Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

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Haiku Wednesday: Learn To Write Like Mozart, Free on Coursera


Like Mozart’s music?
You can write like him (sort of)
Now on Coursera.

Coursera is again offering its “Write Like Mozart” course.  The session will run from April 11 to May 29, but you can preview the first week of material now.  You have to enroll by April 16.  They will offer another session that begins on May 9.  The course is free, or if you want a certificate when you complete the course, it’s $49.

If you want to learn the basics of Western composition in Mozart’s era, this is a great class.  But you have to have some prior knowledge of the rudiments of music.  Not just the ability to read music; I mean chords, scales, key signatures, intervals, and Roman numeral analysis (not as scary as it sounds). The instructor, Peter Edwards of the National University of Singapore, suggests visiting if you need a refresher course on a particular topic.

One of the nice things is, if you don’t quite pick up the content of the lectures the first time, you can play them again.  You can even download the lectures and slides.  And if you don’t complete the course–no loss! (if you haven’t paid for a certificate, that is).  You learned what you learned, and it’s more than you knew before.

If you don’t have the basics you need for the Mozart course yet, never fear. has a class “Introduction to Music Theory” which will teach you the rudiments you need to know.  It will begin on April 18. uses a flashcard-based approach for learning or reviewing music rudiments that is definitely go at your own pace.  Here are their musical offerings.  There’s lots of fun stuff there, including “Who Composed Me?” (there is also a “Who Painted Me?”) and 80 Operas, with musical clips.

Can’t read music?  Don’t want to pursue that right now? Still want to learn more about how all those dots and lines turn into glorious Mozart? has a course called “From Notation to Performance: Understanding Musical Scores.”  You do not have to be able to read music for this course.  The class is not currently available, but you can let them know you’re interested, and they’ll email you when it becomes available again.  The approach is one of visual pattern recognition.  You’ll learn how to be able to follow the “flow” of the score, and hear musicians discuss how they work together in small ensembles or individually and derive the meaning from the marks on the page.

So there’s lots of fun options out there, and if you find one you really like, let us all know about it!

Just be warned, these little courses (especially the flash card ones) are like potato chips—you can’t stop at one!

I have to get back to my music/art/photography/language courses now.  But it would be wrong not to hear some Mozart.

Here’s Mozart’s first symphony.  Written when he was eight years old.  Sigh.


Image attribution: Mozart c. 1780, portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce. Public domain. Questionably modified by C. Gallant.

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Celebrating International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day, and to celebrate, I’m pointing you toward a fantastic resource.  Blogger ulyssesstone has put together a blog post “1200 Years of Women Composers: From Hildegard to Higdon.”  The post includes links to the Wikipedia articles for a long list of female composers.  He also has created a Spotify playlist of works of women composers in chronological order.  So if you’re a Spotify user, you have over 64 hours of music spanning centuries awaiting you.

Yes, women write music.


Haiku Wednesday: Quartweet Part 2

A BIttersweet Farewell Quartweet001

Quartweet: A challenge.
Express a musical thought.
One-forty notes, max.

I give you my first:
It’s “A Bittersweet Farewell.”
I hope you like it.

After much deliberation, review, and musical sudoku, I give you my first quartweet, A Bittersweet Farewell, clocking in at just 86 notes.

The score can be seen (and heard) at the Musescore website by clicking here.

Want to write your own quartweet?  Let me outline some of the steps I went through.

  1.  Create a complete musical thought.

Ok, that sounds like the hard part, but it might not be as hard as you think.  If you just start humming to yourself, not sticking to a specific tune, you can probably generate one.  And if you do it long enough (walking around at night for hours with a sleepless infant for example) your ideas will become more elaborate, and you can probably develop variations on your theme as well.

Side note 1: for some reason, at 3AM everything used to start to sound like a folk tune that I imagine my great-grandmother singing.

Side note 2: you cannot get an infant to sleep using a 12-note tone row.  Just sayin’.

2.  Figure out how a string quartet works.

I do not play a string instrument.  I originally wrote down my quartweet in piano notation (one treble clef, one bass clef).  The range of each string instrument is different, and you have to make sure you keep your notes in a reasonable range, just as you would for a singer.

There is also an interplay between instruments that is new territory for me.  Maybe you’ve noticed I’ve been listening to a lot of string quartets lately?

3.  Write the harmony.

Here’s where the musical sudoku comes in.  A melody left by itself can get lonely.  If all the instruments play the same note…well, you get the equivalent of plainchant in voices.  So you need harmony, allied tone clusters that help to establish the mood.

