Mentoring Program

Variation #1 on Amazing Grace

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I wanted to play around with a minor variation of this classic with a counter melody.
Grade Level: 12
Intended For: Not Sure
Software Used: Noteflight
Instrumentation: English Horn and Cello
Key: C major to C minor
Meter Signature: 3/4
Tempo: 100 BPM
Status: Work in Progress
Noteflight URL: Website Title
Located in: MMU AP Theory


#10 Zachary Sheets 2017-04-03 14:53
Hi Akash,

Just checking in to see how things are going—looking forward to seeing the final product!


#9 Zachary Sheets 2017-03-22 14:08
Following up on the last post and english horn fingered/soundi ng pitches. Skip this paragraph if you don't care about why it is!

So, as you know, english horn is a bigger version of the oboe. As you might know from physics, when you double the length of a resonating column of air, it goes down by an octave. But, English horn isn't twice as big as an oboe, it's only about a size-and-a-half larger. That means it's like an oboe but has a range that's about one perfect fifth lower—a lot like comparing violin and viola. As a violinist, I bet you could play viola pretty decently, since three of the strings are the same [insert joke here]. But, while string fingerings recycle every fifth, wind fingerings recycle every octave, so playing an instrument that's one fifth lower would mean learning a whole new set of fingerings, and that's a huge drag. The compromise is that the note the player sees and the note the player "plays" on the page is not the note that comes out of the instrument. That allows someone to learn just one set of fingerings for both english horn and oboe. Brass instruments and different kinds of clarinets work this way too.
#8 Zachary Sheets 2017-03-22 14:04
HI Akash,

Thanks for your post, and sorry I missed your last one—I keep having trouble with the notification settings on the new site, and I never got an alert that you had posted on 3/14. Sorry about that, and thanks for giving me a nudge with your new work.

Let's start with your question about the English Horn: it's kind of confusing! The short of it is that when the english horn player sees a note and plays that note, it sounds one perfect fifth lower. So, if we as a composer want a particular note, the part we need to give to the player needs to be one fifth higher. What you've got right now are what we call "sounding pitches"—the notes we want to hear—and that range is the lower of the two charts in the right sidebar of the wikipedia article ( When someone plays this in real life, their individual part will be changed to C minor and everything will be one fifth higher (and will fit into the "playing range", or the higher of the two charts in the sidebar on the wiki article). These are called "fingered pitches". So, if the english horn player fingers an Eb, an Ab sounds below. If fingers and F, a Bb comes out below, etc. Fingered pitches and sounding pitches. Make more sense? I'll leave a second comment above this explaining why that is the way it is, if it interests you.

What this means is that a lot of your variations sit a little too high, now. I know I talked about exploring wider ranges, which you've done with aplomb, but unfortunately you need to reign it back in a bit. With the english horn, I wouldn't go much higher than Ab or Bb with one leger line above the staff (that's sounding pitch—so, for the player, fingered pitch of Eb or F, with three leger lines, respectively). But, remember that you can go as low as sounding pitch F with three leger lines below the staff (or written pitch middle C).

In terms of embellishments— a few necessary shifts in english horn register aside—I think it's quite nice. The framework and implied harmony of the original are still there, and you mold it in to something that's both inventive and pretty. My advice is more about a few places where the english horn and cello could work a bit better with the counterpoint: bar 35 beat 3 to bar 36 beat 1 (after all the great harmonies you've worked out between them, moving in parallel octaves onto the downbeat might sound pretty thin); bar 39 (Bb in the EH against F in the cello, moving to Eb vs. F on beat 3?), bar 41 (Db in the english horn against a strongly-implie d Ab major outline in the cello); and bars 44, beat 1-2 & 46 beat 3 (9ths resolving to octaves isn't the most graceful kind of suspension in two-part writing. How do you like an Eb on the downbeat of 44 in the cello, and Db-C on beat three of bar 46 instead C-Bb?).

Regarding the last variation, I think you're really on the right track. The cello establishes a distinctive pattern that follows nicely from the previous variations but has its own charm, and the English Horn takes off on even more swirling patterns than before. You'll want to add a good deal of slurs, I imagine, as I think that will be much more elegant than a lot of repeated articulated notes. Also, if I were you I'd consider dropping the eighth note in the middle of bar 57—we're so used to a breath at that part of the phrase's architecture that it feels like a bit of a run-on sentence to me without a second to reset.

There are just a few of the same family of harmonic clumsies as I pointed out in the last paragraph. You have the hang of fixing them, so I'll point these two: bar 51 (C maj with an A on the bottom? iii is rare enough in tonal music, but iii7 is really a rare beast), and bar 54 (Bb-G over an F? What about Bb-A, which would be a nice suspension that resolves to F major on beat 2?).

