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Understanding musical scores
Understanding musical scores

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4.2.1 Mahler - what to look out for

By now you have probably realised that you don’t have to follow every note of the music to understand what is going on in a score. The trick is to know what is important, and where to locate that activity on the page. Watching out for rests, matching the instrument sound to its position on the page, following from the end of one system of music to the next where the line that you are following may shift to a different place are all things to remember while listening and following along.

Using the skills you have learned up to now, we are going to listen to and work with a section of this movement by Mahler in more detail. You are already familiar with some of the components of this music, so as you look at the full orchestral score, don’t be daunted by all the lines. Just work up from what we have done and what is familiar and try to join it all together. Download the PDF [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   of the annotated score of the first part of this movement.

The first eight bars have only two lines of music – the timpani (kettledrum) and double bass. The drum sets and keeps a steady pulse while the basses introduce the Frère Jacques melody. The next ten bars introduce the round or canon in the low instruments – cellos, bassoons, tuba and the clarinet playing its very lowest notes. Remember the simple round from Week 2? This works in exactly the same way, so try to allow your eye to follow one line all the way to the end of the melody and, if you can, find another line with a different part of the melody and see if you can follow them both at the same time.

You’ll remember that rehearsal marks are often placed in scores at points where something important happens. In this case, figure 3 at bar 19 coincides with the start of a new melody played by the oboe. This is another example of a countermelody. So, here we have two layers of music operating together. One is the canon in the lower instruments and the other is the countermelody in the oboe.