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03 Sep 2013

Moonlight Sonata and the Pyramid of Cheops: What Do They Have in Common?

Is there a connection between a music piece’s form and its impact on the listener? Why do some music works seem more beautiful than others? The ancient architects knew the answer to this question long ago.

The Great Pyramid of Cheops

The Great Pyramid of Cheops. Photographer: Berthold Werner. Source: Wikipedia

One of the Seven Wonders of the World – the Pyramid of Khufu (popularly known as the Pyramid of Cheops) – has been admired for its grandeur and perfect proportions by millions of tourists for years. A lot of its mysteries still remain undisclosed. Up to now, the scientists can’t explain the exact way this giant construction had been erected. But there is one indisputable fact about the pyramid: back in 2500 years B.C., the architects knew the “formula of harmony” – a special correlation between the sides’ length known as the “golden proportion”. This correlation is also the base of numerous architectural masterpieces, like the Parthenon and Notre-Dame de Paris.

Gioconda Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the most outstanding thinkers and artists of the Renaissance has also left a lot of mysteries for his descendants. His famous “Gioconda” is still one the most discussed paintings. According to one of the hypotheses, Leonardo endowed the woman depicted in his creation with his own features, which means that the painting could be Da Vinci’s self-portrait as a woman. Gioconda’s ephemeral smile carries some secret meaning that the experts still cannot interpret. In order to create that special impression for the viewer, the painter used many techniques, including the rule of the “golden proportion”.

It becomes obvious that there is a certain correlation between the parts of a work that helps us to experience positive emotions. The “golden ratio” phenomenon is observed when the ratio of the whole and the bigger part is the same as the ratio of the bigger part and the smaller part. Besides being used by the ancient architects, this correlation was mathematically proved in the Middle Ages by another great “Leonardo” – Fibonacci. He was talking about a special sequence of numbers that got the name of “the Fibonacci numbers”. Every number in that sequence is the sum of the two preceding numbers: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 and so on. Moreover, starting with the 5 - 3 ratio, every number is in the golden proportion with the preceding one. Mathematically, this ratio equals 1.6.

sunflower How did the ancient architects manage to discover the formula of the “golden proportion”? In fact, nature gives us hints whenever we are observant enough! One of the bright examples is a sunflower. The number of seeds in every row starting from the center corresponds to the Fibonacci numbers. Another hint is a nautilus conch. The lengths of the conch’s spirals are in the 1.6:1 proportion. This allows the conch to grow proportionally during the mollusk’s entire lifetime.

The “golden proportion” had been used in the music of many great composers, too. Let’s take the renowned music piece by one the world’s most famed composers – “Moonlight Sonata” for piano by Ludwig van Beethoven, and particularly, its mystical first part. (By the way, at MusicaNeo you can download for free the sheet music for the Moonlight Sonata as well as other high-quality popular works). After making some simple calculations we can state that the composer used the rule of the golden proportion in the first part of his piece.

The reprise is an important part of a sonata: it is often accompanied by a special feeling that can be compared to a catharsis. Taking into consideration this fact, let’s divide the first part of the sonata into two unequal segments: a bigger one – before the reprise (consisting of 42 bars), and a smaller one – starting from the reprise and till the end of the first part of the sonata (consisting of 27 bars). The proportion between the general number of bars and the number of bars in the bigger part is thus 69:42. Now let’s divide the number of bars in the bigger segment by the number of bars in the smaller one: 42:27. In both cases the result equals 1.6, which IS the golden ratio. This fact only proves the hypothesis that the rule of the golden proportion had been accurately used by the great composer.

But why does this correlation between the parts bring the magic feeling of harmony and beauty when we are listening to music, enjoying the paintings or looking at the sunflowers? The answer to this question still remains one of the biggest puzzles of the human consciousness.

20 Aug 2013

Combatting Stage Fright

Combatting Stage Fright

How often, after endless hours of practicing before a concert, on Day X the performer comes out on stage and feels a sudden bout of panic, even though everything had been perfectly rehearsed. Sweaty palms, pounding heart, nausea, shaking limbs and dryness in mouth – all those are the indicators of the so-called stage fright, or in other words, extreme anxiety about the approaching public performance. “But I did so well while practicing!” – would be the natural, astonished reaction. Why does it happen? Let’s try to explain this phenomenon and see what can be done to overcome it.