The difficulty lies in the fact that certain patterns of note movement or clustering sound better than others.  Some are to be avoided because they don’t work as well, or don’t allow each instrument to shine.  Some just plain don’t sound good.  I am doing my best to avoid the use of the word “rules” here.  It’s not that you can’t do some things, it’s just that there are preferable options.  But changing one note, like changing a box in a sudoku puzzle, can have rippling effects.  Get out your erasers.

Side note 3: I hate sudoku.

4.  Transcribe the “final” version for a string quartet.

Each instrument gets its own staff.  The violins use the treble clef.  Ok.  The cello uses the bass clef.  Ok.  The viola players are already sighing.  They know what comes next is the rant about using the alto clef, which is less common.  The middle line for the treble clef is B.  The middle line for the bass clef is D.  The middle line for the alto clef is C.

No worries, violists–I’m a translator, I got this.

Side note 4: actually my rant is typically about asking why the bass clef and treble clef lines have to be different.  Sure, I understand the logic of it, but couldn’t somebody have done a little inter-clef hand-waving in ancient times and made them both the same? Especially when, on a keyboard, you have to play both at the same time?

Finally! written, harmonized, transcribed.  Ta-da!

It’s not Mozart. But then Mozart wasn’t born speaking in paragraphs either (one presumes).  We start with “mama” then “I’m hungry” then “I’d like a sandwich please” then, eventually, Proust (maybe). I’d like to think I’m at the “water is wet, fire is hot” obvious and simple stage. Eventually I’ll get beyond there (maybe).  Just have to keep trying and reaching for the madeleines.

There will be at least one more quartweet coming your way, but it’s been detained in step 3.  Soon as I get rid of those pesky parallel fifths and other infractions of the…guidelines, I’ll send it your way.


Music Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported [CC BY-ND 3.0] Chris Gallant 2016.






Haiku Wednesday: Yes, women write music

Clara Schumann

Clara Wieck Schumann

Gentlemen, move o’er,
We’re taking our rightful place
–Clara Wieck Schumann

When UK student Jessy McCabe realized there were no women among the 63 composers on the level A music exam syllabus, she decided to do something about it.

She contacted the publishers of the syllabus, who said, “Given that female composers were not prominent in the western classical tradition (or others for that matter), there would be very few female composers that could be included.” [1]

McCabe started a petition campaign, and noted that BBC Radio 3 featured programming by female composers all day on International Women’s Day. The petition got 3,300 signatures (including some top composers). [2]

The syllabus has now been changed to include five female composers: Clara Schumann, Rachel Portman, Kate Bush, Anoushka Shankar, and Kaija Saariaho. The works of 12 other female composers have been added to the listening selections [2].

She also received an apology. [3]

It should be noted that the Classical 100 list discussed in Monday’s post includes works by the female composers Hildegard of Bingen, Elena Kats-Chemin, and Clara Schumann.

Thanks to reader Eric C. for bringing this story to my attention.

Want to learn more?  See BBC Radio 3’s set of webpages, Celebrating Women Composers, which includes biographies, sound clips, playlists, and programs.

And now, Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22 by Clara Schumann.

Anassa kata!



Image attribution: Drawing of Clara Schumann, artist unknown, public domain via,


Haiku Wednesday: The Quartweet Part 1

Quartweet, quartetto
Slim as a stiletto, a
Hundred forty notes.

The Signum Quartet has presented a challenge:  compose a quartet consisting of no more than 140 notes–a quartweet.  The note limit is the same as the character limit imposed on messages in Twitters, called tweets.  You can read about it in my previous post on the quartweet.

Well, of course, Bach did it first, and masterfully.

I’ve been thinking about trying this since my original post on the subject.  I had a piece in mind, and got it down near the limit; it was still too heavy-handed though.  It was originally written as a choral piece, with four notes for each syllable.  This piece sounded like what it would be like if one asked a quartet to play while wearing parkas and mittens.  Dull, muffled, awkward.  I needed to fix it.

So how do you write a string quartet when you don’t know how?  First, don’t give up and say it can’t be done.  Second, ask your music teacher.

What if you don’t have a music teacher?  Another thing I did was listen to and follow the scores of quartets to get a feel for what it’s supposed to sound (and look) like.  A fine endeavor, and pleasant, but it does take a lot of time.  It’s a little like learning English by reading Shakespeare.

Another approach I took is more like a quote attributed to Michelangelo.  He said a sculpture already existed in a block of marble, all he did was chip away the pieces that didn’t belong.  Fortunately, music scores are more forgiving than marble, in that you can put chunks back in if you happen to lop off the nose.

But then things got hectic.  Like Willie Dixon’s old song said, “I can’t quit you, baby/But I got to put you down a little while.” And so it was.  Yes, this post contains quartets and American blues.

