Week 4: Understanding orchestral scores
Up to this point you have looked at a variety of music for single instruments and for small groups of instruments. This week you will be looking at large orchestral scores, drawing on the skills you have already learned.
Large orchestral scores might seem rather daunting, but in fact you have already looked at a full orchestral score at the end of Week 1, and you’ll revisit Mahler’s first symphony again this week. There are a number of techniques that you have used when you’ve been looking at scores for piano and in music for smaller ensembles that apply equally to music for large orchestras. The principles of texture are the same, but the layout on the page will look a bit different. Keeping a beat and looking for melodic and rhythmic patterns are still important. Working with these principles will help you understand larger and longer musical scores.
You’ll remember from the Schubert quintet you studied last week that most of the players only had the notation for their particular part on the music stand – it was only the pianist that had a full score. However, it was possible, through rehearsals plus eye contact and physical gestures in the performance, for this small group of players to coordinate themselves. Together, they decided how to play certain passages of music and made sure that their individual lines were blended and balanced appropriately.
For larger ensembles, such as an orchestra (which might consist of around 30–100 or more performers), this would be much more difficult to accomplish as communication, discussion and decision making among so many people simultaneously would be challenging. This is why most orchestras have a conductor who takes this coordinating role, and is usually the only person with a full score in front of them in both rehearsals and performances. This week, you will focus on the conductor’s relationship with the score.
This week, you focus on the conductor’s relationship with the score with conductor Mark Heron, who teaches at the Royal Northern College of Music and the University of Manchester.
4.1 Score order
The order of instruments as they appear in the score is always the same, with woodwind instruments at the top of the page in order from high to low, then the brass. The instruments are identified, usually in Italian (as in this example), German or French. You may not be familiar with all the names of the instruments, especially the more exotic ones, but don’t worry about this, so long as you get the idea of the blocks of different types of sound.
In the example in Figure 1, the woodwind are marked in yellow and the brass are marked in green. The strings, marked in red, are at the bottom in order from high to low. Sandwiched between the brass and strings are the percussion instruments and harp. You can see how this layout relates to the way an orchestra is usually seated in Figure 2.
4.1.1 Staves and systems
A line runs down the left-hand side of all the instruments that are playing together, and the bar lines run through the staves.
Both of these signs show that these instruments are sounding simultaneously, and the whole group of staves is referred to as a system. If, on one page there is a section of music that only uses a few instruments, you may find two or more systems on the page separated by this symbol:
Watch out for these ‘tramlines’ as it is easy to miss a system especially if there is a small one between two larger ones. The example in Figure 3 is from the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.
4.1.2 A conductor discusses: orchestral rehearsals
In this video, Mark talks about what happens in rehearsals. He talks about ‘rehearsal marks’, letters placed in the score to help a conductor to identify a particular place to the players when starting and stopping to practise particular parts of a piece.
In the Mahler score you looked at in the previous section, numbers were used for this purpose; another alternative is for every bar to be numbered. Rehearsal marks are often placed at points where something important happens, so can help you to navigate complicated full orchestral scores.
4.1.3 Coordinating movement
In ballet music, the conductor has a particularly important job in coordinating the music with the dancing, watching the speed of the dancers’ movements and making sure the orchestra stays in time with them.
Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker, written in 1892, tells the story of a young girl, Clara, who is given a nutcracker as a Christmas gift by her mysterious godfather Dr Drosselmeyer. She falls asleep under the Christmas tree and the toys come to life. The nutcracker becomes a prince who fights a battle with the mouse-king and his army and then takes Clara on a journey to the Land of Snow and Ice and the Land of Sweets. A series of short dances in Act II celebrate the victory of the nutcracker-prince over the mouse-king. These start with a march, followed by a series of dances to represent different sweets – sugar candy, chocolate, coffee, marzipan – some of which have ‘national’ characteristics, like the flamenco-inspired Spanish dance and the Russian Trepak. The exotic Arabian dance represents coffee.
The Arabian dance is written for a large orchestra, but only a few of the instruments are playing at any one time. Look at the score, and see if you can identify ‘landmarks’ that might help you follow it. First, check the instruments that will be playing by looking at the names at the start of each stave, then use the skills you have acquired.
