We can’t say exactly why music has so great influence on people, and why, since ancient times, people have used a wide range of materials and household items to produce sounds. But for sure, music was an integral part of happy and sad events, of religious rites and everyday life.

Music is one of the most important components of the culture, and as cliché as this might sound, it’s the soul of the nation, its history, and centuries-old traditions. Ukrainian folk musical instruments are known since ancient times and have deep roots in the national culture. On the murals of St. Sofia Cathedral (11th century) in Kyiv musicians that played on the different stringed, percussion, and wind instruments are depicted. Let’s find out more about the most popular folk musical instruments and which of them are still used in modern times.


This unique and distinctive wind instrument was listed in the Guinness World Records as the longest musical instrument in the world. The Trembita is made of solid wood and looks like a tube length of which is up to 4 meters. It was widespread in the Western part of Ukraine, particularly in the Carpathians, and used mainly by hutsuls. Shepherds used the trembita to communicate with each other and to send some messages from a hilltop to a village. This instrument makes impressively beautiful low sounds and nowadays we can hear the trembita not only in folk but also in modern Ukrainian music.


The Kobza and the kobza players (kobzars) are probably the most recognizable symbols of Ukrainian culture. Supposedly, this lute-like stringed instrument appeared in Kyiv Rus but become extremely popular only in the 16th century, in times of Cossacks. For example, famous folkloric hero Cossack Mamay was traditionally depicted with the kobza. The strings of this instrument plucked with one hand and pressed on the fingerboard by the other. The kobzars played on their instruments and sang “dumy” – epic songs which depicted different historical events, glorified Cossacks and their heroic acts. The kobzars were well-respected and beloved by the locals, and the kobza became a national symbol. The kobza is often confused with the bandura; these instruments are related but have some differences.


Ukrainian bandura, which is often referred to as “Ukrainian harp”, allegedly originated from the kobza and almost displaced this instrument in the 18th century. The bandura is larger than the kobza, it has a longer neck and more strings. This classical instrument had 5 bass strings and 16 accompaniment strings. Over time, however, the appearance of the instrument and the number of strings has changed; modern bandura has 10 – 14 and 40 – 50 strings respectively. The bandura playing is pretty much the same asthe harp playing: the strings are plucked with fingers of one or two hands, and the strings are not pressed against the frets. The bandura has an incredibly melodious sound; nowadays this instrument is studied in music schools and often used by musicians.


This ancient stringed instrument is closely related to the kobza and the bandura. The torban appeared in the 18th century and became widespread among Cossack leaders and Ukrainian nobility. It has some common features with European theorbo but has additional strings as Ukrainian kobza. The torban playing is almost the same as the kobza playing. It is said that even Ukrainian Hetman Ivan Mazepa and famous poet Taras Shevchenko played the torban. Unfortunately, this instrument with beautiful sound was almost forgotten till the end of the 19th century.


One more folk instrument that associated with Cossacks and epic historical ballads (dumy) is the lira. The history of this instrument goes back centuries. The lira had been used in Western Europe since the 10th century, and since the 1600s it had become popular in Ukraine. Ukrainian lira, which was called wheel lira, is a type of the hurdy-gurdy; usually, ithad three strings and a wooden wheel. While playing, the performer rotated a wooden wheel, which rubbed against the strings. Often the lyra players were blind; they were respected by people and invited to different celebrations and events.


The sopilka is one of the most ancient folk instruments, widespread all over the country. This wind instrument that looks like the fife and belonged to the lute family most commonly was used by shepherds and peasants. The sopilka is usually made of wood, has a length up to 40 cm and 6 – 8 holes for fingers. Modern sopilka has 10 finger holes and is often performed by musicians and folk ensembles.


No one Ukrainian wedding was complete without lively and cheerful music of the tsymbaly. Tsymbaly-like instruments were widespread in many countries; in Europe, it was known as the dulcimer. In Ukraine, the tsymbaly became popular in the 16th – 17th centuries. This stringed and percussion instrument consists of a wooden deck, often trapezoidal, and 16 – 35 strings stretched over it. To play on the tsymbaly, the musician had to hit the strings with two small sticks. This instrument was commonly used by popular Ukrainian folk ensembles – Troisti Muzyky, along with the violin and the tambourine.


