Wagner’s Ring, Short Scales and Musical LEGO

Musical composition is commonly taught through analysis of standard works. A piece is broken down into a hierarchy of elements, chunking down from whole movements to subjects and developments, and breaking down themes into sub-units variously called motifs, or cells.

Program notes for Wagner operas often contain lists of those melodic fragments called leitmotifs to help you follow the story. Wagner himself called them Grundthemen (basic themes) or Melodische Momente (melodic moments).

So some – if not all – music uses sub-units or building blocks, and these can be readily identified and classed into a hierarchy of levels .

If it’s that easy, why do we have to wait till music college to learn about them? Couldn’t we use these very bricks used in composing a concerto to build a young person’s musical ability? But in reverse order, from the ground up, so to speak. In fact, isn’t that what kids do anyway? Chunking up.

Rather than giving them whole themes to follow, we could start with cells. Lets look at how this might work, taking examples of three-note cells used in grown-up music:


Check out Buster Williams playing that bottom line here:

Now, if you play the second subject of Rossini’s Thieving Magpie overture (that contains the passage above) to a not particularly gifted six-year-old and ask him to sing it back, chances are it will come back to you broken down to its component cells. A sort of instant musicological analysis.

The three-note figures are like words to him, basic musical units which he can recognize and reproduce. But there is no guarantee he will get the transpositions or the number of repeats right, let alone the entire theme.

And that is where we go wrong if we try to correct him.

I think we have here a stage in the development of musical cognition which needs to be acknowledged and which could be usefully catered for. To a certain extent, this has already been taken care of with tunes like Frère Jacques and its near mirror-inversion, Three Blind Mice.


These two tunes offer 2 ascending and 2 descending cells spanning a major and minor third. In MOVES notation we would write {=0 +2 +2} {=0 +1 +2} {=0 -2 -2} and {=0 -2 -1}. Or more simply, as the short scales {2 2} and {1 2}.

The selection of cells is culturally based, and could be expanded in imaginative ways.

By writing the intervals and not tying them to any key center, we open the way to whole new avenues of exploration, such as chaining and transposing, as well as an array of transformational possibilities (substituting the numbers, changing the signs + and -).

It’s a playful way to help the child acquire and broaden his basic musical vocabulary and get a feel for concepts such as transposition and modulation that are traditionally left till much later. There is no fear of making mistakes. No pupil wastage.

In a word: perfect musical LEGO!

And of course, while the whole idea works like a dream on intuitive intervallic instruments like the Jankó piano and the double-wholetone-row xylophone, the traditional piano can be used at a pinch. With discretion. Without blame.

Follow me on Twitter @jazzpanflute

About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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