If you were the conductor, what would you need to pay attention to? What marks would you make in your score to help you conduct it?
4.1.4 Synthesising sight and sound
Hopefully, in studying the score of the Arabian dance you looked for rests, dynamic markings, layering of textures and repeating patterns. If you were conducting a ballet, you would also need to pay careful attention to rhythm patterns and speed.
Different elements of the music are outlined in Figure 5. Take some coloured pencils and mark these elements up as if you were a conductor, perhaps identifying the instrument groups with colours, marking instructions for dynamics with a specific colour (blue, for example, as seen in Figure 5), and marking the most important melody and any repetitions that you see with a different colour. The instrument groups are marked in the same colours as the diagram of the orchestral layout you saw earlier. You can see the first page of the score in Figure 5.
A quick analysis of the score
Rather like the Schubert example we looked at last week, there are ‘layers’ in the score. The string parts at the bottom have lots of quick notes and the score looks quite black, but the clarinets and cor anglais are all moving together but at a slower pace.
There are a number of rests in the opening of the piece – the score looks quite ‘open’ – so expect to hear only a few instruments. You may also have noticed the dynamic marking, p.
We have looked at several melody and accompaniment textures in music by Mozart and Schubert where a slow-moving melody accompanies a variation with a lot of quick notes, or the accompaniment is formed by lots of quick notes. A similar technique is being used here. There is a slow-moving melody in the first clarinet part and the strings have a faster moving accompaniment. By bar 14, there is another layer, as the violins start playing the tune that the clarinets had, and the clarinets become another layer of accompaniment playing long slow notes. A new sound is introduced in bar 33, where the bassoons take the melody, but now the violins have rests, so the sound picture is darker with mostly low register instruments. Every now and then there is a ‘splash’ of tambourine.
The final section of this piece uses another technique that you have already come across in the Mozart variations. The melody is passed between the violins, clarinets and bassoons but in bar 69, a new melody is played by the oboe while the violins carry on playing the original tune. This new melody is a countermelody – literally a melody that plays against the melody.
4.1.5 Following the score
Now you have studied the score and marked it up, listen to the music and follow your own score. We’ve also attached our own attempt at marking up the first part of the score as a PDF. On this score, red arrows have been used to show the main melody.
First, allow your ear to find the different sounds of low strings, clarinets, violins and bassoons in turn and, to start off with, just focus your eyes on a single line – try the clarinet that is playing the melody. Now, listen a second time and focus on following just the music of the low strings with that murmuring accompaniment. Finally, listen one more time, and see if you can bring all the lines together, allowing your eye to jump from the low string accompaniment, to the clarinet melody and then the violins and bassoons playing the melody in turn.
Conductors follow the score too, but in a rather different way to what you have been doing. They have to learn the score so they can give direction to the players before they start to produce a particular sound. In performance, the score then becomes a memory aid, but marked up just as you have done to remind them about key landmarks. However, conductors will be reading, and thinking, several bars ahead of the sounds that they are hearing.
4.2 A conductor discusses: developing a performance
In this video, Mark talks about the different types of information which can be found in a score and how conductors go about interpreting this to develop a performance.
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 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.
4.2.2 Keeping track - Mahler Symphony No.1, third movement
In the previous section, you should have examined and marked up the score of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. Watch the video of the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, listening to the orchestra while following the score on screen.
Having watched the video of the rolling score, download the PDF of the full unannotated score. Mark up your score as you did for the Arabian dance, using blue for dynamic markings and red for those important melodies. If you want to highlight a particular instrument, choose a different colour to pick it out. Then listen to the audio and follow your marked-up score. Remember, there may be more than one system on a page. This is exactly what happens at the beginning, so try to remember what instrument is playing the part that you are following most closely and keep an eye on where that line moves to on the page. Keep thinking about the kind of landmark that we have already discussed that can help orientate your eyes – look out for double bars, areas of rests, and changes in how the music looks that might indicate ‘layers’ of sound and so on.
