Symphonic Music

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Essential Vocabulary

If you can identify some of these concepts when you hear them, you know what symphonic music is.  


It's just a fancy word for twice-as-slow.    


When two or more lines of music are playing and they are equally important, you have counterpoint.  


How the music changes from beginning to end.  The more the music develops, the more symphonic it is.


It's just a fancy word for twice-as-fast


When one voice in the orchestra copies the sound of another voice, that's imitation.    


Playing the music upside-down.


This is when the music is repeated over and over.  


Playing the music backwards


When the music repeats on higher and lower pitches.


When the music repeats, but not exactly in the same way.  

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What Makes Music Symphonic?

You've listened to songs on the radio haven't you?  You probably know the biggest difference between those tunes and a symphony is their length.  A song on the radio lasts about three minutes.  A symphony can last over an hour! 

Now that we got that simple fact out of the way, let's look at other ways symphonic music is different from the music you hear on the radio.

What makes symphonic music different from other kinds of music is its development.  This is how the music changes from the beginning to end.

All music develops, even simple little tunes.  But they usually develop by repeating themselves.  Symphonic music also repeats, but not in exactly the same way.  It is those non-exact ways of repeating that makes music symphonic.  

Remember this important rule:     

The more the music develops, the more symphonic it is. 

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The simplest way for a piece to develop is repetition.  This is when the music is repeated over and over.  Listen to Bolero by Maurice Ravel.  In this piece the two themes are repeated over and over again, getting louder and louder.      

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Variations are the next step in developing symphonic music.  A variation repeats the music, but not in an exact way.  Listen to Variations on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star by Mozart.   

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Another way for symphonic music to grow is by using sequences.  A sequence is when the music repeats on higher or lower pitches.  

Have you ever been to a baseball game and heard the organist play this tune?  That is a sequence.  

Here is a sequence from a symphonic piece.  This tune is from Romeo and Juliet by Tchaikovsky.  Listen to how this love music builds and builds.  Do you hear how the sequences pile up and up?  What an exciting way to develop music!      

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Imitation is another way the composer makes his music grow.   When one voice in the orchestra copies the sound another voice, that is imitation.  When several voices in the orchestra have their turn playing the tune, it can really stretch out the music and make it much longer!  Think of Three Blind Mice being played first by a piccolo, then a trumpet, and finally a string bass. Are you getting the idea?  

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Counterpoint is when two or more lines of equal importance are playing at the same time.  Composers like Bach used counterpoint all the time in their music.  A musical form that uses counterpoint is a fugue.  To learn more about fugues, click here.  

Dixieland jazz uses counterpoint because everyone in the band is playing a different line of music, all at the same time.  It's like listening to five people talking to you, all at once!    

The easiest way to create counterpoint is by singing a round like Are You Sleeping or Row, Row, Row your Boat.  Rounds are also called canons.

Bach wrote a round that could be played forwards and backwards at the same time.  It is called a crab canon.  This is a really fun way to create counterpoint.       

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Don't let these next four words scare you:  Augmentation means making the music longer by stretching it out.  This can be done by playing the music slower so it will last longer.  Diminution means  making the music go faster.  This makes the music shorter.  Retrograde means playing the music backwards.  Inversion means playing the music upside-down. 

Pretty confusing, huh?  Let's use a familiar tune to help you understand these big words.

Listen to Yankee Doodle.  Now listen to it played twice-as-slow.  That's augmentation

Listen to Yankee Doodle played twice-as-fast.  That's diminution.

Listen to Yankee Doodle again.  Now listen to it backwards.  That's retrograde

Listen to Yankee Doodle played upside-down.  That's inversion

Listen to Yankee Doodle played upside-down and backwards.  That's retrograde inversion.     

Of course Yankee Doodle is not symphonic music, but you get the idea.  Composers use these devices to develop their music. 

You don't need to remember these fancy words.  Just remember that playing music faster or slower or backwards or upside-down are different ways to develop music.   

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony

One of the greatest symphonies ever written was Symphony Number 5 by Beethoven.  In this masterpiece the composer takes four little notes and develops them into a magnificent symphony.

Stage One:  With just four little notes, Beethoven plants the seeds of his musical flower. 

Stage Two:  These four notes begin to grow into more and more notes.

Stage Three:  The symphony is finally mature.

You are now ready to hear the entire piece.  Enjoy!

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