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About melodies


I'm writing this article to examine the features of good pieces of music for beginners. I'm going to examine pieces generally found in the repertoire for first year courses, which I usually teach "Apoyado" or "Supported touch" technique. As guitarists, we are very lucky regarding the repertoire: we can choose from a large, ever-  increasing quantity of tutors for guitar. The choice is endless, and it would be hard work if we wish to check the quality of every tutor. This is a pity, because I'm sure that every newly-published tutor has good, useful features that are different from other tutors.The pieces used for beginner guitarists can be divided into three different groups: 

- exercises: this group includes all the music that has a didactic purpose but with little or no significant musical content. These exercises are written to improve specific features of performance or to solve technique problems.

- original compositions: this group includes all the original compositions written by all composers from ancient times to our day.

- songs: this third group is more complex, because it includes songs from all over the world which are playable on your instrument (for me the guitar).


One of the most up to date methods of instrumental teaching is to use as much material as possible that includes expressive elements as well as merely technical ones. For this reason in the modern tutor for whatsoever instrument there are fewer exercises than in the tutors of the past. Personally I agree with this system and I try to use as few dry exercises as I can. The only exercises I always use are scales, because scales are very important for key perception and for the development of tecnique. I avoid exercises because often they don't stimulate the student.

Original compositions:

Original compositions intentionally written for every kind of instrument are the best musical material for the instrument teacher. This is particulary true if the compositions come from a good composer, not necessary from a famous composer. Didactic compositions have the hard task of combining musical elements and the particular technical problems that need to be worked on; a mixture that has to stimulate students. Regarding guitar repertoire I observe that there are only a small quantity of compositions for apoyado written in the 19th and in the first part of the 20th  century. The reason is that apoyado became popular with Andrès Segovia (1893-1987). The composers before him predominantly wrote compositions for arpeggio tecnique and recently some famous composers like Julio Sagreras, Leo Brouwer, Maria Linnemann or Carlo Domeniconi didn't write significant compositions for apoyado techique. The trend has changed through the work of many lesser-known composers which have written for apoyado (I'm sorry if I have forgotten a famous composer! Please accept my apologies). Writing a composition (a tune) for apoyado is rather easy; all you have to do is to write a series of notes in your preferred style that is good for music taste and for technique. But I think that the most important characteristic that a similar piece must have is a recognizable form. If we look at pieces by composers of the past we will see that there's always a definite structure which may be ABA, AABA, ABACA or simply AB (other music forms are rather uncommon). In our European music culture the structure of a music composition is very important. In the past composers wrote pieces like "Fantasia" or "Ricercare" that didn't have a regular structure, but in the following centuries the form of a music composition became more important. Then composers in the romantic period began to go beyond regular forms, and this trend continued into the 20th century. But one thing can be said: in our culture it is very important to teach the students to recognize and understand the different musical forms, even if subconsciously. Form in a piece of music structures the flow of time and enriches the music with contrasting parts. A is followed by B, A often comes back after B or C, and our “forma mentis” is based on this scheme, even if we don’t want it to be so! That’s the reason that many classical listeners feel disatisfied listening to some African, Asian or minimalistic music, because this kind of music often goes on with continous invention without the certainty of sections being repeated. Also in Sonata form we can admire a composer's ability to develop a theme in the central part of the work, but return to it at the end of the piece. So, I have spoken about form because form has a major role in the next point.


Above all music is singing. We hear songs from our childhood to our old age, a long period of time during which we hear tunes sung by our mother's sweet voice to the most complex operatic arias. The words of songs carry a verbal message, but they also have a musical meaning, and everywhere in the world people sing in different and sometimes unknown languages. For this reason I think that songs are very useful in music education. But the question is: what songs are the most suitable for teaching purposes? When I wish to use a new song in my teaching I immediately look at the key the song is in so that I can write it in a more suitable key, if it is necessary. A melody like Jingle bells may be rather easy in C, on the guitar, instead it will be very difficult in Eb. So the key we use is very important and we must select it very carefully. I use the song as a didactic study to improve the skills of the student. After the key we must consider the rhythm of the melody. In an apparently easy melody like “Happy birthday to you” there is a problem with the dotted quaver note and the following semiquaver note (Hap-py) and this may be a problem for the  untrained fingers of young players. We don’t find this problem in the original version  of this song by the Hill sisters “Good morning to you”, because “Good” is a monosyllable word, a crotchet, and this makes the melody easier. We can simplify the song by avoiding the semiquavers and the melody will still be recognizable. All melodies can be simplified rhythmicaly, but the listener must still be able to recognize the melody, of course!Finally: the structure of the melody is very important. Returning to our well-known “Happy birthday to you” I want to point out that if we sing or play this song, it will probably take  less than 20 seconds. I don’t know if there’s a second part to this song. I don't think so. All we have is 8 bars of three four time, so the structure is unbearably A and nothing else! We can repeat the tune once, so we will have an AA structure, and we can also do some little variations to embellish the repetition, but probably the performance will not be very satisfying in the end. This lack of satisfaction is probably due to the structure of the piece, AA, it being very simple with no dialectic contrast: too basic a form for a well trained ear! For this reason these kinds of melodies are not the best for a student's music development. It is better to use melodies that include a part A and a contrasting part B, and other melodies can be the exceptions.Another observation about song structure. The song “Old Mac Donald had a farm” has a clear structure called “Lied form”: a form often used in the romantic period by composers of Lieder. The Lied structure is AABA, which in this song becomes firstly AABBA, and then AABBBA and so on in the repetitions. In this form the last A is the final element of the structure. I hear this part as a final part, my ear needs it to complete my mental scheme, the strophe would not be completed without this final A section. Sometimes I have heard this song with the following structure: AAB, AABB, AABBB, .... A, and I realize that this form, which never concludes the scheme AABA, gives me an awful feeling of incompleteness! I think that this structure has been chosen in the hope of being less boring by avoiding the repetition of the words "Old Mac Donald had a farm" at the end of every repetition and at the beginning of the following refrain. But when I hear this song I need the final A to complete my mental scheme AABA, and it is not a problem for me to hear the melody again at the start of the next verse. It is not boring because the repetition gives me the completeness of the structure. Missing out the final A section to my ears is like a never-completed puzzle. Is it the same for you?

Stefano Masera

17 June 2013

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