In Flight

Cello Moods #2: In Flight

Formation northbound
And out of the percussion
A floating feather

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A brief post for now.

Yes, it has been several years since I last opened this blog editor and filled it with cello-y things. I have continued to be very busy doing cello-y things, but lost my blogging mojo along the way. So here I am, hoping to regain that mojo. My chief motivation to reawaken The Cello Companion is to share with you a project (cellocentric of course) that my other half and I have been working on.

In short, it’s an antidote to the increasingly fractious, divided world in which we find ourselves. 16 short pieces for cello and piano, each a gentle journey into a sensory realm. No, we’re not suggesting our latest works are the key to world peace. Instead, they are brief opportunities to step out of the stressful now and enter whichever peaceful dimension unfolds through the music.

So, the following posts will present each of the tracks. I sincerely hope they have the soothing effect they’re intended to. If they do, please help us to spread them further afield. Email a video link to a friend who’s having a rough day. Share on your social media page and/or group. And please subscribe to our channel and like the videos.

An Introduction to Chords in Music

This post is a diversion from Bowing Technique 101, which will continue soon. I recently gave an introductory harmony lesson and thought I’d share it here. Although this does not relate specifically to cello playing, I have always found that an understanding of harmony and chords greatly enhances the study of any repertoire, especially when it comes to the interpretive stage of learning the music.

This lesson deals with the triads and seventh chords found in the key of C major. The chord labels (based on the baroque system of figured bass or Basso continuo) are relevant to the triads and seventh chords of all major keys, making it a wonderfully diverse system. As the building blocks of music harmony, chords are best studied in their simplest form in order to understand their use in music. So without further ado, I present to you An Introduction to Chords in Music!

Cover Sheet

C major triads and inversions 1C major triads and inversions 2The Dominant 7th in C Major

Seventh Chords and Inversions in C Major 1 Seventh Chords and Inversions in C Major 2

Tina Guo Performing Works by the Cullens

Last month one of my favourite cellists did me the enormous honour of recording a couple of compositions by my husband and me for fun. The cellist was none other than Tina Guo. For those who haven’t come across her, she is a multi-genre cellist and composer. With her effortless technique and intense musicality she is equally well established in the classical, film music and rock/ pop arenas. As a classical soloist Tina has performed with the San Diego Symphony, the State of Mexico National Symphony, the Thessaloniki State Symphony in Greece, the Bari Symphony in Italy, the Petrobras Symphony and the Barra Mansa Symphony in Brazil, and the Vancouver Island Symphony in British Columbia. In non-classical, crossover and media music settings she has performed in a solo capacity alongside Hans Zimmer for the premier of his Inception score, performed and recorded as a featured guest with the Jazz/Fusion Miles Evans Band, performed at the Grammy’s with the Foo Fighters, at the MTV Movie Awards, American Idol,  at Comic Con in San Diego featured on the electric cello in the Battlestar Galactica Orchestra, and with Brazilian guitarist Victor Biglione in a Jimi Hendrix Tribute Concert at the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janiero. Tina is currently the featured soloist on the electric cello in Cirque Du Soleil’s Michael Jackson “The Immortal” World Tour, an international all-arena tour spanning from 2012-2014 and currently the highest grossing tour in North America.

The two pieces recorded were ‘Sakura’ and ‘Better Tomorrow’ – both for cello and piano. Since Tina is currently on tour and living in hotels, she has a very basic (but effective) recording set-up, and her ‘practice cello’ – a student instrument which can be thrown about in the gear truck. Without access to a piano or pianist, I sent her my piano tracks from the original recordings. In spite of the technical limitations, the results are pretty magnificent!

