This guide is aimed to help students with the questions in the Associated Board aural tests grades 5-8 where the candidate has to comment on the style and period of the piece the examiner plays. As such, we will identify the main features of music from the relevant periods: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Twentieth Century, with a separate section for Jazz.
We will concentrate mainly on keyboard music, as that is the instrument the piece will be played on in your exam.
Firstly, let’s define some terminology, which should be also helpful for some of the other questions you will be asked about the same piece:
Harmony – for the purposes of these exams, just think of harmony as the types of chords used. Often it will be enough simply to state whether the extract you hear is in a major or minor key. The extract is likely to have a variety of major, minor and other chords (otherwise it would be very monotonous!), but the beginning and particularly the ending will usually tell you whether the overall key is major or minor. You aural test training with your teacher should be helping you hear the difference between major and minor.
When you need to go a little deeper:
- if the chords used for a piece or section remain within the scale of the home key (e.g. white notes only within a C major framework), it is called diatonic;
- if chords outside the scale are widely used, the term is chromatic.
In the last hundred years or so composers have used new combinations of notes and chords, which may at first sound strange to the listener. Such music can be described as dissonant (see the Twentieth Century section below).
Texture – just as an item of clothing can be heavy or light, plain or patterned, texture in music defines how much is going on (heavy or light) and what the patterns are. The pitch range is also important. For example a simple melodic line with an accompaniment that doesn’t go much below middle C could be described as a ‘light’ texture. Conversely, full chords including deep bass notes evidently produce a heavier, richer texture.
As for the patterns, there are two very important words with which you can impress the examiner:
Homophonic: essentially a melody with accompaniment
Polyphonic: literally ‘multi-voiced’, so that each line is independent and equally important. Imagine 2 or 3 voices, each of which has a turn to sing the melody. When it’s someone else’s turn, the other voices sing subsidiary material.
It must be stressed that the characteristics for each period as outlined below are only general, as there is plenty of variety in the music of all eras. But reading this article should prepare you sufficiently for the musical ingredients likely to be highlighted in these Associated Board exams.
c.1600 – 1750
Main Composers: Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, Vivaldi
Baroque music can be relatively serious and complex, but its surface is often enlivened by plenty of decoration and ornamentation. There are many types of Baroque expression, ranging from busily flowing movements deriving from dance forms to grandly religious works.
Melody and Phrasing – phrase structures can be very clear (e.g. the themes you are most likely to know from Vivaldi’s ubiquitous ‘Four Seasons’). However, there is often a continuous flow in Baroque music, with repeated patterns and sequences, and with phrases and cadences merging seamlessly into one another.
Texture – the Baroque is the main period for polyphonic textures. There is also much homophonic music of course, but if the extract you hear is polyphonic and not dissonant, the chances are it will be Baroque.
Harmony – often very simple, but can sound more complex when the texture is polyphonic.
Dynamics – the keyboards for most of the Baroque period were only able to play at one volume level, so composers rarely wrote dynamics. If used at all, there are likely to be sudden changes from loud to soft and vice-versa, without crescendo or diminuendo.
Ornamentation – Baroque music is more heavily ornamented (trills, mordents, turns) than any other period.
Keyboard range – the smallest range of the periods you are dealing with, usually within 2 octaves either side of middle C.
Sustaining pedal – was not invented during the Baroque. Many modern pianists do use the pedal when playing Baroque music, but it would be unfair of the examiner to use pedal in music from this period!
Bach 2-Part Invention No.13 in A minor – Imitative (polyphonic) texture of 2 independent parts; continuous flow.
Handel Adagio, 1st movement from Keyboard Suite No.2 in F, HWV427 – Extensive ornamentation, flowing, homophonic.
Scarlatti Keyboard Sonata in D minor, K.1 – Largely homophonic but with imitative elements; busy repeated patterns; ornamentation.
- Prelude: regular repeated pattern; cadences blend into the flow; emotionally serious;
- Fugue: a fully-fledged polyphonic piece with 3 independent parts or ‘voices’.
c.1750 – 1830
Main Composers: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert
The beginning of the Classical Period saw a reaction against the more lofty and earnest ideals of Baroque music. Now the aim was more to entertain, with a simpler and more transparent style. Later in the period, however, Beethoven and Schubert increasingly poured more personal emotions into their music.
