Understanding Key Musical Concepts

[This post is #4 in the Western Classical Music Series]

After comparing WCM with Indian Classical, let us understand a few important concepts you will often encounter later in this series.


In WCM, you will often find works titled as “Symphony in G Minor”, “Concerto in A Major”, etc. What does that mean?

The ‘G Minor’ and ‘A Major’ refer to ‘scales’ or the sequence of notes starting from the note C or A. This sequence is different between major and minor scales.

You do not need to understand or be able to identify keys in order to appreciate WCM. So feel very comfortable ignoring these terms completely.

For beginners & amateurs (like myself), what helps is understanding how major and minor affect the overall mood of the composition. Compositions in the major scale sound confident, pleasant, and happy. The minor scale, on the other hand, makes music sound melancholy, introspective, and dark.

If you are interested in the structure of major vs. minor scales, watch this:

Major and Minor Scales

As you can see, we realize the difference between major and minor when the 3rd note in the sequence is played:

  • In major, the 3rd note is 2-whole-steps above the 1st
  • In minor, the 3rd note is 1.5-steps above the 1st.

Does this mean that works in the major scale don’t use the keys in the minor scale? No. In WCM, we are not constrained to using only ‘allowed’ keys, like in ICM ‘raagas’. A composition in the major scale may use all keys, but it will ‘come to rest’ or ‘resolve’, on the key that is in the major scale (and vice-versa for minor).

Why do major-minor scales create such contrasting moods? We really don’t know. Research suggests that this phenomenon may not be restricted to music, but we may also be using it in our speech!

Another tantalizing aspect is how frequent was the use of Major vs. Minor in the course of history. Statistics show that earlier eras were prolific in composing in the major scale, while latter works have focused more on the minor scale. See stats and discussion here.

Catalogue / Index Numbers

You will also find “Op. 52” and “KV 331”. These numbers refer to the catalogue or index number of that composition within a composer’s repertoire. You can safely ignore them, unless you want to be snobbish and excitedly remark “I like KV 551 more than the 550, as I’m an extrovert” in a social situation. The cataloging of classical works is quite a complex endeavor, and you can read more about it here if you’re academically inclined.


Counterpoint is not fundamental to music, but an essential element of *all* music, not just WCM. By definition, Counterpoint is “the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm and are harmonically interdependent”. What does this mean? This describes it the best: “When there is more than one independent melodic line happening at the same time in a piece of music, we say that the music is ‘contrapuntal‘. The independent melodic lines are called counterpoint.”

The etymology of the word is also very interesting. Roughly translated as “note against note”, the interesting aspect comes from the aspect of stitching. The melodies in counterpoint are ‘stitched’ together at an angle, such that they weave a pattern of harmonious music.

What is the difference between Counterpoint and Harmony? Nice description from here: “The study of counterpoint emphasizes the independence of individual lines of music. It deals with ways to combine these individual lines together to form a pleasant- sounding whole. The study of harmony, on the other hand, is geared more towards forming and joining together chords to create a piece of music. Speaking in abstract terms, you could say that counterpoint is more “horizontal” and harmony is more “vertical”.

Here is Counterpoint on the Guitar:

Counterpoint on Guitar

Counterpoint in Western Classical Music: Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #5

Counterpoint in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #5

Strictly speaking, it is not considered counterpoint if one of the ‘voices’ is dominant and the rest are in the background. However, the contrapuntal technique is universal, even in popular music. Listen to this popular composition by Shankar-Jaikishen:

 Counterpoint in Hindi Film Music

There are numerous musical techniques involved in this very complex composition. There is ICM-style accompaniment, there is WCM-style development, etc. The main theme here is a consistent repeat of the major tone in a 3/3 time signature.  (Old hindi film musicians used to term the instrumental interludes between stanzas as ‘M1’, ‘M2’, and so on.) Listen & observe the following:

  • During 0:35 to 1:00, the background ‘accompanies’ the vocals, like in ICM
  • From 1:05 to 1:20, there is counterpoint between the piano and the strings
  • From 1:40 the Counterpoint starts between the vocals and the orchestration, which continues throughout the song
  • What happens at 1:55, in the M1, is pure Counterpoint (and worthy of a WCM composition)
  • From 2:20 onwards, it is again back to ICM-style accompaniment to the vocals (if your ears are sensitive, there is some contrapuntal music playing too)
  • There is no serious Counterpoint in M2
  • 2nd vocal stanza follows ICM accompaniment
  • Starting from 4:20 to 4:50 is Counterpoint bliss; amazing, simply amazing use of Counterpoint here
  • Even at 5:23, observe how the human vocal persists with the repetition in the tonic, while the background strings move up and down in Counterpoint
  • From 5:37, the lead voice persists in its repetition of the tonic, while orchestra dances above, below, and beside it, as if it were trying to look over someone’s shoulder
  • From 5:50 onwards, no Counterpoint, just resolution of what your ears have listened to before

Another example of ‘true’ Counterpoint in Hindi film music in the vocals: observe how the female voice sings a note in true counterpoint to the male lead vocal:

Vocal Counterpoint

Do I need to explain Counterpoint any further?