A number of studies have been carried out to prove that our brain can work in two modes, alternately enabling either left or right hemisphere. The ‘left-sided mode’ is responsible for all that can be characterized as analytical, rational, logical and objective, while the right side focuses on the intuitive and random.

Michèle Gingras, Professor of Music at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, has transferred this theory into music reality, trying to use it as a tool to brave the stage fright of her students. According to her research, while in the practice room, a musician mostly exercises the left brain hemisphere – that is focus on the right fingering, correct breathing, tone and so on. A person is not distracted and influenced by external factors so the feeling of self-awareness is reduced to minimum. On the stage, it is the contrary - the desire to please the audience who watch, approve or criticize, the wish to be artistically and emotionally convincing during the performance – re-programs our brain to enable the right side. And here the discrepancy becomes evident: the poorly trained right brain fails to perform well and can affect the well-trained left brain. The conclusion? Both sides of the brain have to be equally trained beforehand!

Michèle suggests a couple of techniques that help musicians exercise their right brain during rehearsals and thus lead to a splendid performance in public.

Audio-recording. No one can be a tougher critic than ourselves, so try to audio record yourself playing. Knowing that the material is being taped makes a musician more concentrated on the piece and increases the self-awareness: “The recorder is listening, avoid mistakes!”. Moreover, it helps to analyze the performing mistakes while listening to the records later.

Video-recording. Adding the video component makes us flex the ‘right brain muscles’ even more. You can even pretend to leave the room and re-enter it as if the audience is waiting there for you to perform. If you do not have any video-recording device, try sitting in front of a mirror for practice – works as a good ‘distractor’ as well. Even if a mirror is for some reason not available, do not close up in the room – try practicing with a door or a window open. Close your eyes and use the power of imagination to create the ambiance of a concert.

Rhythmic solfège. This technique is often taught in French conservatories instead of the classical solfège. Instead of singing, each note is being named (A-B-C or do-re-mi) in rhythm while tapping. This method helps you to ‘x-ray’ your composition, visualize it, make your imagination work, which means the right brain is in action again – and that’s what we need!

Different perspective. Some of our fears may come from the earlier years when we were immature beginners and were making too many mistakes. For some people those fears are so strong that they keep hiding for years and bothering even those who are already acknowledged professionals. It’s important to develop the self-awareness of our achievements and try to perceive the music challenges with peace and readiness respective to our skills.

When on stage. The most important thing to remember once you are already there is that the audience can sense your emotions pretty well. The more assertively and confidently you behave, the more people like you. You can feed your brain with oxygen right before the concert by having some deep breathing or even meditating. One good way to establish a positive connection is talking to the audience before you start performing – a mere greeting can break the ice. There will be no second chance once you are on stage, so relax and enjoy the moment!

Stage fright has one big advantage – the fact that you are anxious about the way you are going to present the music piece to people means that you truly care about the result. Do not be afraid to fail or make a mistake for it only builds your experience.

Have amazing performances!

Photo of The Chan Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver by Kchang. Source: Wikipedia

22 Jul 2013

Andrew Lloyd Webber, the King of Musical

Andrew Lloyd Webber is considered to be one of the most successful contemporary composers. The creator of the famous musicals “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “Evita”, “Cats”, “The Phantom of the Opera”, is the winner of three “Tony” awards, as well as an “Oscar”, a “Golden Globe” and many other awards. Here are a few interesting facts from his biography and creative activity.

Andrew Lloyd Webber

Photo by Tracey Nolan (Toronto, Canada). Source: Wikipedia.