Melody and Phrasing – elegant and balanced, with clearer sense of phrase endings. ‘Question and answer’ phrasing interspersed with rests is common (e.g the opening of Mozart’s famous ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’). Scale and arpeggio figurations are regularly used, and the mood is usually lively and cheerful.
Texture – light and clear textures, usually homophonic.
Harmony – usually simple with lengthy diatonic passages. Major keys predominate. An exclusively Classical feature is ‘Alberti Bass’, where the harmony notes of the accompaniment are played one after another rather than together, e.g. C-G-E-G (lowest note C, highest note G).
Dynamics – more than in the Baroque, but still somewhat restricted and usually with sudden alternations of loud and soft rather than gradual changes. Beethoven and Schubert expanded the dynamic range, with more use of crescendo and diminuendo, as well as more sudden contrasts.
Ornaments – fewer than in Baroque music, but still common, especially trills.
Keyboard range – a little wider than before, but often with a bias towards the treble register.
Pedal – was just being developed in the Classical period. Likely to be used sparingly or not at all in your exam extract.
Mozart Piano Sonata in C, K545. 1st movement – Alberti Bass at the beginning; balanced phrases; light textures; scale and arpeggio figuration.
Haydn 3rd movement from Piano Sonata in G, Hob.XVI:27 – Lively, treble-oriented texture; ‘question and answer’ phrasing; simple harmonies; scale and arpeggio figures; Alberti Bass towards the end.
Beethoven Sonata in A, Op.2, No.2. 3rd movement – Even in this youthful work Beethoven is pushing the boundaries, with swiftly alternating pitches, contrasting dynamics and a harmonic swerve to the remarkably remote key of G# minor. But the clear phrase structure remains typically Classical. The constant flow of the central minor-key section is somewhat reminiscent of the Baroque, but the sudden accents are pure Beethoven.
Schubert Scherzo in B-flat, D593 – One of Schubert’s more traditional works, light in texture (except for the more sonorous middle section) and mood. The balance and clarity of the phrasing look back to the earlier part of the Classical period, but he also takes advantage of the piano’s augmented dynamic range by this time (1817).
c.1830 – 1910
Main Composers: Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Tchaikovsky
Building on the trend towards self-expression pioneered by Beethoven, the Romantic composers found ways of increasing the emotional intensity of their music. The composer’s personal life was now more likely to be an inspiration, as were nature, paintings, literature etc.
Melody and Phrasing – melody is at the heart of Romantic music, and in general the melodies are longer, slower and more expansive than before.
Texture – almost always homophonic. A typical piano texture is an arching melodic line supported by a wide-ranging arpeggio figuration in the left hand. Textures tend to be thicker than in previous music, with plenty of big chordal passages and dramatic flourishes.
Harmony – richer and increasingly chromatic.
Dynamics – a significantly greater range than before, with much more use of crescendo and diminuendo. But sudden lurches from a whispering pianissimo to a thundering fortissimo (or vice-versa) are also common.
Ornaments – although much of the treble figuration is quite decorative, and trills are still used frequently, the other kinds of ornamentation centred around a single note, so typical of the Baroque and Classical periods, are rare in Romantic music.
Keyboard range – pretty much the full range of the modern piano, often used to powerful effect.
Pedal – the sustaining pedal is used extensively, particularly to retain the sound in lyrical passages where the accompaniment is ranging freely over several octaves.
Chopin Prelude in E minor, Op.28 No.4 – Rich chromatic harmonies; slow-moving melody; pedal virtually throughout; intense emotion.
Schumann ‘Erinnerung’ (Remembrance), No.28 from ‘Album for the Young’, Op.68 – Homophonic texture with a lyrical melody supported by chords and arpeggio patterns; extensive use of pedal; emotionally expressive.
Liszt Consolation No.3 in D-flat major – Wide-ranging arpeggiated accompaniment; long, arching melody; wide keyboard range.
Brahms Rhapsody in G minor, Op.79 No.2 – Rich, often chordal textures; large range of dynamics and pitch; extensive pedalling; grand emotional sweep.
Main Composers: Stravinsky, Schönberg, Bartok, Prokofiev
The breakdown of the old certainties of society at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, heightened by the tragedy of the 1st World War, propelled composers away from the lush magnificence of late-Romantic music into a leaner and often more aggressive style.
Melodies – the long emotional melodies of the Romantic period were dead. Now composers were more inclined to deal in short fragments (called motifs rather than melodies), whose notes often didn’t relate to each other in any traditional way.
Textures – a real variety; sometimes very dense, sometimes thin.
Harmony – the most progressive composers abandoned the traditional major-minor harmonic system. Sometimes there was no sense of key at all – the technical term for this is atonal. The best word to use in your exam answers is dissonant.
Rhythm and metre – can be highly variable, with frequent and sometimes disorientating changes of time signature and accents.
Dynamics – sudden, dramatic contrasts can be a feature.
Ornamentation – rare, but not impossible.
Keyboard range – the full range is of course available, although sometimes contemporary composers choose a restrictive range.
Pedal – can be extensive, but the style is often dry and percussive, with limited pedal.
As a general hint, even if the extract has elements that might seem to belong to other periods, if it is dissonant, it is most likely to be Twentieth-Century.
Bartok ‘From the Diary of a Fly’ from ‘Mikrokosmos’ – Highly dissonant; no sense of traditional major or minor key; frequent changes of time signature and accentuation patterns.
Schönberg 6 Little Piano Pieces, Op.19 (especially Nos. 4, 5) – Atonal; rapidly changing rhythmic patterns; dramatic dynamic changes; little sense of traditional melody.
Prokofiev No.10 from ‘Visions Fugitives’ Op.22 – The performer is instructed to play “ridiculously”; deliberately grotesque harmonies; spiky staccato accompaniment; sudden interjections at much higher pitch; motifs rather than melodies.
c.1910 – present day
Main Composers/Artists: Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Miles Davis
Your exam extract may be a jazz-influenced piece. The main ingredients of jazz are:
Swung Rhythms – where 2 normally equal notes, e.g. quavers, are changed to a triplet feel, with the 1st note twice as long as the 2nd. This can produce a lazy, mellow feel in slow music, and a springy bounce in faster passages.
Syncopation – where many of the melody notes and accents occur between the main beats rather than on them.
Extended harmony – the harmonic skeleton is usually a repeated and fairly straightforward pattern but the individual chords can be complex, with 9ths, 11ths and 13ths grafted on to the fundamental major, minor and dominant 7th chords. The almost infinite possibilities of how to distribute a 5 or 6-note chord are partly what gives jazz its harmonic succulence.
Improvisation – the art of jazz is based on the performers improvising over the underlying harmonic framework. Even when written down, it should sound spontaneous. One manifestation of this can be long melody notes alternating with rapid flurries (riffs).
Blue notes – jazz and blues are closely related, and blues has its own scale. The blues scale on C, for example, is C, Eb, F, Gb, G, Bb.
The main colours of this scale are the Eb, Gb and Bb (all a semitone lower than in a major scale) which can sound sad in slower music, and robust and defiant at faster speeds. Many jazz performers use blues riffs in their improvisations.
Ornamentation – grace notes (sometimes crushed acciaccatura style, sometimes slowly sliding) are common.
Christopher Norton ‘Tiger Blues’ from ‘Microjazz’ – An excellent introduction to blues style: the right-hand part plays only notes from the C blues scale virtually throughout.
Gershwin 3 Preludes for Piano – Syncopation; spicy blue-note melody and harmony; slow grace notes (No.2).
‘My Funny Valentine’ from the film ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys’, sung by Michelle Pfeiffer – This wonderful arrangement, by Dave Grusin, takes you beyond the scope of the exam extract you will encounter, but it is a great way to immerse yourself in the soundworld of jazz. Lush chromatic harmonies; frequent piano riffs including grace notes; blues inflections.
Gershwin ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ – A more extended masterpiece in jazz idiom, great fun to listen to all the way through.