In Ukraine, the surma is often associated with Cossacks and military music. This oboe-like wind instrument has been known in the country since the Kyiv Rus but became widespread only in the 16th century. Every regiment of Cossacks had its own surma players who could not only play the music but also giv

e signals. The surma was made of wood and had a double-reed mouthpiece; it could have different size and number of finger holes, usually from five to ten. Nowadays wooden surmas are very rare. Modern surma is a brass instrument, frequently used in folk ensembles and orchestras.


Percussions are, probably, the most ancient instruments that were ever created by people. Ukrainians used a large variety of percussions, especially in lively and dance music. Some of the most interesting folk instruments of this group are the Buhalo and the Tarilka (Cymbal) which were frequently joined together.

The buhalo is a type of big drum, which was fixed to the musician with a belt, so it was possible to dance and play at the same time. To the one side of the buhalo was fixed the tarilka (cymbal) – a round instrument made of metal. Musician played on the buhalo with a stick, and on the tarilka – with a metal stick or another cymbal.


This distinctive stringed instrument became popular at the beginning of the 18th century and mainly in Western Ukraine. The basolia looks like the violoncello and has from 3 to 5 strings. The Basolia has never been used as a solo instrument; traditionally, it was used in the folk ensembles such as Troisti Muzyky. To play on the basolia, the performer had to put the instrument on the knee, like the guitar, and played with a bow; with the other hand, the musicians pressed strings on the fingerboard. As we can see, Ukraine has a rich collection of unique and ancient musical instruments which draw attention to music admirers. Fortunately, nowadays we can not only see these instruments at the museums but also to listen to them and enjoy their beautiful sounds.

Why is RCM Grade 5 Theory so important?

In the last few weeks I have repeatedly been asked about the Grade 5 theory exam, so much so that it has inspired me to write this post. I am talking about the RCM (Royal Conservatory of Music) theory exam.

The Grade 5 theory exam is significant to pupils because, according to the RCM’s rules, once a grade 5 practical (instrumental exam) has been achieved and from there on, Theory 5 and above become a co-requisite. 

Grade 5 theory is tricky for many, but it has so many benefits for those wanting to go beyond Grade 5 level that it really shouldn’t be ignored. Music theory is basically learning how to write music down or the ‘study of how music works’. It distils and analyzes the fundamental parameters or elements of music—rhythm, harmony (harmonic function), melody, structure, form, texture, etc.

The exam contains some valuable exercises and for those considering skipping this test here are a few reasons to make you think again:

1. In Grade 5 theory you will need to recognize all 18 keys and learn how to write them down. This will prove extremely valuable when taking higher exams (scales are based on these keys!) and for those going on to study A level music.

2. You will need to recognize intervals  – a very important part of the exam –  which will prove useful in sight reading development, especially sight singing, and will improve note reading in general. It will also help you grasp melodic movement quickly too.

3. Transposition is another beneficial exercise. That is, transposing music from one key to another. Woodwind and Brass instruments sometimes play in a different key to the rest of the orchestra and it’s useful to be able to ‘move’ or change their parts. 

4. Chord recognition. I think this is possibly the most crucial Grade 5 test. Understanding basic chord structure or harmony and cadential points (musical endings) is vital in writing or analyzing music. Assimilation of this exercise will prepare pupils for higher exams like music A level or practical music exams (piano, violin etc).

5. Writing or composing short melodies is great practice for the would-be singer songwriter or those merely wanting to express themselves musically. It also makes students adhere to writing logically in musical patterns.

6. Grade 5 theory demands analysis of a short piece. This is an excellent exercise. Analyzing music will help you to grasp many musical elements swiftly. You need to know time signatures, rhythmic patterns, ornaments, as well as  dynamic and articulation markings.