4.3 Following a motif
Our final score is one of the best known and most loved symphonies ever written – Beethoven’s fifth symphony.
As you have worked through different scores over the last four weeks, you have encountered several important techniques used by composers in writing their music down. You have had simple melodies, music written in ‘blocks’ of sound as chords, accompaniments made up of fast-moving notes, music that is fragmented with rests and broken up between hands on the piano or different instruments in the orchestra and so on. Now you are going to put it all together. The techniques haven’t changed, but the individual way Beethoven uses them may make them look different.
You will recognise the iconic start to this symphony. Looking at the score, you will see a block of string instruments all moving together. This group of instruments presents the main motif.
Then we have a fragmentation of this motif, passing between instruments with lots of rests in the parts that are not playing. This is followed by another section of block chordal movement then a different fragmentation of the motif, called imitation – each line follows the previous with the same idea.
Finally the whole orchestra plays together in layers, with all the strings playing fast-moving notes, while the wind and brass play in chords, first in short notes and then in long sustained notes. After a brief silence, the horns play the motif on their own, to introduce a new melody played by the violins.
This new melody is then copied by other instruments, keeping its shape as it moves between different instruments. The other layers of sound are long sustained notes that create an accompaniment to the melody, and repetitions of the motif. If you were conducting this section, you would probably want to be aware of these different layers. This section ends with another passage that moves between chordal writing and a layered texture where one section of the orchestra is moving fast and another is playing chords at the same time.
4.3.1 A conductor discusses: interpretive approaches
In this video, Mark talks about some of the different ways in which conductors have approached performing established classical works such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.
Having watched the video, download the PDF score. Look through and mark it up as before, then follow it as you listen to the audio below. This music is quick and keeping up as you follow the score is not always easy. Try to tap the beat as you go, and don’t allow your eyes to wander back to music you have already heard as this will leave you behind the pace of the music.
4.3.2 Double bar
You may have realised while watching the video footage about conducting that the score is only a representation of the music, and not the music itself. In jazz, the score is often only a starting point for performers.
However, scores of some kind are often the basis from which performers work. Looking at scores can help our understanding of the way composers of the distant past worked, and enable composers of today to transfer their musical ideas into a sounding reality. Those spine-tingling, toe-tapping musical experiences that we all have had, often start from a score.
If you want to study more musical scores, your local library may have a music section that includes scores. Some libraries may have both scores and recordings. There are also digital libraries of musical scores such as IMSLP and many archives are now putting famous composers’ handwritten scores online for everyone to study. You may particularly enjoy the Beethoven digital archive where you can see documents and manuscripts relating to the Fifth Symphony that you have studied briefly here.
4.4 Week 4 quiz
This quiz allows you to test and apply your knowledge of the course.
Complete the Week 4 quiz now.
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4.5 End-of-course round-up
Over the last four weeks, you have learned about a variety of things that musical scores do and how musicians work with them. You have learned:
- how single line melodies are constructed
- how pianists read two lines of music and interpret what each hand needs to do
- how musicians work together with scores, first as small groups of players and then with a full orchestra.
Each musician you’ve heard from throughout the course gave insights into what the musical score means to them and how it shapes their work. Of course, we have not touched on how composers use scores, or how popular musicians don’t necessarily use scores at all, but use modern technology to create and record their music. Hopefully, you have been inspired to look for more scores and to listen to music in a different way.
Now you’ve completed the course we would again appreciate a few minutes of your time to tell us a bit about your experience of studying it and what you plan to do next. We will use this information to provide better online experiences for all our learners and to share our findings with others. If you’d like to help, please fill in this optional survey.
This free course was written by Catherine Tackley and Naomi Barker.
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Figure 9: © Calaimage/Tom Merton/Getty Images.
4.1.5 Following the score audio: © Nonesuch
4.2.2 Keeping track - Mahler Symphony No. 1, third movement audio: © Warner Classics - Parlophone
4.2.2 Keeping track - Mahler Symphony No. 1, third movement video: © BBC
4.3 Following a motif video: © BBC
4.3.1 A conductor discusses: interpretive approaches audio: © Warner Classics - Parlophone
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