johann Sebastian Bach.

What I’ll do in these “WWJD” posts (for I’m imagining a series of them) is this:  in part 1, I’ll present the melody of a Bach chorale.

Readers–should I actually have any–can then submit their harmonizations if they choose, the best of which I’ll present in part 2.  (Heck, I’ll even throw in a prize of some sort.)  I’ll give my harmonization, just to show I’m not a chicken.

Finally, of course, part 3 will give the original harmonization by the Master.  (Hey, if Sherlockians can use that terminology, then so can Bach enthusiasts.  JSB was at least historical!)

So, without further ado, here’s ‘WWJD I’:WWJD I 1.1


Welcome to snowonmusic!

The topic is music theory, composition, and whatever else may strike the fancy of hangers-on–because, ideally, what will be happening here is conversation.  Conversations about Doc Snow music articles, certainly–this should be a place where questions about the resolution of the chordal seventh, or about deciding if that bit in measure three is REALLY a similar fifth,  or whether to raise the third of this or that chord, are all welcome.

But also, conversations about all kinds of music–popular, classic, or just plain odd.  How to make it, how to hear it–maybe even how to keep it in context.  Who knows?  I’ll be posting ‘seeds’ to kick-start the conversation, but in the end it’ll be respondents who make this blog in their image.

For now,the topic is suggestions:  what would you like to see addressed?  What conversation do you want to have?