There are so many advantageous exercises in this important exam and it really isn’t too difficult when you apply yourself. Do get a good teacher – one who is able to patiently explain everything and do make sure you complete all available past papers – this is the key to passing in my opinion. Don’t skip it – what you learn whilst studying for Grade 5 theory is far more important than passing.

Good luck!

RCM Exams: Your Complete Guide


RCM stands for Royal Conservatory of Music, which was founded in Toronto, Canada in 1886 and prides itself on being one of the largest and most respected music-education institutions in the world. RCM offers a variety of exams as part of its popular “Certificate Program”. These exams evaluate students’ proficiency on a musical instrument or knowledge of music-related concepts and topics. Students who successfully pass their exams receive an official certificate recognizing their achievement. RCM certificates are well-regarded and widely-recognized as being an objective and reliable measure of a student’s musical proficiency. According to RCM, more than 100,000 of their exams are taken every year across North America.


PRACTICAL EXAMS – Practical exams are mostly about your ability and expertise on your instrument. They available from Preparatory to Level 10. Furthermore there are Associate Diploma (ARCT) in Piano Performance and Pedagogy and Licentiate Diploma (LRCM) in Piano Performance. Exams take place in an examination room or remotely and are generally made up of four parts: “repertoire”, “technical requirements”, “ear tests” and “sight reading”.

1. Repertoire – for this part, students are required to perform a set number of musical pieces, each representing a different style and musical period. Each piece can be chosen from a wide selection of options that RCM provides. The higher the student’s level, the more pieces they must perform and the bigger their complexity. This is the longest part of the exam.

2. Technical Requirements – designed to complement the demands of the repertoire, this part is sub-divided into “technical tests” and “etudes”. Technical tests are things like scales, chords, and arpeggios, which are meant to develop students’ technical prowess and finger dexterity. Etudes are shorter musical pieces designed to develop a specific technical skill within a musical context.

3. Ear Tests – this part of the practical exam involves almost no playing on the part of the student. Instead, the the student is asked to listen to and correctly identify things like intervals, chord qualities, and chord progressions, which are played by the examiner. Students are also required to listen to a short melody and then play it back to the examiner.

4. Sight Reading – this is where students are given a musical excerpt that they have (hopefully) never encountered before. After clapping the rhythm of a short passage from this excerpt, they must play the whole excerpt. As a general rule, the difficulty level of the sight-reading excerpt is 3 levels below the level for which you are doing the exam. E.g. For a level 6 exam, the sight-reading excerpt will be comparable in difficulty to RCM level 3. 

WRITTEN EXAMS – These exams take place in a classroom setting with a supervisor or online with a proctor. The most common written exams are “theory”, “history”, and “harmony”. Theory Exams are co-requisite for Levels 5 to 8, then it is substituted by Harmony on Level 9, Level 10 Harmony & Counterpoint along with History for Levels 9 and 10. Finally, in order to acquire your ARCT Diploma you must take ARCT Harmony & Counterpoint, History and Analysis Exams. 

1. Theory – these exams test students’ knowledge of the building blocks of music and include topics such as major and minor scales, chords, intervals, rhythm, transposition, etc.

2. History – as the name suggests, history exams test students’ knowledge of important dates, musical eras and developments associated with each one, biographical information of well-known composers, etc. Expect to do plenty of memorizing here.

3. Harmony – harmony is what happens when many sounds come together. On this exam, students are tested on their knowledge of concepts such as counterpoint, chord progressions, harmonization, cadences, modulations, phrase structures, compositional techniques, and more.


PRACTICAL EXAMS – RCM does not specify exact length for its practical exams, but they generally go anywhere from 15 minutes for beginner levels to over 1 hour for the advanced levels.

WRITTEN EXAMS – Written exams have time limits and students must finish their exam within the allotted time. Theory 5 —  1 hour, Theory 6 to 8 — 2 hours, Level 9 & above — 3 hours for all exams.


PRACTICAL EXAMS – Mark breakdowns for each section can differ depending on the instrument (and exam type), but Repertoire is by far the most important part across all instruments, worth at least 50% of the total exam mark. The test is out of 100, with 60 being the passing grade.