  • As it often happens in the lives of great composers, Andrew grew up in a family of professional musicians. No wonder that he began composing music at the age of 6 and published his first suite when he was 9.
  • The composer was three times nominated for an “Oscar”, including the nominations of the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” and the song “Learn to Be Lonely” for the movie “The Phantom of the Opera” (2004). However, lady luck smiled at him only once: in 1996 the composer received an “Oscar” for the song “You Must Love Me” from the musical “Evita”.
  • On the basis of that musical a movie of the same name was filmed, starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas. One of the most popular songs from the movie is “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” written in 1976. According to the composer, if this song hadn’t been written there would be no musical.
  • In 2005, Lloyd Webber took part in the Eurovision Song Contest, having become the organizer of this national Song Contest. His song “It’s My Time” performed by Jade Yuan became number 5 at the ESC in Russia. The author himself was on stage accompanying the singer on the piano.
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber reached success not only in the sphere of pop music but also in the genre of classical music. His “Requiem” dedicated to the composer’s father received a “Grammy” in the nomination “best contemporary classical composition”. The recordings of the famous motet “Pie Jesu” performed by Anna Netrebko, Sissel Kyrkjebø and Jackie Evancho are gathering millions of YouTube views.
  • Especially for his brother Julian, a professional cellist, the composer created a “cross-over” album. The album is based on variations of the theme of the A minor Caprice by Paganini.
  • A. Lloyd Webber was a couple of times accused of plagiarism, including the accusations from the Dutch composer and music theorist Louis Andriessen.
  • In 1992, A. Lloyd Webber was knighted by the Queen of Great Britain, and a few years later he received the “baron” title.
  • The famous musician was married three times, including the marriage with Sarah Brightman for whom he created the role of Christina in the musical “The Phantom of the Opera”. Andrew has five children.
  • According to some estimates, Andrew Lloyd Webber occupies the 87th place in the list of the richest people of Great Britain. His fortune is estimated at 700 million pounds.
  • The 10 000th performance of the musical “The Phantom of the Opera” took place on Broadway on the February 11, 2012.

Among the numerous facts about A.Lloyd Webber, we should also mention his unique melodic gift – a rare phenomenon today. Probably this is the secret for the popularity of the well-known compositions “I Only Want to Say”, “Amigos Para Siempre”, “Memory”, “The Phantom of the Opera”, “Pie Jesu”. In the sheet music catalogue of MusicaNeo you will find over 500 music scores of the works by Andrew Lloyd Webber in various arrangements.

06 Jul 2013

Studying Music Online Has Become Real?

Studying Music Online Has Become Real?What differentiates a ‘musician’ from other professions? Most musicians will probably answer without hesitation: a course of studies that may last more than 15 years. Even after graduating from a university and receiving a degree, a musician has to dedicate a few hours every day to practicing. And it is not only about playing a music instrument but about the need to extend personal horizons in the spheres of music, art, technologies and music industry in general.

Luckily, today there are a lot of opportunities to obtain the necessary information. One of such opportunities is the initiative of a group of universities aimed at making music education free and accessible to as many people as possible. Within this initiative, the universities have prepared a number of online courses that allow the necessary knowledge from various spheres of music art to be learned within a short period of time. The courses are available in English. To participate, one needs an Internet-connected computer and, of course, dedication and spare time.

The world-known Berklee College of Music is among the educational establishments supporting this idea. (By the way, some of the modern show-biz stars who graduated from Berklee include Alan Silvestri, Diana Krall, Al Di Meola and PSY, whose video “Gangnam Style” was the first to receive over 1 000 000 000 YouTube views). Among the up-coming online courses from Berklee are “Songwriting” and “Introduction to Music Production”. College teachers will prepare a set of video-lectures and quizzes and will reply to all the questions that interest you. Participants have the opportunity to create music works and receive gradings.


The University of Rochester organizes an online course “History of Rock, Part Two”. This is the second part of the same-named course, which focuses on the period 1970 – end of the last century. The course consists of 8-12-minute video-lectures, tests and a final exam. Participants who have successfully completed the course will receive a confirmation certificate signed by a professor.

August will see a course prepared by the University of North Carolina, dedicated to organizing rehearsals for a music ensemble – “Fundamentals of Rehearsing Music Ensembles”. Among the topics planned: choice of repertoire, studying and analyzing music pieces, rehearsals planning, developing a musical ear, ensemble guiding, musicians’ coordination.

Those who are interested in applying modern technologies in music should turn their attention to the topics of “Music Technology Overview” (Georgia Institute of Technology) and “Introduction to Programming for Musicians and Digital Artists” (California Institute of the Arts). The latter is interesting as it is using the programming language ChucK created in 2003. Among its features are the possibility of music synthesis and real-time device managing. The video-lectures will involve material from the language creator Dr. Perry R. Cook (Princeton University) and Dr. Ge Wang (Stanford University).

At the beginning of September, one of the most prestigious USA conservatories – Curtis Institute of Music – invites you to take part in the course “Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas”. In its course, 32 sonatas by the great composer will be analyzed from the point of view of performer. The course’s creators are inviting everyone who is interested in Beethoven’s music, regardless of the educational level.

As a conclusion to this overview, we’d like to add that all the courses are FREE and are organized by the portal coursera.org.

 
   
 
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