BA for music


If music be the food of love, play on.

We have so many different types of music now that the origin has been lost in the mists of time. It is certainly older than poetry, sculpture or painting, but, as early man had no way of recording musical sounds, we can only guess what they sounded like.

The human voice was probably the first musical instrument. After all, man is the most innovative of creatures, and once the speaking voice was established the singing voice would not be far behind. The simplest of instruments is a drum; just watch a young child banging an object with its hands or a piece of wood. It does not take much effort to produce a rhythm, which is a steady beat holding music together.

Music can be described as organised sound. This sound is made by vibrating the air, creating sound waves, with a set number of sound waves per second being used for each note. This is called the frequency, which, as it decreases makes the note go down and as it increases makes the note go up.

Wall paintings and paintings in tombs show us what some of the ancient instruments looked like, with early civilisations having already discovered the three basic ways of producing music. These are; blowing into a tube, striking an object or plucking or scraping a taut string, in other words, stringed, percussion or wind instruments.

Etruscan tomb painting, 470 BC

Etruscan tomb painting, 470 BC

We know that the basis of western music comes from the ancient Greeks, with the word “music” originating from the Greek. The scales we use now are based on certain sequences of notes which were called called “modes”, and each mode was thought to create a particular mood. In modern music we still use particular sequences of notes or keys for different types of music, such as “soul” or “blues” which create the mood of the music. Of course there are many ways of using music to create the atmosphere in a film or play, and some composers become well known for their film scores. In the early days of film the pianist sitting in front of the screen was very adept at following the story, with the audience being able to tell whether the scene was sentimental or sinister by listening to the music.

Not long ago there was a revival of Gregorian chanting, which people may have thought was a modern type of music. In fact, this is one of the earliest known and recorded methods of singing, and is called plainsong. Pope Gregory, who lived in the latter half of the sixth century, adapted the Greek modes for use in the Catholic church for the chanting of prayers and scriptures, hence the name Gregorian chanting. Still in use in churches and monasteries, plainsong is sung without accompaniment and all voices sing on the same note. To some ears this may be just a monotonous droning noise, as there is no harmony, but the sound can be very beautiful, especially when heard in a vaulted, echoing church. Rap music could be said to be a continuation of plainsong as the words are recited in time with the melody.

Much of the music today is sung in harmony, with two or more notes being sung at once. When harmony was first introduced in the ninth century all the different voices would sing the same melody, but at a different pitch. Thus the basses would be singing very much lower notes than the tenors, with an octave separating the two voices, but sometimes there were only four or five notes difference. When all voices sing one melody this is called organum.

By accident or design another style of singing soon developed called polyphany, where two or more melodies are sung together by the different voices. In the twelfth century choirs in the great cathedrals of Winchester and Notre Dame were using this more complicated and difficult type of singing.

In order to be able to learn the different melodies it became necessary to be able to write down the music so that it could be understood by everyone. Music is written down today in the same way that it has been for centuries, with five horizontal lines, called staves, representing the notes, separated by vertical lines, called bars, to show the rhythm. Two types of stave, called the treble clef and the bass clef, separate the high notes from the low notes, and in this way it is possible to write down the different parts sung by the different voices. Another useful system, also in use for centuries, is the tonic sol-fa where the notes are given symbols called doh, ray, me, fah, soh, lah, te, doh, to represent the eight notes in an octave.

During the Middle Ages in England, from the fifth century to the fifteenth century, the church was all important. Most music was written for church use until Morality plays became popular ways of teaching people about the Bible. These were soon being performed outside the churches and music became more and more non religious.

Minstrels and troubadours took the music from place to place, using it as a means of relating news and gossip. Music changed again during the Renaissance of the fifteenth century, when there was much more freedom of expression, with the church playing a much smaller part.

The Reformation, started by Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, marked another turning point. Church music became simpler, with hymns being adapted from folk tunes, leading to the writing of chorales. At this time the madrigal, verses sung unaccompanied by five or six people, became popular. Nothing could be more thrilling than to hear the May Day madrigals which are still sung from church towers and punts in the university towns of Oxford and Cambridge.

Until the sixteenth century most instrumentalists had played by themselves, but as music became more widespread musicians began to band together to form orchestras. This brought about a new way of composing and the writing of music to be played by several musicians at one time. This could certainly be called the birth of modern music. BA Education

To find out more about the fascinating world of music.
Watch this space.

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