WRITTEN EXAMSThe mark is out of 100, with 10 marks given for each of the topics on the left. Keep in mind that topics/questions might be different depending on which theory level test you are writing. The passing grade is 60.

To view exact exam requirements and mark breakdown for your instrument or level, you can download the appropriate syllabus straight from the RCM website using this link.

Exam results are usually posted 1 – 2 weeks after the examination.


HONORS: 70-79
PASS: 60-69
FAIL: 0-59


High school students in Canada can earn credits with RCM exams. In Ontario, students can earn 2 out of the 30 credits required to graduate by successfully passing the RCM Gr. 7 and Gr. 8 practical exams along with their theory co-requisites. For information on other provinces, click here.


This week we’re going to do things a little differently, and talk a bit about the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM), a Canadian music school that offers standardized exams called “grades.” If you’ve ever heard anyone say something like “I have my grade 6 in music,” it likely means they’re talking about RCM and RCM exams.

And they’re talking about the RCM because of its high standards and long history. In fact, it’s one of the oldest music schools (still in operation) in the world, having been founded in 1886 with the name “The Toronto Conservatory of Music.”

If you’re considering taking the exams, we’ve got some information that you may find interesting.


So, how exactly do music schools like the RCM differ from going to a university or music college?

Well, to start, it you’re applying to a music program at a university, most entrance exams/auditions will ask you to play at a certain grade level, which can act as an important credential. Having exam/audition experience looks great on an application.

In Ontario (and likely most universities across Canada), you need to audition at a Grade 8 level or higher and write a test on theory at the same level. That means gaining at least your grade 8 before auditioning will help immensely.

If you’re trying to get into a musical college, which tend to be a bit more difficult, you’ll need an even higher level of experience. For example, if you are auditioning for the Glenn Gould School of Music in Toronto, you’d probably want to audition at an ARCT level (which we will discuss later), which is one level higher than grade 10 and is the second highest level in the entire RCM system.

In a nutshell, you can think of these music schools running parallel to regular school. In a regular school, students generally progress from kindergarten to grade 12, and then perhaps will go off to college or university. While going through the school grade levels, a student could also do their piano grades up until 10/ARCT level, which could open more opportunities.

Of course, you don’t have to be a kid to take the RCM exams – they’re open to anyone, of all ages – and you can take them purely for the personal and musical development.


We’ve talked a bit about RCM “grades,” but what does that really refer to?

RCM grades go from 1 to 10, but there are levels both before and after that. Before grade 1 there is a “preparatory” level, which you can think of as a sort of musical kindergarten. After grade 10, you’re into the “university courses”: ARCT (which is sort of like a bachelor’s degree) and LRCT (which is sort of like a master’s degree).

The average student – one who works hard at music, but their life doesn’t revolve around practice – can reasonably expect to get a grade 8 RCM level by the time they’ve finished high school. Grade 8 represents a solid understanding and competency in music. Anyone who reaches this level will be able to enjoy music for the rest of their life, even if they choose not to study music after graduation.

The more competitive student – one who practices constantly and chooses to focus on music over other activities – can likely hit a grade 10/ARCT level by the end high school. These students are the kind to be interested in pursuing music in their post-secondary career, and beyond.


In Canada at least, taking the RCM exams while still in high school can give you credits for it!

  • Passing your RCM 6 (and associated theory) will give you a high school grade 10 credit.
  • Passing your RCM 7 (and associated theory) will give you a high school grade 11 credit.
  • Passing your RCM 8 (and associated theory) will give you a high school grade 12 credit.


As I mentioned, the ARCT in performance via the RCM is an extremely high level – in fact, it’s somewhat equivalent to a bachelor’s degree. To be clear, it is not the same – you would not be able to teach in a school setting with an RCM certificate – but the skill level you develop is similar to that of a bachelor’s degree.

The highest level of the RCM is the LRCT (the “L” standing for “licentiate”), and is the skill level equivalent of a master’s degree. In fact, if you have a music degree from a regular university, but not the ARCT certificate, you would be able to transfer the credit to then study for the LRCM without having to go through the ARCT exam first.

