Analysis of Scarlatti Sonata in C

What better remedy for a memory lapse than learning a little Scarlatti sonata?

Scarlatti wrote an astonishing 555 keyboard sonatas over the course of his life (1685-1757). Although hugely diverse in character, they have an energy and rhythmic vitality that keeps them fresh and appealing nearly 300 years later. I’ve played four Scarlatti Sonatas to date –  including the wonderful, but challengingly fast, G major K427 – and for me, one of the essential traits that connects the dozens of Scarlatti sonatas I’ve learnt, sightread or listened to is a satisfyingly clear structure, making them relatively easy both to listen to and memorise.

With this in mind, I recently decided to learn the effervescent Sonata in C major K159. Mostly for my own benefit, thought I would write down a little analysis – DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A MUSICOLOGIST! The piece races along in 6/8 Allegro time, with a distinctly  Spanish flare, and follows what became standard sonata form, starting with a clear theme in the tonic (C major), modulating via the dominant (G major) into a development section, then returning to the tonic for the recapitulation. The structure is actually a rounded binary form, which at a basic level can be described as A-B but with repeats is, more revealingly, AA-BA’-BA’. The proportions of the piece are mirrored.

figure-3-equalized-time-comparisons-in-wave-formI found an interesting analysis of the piece in the International Symposium on Performance Science,* which compared the audio traces of numerous recorded performances of the piece (normalised to be the same length). This is quite fascinating for two reasons. First, I think the binary AB structure is quite clear in all of them, and a more detailed look reveals that the full AA-BA’-BA’ structure is also apparent in most. Second, I found the volume differences between the performers quite remarkable! Clearly there are a number of different options for how one might play such a piece on a modern piano, with choices to be made about which elements to highlight and what dynamic range to use.

Delving deeper into the details of the score, the structure inside each of the sections is also very clear. Each section begins with a clear, repeated statement of the theme, followed by development and elongation of that theme, followed by a different figuration, which is then also repeated and elongated to the end of the section. The actual memorisation work, in terms of notes to learn, is therefore substantially less it appears at first glance, as so much of the piece is repetitive.

Harmonically, the first section is initially in C major modulating to its dominant G major; the middle section is a fiery mixture of G major, F minor and C minor; and the final section is entirely in C major. There are several important ‘crux’ moments (identified by Scarlatti scholar Ralph KirkPatrick), pivotal points after the main thematic material approximately half-way through both the A and A’ sections that serve as important melodic, harmonic and structural markers. These need extra care and attention to ensure that you either do or don’t modulate – essential to avoid either going round in a never-ending loop, or finishing abruptly skipping most of the piece!

This is a fun piece to play, and a quick piece to memorise. Deciding how to produce a convincing performance may take me some time, but hopefully it can now be informed by the knowledge of the underlying structure that Scarlatti so carefully created.

*Performing Musical Structure: crux-phi perceptions in Domenico Scarlatti’s sonata K. 380 (PDF Download Available). Available from:’s_sonata_K_380 [accessed Oct 25, 2016]

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Visualisation in memorisation

After my less than auspicious performance a few weeks’ ago, I started thinking about how I could have diagnosed the problem  and prevented the memory lapse before it occurred. Coincidentally, while I was pondering this, the fabulous Cross-Eyed Pianist penned a blog on the value of visualisation in performance, which was exactly what I’d been thinking about.

Visualisation – seeing something in the mind’s eye – is an incredibly useful tool for memorisation, as it provides a memorable pictorial representation of the piece in addition to auditory and analytical ones. There are of course different things one can visualise when trying to create a memorable pictorial representation of a piece:

  • the keys played
  • the look of your hands on the keyboard
  • the score
  • colours or shapes associated with sections of the piece

Phandsonkeysersonally, as a pianist, I find the first two of these particularly useful because if you look at your hands while playing, this is what you will actually see during performance. I try to visualise my fingers and the keys they will play while simultaneously listening to the piece in my head. If you know the piece well, listening mentally is better than listening to a recording as you can easily manipulate the tempo, and slow down to an extreme where it really is possible to hear, see and name every note as it goes past. This requires enormous concentration, but can be done anywhere away from the keyboard – sitting on the train, lying in bed, etc. I also find it useful to do twice, concentrating on each hand separately.

This is incredibly revealing practice. If there is a section where you can hear the notes but cannot see them or name them in your head, then you don’t really know them! When I did this exercise with my ill-fated Haydn sonata, it was immediately apparent where the memory slip occurred – at a small jump where I had simply no idea, away from the keyboard, what notes I should be jumping to! And after that, I was unable to find a mental image to go with the mental sounds for several lines of music. I now know exactly where I need to concentrate my practice of this piece to sort out the memory problem.

I will definitely be incorporating this kind of mental workout into my practice regime before my next performance, no matter how small or apparently insignificant that performance might be.



