How does one analyze a composition? I am trying to work through Czerny 599 (The "Czerny Czallenge") but I think if I knew "why" the pieces were structured the way they are, it would be both helpful for memorization and interesting in its own right.

I know basic music theory, it's more a question of what to look for, how to start tackling a simple piece.

  • Welcome! I'm voting to close this question as too broad, but you can edit to improve it and I can retract that vote. As bakunin shows, there are many kinds of analysis; "how do you analyze a composition" is a bit like "how do you talk about a painting." You mention "structure," so maybe you'd like to narrow the question to "structural analysis." (Analyzing the structure will still involve the other kinds of analysis, since harmonic and melodic elements are major clues to structural elements.) Apr 28 at 15:22
  • It might also be nice to link to an explanation of the "Czerny challenge"; what I found by googling was a forum thread suggesting mastering a "School of Velocity" number per week. So the point is, you're looking for theoretical analysis in service of performance. (And yes, that's good, and it does really help performance to understand what's going on!) Apr 28 at 15:26
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    What is "Czerny Czallenge?" Apr 28 at 16:17

2 Answers 2


The question is asked too broadly and with not enough context to answer it succinctly. I will try to give a few general pointers, being well aware that my answers will maybe not cover what @forkandwait had in mind. If you want more direct answers then ask more direct questions.

There are three basic dimensions of a music piece. These can be analysed separately although they are of course deeply connected to each other. (Separating them is just a device to make the analysis easier, but always keep in mind that at some point you need to come to interconnected conclusions from the results of these separated analyses.)

  • rhythm and rhythmic development
  • melody and melodic development
  • overall form or structure

Rhythm is a fundamental quality of any musical piece. Quite often it is connected to certain dances and their characteristic movement patterns (waltzes, gavottes, sarabandes, ...). (West-)African and west-african-rooted music makes even more complex use of rhytmic patterns (polyrhythms, cross-rhythms).

Melodic development is the counterpart of rhythm. There is a static aspect of it (harmony) and a dynamic aspect (counterpoint in modern music, basso continuo in the baroque era, etc.). Notice, that most (printed) music theory is ultimately based on the european music tradition and uses the terminology and methods of it. This is based on physics, mind you, but i.e. arabic music makes use of more partial harmonics than european music ("quarter notes"). So, depending what you analyse, it might pay off to add other than european music theory to your background. I.e. analysing indian ragas in terms of european harmonics will not likely lead to results that make sense.

Overall form is also heavily dependent on what you analyse. For european classical music there is i.e. the sonata form, the Cantata, etc., all these based on older forms like the concierto grosso, the (from here on no more links as i can't post them) chorale, the madrigal, etc.. Notice that other musical traditions have different forms - i already mentioned indian ragas - and, like with harmony, you need to learn about the background of the respective cultural environment before you can adequately analyse a piece from that tradition.

Edit: a few sources for further study, albeit all centered on european classical music and in German:

  • Gradus ad Parnassum (J Fux); the father of them all

  • Handbuch der Harmonielehre (H. Riemann); Function Theory

  • Synthetische Harmonielehre (F. Neumann)

  • Die Natur der Harmonik und Metrik (M. Hauptmann)

  • Where have you been researching elsewhere? There are lots of youtube videos and other informations. Apr 28 at 13:18
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    What do you mean be "researching"? This is common knowledge every beginner knows. I didn't need to "research" that.
    – bakunin
    Apr 28 at 14:13
  • @AlbrechtHügli: This should probably become a comment to the question.
    – guidot
    Apr 28 at 14:59
  • @ guidot: Yes. @ bakunin: sorry , this comment was adressed to the questioner. I will delete it. Apr 29 at 21:01

There is not just one way to do analysis. Personally, I would look at analysis on these levels:

  • Harmonic with Roman numeral analysis
  • Scale degree analysis (along the lines of Gjerdingen in Music in the Galant Style) sort of a figured bass analysis with broad melodic tone analysis, scale degree are identified with a circumflex (^), ex. ^1 for the tonic scale degree, this will be mostly a two part counterpoint reduction
  • Melodic analysis, like the scale degree analysis, but including details about rhythm, and whatever melodic devices may be used, things like inversion, imitation, development of motif, etc.
  • Structural analysis, identifying phrases and cadences, key changes, and whatever standard forms may be used, for example, is it a sonata allegro form, or rounded binary, rondo, etc, etc. What structural devices are used, for example, recapitulation, or period structures.
  • Analysis of expression and mood, how basic musical elements like harmony, melody, motif, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, etc. are used to create effects. If the music is sad, why does it feel said? What musical devices are employed to create that mood?

...how to start tackling a simple piece.

For simple Czerny pieces, I think identifying cadences, key changes, common harmonic formulas, and simple motif reuse should provide a good understanding of what the music is doing.

By harmonic formulas I mean rather than just doing Roman numeral analysis (RNA) for the whole piece, look for common patterns. For example, I IV6/4 I is a common opening, which can be called a tonic prolongation, the prolongation, the elaboration of the tonic chord is what is actually important, the IV6/4 is a subordinate detail. Another common harmonic pattern is "standing on the dominant", which is sometimes called a "ponte", structurally it leads back to the tonic, and while the harmonic details will vary, the common pattern is just a prolongation of the dominant. Other common patterns are various harmonic sequences, these tend to get used to extend or elaborate for the interior structure of a piece. Again, you can and should do a full RNA, but a higher level view of harmonic formula is helpful.

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    For the first line, did you mean isn't instead of is?
    – Dom
    Apr 28 at 18:44
  • @Dom, yeah, oops! Apr 29 at 13:34

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