If you’re interested in going into business as a music instructor, having RCM credentials is almost as useful as having a Bachelor of Music – but the two work even better together, opening up even more career opportunities. Neither work as a substitute for the other, rather, they complement each other very well.


So, what if you’re not a kid anymore? Can you still take the exams?

Of course! And you don’t need to progress through all the levels to do it. Once you hit around the grade 8 level you’ll need to do each test to move on to the next level, but you won’t need to start at the grade 1 level to get there. That said, it you’ve been playing for a bit and  you’ve reached a grade 3 level of playing, you can start your exams at grade 3.


Generally speaking, you should be in the grade level that you can learn pieces in comfortably. For example, in you’re a grade 1 student, you should be able to learn a grade 1 piece in about a month without needing to go overboard with practice. A grade 1 student might be able to stretch themselves to a grade 3 piece, but if it takes intensive practice to make it work it’s likely too much of a stretch.

It’s best to be honest with yourself when going into the testing because if you stretch yourself too much (for example, someone who is comfortable at grade 8 or 9 trying for the grade 10 test), you’ll likely do poorly, which can be very discouraging. In the end, stick to the grade level you’re most comfortable playing in – if you stick to it you will progress, there’s no need to push yourself too hard.


Chinese Musical Instruments

Among the many traditional musical instruments of China, the most popular nowadays include the stringed instruments called the erhu, pipa, and guzheng, and the dizi flutes.

These stringed instruments originated in foreign regions and were modified. When tourists think of their experiences in China, the poignant sounds of these Chinese instruments often colour their memories.

Erhu 二胡

The erhu will probably be the most popular traditional instrument in China. You might see it played non-professionally for entertainment in public parks, and it is also played by street musicians.

Peasants like it since it is comparatively inexpensive and portable, and it is also now popular in Chinese opera performances and traditional orchestras. It was once mainly used in operatic performances, but now it is popular as a solo instrument.

Pronounced èrhú (urrh-hoo) in Mandarin, it is a two-string, violin-like instrument that is played with a bow like a violin bow. It isn’t as loud a violin because the sound box is small. The sound box traditionally has a snakeskin cover, but modern instruments are made with modern materials.

Erhus generally retains the traditional tuning system, so they may sound odd to Western ears. It allows for a high degree of virtuosity, covers three octaves, and can be made to imitate the sound of Chinese singing and birds and horses. It produces a melancholy sound.

Guzheng 古箏

Pronounced gǔzhēng (goo-jung) in Mandarin, it is a large 1823-or-more stringed instrument. It is said that it is an ancestor of the Japanese koto.

It isn’t commonly played in parks or on the streets. It is meant for Chinese opera and concert performances, and it is often played in traditional music ensembles. It is usually played by female musicians.

Unlike Japanese koto players who kneel of the floor, Chinese musicians sit in chairs in front of guzheng desks. Unlike the koto ensembles, the guzheng is more often performed solo. Modern guzheng instruments are often played by pinching the strings to play heptatonic notes and chords.


Pipa 琵琶

The pipa (pípá, pee-pah) is a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument. The instrument has a pear-shaped wooden body with frets like those on a guitar. It sounds like a banjo.

The pipa became popular as Silk Road trade and travel brought Buddhism, and great change, to the region. It is thought that the instrument originated somewhere in western or southern Asia. The instrument was popular in Chengdu, the capital of the Tang Empire (618–907). Paintings and artwork of the Tang era depict the pipa being played by musicians in flowing robes.

Nowadays, pipa musicians will mainly be seen on the stage or perhaps as entertainers at special parties or restaurants. Modern pipas have been re-engineered to fit better with Western-style music. Steel strings are now used, so players wear special finger plectra.

Dizi 笛子

Dizis are generally made of bamboo, and they generally have six or more finger holes. One hole is covered with paper so that the flute has a peculiar buzzing sound that people like.

Modern dizis may have a range of about two and a half octaves. Since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it has been used for theatrical performance. You may see these being played in the cities and countryside for fun.

There are several kinds of dizi (dízi /dee-dz/) flutes such as the qudi and bangdi depending mainly on the length. The longer ones like the changdi allow for deeper sounds.

