I’ve received a few questions this week about what musical analysis is, often accompanied by a look of uncertainty or fear at being asked to do it. Below are two examples of musical analysis, but first some words of reassurance:

  1. Musical analysis is what we’ve been doing in class all semester. In our very first class meeting, we listened to several pieces of music with different textures (monophonic, polyphonic, homophonic, and homorhythmic — go back and look at the lecture notes!), and I asked you, even without any musical vocabulary, to describe the different sensations or experiences of listening to these musical sounds. The take-away: you all have the ability to analyze music and you’ve already done it in this class and prior without noticing that you’re doing so. Since then, in every class meeting we’ve been adding vocabulary and more detail to the descriptions I ask you to make in class.
  2. Musical analysis is just like the literary analysis you’re already familiar with in your English classes — just replace an author’s words with a composer’s sounds.
  3. There are no wrong answers, only unsupported or unsubstantiated ones. Whatever your interpretation is of what a piece of music means or communicates, it has to be logically supported by a specific sound that you describe. Another listener could disagree with your ultimate interpretation, but not the content of the description itself.

Links to examples of musical analysis

Melody in pop music. In this example, an author notices that a lot of pop songs from different artists have common features in their melodies, namely a descending contour (pitch going from higher to lower), usually on a word like “Woah” or “Wa-oh.” (Description, check). The author interprets it as being a reaffirmation of the notion that humans like patterns but also an indication of how formulaic we often like our music to be as well as our desire for things to be positive and happy (Interpretation or “So what,” check).

Texture, gender, form, and genre in classical music. In this example, the author uses several musical features (description) to show how an opera by Mozart is still relevant in terms of rape culture in 2016 (so what).

-Dr. J.

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