Different styles, Music stories, Musical Creativity

Tune Thursday—Ragtime

For the month of February, my #tunethursday posts will not be about a specific tune, but, will be highlighting specific genres of music, the contributions of musicians of color and how they’ve come to influence current music. Today, we start with ragtime.

Ragtime had about an 18 year (1899-1917) run in popularity, but those 18 years played a significant and influential role in 20th century music. Where did it come from? It was one of the first truly “American” styles of music, and it came out of riverboat piano players that developed a “ragged” or syncopated style of playing.

So, what in the world is syncopation? Syncopation is a fun word (sink-o-pay-shon) to say, and it’s fun to do musically, once you learn it. Normally, in music, you have a strong beat and a weak beat. In 4/4 time, beat 1 is the strongest, beat 3 is the 2nd strongest, and then beats 2 and 4 are the weaker beats. This is why it totally throws musicians off if you clap along on beat 1 and 3! But, back to syncopation. Syncopation shifts the stress off of the main beats and it gives a completely different feel!

Here’s a great example. “The Entertainer” The left hand is primarily playing on beats 1, 2, 3 and 4, while the right hand is playing syncopated rhythms, and it has this freshness and life to it that really had never been heard in music before.

I thought this quote from Wikipedia was fascinating. “Black musician Tom Fletcher said, Ernest Hogan (the first person to write ragtime music) was the “first to put on paper the kind of rhythm that was being played by non-reading musicians.” There’s a lot there. At that time in history, slavery was about 30 years in the past, but African Americans were still viewed as lower or second class. There wasn’t the education that white Americans had, and especially when it came to music. So if you were an African American at the time, you most likely learned music by figuring it out! And this is what happened when Hogan did this. Scott Joplin was musically trained and took ragtime to a whole new level.

The mid 1910’s was a transition point, and the “St. Louis Blues” by W.C. Handy started that transition into blues. More on blues and jazz next week, but you can tell as you listen to this piece, there’s been a transition from piano being the predominant instrument to trumpets and other instruments standing out.

I learned “The Entertainer” back when I took lessons, and absolutely loved and was frustrated by it at the same time. Playing in that “ragged” style is a challenge, but it is so much fun to play once you learn it, and much more fun to listen to! I’d encourage you to check out more ragtime music!

Different styles, Music literacy, Music stories

The Four Seasons

The Four Seasons, by Vivaldi, are exquisitely written and the Spring theme is one of the more famous melodies out there. But why did Vivaldi write it?

The Four Seasons is a concerto, one of over 500 written by Vivaldi, who was born in 1678 and died in 1741. The thing about this concerto, though, was that it was radically different than all of the other concertos written at this time. What was different about it? It was themed. Up until this point, concertos were just….concertos. Typically labelled by what key they were in, each movement was typically titled by the tempo, or speed of the piece.

But Vivaldi radically changed the musical landscape around him in writing The Four Seasons. You see, he encouraged the players as well as the audience to use their imaginations. If you’re listening to music, do you typically associate it with a season? Probably not. But, if you listen to the Spring movement, and you’re thinking about all of the things that happen in springtime, it doesn’t take much work to imagine the music being the background for it.

We can definitely thank Vivaldi for many masterworks of music that are in the world today. Personally, one of my all time favorite choral works is his “Gloria”.

Check out Gloria, The Four Seasons and many other compositions by Vivaldi. You may find a new favorite classical composer!

Challenge, Different styles, Music literacy

Enter Sandman

I came across this video and was amazing. Larnell Lewis is a drummer who plays with the jazz band Snarky Puppy, one of my favorite jazz groups! The whole point of the video is that he listens to the song once, and tries to drum along with it. Watch and see what happens.

I tell students this all the time. While your eyes, hands and feet are helpful for music making, hearing is essential. You noticed (and it was pointed out on the video) that for about half of the song, he was just listening and noting, not trying to play along. Then near the end, he was doing a little bit of “air drumming”

But it was what he did after he listened that was the most important. He walked back through the song. No matter what style, music can be broken down into sections. And that’s exactly what he walked through. And he kept up really well!

Of course, he’s a drummer with years of experience and practice. For me, I’ve never really challenged myself to do something like this on piano or organ. I’ve done it from time to time on the trumpet, trying to pick out melodies and play along, but never really an entire song.

Honestly, for musicians, this is a huge challenge, and I totally love that he took it on. Especially a song that he had never heard of at all. I loved what he said at the about challenging yourself to try different styles. It does make you a better musician overall and definitely stretches your boundaries. You may not find something that you like, but you have a deeper appreciation.

The Harmanny Music Education Podcast will be coming soon! Stay tuned!