Are there some scores that are better suited to aspiring composers? What specific elements of analysis are more important for a beginner to start with if his goal is to improve as a composer (Harmony? Form? Instrumentation and texture?). What skills would a student need to improve upon to become better at analyzing scores? Are there some scores that simply MUST be analyzed by novices?

Extra credit: What is the method that YOU apply when analyzing a new score?


The music which makes you say, "Gosh, I wish I'd written this!"

The music it is most important to your development as a composer that you study is the music that you love.

(This is apparently not obvious to a lot of people. It wasn't obvious to me. So I make it explicit.)

Now, if you're starting out, you may want to put that on hold until you've picked up some analytic skills on music that it is easier to do that on. This of course depends on just what your favorite music is. If you think that Clementi's piano sonatina Op 36 No 1 is the pinnacle of human artistic expression, I have great news for you.

What makes music "easier" to analyze is not really a property of the music itself, but rather it's proximity to the type of music for which the analytic terms and concepts were designed to describe.

A quarter century ago I took my college's "Harmony and Counterpoint I" class, because it was the pre-req for all the subsequent theory and composition classes. I want to share with you what the instructor said to us that first day. She said, in res,

In this class we're going to cover the basics of what is termed Common Practice Era (CPE) voice leading. The CPE is basically the core period of classical music. We're teaching you to write harmony in this style of music not because it is superior to others (because it is not), not because it is more important than others (because it is not), not because it is more sophisticated than others (because it is not). We're teaching you to compose in this style because this style has a rigorous, thoroughly worked out method of composition that is easy to teach. And for that reason, classes on all styles of music typically use the terminology and concepts from CPE voice leading, even when the rules of those other musics are completely different. That is why this class is a pre-req: to give you the musical language needed to participate in those classes.

So I'd like to suggest that if you're totally new at this, and if you haven't covered that material yet, that you do likewise. That you take -- either in person, or through self-study with textbooks and/or the internet -- an intro CPE voice leading class, and analyze whatever they tell you to, however they tell you too.

Then you take those tools, and start applying them to the music you love -- though if it is music that is from a different genre, then you will have to adapt them. You will have to treat the rules you learned as hypotheses to test. You will have to take what you learned, and ask, "how closely does this piece that I love follow these rules?" Because the ways that they don't are part of what gives them their characteristic sound.

If you've already covered the basics of CPE theory, and you're ready to start applying that learning outside the CPE, come back with a question about analyzing a specific piece and we'll see what we can do.

  • 3
    Fair point. But by extension, I'd say you should also analyse the music you profoundly hate. Also: whether you hate or love the music you're analyzing, if you have some pre-conceived idea as to why you have a particular affection to that music, try and use your analysis to verify or falsify those pre-conceived ideas. – Roland Bouman May 4 '14 at 23:38
  • Indeed! I just had a little one of those recently. I had been going to write something as fact in the history of rhythm notation answer I just wrote, and it occurred to me to check it out, and it was false. Now I want to go track down where I got that impression. – Codeswitcher May 5 '14 at 0:55
  • What does "in res" mean? – dumbledad May 5 '14 at 8:03
  • @dumbledad it means "in essence", and indicates something is not a literal quote, but is nevertheless as accurate a representation as can be managed. – Codeswitcher May 5 '14 at 18:31
  • @aeismail Nope. – Codeswitcher May 5 '14 at 18:31

Score analysis was a major part of music theory class in school, and I found the supporting textbook to be excellent. If you can spare $55 per volume (there are two), "The Norton Scores" is a great resource. [Edit: This is currently in the 11th edition. Here is a place that is advertising used copies of the 10th edition for $0.99 apiece.]

All of the specific elements you mention are pretty much equally important, but I would also say there's an order to them. First, make sure that you have a basic understanding of harmony, including keys and techniques for modulation to closely-related keys. Then start looking at binary and/or Sonata-Allegro form (binary form evolved over time into sonata-allegro form; have a look at Scarlatti's sonatas for good examples of binary). The first movement of Mozart's G Minor Symphony is a textbook example of Sonata-Allegro form. (Mozart had a way of making his music interesting while adhering quite rigidly to form, so his music is a great place to start.) In fact, you will find this movement broken down quite clearly in the Norton Scores section on Sonata Allegro form.

I analyze a score from the top down (big to little, if you will), starting with form (what form is it?), moving into the individual sections of the form to see how the composer defines the sections, then looking at how the themes are used and so on. One of the important things as a composer is how the composer manages to maintain the emotional content of the piece. What is it that makes their stuff interesting? Why is this particular section of one of my own pieces dull, and why is that one interesting? What are the emotional vectors of a theme, how does the composer intensify the emotional affect in a passage, that sort of thing. (Beethoven did it very often by removing notes in a theme or motive. A famous example of this is the opening of the fifth symphony, where he states the four-note motive twice, and then shortens the last note in it to create drive through to the first cadence.)

  • Kind of feels like too much information compacted in one place. Could you please simplify and explain the process in a step by step manner? and also I would like to see some elaborations on "the form", "emotional vectors (and how to identify them)", etc. :) – Sazid Ahmad May 4 '14 at 18:19
  • 3
    Sazid_violin you're kind of asking for @BobRodes to write you a text book. Now, maybe BobRodes wants to write you a text book. In the meanwhile, maybe you can ask specific questions at the top level of Music.SE and people can answer them for you. – Codeswitcher May 4 '14 at 22:34
  • @Sazid_violin I'll be glad to do that for you. My fees are $100 an hour, 3 hours retainer up front in cash. However, you probably would be wasting your money, since you don't appear to be willing to read my free-of-charge post carefully enough to be able to see the step-by-step process that's already there. So save your money. Instead, see if you can get someone to order you those books I put in that link, since doing it yourself appears to be too much trouble. – BobRodes May 5 '14 at 21:02
  • My mistake. I will be careful next time. These books aren't really available where I come (and takes a lot of trouble to get an original one) from so free information is what I rely on the most. – Sazid Ahmad May 6 '14 at 5:53
  • I see. I'm sorry, I might have thought of that before I took you to task about it. If I might ask, where do you come from? – BobRodes May 6 '14 at 15:03

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