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Letting things slip…

doh-homer-simpson-dohIt’s been a while since I blogged about music. And a while since I thought actively about memorising. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I suffered an epic memory collapse over the weekend! Time to start blogging again… and what better to place to start than with a bit of post-game analysis…

Thankfully, I was playing at a very friendly and informal gathering. There was no need to be nervous, though of course performing solo classical music in front of people is always a little scary. Importantly, it is categorically different from just playing alone in the comfort of your own home. For starters, the acoustic of the room was different from home, and the piano – a beautiful Steinway D –  was surprisingly quiet from my position at the piano stool with the music stand raised. Plus I managed to sit too low. Such minor things can be quite discombobulating, and pressing on without trying to fix anything predictably meant that my mind kept dwelling on these issues as I played, distracting me from the task at hand.

Despite this, everything was going well, at first. I was playing the first movement of a Haydn Sonata in D major (Hob XVI:24), which is well within my ability and I have been playing from memory since the start of the year. I’ve workshopped it and played it at another informal concert earlier in the year. So it should all have been fine, right? But suddenly, from no where, catastrophe struck! About three-quarters of the way through the exposition section, I had a complete memory blank! I managed (with limited success) to improvise my way through to the development section, only to have the same thing happen again – in exactly the same place – in the recapitulation! Improvising Haydn is obviously rather tricky, though at least I managed to end back in the tonic… But it was a mess.

So what went wrong? Clearly, I did not prepare sufficiently. In fact, I broke the golden rule of how NOT to memorise – just playing through with the score! I find Haydn fairly easy to memorise, and committed the Sonata to memory quickly and easily just through playing. As a result, I didn’t bother to analyse the piece in detail, nor did I ensure that there were plenty of safe starting places throughout (the ultimate safety net for memory slips!). I hadn’t practiced hands separately, or used any of the tricks and tools that the pros suggest. I hadn’t spent time away from the piano mentally rehearsing the piece, I just played it over and over again until motor memory (commonly known as muscle memory) could get me through. The problem with motor memory is that it is notoriously unreliable under stress and, when it fails, there’s nothing your brain can do to help! You need to build other layers of memory – additional musical representations – to rely on, which I have done meticulously in the past, for exams and important concerts, but conspicuously neglected to do in this case.

This was definitely a learning experience for me, and a wake-up call not to get complacent. It also highlights the value of low risk practice performances – as it turns out, life goes on even after a memory lapse, and now I know not to let things slip again…

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By Heart (book review)

ByHeartEarlier this year, I received a copy of “By Heart: the Art of Memorising Music” by harpsichordist and blogger Paul Cienniwa. Published in 2014, this little gem is exactly the kind of book I had been searching for when I started this blog back at the start of 2013!

The book provides some clear guidance as to how to approach the daunting task of memorising a piece, from nothing to performance. Cienniwa’s personal perspective on this topic is fascinating – he  stopped memorising in college, when he switched from piano to harpsichord, and actively decided to start again nearly 20 years later. This experience has resulted some very clear and sensible recommendations for memorisation:

  • Mental practice away from the instrument is hugely valuable, and should account for perhaps as much as half of a musician’s practice time.
  • Create musical landmarks in a piece that can act as personal rehearsal marks. Memorising and practicing starting from any of these ‘chunks’ is crucial for accurate and efficient memorising that is robust to little slips in performance.
  • Use a practice log and timer to plan your work and make most efficient use of time. This includes time spent on different pieces, specific slow practice or memorising goals, as well as time spent at or away from the instrument.
  • Be patient! Memorising a piece securely takes time, and is a fruitless activity if rushed.

The book is very short and can be read in under an hour, which is great for those wishing to get straight into memorising, though I would have like to have read more about the scientific side of memorisation (surprise, surprise!). But that’s not really what the book’s about. Cienniwa touches on different types of memory – tactile, visual and aural – and although he mentions the value of understanding the form and harmonic structure of a piece, cognitive memory is not specifically included on the list. For me, this type of fact-based, logical memory (harmonic progressions, for example) is important for having a mental framework upon which to hang the other types of memory, and for dealing with memory slips. But ultimately it is the layering of different types of memory that is probably most important.

Like me, Cienniwa believes that “if a piece is not memorised, it is not learned.” He takes a hard-line approach to memorisation, stating that “I should be able to write out every memorised piece away from the instrument”. This is really a very high bar to set! I have tried this approach before, but I doubt many memorisers could make this claim for most of the pieces they play from memory. But the idea is laudable, and highlights the point that true memorisation is not just about getting a piece “in the fingers”, but about really knowing every note, every phrase, every dynamic and every section of a piece inside out. Only when this goal is realised can we be confident that a piece is secure enough to perform from memory.

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Respecting the music

Off-limitsAn interesting article over on the Cross-Eyed Pianist blog (sparked by a heated debate amongst some fellow pianists on Facebook!) has got me thinking about whether certain repertoire should be off-limits to amateurs? Are there pieces that are simply too challenging for non-professionals to even attempt?

There are those who believe that, yes, there are indeed pieces that amateurs should leave well alone. Hugely technically challenging pieces – of which there are many in the piano repertoire –  should be respected by those who cannot hope to do them justice. We should all be aware of our limits, and leave the tough stuff to those who can handle it!