Dulcimer 扬琴

Dulcimer is a kind of strike-stringed instrument. It was firstly introduced to China by Persian (an ancient Arabic country) at the end of Ming Dynasty. In the performance, it plays a role like the piano. Two jean bamboos (a kind of elastic small bamboo hammer) are used to strike the strings.

Guqin 古琴

Also called heptachord (7 strings), Guqin is one of the oldest plucked instruments in China, which appeared not late than Yao and Shun period. Players pluck the string by right hand and press by left hand.

Huqin 胡琴

Huqin is a kind of Mongolian arco instrument. Due to its gentle and resonant sound that is full of prairie flavor, Huqin is a good choice for solo, accompaniment and instrumental ensemble. Now Huqin is very popular in Inner Mongolia.

Liuqin 柳琴

Liuqin, a plucked stringed musical instrument, firstly appeared in Suzhou, Shandong and Anhui, which has been one of the stringed instruments with a pear-shaped body since the Tang Dynasty. Its appearance, structure and the law of playing are similar to Pipa. Liuqin is often used to accompany the traditional Chinese opera.

Hulus 葫芦丝

Hulus, a kind of free reed wind instrument, is one of the special music instruments among Yunnan ethnic minorities. Because of its unique and beautiful sound, simple, gentle and elegant appearance, and easy to learn, Hulus is welcome by primary and middle school students, music lovers and visitors from home and abroad.

Xiao 箫

Xiao, also named, is a Chinese vertical end-blown flute. Usually it is made of bamboo and has blow holes on the top. The performance techniques of Xiao are similar to bamboo flute, and Xiao is suitable for playing some long, quiet and sentimental songs.

Suona 唢呐

Introduced by Persian, Suona, also named horn, is a kind of Chinese playing music instrument. Because of its keen and resonant sound, Suona is often used in yangko, drum music and to accompany local opera and ballad.

Lusheng 芦笙

Lusheng is a yellow wind instrument for Miao, Yao and Dong ethnic minority in southwestern area. Lusheng is made of Sheng measure, Sheng tube, reeds and resonance tube. As a popular music instrument for ethnic minorities, people like holding Lusheng party to celebrate their own national festivals.

Sun 埙

Sun is an egg-shaped playing music instrument with six holes, which is made of clay. It is mainly used for court music in Chinese music history. The playing techniques of Sun are air blowing and tongue blowing, and the fingering techniques form its performance techniques.

Chimes 编钟

Made of bronze, Chimes are percussion instruments. Chimes are a set of bells hanging on a big bell-cot, arranging according to different tones of bells. if you use wooden hammer and bar to knock the bronze bell, it will have different sound.

The importance of learning Music Theory

If you’re playing a musical instrument, you may have been advised to learn music theory –  the study of the grammar of music. Music theory examines the elements that construct a piece of music, including notation, key signatures, time signatures and chord progressions. Many teachers will insist that music theory is a fundamental tenet of a balanced music education and may even include theory as part of their lessons. On the other hand, some believe that learning music theory does not make one a better player and hence find it unnecessary. In this article, we share the importance of music theory so you can assess if music theory is necessary for your music education.


Myth: Music Theory is Harmful to Creativity

Detractors of music theory often assert that learning music theory is not only a superfluous pursuit, but also is detrimental to one’s playing and composition. Supposedly, music theory induces musicians to follow arbitrary rules, curtailing the creative expression of music, which should be an art form that is free spirited and unrestrained in possibilities.

This view is only valid insofar that the musician strictly adheres to the conventions espoused by music theory. Otherwise, it’s a pretty damning assumption that all musicians with extensive music theory knowledge are mindless robots programmed to follow a specified logic in their music.

In fact, all of us can discern when and when not to follow rules. Sometimes, it comes so naturally that we don’t even recognize it. For example, with our knowledge of the grammar rules of the English language, we might be able to write and speak in the Queen’s English. Yet, we don’t always follow these rules as we know that there are contexts in which they are less relevant. Unsurprisingly, we break these rules daily by using slang and other non-standard forms of English when texting or hanging out with friends.