Sycopation is the effect produced by placing an accent on a beat of the bar which would not otherwise have been strong.
From Wikipedia: “Syncopation is a general term for a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm; a placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn’t normally occur”. Again, the technique of Syncopation is not at all exclusive to WCM, it is in fact, more widely used in popular and all kinds of music.

Watch this beautiful, excellent video for completely understanding Syncopation:

Rhythmic Accent & Syncopation


Have you experimented with Chromatography as a kid, by ‘separating’ out the different elements in a liquid by placing a drop on a special kind of paper and watching them spread out in concentric circles? These separate elements are different yet very close. The musical equivalent is the Chromatic Scale.

The Major and Minor scales we discussed above use only 7 tones starting from a given key. The Chromatic Scale uses all 12 tones of the octave. Chromatic techniques create dissonances that lead to a richer texture.

How does a melody sound in its original form and what happens when you add Chromaticism to it? Watch the first part of this till 1:40 (ignore the rest of the s/w demo):

Adding Chromaticism to a melody

Watch this to observe how Chromaticism is used on the Guitar in Rock Music:

Chromaticism in Rock Guitar

Some folks mistakenly think that Chromaticism was used in WCM only later, during Renaissance Period, but that is not true. Here is Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy BMV903 performed by Glenn Gould:

Chromaticism in Baroque Era

In “Idiot’s Guide” terms: When notes that are very, very intimately close together are used in a composition, such that they form a palette of colors, like you see in your Graphic Art software – that is Chromaticism. Simple.

Next, we will look at some of the Forms used commonly in Western Classical Music.

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  • You might find this video interesting in many ways http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0_DeHSTLHU

    • So beautiful and so elegantly presented!

      Thank you so much for sharing this! You’re almost making me feel like it should be you who should be writing this series, not me! 🙂

      • Most welcome! There is tremendous joy in sharing. Thanks for the kind words, but I’m just an avid listener and I don’t think I can write quite as eloquently as you about this subject. I am too passionate about music to be able to write analytically and objectively about it. However, when it comes to subjects like philosophy, politics and management I find it easier since the words just flow.

        • Thantk you, Sir! As we discussed on Twitter, I don’t think being passionate precludes one from writing analytically & objectively about something! 🙂 Since you are such a learned, passionate listener of WCM, I sincerely hope that you continue to share with all of us. Your shares are pertinent and very useful. Kindly keep them coming, is all I can say.

    • …FastDots…

      That was beautiful. Thanks for sharing it! Reminds me of one of my favourite books (I was hoping Mahendra would introduce it at some point, so I will leave it unnamed – but will tell you that its about the complex similarities in the works of a mathematician, a musician and an artist (like a painter)).

      • Ha ha! I was wondering who else would be reminded of that book after watching that video! Thanks, FastDots, that book will find mention when we come to the Resources section.

  • …FastDots…

    I am thoroughly enjoying the series – very helpful analysis
    of Dil ke Jharoke… ! I thought it would be a good idea to talk about
    fugues and canons when you talk about counterpoint – one of my many favourite
    musicians (rock guitarist!) has a song titled point-counterpoint (its a
    guitar/bass duet) that I think you and your readers will enjoy – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8giiLqabBuE

    While I am sharing examples from the pop and rock world, here is a very easy to understand (and confounding too!) example of syncopation – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjbQj_dB1OE

    • Dear FastDots, thank you so much for the feedback. Yes, I will cover fugues & canons when discussing Forms in the next post (it is very difficult to strategize how to classify and structure this series of posts, finally decided to discuss Forms separately).

      Both of your examples are beautiful and very illustrative. I think Sting has a fancy for syncopation 🙂 I had not heard Steve Morse before – that is indeed a very lovely track and am adding it to my library soon. Thanks, again!

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  • Mahendra, thanks to these series, and especially thanks to this particular post, I have decided to start learning the guitar. 

    • Wow! Thank you. I am honored.