Finally, I'm not sure I'm sold on the last two cello chords. Ask a cellist to be sure, but I really don't think the last bar fits in the hand; a chord based on fifths, sixths, or thirds would be more idiomatic (like bar 18). And for my money bar 63 could do well with a bit more of a V quality to better resolve to F major. What about G-E instead of octaves G's in the cello? Also remember that you have open low C and G strings on the bottom to build chords with if you want...!

Great, Akash, this is looking really good. So, reconfigure some of the English Horn stuff a bit, with your new knowledge of its range, and think about this laundry list of little details. Keep up the great work!

#7 Akash Kushwaha 2017-03-21 22:14
I've made a motive for my 3rd composition. I'm concerned about the transposition in the horn section. I'm confused about it in general; could you explain the concept to me?
#6 Akash Kushwaha 2017-03-14 20:23
I've fixed the pizz chord on the 1st variation and I've highly embellished the 2nd variation. Is it too much?
#5 Zachary Sheets 2017-03-11 22:14
Dear Akash,

Hi! Thanks for your revisions! Great work on these. They're both very elegant variations, and I can see how the second takes some of the ideas from the first and develops them even further.

Before we jump in, just one little question—Is the F minor chord in bar 18 a placeholder for something to come? That won't work for the C/G strings of the cello. I see that you're a violinist in VYO, so of course you're familiar with pizzicato string chords. Is this like a reminder for some new idea to come, or do you want a chord, there? If the latter, one way to make it playable would be to put the Ab up an octave.

Otherwise, Akash, my suggestion for you is simply to add some more detail to what you've got, and find some ways that you can help the variations bloom even more into some variety. What you have works very well, but I'm wondering if you can push things just one step further.

Some ideas:

Remember that you don't have to stick so literally to the original melody. I think it's nice that the first version in F minor is pretty much intact, since hearing it in minor is already quite a surprise. But, maybe in the variation starting at 33 you could start adding some embellishments or wander a little farther away from the original? In other words, treat it as a foundation or a kind of architecture, but add or subtract some notes here and there. Although the work you do in the cello is very nice, I wonder about something a little more flair for the english horn than a literal repeat of 17-32.

One other possibility that you haven't touched on yet is dynamics. You have so much possibility for contrast and variety by using cresc. and dim., sudden changes in dynamics, etc. Although noteflight doesn't always play it back so well, think about how powerful and dramatic big changes in dynamics can be in orchestral or choral music.

Finally, I think you can explore a bit wider register with both instruments. Right now they're both sitting in the real meat-and-potato es lower/middle register, but they occupy a pretty narrow slice of the pie of what you've got to work with vertically. (whoa, I must be hungry—look at all those food metaphors). For instance, someplace like 31, instead of landing on Ab on the downbeat, what if you leap up to F with two leger lines? And then quarter C on beat 3 and F in the staff (as-is) in bar 32. Try it and see if you like it. It makes the ending of the phrase more of a climax/arrival.
If you let your english horn part wander a little farther away from literal versions of the melody, exploring a higher/lower range would give you some great possibility for more colors, to boot! Here's a primer on english horn range, if you need a reminder:
Remember it's a transposing instrument, like brass, so the player fingers a note a perfect fifth higher than what comes out.

Great, Akash, this is a really elegant setting of Amazing Grace, and much of it is really working well, harmonically, now. But, think about adding some more color by opening up the range of each instrument higher and lower, adding much more detail of dynamics, and embellishing the melody to explore some possibilities that are a bit farther away from home. Good luck, and keep up the good work.

#4 Akash Kushwaha 2017-03-07 12:08
I apologize for my lack of work; I've been sick. I took your advice on less movement and the pizzicato in the cello line. I'll definitely add that eight note section into my second variation. I think I've fixed up most of that counter melody. Let me know what you think.
Thanks for the help,
#3 Zachary Sheets 2017-02-20 10:21
Hi Akash,

Thanks for your update! I know the first variation is still incomplete, but it's coming along well. I especially like bars 22-24. I have a few ideas about particular moments I'd like to bring to your attention, as well as some thoughts for the transition from the theme to the first variation.

Let's start with the latter—how you get from bar 16 to 17. This is actually quite a delicate, tricky thing to do, since Amazing Grace is such a well-known melody. Setting it in a minor key has a strange, haunting quality, and you have a beautiful and unconventional combination of instruments. So, the moment when we first hear the two instruments playing together in the minor is really important. First, I think this moment of transition needs more space. I think you can go fairly directly from F major to F minor, but, I would leave F minor ringing in the air for a little more time before the melody restarts, so we have a bit more orientation for what's going on. One way to do this might be to have the cello enter in unison with the english horn in bar 16, then play a slow, graceful arpeggio downward that outlines F minor directly, arriving on the low F that is currently the downbeat of 17 (which thus might be in a new bar of, say, 18 or 19). You could also think about putting the fermata on the cello's low F, rather than the English horn's: the place where more space feels necessary is on that low note, to me. The fermata would let performers have some flexibility and exercise their discretion when it feels right to start up the tune. Then, that way, the change in color, change in key, and re-start of the melody aren't happening all bang at the same time in 17, which feels a little clunky to me.