On the other hand, if we have no knowledge the “rules” of music theory, we won’t recognize when a piece breaks the rules or know when it’s appropriate to abide by these rules. As composer David von Kampen suggests in his music theory related article “Why Teach Part-Writing,” breaking rules is meaningless if you don’t even know the rules in the first place. We may unceremoniously dismiss a Bach Fugue as boringly mechanical as it offends our modern pop sensibilities, without recognizing its mathematical genius and how Bach attempts to push the boundaries of music despite the limitations of the instruments of his time.

Learners of music theory will know when the rules of music theory are most applicable. Music theory won’t hurt us at all!

Okay so learning music theory doesn’t hurt me, but does it help me?

Yes, it does! Learning music theory comes with several benefits:

Master pieces faster

Knowing music theory helps us hasten the learning process. A clear understanding of how the piece is constructed helps us learn faster, much like how knowing a street map enables us to drive more efficiently. We will be able to find large scale repetitions and formal landmarks that help us get familiar with the piece. This makes the piece easier to memorize as well. For instance, sonatas may be massively long, but their first movements usually observe the thematic and harmonic structure of Sonata Form. Understanding Sonata Form could save you a lot of time from deciphering how the composition is constructed. You’ll be especially alert to its themes, the repetitions of these themes, and their variations. You’ll also easily notice the standard structure of the sonata’s first movement: exposition, development, and recapitulation. The recapitulation in most sonatas will essentially repeat their expositions, with minor variations. This reduces the amount of new material within the sonata by about a third while speeding up the learning process by that much.  

Up your sight-reading game

With music theory knowledge, we can understand common chord progressions and the structure of pieces, which then help predict what the next few measures might sound like. Furthermore, developing a good grasp on intervals will aid in recognizing them on sight. With this, we can sight read faster as we can identify contours and larger patterns in the notes, instead of reading each note one by one.

Enjoy music even more

Understanding music theory will enable us to better appreciate music. Greater familiarity with the features of a composition comes together with a greater capacity for expression when we play and lends to a stronger relatability to the pieces we play. We will be able to spot unusual features in a piece that violate the “rules” learned, and then appreciate that the composer has done something special. This can manifest in irregular contrasts in phrasing, dynamics, meter, or articulation. For example, the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 is a waltz written in 5/4 time, instead of the usual 3/4. Even though Tchaikovsky disrupts the smoothness and balance of the waltz (it has even been described as limping), the dance arguably proceeds on elegantly, and perhaps with even more character.

Even when we aren’t playing, a deeper appreciation of the music we listen to will, at the very least, bring about greater joy.

Improvise like a pro

With knowledge of tonal syntax from our music theory studies, we gain the ability to predict logical chord progressions, which allows us to improvise music that sounds authentic, logical, and cohesive. This helps us find our way out of performing “emergencies,” such as when the players have gotten off track from one another, without the audience noticing anything amiss. This is especially essential for jazz performers, who need to put in extra effort to understand jazz chords, so that they can make funky sounds that are atypical of other genres.

What if I’m an instrumentalist/singer-songwriter? Do I really need to learn how Bach constructed his music for the harpsichord?

While you could be an outstanding musician without learning about the technicalities of Baroque music, music theory still offers a good deal of relevant information.

Admittedly, a lot of material about music theory is written with classical contexts in mind. While this may seem far removed from popular music today, the music from the 18th and 19th centuries often serves as the foundation of music across all genres. Even if the instruments are different, the notation, concepts of rhythm and time, as well as chord progressions are applicable to modern music. Some artists have even cleverly incorporated classical pieces into their songwriting. For instance, Galneryus’ “Angel of Salvation” pays homage to Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto in D, Opus 35” while Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” borrows Bach’s “Air on a G String.”

Learning music theory grants specific advantages to different musicians. 


