Often, I’ve been teaching a first piano lesson to a student, and they’ll play something for me so I can assess their level. After finishing, for example, a beautiful Chopin piece, I’ll ask the student to explain what they’ve just played. What chords are you playing? How does this progression work? Most of the time I’m greeted with blank looks. For the budding composer, one of the most important things to know and understand is how to analyze a song. We’ve already started to learn some analysis techniques in past lessons, but now, we’ll try to define a set of “guides” for analyzing a song. There are the rules to “baroque” 4 part harmony analysis, but that’s a whole different beast, something that may be covered in a special lesson segment.
As an example, we’ll use the first few measures of the Movement 2 from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8, the “Pathétique”.
Pathetique first 8.mp3 First 8 Measures of Pathetique Movement 2
Step 1- The foundation
What is the key signature?
Noting the key of the song is the most important. If the song has a key, that gives you the base from which to analyze all other chords and melodic development. In this case, there are 4 flats, so it’s either Ab major or F minor. You can usually tell whether a piece is major or minor by the first few chords. In this case, the first chord has an Ab, C, and the next note in an Eb. These three notes make up an Ab triad, to its pretty safe to say this piece of the movement is in Ab major.
What is the form?
From this excerpt, we cannot determine a form. However, it is important to look through a piece and decide on what the form could be, AA, AABA, sonata, etc. Most pop tunes don’t follow a form like this, but they follow something akin to: Intro, verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, outro- or some other variation.
What is the Time Signature?
In this case, 2/4.
Step 2- The Harmony
Now we can move chord by chord. What we’re looking for is not limited to which chords pass, but also includes which cadences we see, if there are any modulations, pedal points, strange motions, suspensions.
As we said, the song starts in Ab major with an Ab major chord. The harmonic motion is moving at one chord per beat. On beat two, the chord changes to Eb7, which is the V chord in Ab major. Remember the thirds and sevenths! There is no fifth in this Eb7 chord, and the 7th appears in the base. It’s an easy leap to guess that the Eb7 will resolve to Ab major, with the third and seventh moving properly. Let’s see…
Just as we predicted! The first chord in this measure is Ab major with C in the bass, as the seventh moved to the third, just like we though it would. Meanwhile, the third moved to the root. In the second chord, Beethoven moves it to Eb again with G in the bass, and in the second half of the beat, there’s that seventh again, I wonder if that seventh will move to the third again….
Aha! It did. The Db moved to C. The first chord is Ab major again, this time with the root in the bass. We can also see that the harmonic rhythm has changed, it’s now moving twice as fast, one chord every eighth note. The second chord is Eb with G in the bass again, but this time no seventh. Then, in the third chord, Beethoven switches it up and does what’s called a “deceptive” cadence. A deceptive cadence happens when the V chord moves to the relative minor or vi chord- in this case, it resolves to F minor. Then, Beethoven does something tricky, moving to a Bb7 chord with F in the bass, or in Ab, the V/V (the five chord of the five chord). He used the F minor as a sort of ii chord to do a ii-V-I cadence to Eb….
And there’s the Eb chord, tonicizing the V chord. This measure remains in Eb, and Beethoven has switched the harmonic rhythm back to one chord per beat. The only wonky thing that happens here is the E natural passing tone on the second half of beat two leading to….
Gb half-diminished over Db. This is the vii7 chord of Ab major which often works as an extension of V7, which Beethoven eventually moves to in beat two, briefly touching on V7 moving to…
Another tonic! Ab major over C to start the measure. Next is an out of place chord, F7. F7 is the V/ii (five chord of the ii chord, which is Bb), will it move to Bb?
Yes! He moves to ii then to V and eventually, after some harmonic motion….
To a pedal point of Eb7 over Ab, finally to Ab to ease the tension.
For you classical theorists, if we were to write this out in “classical” roman numerals, the first 8 measures would look like this:
Some roman numerals have superscripts. This is just the classical way of writing inversions. The only two here are V4/2, which is a 7th chord in third inversion, and I6 which is a triad in first inversion.
For this week’s homework, take one of you favorite tunes and analyze it piece by piece. Paste your analysis to the comment board!