But I recently got to thinking about the quartweet again…and decided that I had the wrong song for the project.  Part of the heavy-handedness was that it was ab initio clunky (there’s a word combination you don’t see often).  But luckily, I thought of some possible replacements.

I had written a setting of Nunc dimittis, but I wasn’t sure it would work; it would need some tinkering.  But there was another setting, this one of In Manus Tuas, and it occurred to me that the first iteration of words seemed just about the right length.  So I counted the notes as written: 135.  Q.E.D., right?

Well, not exactly.  I ran into the same problem I had with the other piece–choral writing is not quartet writing (unless you’re Bach; and I think we’ve pretty firmly established where I stand in that regard).

So I’m continuing to chip away the bits that don’t sound like a cello, or a violin, put the nose back on the viola…and it’s coming along, but it’s not there yet.

And that is why this is The Quartweet Part One.

A number of people have already submitted their quartweets, and you can find them here.

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Now that you all know who Jackie Wilson is, I can tell you this story.

There are moments in time when you realize that things have changed in an irrevocable way, and you don’t know quite how to process it.  Some of these moments are good, some bad, some just are.  And you’re caught between what went before, and what will come after, but only briefly.  I used the exact word for it when describing the glories of Josquin:  equipoise.  Everything is in stasis before life goes on, as it always does, as it must.  But for a short time, there is a pause.

That’s where I was when I started writing a set of what can loosely be called variations, the Ice Variations.  One of my children had graduated from high school and would be going off to college.  I was very proud of their achievements, and very happy that their world would now become a broader place, even if farther away.  But it made me a little nostalgic for earlier days.  And it made me think of vignettes that were for me emblematic of motherhood.  And lacking words, I turned to music.

I took as a theme a piece of music that they had written long before, and started writing some “scenes from childhood” from my own perspective.

It was at that time that I received the unexpected news of the death of a friend, a fellow piano student.  She had suffered an injury, and somehow just gotten weaker and weaker, until there was no energy left to sustain her.  Her name was Ellen.  She was a sweet, soft-spoken woman, articulate, funny, and wise.  She was also a Jackie Wilson fan.

I wrote a variation called Impermanence, subtitled For Ellen.  It is a brief, simple, wistful expression of the realization that things change, and they will never be the same as they once were.  I took as an inspiration Jackie Wilson’s My Empty Arms.

Things change, time is insistent, the bell tolls, but good memories endure, and the sun will shine again.  And good memories and hope mean we must end on a major chord and hold onto it for as long as we can as we continue onward.

And now, Impermanence.

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Music for the Dawn of Time: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

How does one write music for the dawn of time?  This was the task faced by Ernst Reijseger, Dutch cellist and composer.  Reijseger composed the music for the movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams, directed by Werner Herzog.

The movie and the music are captivating.  The documentary is about the Chauvet Cave in France.  Discovered in 1994, it holds paintings that are 32,000 years old.  32,000.  They are among the oldest known cave paintings.  And they are beautiful. In some parts of the cave, some paintings overlap one another.  Carbon dating found that the paintings were made 5000 years apart.  5000. Here is the French Ministry of Culture’s website on the cave in French Here is the Bradshaw Foundation’s website on the cave art in English.

It is difficult for the modern brain to grasp this expanse of time.  It is going into King Tut’s tomb and using it for the exact same purpose, as if no time had passed at all.  And this is the smaller number to deal with.

The artwork is utterly human.  And yet the purpose is incomprehensible.  Not so the handprints, which serve as a signature as distinct as John Hancock’s.

There is a “Venus” painting at the site that is similar to artifacts found at sites farther to the east in Germany.  And at these sites, in addition to the Venus figurines, whistles and bone flutes were found.  And they are around 42,000 years old.

Music endures.

Thanks to my friend and commenter Paul B. for introducing me to this movie.

Here is the trailer to Cave of Forgotten Dreams.  It is available for sale, for streaming, and possibly also at your local library (759.0112C).  The DVD contains a bonus video on the recording of Reijseger’s film score and conversations with the composer on his music and his custom-made 5-string cello (so he could play even lower notes).

Postscript:  I found out that even older paintings have been found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. They are 42,000 years old.  Read about the Sulawesi artwork here.


Grand Finale: Music Notation Software Revisited

After my paean to MuseScore last week it was pointed out to me that I had neglected to mention another music notation program that is available for free, Finale NotePad.  Finale NotePad is easy to use and has many of the same features as MuseScore.  It is available for Windows and Apple computers.