I think most musicians probably disagree with this position. Personally I don’t think any repertoire should be off-limits, to anyone. We all need to be aware of our level and personal limitations, but that’s true of professionals and amateurs alike. Many individuals have physical limitations that mean they will never be able to play certain pieces, but that has no effect on their ability to play other repertoire – for example, having small hands is a curse for pianists who wish to play Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Ravel, but may actually bean asset in Bach, Scarlatti and Mozart. Finding and expressing the beauty of a piece of music can be both a challenge and a joy for anyone, irrespective of it’s technical demands.

I cannot think of a better way of respecting the music of great composers than by dedicating many hours to playing and memorising it. Listening to recordings and live concerts given by great performers is wonderful too, of course, but undoubtedly a more passive way to experience music than playing it and internalising it yourself. Learning the music, to such a level that you can see the score in the mind’s eye and listen along without the need for external sound, is surely a greater mark of respect than playing it note-perfect in every performance?

In reality, the boundary between amateurs and professional musicians is blurred. Many amateurs are highly skilled, qualified musicians, and many professionals rarely perform in public. At the end of the day, any musician (particularly soloists!) must decide what repertoire they are happy to play in concert in front of strangers, versus that which they prefer to play for their own enjoyment, in the safety of their own home. And here, I believe, is where the most stark difference occurs between amateurs – literally ‘lovers’ of music – and professional performers who must make a living from music. Those of us who have the (dubious!) ‘luxury’ of earning a living outside of performing can afford never to play to a fee-paying public, if we so desire. We may play to friends and family, students and colleagues, or simply to ourselves, without having to conquer performance anxiety and the very real possibility of making fools of ourselves on stage. This choice should certainly not act as a barrier to playing particular repertoire. Professional performers, on the other hand, must make a living from performing and accept that anything less than a polished performance is unlikely to help their career progression or recording sales.

As an amateur pianist, there is no doubt that there are many pieces that I will never be able to play well enough even for my own satisfaction (and wouldn’t dare inflict on anyone else!), and others that I believe I play well enough both for myself and others to enjoy. There’s a balance that I find hard to strike between painstakingly learning more challenging repertoire and playing technically easier repertoire to a higher musical level. The guidance of a teacher to steer any unwary students towards repertoire that will they will find challenging yet satisfying is crucial. But no music should be off-limits and, regardless of one’s ability, it is a privilege to be able to study some of the greatest works that have ever been created by the human mind.

Read Fran Wilson‘s excellent blog on this topic here.

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No one can take it away

The “Lady in Number 6” is a short but truly inspirational film about 109-year old Alice Hertz-Sommer, a concert pianist and the oldest holocaust survivor until her death earlier this year. After a remarkable and long life, this irrepressible lady played piano every day until the end, recalling many of the pieces that literally saved her life. Sommer played over 100 concerts whilst imprisoned in a concentration camp, including all of Chopin’s 24 etudes from memory.

I can’t hope to do justice to such an incredible story in this blog. But the film gives simply the best reason ever for memorising music: “Put as much as you can into your head, because no one can take that away from you.” Can’t argue with that.

Watch this short clip but be prepared to be amazed, inspired and humbled:

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Fabulous Folk

I have just spent a merry few days at the fabulous Cambridge Folk Festival. Although I don’t personally play any folk music, or traditional folk instruments, I love the melodies, wonderful rhythms and a good dance! There was some amazing musical talent on display at the festival, and a veritable panoply of live instruments – fiddle, flute, guitar, pipes, harp, drums, etc – played staggeringly well (as evidenced by the awesome Irish band Lúnasa, pictured below).


Perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn’t see a single sheet of notated music at the festival. Every performer in all of the sets I watched played from memory. Indeed, playing folk music from memory is largely expected, and while various ‘fake’ books of folk tunes exist, folk musicians often learn music by ear rather than using a score. Although some of the melodies and rhythms are undoubtedly highly repetitive, there is enormous skill in having (seemingly) hundreds of tunes ‘in the fingers’ as well as the skill to decorate and combine them in exciting new ways.

Learning music by ear removes one of the key memory aids, namely a visual memory of the score. Although singers will usually have the words written down somewhere, and the chords may be notated on a ‘cheat sheet’, the same is not necessarily true of the melody. Musicians must therefore rely more heavily on other types of memory, including motor memory (through repetitious practice) and auditory memory (through listening to the music). Learning to recognise musical intervals and translate them onto the instrument is particularly important when relying heavily on auditory memory. Even if there is no formal score to analyse, it is important to have a good mental map of each piece, such as the structure and harmonic patterns, otherwise it is easy to get lost. As with classical chamber music, visual communication between folk musicians in a band is also important for key and tempo changes.

While I’m hugely impressed by the musical memory of folk musician, both amateur and professional, I remain somewhat baffled as to why it has become so different in the classical world. Although many classical pieces are extremely complex and no doubt harder to memorise than folk tunes, which have often withstood the test of time largely as a result of being memorable, I think part of the reason for the difference is simply expectation. Folk music is usually played without a score, so folk musicians are expected to learn how to memorise from an early stage and have to rely on it. Unlike classical musicians, who are often required to read music and use the score, folk musicians are generally encouraged to join in and play by ear. Regardless of the musical genre, that must be a skill worth learning.


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