Why Learn the Melody and Chord Progression?
One of the best ways to master composition is to memorize the musical meaning of a passage, and be able to use it in a different way.
Memorization, abstraction, and reuse are at the heart of traditional composition teaching methods, known as partimenti.
A similar and more modern way to get the same benefit, is to create leadsheets from pieces that you like. You can make it as simple or difficult as you’d like, which allows you to play it with minimal piano skills. In the process you figure out the harmony, create a tool for easy internalization and transposition, and can use it to memorize the piece.
The best part is, you don’t have to do entire pieces. You can just pick a short segment that speaks to you.
So let’s look at Mozart’s Requiem for a minute to understand the process.
My Process for Internalizing a Chord Progression
Step 1: Listen
It all starts with hearing a passage that strikes you as particularly powerful. A great example is the opening from Mozart’s Lacrimosa.
To internalize something, you need to know what it sounds like. So let’s listen to the real thing first. It is only an excerpt, so it will go quick. Only listen up to about 22:02.
This short progression is great because it covers a bunch of harmonic motions that you can use immediately.
Step 2: Simplify as a Lead Sheet
I am a self-taught pianist, which means it takes me a while to master music on the piano. To memorize more music, I like to simplify the original.
This effectively means taking a score, and then turning it into a lead sheet. Most of the time I don’t write it out, usually just simplifying from the original score directly. But the goal is the same.
Lead sheets are great learning tools. You are forced to figure out the harmony as a chord symbol, and abstract the core of the melody. Unlike roman numeral analysis, chords are more flexible, avoiding any specific functional interpretation, as long as you have the right notes. (I also did roman numeral analysis starting at measure 5, but that isn’t vital).
Step 3: Memorize in the Original Key
This part is not complicated, but it takes time. You need to be able to play the excerpt in the original key with the melody.
It’s really about repetition and analyzing, so let’s dive in.
Learn to play the opening as is, because it’s relatively straight forward. This is a great chance to practice reading alto clef, as the original is for Violins and Violas.
Step 4: Practice Transposing at the Piano
To transpose, I find it helps to identify the smaller harmonic chunks within the progression. If you notice on my lead sheet, the chunks are contained in their own bubbles.
- i-i 6-ii-V-(i). The opening is very typical, two measure complete cadential progression. Not only would it work as a cadence, but it can be great for opening ideas, as it clearly defines the tonality.
- i-V-i. This is the fundamental harmonic movement of classical music, and should be automatic in all keys, major and minor, in all inversions.
- Down a whole step to a V-i in major (F). Notice 3, 4, and 5 are all very similar, but they are going to different tonal areas.
- Down a half step to a V-I in minor (Am).
- Down whole step to a V-i in minor (Cm).
- ♭vii – V 4/2 of IV – IV 6 (F).
- Up a minor 3rd to a diminished chord (Cº) which begins the progression viiº 6/4 – IV – Ger 6 – V 6/4 – V 5/3. This final progression moves downward by half-step to a dominant 7th chord. This is also known as a German 6th (Bb7). The German 6th usually leads to a cadential ⁶/₄ which is a i chord with the 5th in the bass, putting it in 2nd inversion. This ends with a half-cadence.
By breaking up the progression into smaller chunks, you can transpose one part, and then work from there.
Step 5: Use It
The best way to start using something like this, is to start by improvising with it. This allows you to experiment with it, trying out ideas, before committing them to paper.
Locking It In
Once you play through the progression enough times, you should have it locked in. This is especially true when you start to transpose and improvise over it.
Just like learning jazz tunes in all 12 keys, this is a critical component of learning to compose.