My second observation is not unrelated from the first— chiefly, that this first variation feels like too much difference too fast. I think another reason for that is that the cello line is quite active, and I tend to think of Amazing Grace as quite tranquil. Measures 18 to 22 are basically all running eighth notes, and I wonder if that much activity might not be better saved for a later variation—when you need to start pushing farther afield to achieve the variety you need on a third or fourth repeat of the tune. There's a lot about this that works nicely and could be very useful for a future variation, but I wonder what you think of the idea of this one being a little more spacious and less active? The addition of the cello and minor key already give us a lot of new information to sink our teeth into.

We interrupt this broadcast for really random though, but using pizzicato for the cello might be a really useful timbre. Especially on lower notes it has a great, almost bell-like quality that could round out some of these simple harmonies without getting too busy or active.

Now, finally, there are a few places where the implied harmony between the two instruments doesn't quite add up for me. I know this is still in progress and some or all of these moments might change anyway (or get saved for a future variation), but I figure it's helpful to point to these moment, nonetheless, that don't work quite as well as others:

-bar 18 beat 3 (Ab/F against G doesn't feel like any kind of suspension or expressive dissonance since we're moving to a new harmony on the next beat anyway)
-bar 20, downbeat (I would just avoid fourths on strong beats in general. Without more harmonic information from more other instruments, fourths tend to sound dissonant in kind of a dull way. An Ab on the downbeat might be a better choice).
-all of bar 25 (This figure is a little awkward since typically that 2 eighths - 1 quarter note figure with that contour makes a resolution to the quarter note. i.e., typically the two eighths would be kind of dissonant to the english horn, and then the quarter would be consonant. Here it's kind of the other way, and landing on a strong dissonance on a weak beat feels a little rubbing-my-tumm y-and-patting-m y-head, to me. This is especially true since beat 3 implies yet a different harmony, again with open fourths)
-bar 26 (open fourth on the downbeat again)

Ok Akash, this is coming along well, and I hope these comments are well-timed for your Feb. 22 deadline! So, think about a slightly calmer, more spacious character for this first variation, work on the transition from theme to var. 1 a little bit, and, as is relevant, touch-up those little harmonic things. Happy composing!

#2 Akash Kushwaha 2017-02-15 15:09
Thank you for the feedback. I jumped the gun a little bit and submitted a variation before one was actually due for my theory class. I fixed the silly mistake of key signature so that my theme has been finalized. With the new key signature in my variation I need to spend a little more time thinking up a counter melody, but I don't have the time this week to give it justice. I've jotted down an incomplete idea for my cello part. I'll have a rough draft of that done by its actual due date - the 22nd.
Thank you again and best wishes,
#1 Zachary Sheets 2017-02-11 14:59
Dear Akash,

Hi! My name is Zach Sheets, and I'll be working with you as your mentor for this theme and variations project. Thanks for posting your first draft! Amazing Grace is an incredible melody—a classic, as you said!—and I think alternating between major and minor keys will offer you some wonderful possibilities.

The first and most important thing I'd like to comment on has to do with key signature. A lot of melodies begin and end on their home tone (i.e. if they're in C major they begin on C), but Amazing Grace is an exception. It has a "pick-up" note that leads to the home tone, so what you have here is not actually C major / C minor, but F major / F minor. It doesn't make any difference in the major-key version, because there are no Bb's, but it does make a big difference in the minor key version. Try making all those D naturals into Db's (remember, F minor has 4 flats), and remember that your arrivals on F (not C) should be the moments that really feel like home.

This will affect the way you think about harmony in general, and as you go through with this in mind, there's one other thing I'd like you to work on. In general, putting the 5th of a chord as the lowest note tends to sound a little awkward and weak. So, in a C major chord, you generally want to avoid having G as the lowest note. There are some exceptions, but typically we want the foundation of a harmony to be the root or the 3rd. Watch out for this in:
-downbeat of 18 (feels like F minor, but C is on the bottom)
-3rd beat of 26 (F minor, but C is on the bottom)
-bar 33 (F minor, but C is on the bottom)
Bars 35-36 are an exception, because it's a special moment at a cadence. If you have more questions about this, I bet your teacher at MMU could help you or play some examples on the piano so you can hear how it sounds a little funny to have the 5th of a chord on the bottom.

Also, you might have a wrong note in bar 26? There's a Bb against a C on the downbeat that doesn't quite make sense to my ears.

OK, Akash, good luck with these changes. If you go back through thinking about and working on harmony with F minor in mind, you'll be in great shape for this variation. From there, we can work on the next one, or perhaps think about how you'll transition between minor variations and major ones (because that's tricky!).

Good luck, and let me know if you have any questions.

Happy composing,


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