By Peter Niedmann
Have you ever played the drop-needle quiz? Someone plays a snippet of a recording, and you try to identify the piece. It’s interesting how often a single chord, because of the way it’s orchestrated or sung, can reveal its context.
Our depth of knowledge of music repertoire is actually quite varied. There are some pieces we could sing or play in their entirety. There are some pieces we know sections of, and can sing along. Other pieces, we may be able to deduce the composer by the compositional style. Some could only be categorized into a time period.
There’s a great app called Shazam, that I use regularly. If a piece is playing on the radio, pull up Shazam on the phone, and it “listens” to the piece, and tells you what it is! I always try to come up with my own answer before I use Shazam, and sometimes I’m vindicated. But, it’s an easy way to broaden your knowledge of repertoire.
In pre-Shazam days, one could call the radio station and ask what the piece is. Radio stations also have their playlists online to refer to. Another music-identification resource from the old days: a book called A Dictionary of Musical Themes. The book is divided into two sections. The first is composers listed alphabetically, along with the first few measures of their most famous works. The second part of the book is quite something. It’s called the notation index, and it helps identify where a melody comes from by the first few intervals of the piece. So, for example, one entry looks like this:
A G C D G E M1025
If you play that sequence of notes, you’ll recognize it as Mussorgsky’s Promenade theme from Pictures at an Exhibition. If you refer back to the first part of the book, M1025 is the actual notation of that theme.
Going to the other end of the knowledge spectrum, musicians should always be deepening their understanding of the music they perform. If it’s a fugue, analyze it for subject entries, episodes, stretto, etc. Study the construction of a sonata for its structure. Read biographies of the composers. Look and listen to other pieces they wrote for a different instrument or ensemble. If the piece is vocal or choral, study the text independently to better understand its meaning and inner music. Listen to several recordings of a piece to learn how other performers have approached it. The process never ends!
Here’s a fun drop-needle quiz video: