For this work, we consider a high-level view of several aspects of music theory. Laitz (2003) and Gauldin (2004) provide in-depth treatments of many aspects of musical theory.
Grand Staff and Note Pitches
The grand staff is used for most piano music and is composed of the lower Bass Clef part (usually played with the left hand when playing the piano) and the higher Treble Clef part (usually played with the right hand). Each subsequent key on a piano corresponds to a half step in note pitch. The white keys correspond to natural note, while the black keys raise or lower the neighboring white key pitches by a half step, resulting in a sharp or flat note.
The numeric markings next to the clef in the grand staff indicate the time signature of the piece. The top number indicates how many beats per measure there are in the piece and the bottom note indicates which note gets the beat. In this example, the time signature is “four-four”, meaning that there are four beats per measure and the quarter note gets the beat.
The key signature indicates the key that the piece is to be played in. For this example, there are no sharps or flats in the key signature, so the key of this example is C-Major. There can be both major and minor keys. This example contains four octaves of the C-Major scale, where each note is one quarter note in duration. The note pitch highlighted in red corresponds to middle C.
There are two types of intervals that occur in music, harmonic intervals where two or more notes are played at the same time, and melodic intervals, where two or more notes are played sequentially. Most melodic and harmonic intervals occuring in the Romantic era were smaller than an octave. Example ascending and descending simple melodic intervals are below, where each interval increases by a half step for the ascending intervals and decreases by a half step for the descending intervals.
Ascending Melodic Intervals
Descending Melodic Intervals
A chord is a combination of three or more different pitches, and the predominant chords occurring in the Romantic era were the triad and the seventh chord. The triad is composed of a root pitch and the third and fifth above the root, while a seventh chord is the root, third, fifth and seventh. Chords can be closed or open depending on the spacing between pitches in the higher and lower registers.
Dissonance and Consonance
Some simple (less than an ocatave) intervals are considered consonant and do not need to be resolved, while other intervals are dissonant and require a resolution. The octave, perfect unison and the third, fifth and sixth intervals are consonant intervals, while the second and seventh intervals are considered dissonant. The perfect fourth is considered dissonant in some contexts and consonant in others. The perfect unison, octave, perfect fourth and perfect fifth are perfect consonances, in that they are stable intervals that do not need to resolve to a more stable pitch. Thirds and sixths are imperfect consonances and are moderately stable; they again do not need a resolution. Dissonant intervals on the other hand need to be resolved to consonant intervals. The tritone, also known as an augmented fourth or a diminished fifth, is considered dissonant.
A motif is a melodic or rhythmic unit that reappears throughout a piece and is shorter than a theme. The combination of phrases and motifs forms a melody in a piece. A motif can reappear in its original form or at different pitches or with different intervals throughout a piece. An example motif is the opening two bars of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition - Gnomus (Krueger (2016)).
Romantic Era Music
Romantic era music is considered tonal music, meaning that the music is oriented around and pulled towards the tonic pitch. The Romantic period of music lasted from the end of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century. This period was marked by a large amount of change in politics, economics and society. In general, music from the Romantic era tended to value emotion, novelty, technical skill and the sharing of ideas between the arts and other disciplines. Some key themes of Romanticism were the emphasis of emotion over reason, national pride, the extolling of common people and an interest in the exotic. Romantics emphasized the individual, national identity, freedom and nature and the Romantic era saw an increase in virtuosity in musical performance (Warrack (1983)).
The piano as an instrument also changed considerably during the Romantic era, resulting in new trends in composition for the instrument. Technical and structural improvements to the piano lead to an instrument that was capable of a larger range of pitches and dynamics as compared to the pianoforte of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Improvements in the sustaining pedal in particular enabled the piano to create a more dramatic and sustained sound. Furthermore, the piano saw an increased presence in musical, commercial and social circles in the Romantic era (Ratner (1992)).
- Gauldin, R. (2004). Harmonic Practice in Tonal Music, Second ed. W. W. Norton & Company.
- Krueger, B. (2016). Classical Piano MIDI Page. http://www.piano-midi.de/midi_files.htm.
- Laitz, S. G. (2003). The Complete Musician. Oxford University Press.
- Ratner, L. G. (1992). Romantic Music: Sound and Syntax. Schirmer Books.
- Warrack, J. (1983). The New Oxford Compantion to Music. Oxford University Press.