Purchase sheet music for 'Sakura'

Purchase sheet music for 'Better Tomorrow'

Minor keys and their scales Part 3

Melodic Minor Scales

I like to think of the melodic minor scale as the chameleon scale as it changes its colours. The ascending scale creates more tension by sharpening the sixth and seventh steps, and the descending scale relaxes that tension by flattening the seventh and sixth steps. The sequence of intervals for the ascending scale of A melodic minor is as follows:

Step 1 – 2 (a – b): whole tone

Step 2 – 3 (b – c): semitone

Step 3 – 4 (c – d): whole tone

Step 4 – 5 (d – e): whole tone

Step 5 – 6 (e – f#) whole tone

Step 6 – 7 (f#g#) whole tone

Step 7 – 8 (g# – a) semitone

The descending half of the melodic minor scale is identical to that of the natural minor scale:

Step 8 – 7 (a – g) whole tone

Step 7 – 6 (g – f) whole tone

Step 6 – 5 (f – e) semitone

Step 5 – 4 (e – d) whole tone

Step 4 – 3 (d – c) whole tone

Step 3 – 2 (c – b) semitone

Step 2 – 1 (b – a) whole tone

So the ascending scale shares its first five steps with the natural and harmonic minor scales, and its sixth to eighth steps with its major counterpart (note: the major key with the same keynote and NOT the relative major). As already mentioned, the descending melodic minor scale is identical to the descending natural minor scale. We now know that harmonic minor scales form the harmonic basis of minor keys, so it stands to reason (and the name suggests) that melodic minor scales form the melodic basis. The raised sixth step prevents the dissonant augmented second interval found in harmonic minor scales and the raised seventh provides a strong resolution from a leading tone to the tonic. Since descending passages don’t require the tension and definition provided by a leading tone, the descending melodic minor offers a sound truer to the overall minor structure.

The diagram below shows the structure of A melodic minor ascending on the keyboard:

Here’s a video diagram showing the lowest octave of A melodic minor ascending and descending on the cello.

A Bit of History

The development of melodic and harmonic minor scales as we know and use them in Western music happened over a long period. Their predecessors are modes, which date back to ancient civilisations - notably the Ancient Greeks. Mediaeval modes and scales share certain similarities, but follow different rules and form the basis of two different musical languages with distinctly different sounds.  It was during the Renaissance period, when polyphonic¹ music really came into its own that the modal system, which had served the simpler homophonic² and monophonic³ musical styles of the Mediaeval period perfectly well, began to prove inadequate, as did the notation system. The rise of polyphony meant that music was becoming considerably more harmonically complex. The need for stronger definition in harmonic resolution drove the development of major and minor keys, and in particular the need for different types of minor scales to cater for a strong leading tone (the raised seventh) and the avoidance of awkward dissonance in melodic vocal lines (the augmented second interval in the harmonic minor scale). Dissonance was a major consideration and was avoided wherever possible in the harmonic structure of renaissance music. For this reason we see elements of all three minor scales in minor keys.

By the early baroque era (from 1600 onwards), a harmonic language based on tonality (harmony based on a key center) rather than modality had emerged. Melodic and harmonic minor scales and major scales were in common use. The range of key signatures increased considerably, and the use of key signatures with sharps was introduced. Equal temperament tuning, a system whereby the octave is divided into twelve equal semitones gained wider acceptance by keyboard makers by the 1630s. Although it did not become the principal tuning system for another two centuries, it enabled the 24 keys found in the circle of fifths - the cornerstone of Western art music from 1600 - 1900.

¹Polyphonic: Musical texture in two or more (usually at least three) relatively independent parts [The Oxford Companion to Music Edited by Alison Latham, 2002]
²Homophonic: Music in which one voice or part is clearly melodic, the others accompanimental and chiefly chordal. The term 'homophony' has also been used to describe part-writing where all parts move in the same rhythm; a more precise term for this is homorhythm. [The Oxford Companion to Music Edited by Alison Latham, 2002]
³Monophonic: A term used to denote music consisting of only one melodic line, with no accompaniment or other voice parts (e.g. plainchant, unaccompanied solo song). [The Oxford Companion to Music Edited by Alison Latham, 2002]

The following table shows major keys, their relative minor keys and the associated key signatures.