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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  • Pingback: Western Classical vs. Indian Classical Music | An Unquiet Mind()

  • 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!

  • Pingback: Forms in Western Classical Music | An Unquiet Mind()

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