Finale NotePad was the first program I used when I started writing music.  To be honest, I can’t remember exactly why I switched over to MuseScore.  It may have been that the program was not available at the time for the platform I was using.  It is a versatile program and is easy for a beginner to use.  Should the need to notate more complex music arise, Finale has a family of products at a variety of price points.  I would say MuseScore and Finale NotePad are like two flavors of ice cream; only you can decide which you like best.  So give them a try, and let us all know what you think.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention two other products.

LilyPond is free software for music engraving.  It is open-source software, meaning, if you know what you’re doing, you can modify the program itself.   The method of entering notes is text-based—no dragging and dropping notes here.  So the programmers among you might find this an interesting choice.

Sibelius is a software product widely used by professional composers.  Avid, the company that produces Sibelius, has a family of software products to meet the varying needs of musicians.

I can’t let you go without some music!  In thinking of suitable finales, I couldn’t help but think of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony.  Here is a great flash mob video of Ode to Joy.


Just another MuseScore Monday

Today I want to tell you about MuseScore.  MuseScore is a music notation program, a way of generating sheet music.  It can turn my nearly illegible music manuscripts into crisp legible sheet music.  Here’s an after (I’ll spare you the before):


MuseScore is free.  It is well-documented.  There are even video tutorials available.  And it’s free.  They wouldn’t mind a donation though.  It’s available for Windows, Mac and Linux.

It’s a remarkably versatile program.  You can input notes from your computer keyboard or a MIDI keyboard.  You can include guitar tablature and drum notation.  You can produce scores for multiple instruments.  You can add all kinds of musical details (dynamics, repeats, key and time signatures) just by dragging and dropping them into the music.  And you can play back what you wrote.

You might be saying, “So what?  I don’t write my own music.”  Fair enough.  Here’s the cool part.  Whatever score anyone else makes available in this format can be seen and played on your computer.  There is a large community of people creating MuseScore documents for a wide range of instruments, from piano to viola to English horn to voice.

This includes the folks at MuseScore themselves.  They have made available the Open Goldberg Variations and Open Well Tempered Clavier.  The sheet music for these works by Bach is now available, free, to anyone who wants it (MuseScore format, PDF, MusicXML, MIDI, mp3).  They have also developed new score-following software that highlights each measure as its being played.  There are apps for iOS and Android so you can carry around your favorite scores and play them.

Got kids?  Turn them loose on MuseScore and let them create their own music.  If the little ones get heavily into the 32nd notes, it might sound like an 18-wheeler running over fire hoses, but who cares?  They’ll get a giggle out of it, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll create a sweet little tune.  If they come away with the idea that music = fun, all the better.  While you’re at it, try making some tunes yourself!

Ok, I know I’m being a fangirl, but here is another reason to love the folks at MuseScore.  The Open Goldberg Variations score has been made available in Braille.  MuseScore plans to continue its efforts to make more sheet music accessible in this format, and is developing software to convert music files into Braille.  They plan to offer this conversion service for free.

So visit the software site at and the music sharing and app site at (The Angry Birds Theme in Baroque Style? Pretty cool). And if you write and upload something nifty, let me know!

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Commandeered by Music

I was supposed to be writing this morning about resources for getting started learning about music, but instead I was commandeered by music (queue dramatic music).

I’m sure you’ve gotten tunes stuck in your head, it happens to everyone.  Usually, it’s some really annoying, cheesy song, one phrase over and over.  Sometimes, though, if you’re lucky, the tune is your own.  Which is not to say that it isn’t annoying or cheesy.  But at least it’s yours.  That’s not so bad.

Or is it?  For good or ill, there is no point in doing anything else until I write down the tune that is stuck in my head.  Usually though, these tunes appear at wildly inconvenient times.  Like when everyone has gone to bed, and playing the piano (so I can figure out how it goes and write it down) is not an option.  Or when I’m stuck in traffic.  “Sorry officer, I was writing a triplet and I didn’t see the car in front of me had stopped,” is not a valid option either.  I would never do that, but I have stopped in a parking lot to write down words.

And you can’t just let it go.  It’s like saying, “I don’t need a shopping list, I’ll remember what we need when I get to the store.”  It doesn’t work.  Music seems to evaporate somehow, and I can never quite get it back the way it originally was in my head.  So instead of bread and milk, you end up with capers and orange juice—all useful, but not quite what you had in mind.

And sadly, the music does not emerge fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus.  I have a simple melody, some chords, and a long path ahead of me, trying to figure out whether it should be for voices, or a piano (or both).  If voices, you have to figure out who sings which notes.  The voices can’t crash into each other (or cross—you have to stay in your lane).  It’s a prolonged process, and sometimes life intervenes.

For now, it’s safely though roughly transcribed and can wait until I return from getting groceries.  Now where is that list?  Oh, never mind, I’ll remember…