Benefits of learning music theory for instrumentalists


  • Learning how to read sheet music familiarizes guitarists and pianists with the foundations of chords and how tablature looks on a score, which aids learning.
  • With the knowledge of the individual notes that each string can play, guitarists have an easier time playing riffs and in different tunings. Same happens for pianists, being able to play several musical patterns in different positions. In fact, all players benefit from learning all of the notes on their instruments, as it unlocks countless execution possibilities.
  • The ability to read sheet music is crucial for gigging instrumentalists to play in a group.
  • With an understanding of chord progressions, instrumentalists will find it simpler to reharmonize simple pop songs to sound jazzier. Same happens when we learn and understand the different music styles and their rhythmical patterns.
  • Instrument players will improvise better with good theory knowledge, as they will know the scales that can be played over every chord.

Benefits of learning music theory for drummers


  • Drummers rarely play in isolation; they often complement the melody and harmony. They play important roles in outlining different sections of songs. Hence, knowledge of song form or structure is as important as a solid knowledge of rhythm. To follow a song form, drummers need to be able to follow chords, key changes, and melodies in the other parts of the piece.
  • Understanding time signatures and chord structures give drummers a better a sense of rhythm and how to complement the rest of the piece.
  • Music theory knowledge enables drummers to communicate with other musicians and express themselves about the direction of the music in a language that every musician should understand. If a musical director says that the next piece is in 7/4, and you haven’t studied music theory, you’ll have no idea what he’s talking about.

Benefits of learning music theory for songwriters


  • Knowing voice leading and construction rules helps songwriters arrange simpler versions of pieces. As long as the voice-leading is kept intact, the piece will still sound rich and full even if the accompaniment is simplified.
  • Theory knowledge, coupled with strong aural skills, allow songwriters to transcribe by ear any pieces they like that aren’t available in sheet music or for their instruments. With these aural skills, songwriters can identify the chords involved, the key changes, etc.
  • Knowledge of forms and chord progressions will help songwriters write music that sounds complete and melodious to our ears.

So, should I learn music theory?


If you’ve read this far, it’s very telling that we strongly encourage all learners of music to study music theory. We believe that learning music theory is akin to understanding the rules that govern the language of music. With an understanding of these rules, musicians will be able to learn, perform, compose, and enjoy music better.

The more pertinent question is how much music theory one should learn. At Musichalice, we recommend a firm foundation in the basic elements of music, including time signatures, music terms, notation, key signatures, rhythm and melody writing, clefs, intervals and chords. Knowledge of these elements will enable you to read most forms of sheet music. Our Music Theory Lessons are designed to develop music literacy, will cover most of the above.

Most learners who are interested in pursuing Grades 5-8 RCM examinations will need to obtain Grade 5 certification in Music Theory or Practical Musicianship (which also requires a good deal of music theory knowledge). For these learners, we include RCM Music Theory exam preparation in our lessons, answering the questions in the theory examinations.

Excited and raring to go but wondering where to start? Just contact us if interested and we will be happy to discuss what would best fit your interest!

How Are Violins Made?

So much of what we enjoy today has ancient origins. People have been fermenting grapes into wine for 10,000 years. Baking bread goes back even farther. The way these things are made by hand varies little today from the ancient methods. The same can be said for luthiers who craft violins.

It may be up for debate who created the first violin, but most scholars agree it was made in northern Italy in the early 16th century, and is remarkably similar to the instrument we know today. By the 17th century, violins were made with slightly longer necks and fingerboards. The chin rest wasn’t added until the 1800s. What remains relatively unchanged is the materials, tools, and methods used for making a violin.

All About the Wood

Then, as now, violins are made mostly from wood. Typically it’s spruce for the top and maple for the bottom and ribs. Both types of wood are dense – but light – and can be shaved thin without compromising integrity. The violin’s neck is usually made of maple, while ebony or another hardwood is preferred for the fingerboard.

Maple is also the go-to wood for the bridge, chin rest, and scroll box. Pegs are made of ebony or another hardwood. While the tailpiece used to be made of wood, plastic is more common today.

Some Basic Tools

Many of the same tools used in routine carpentry are in a luthier’s kit: saws, gouges, chisels, planes, and clamps are the most common. Tools that are essential to making violins and other stringed instruments include a bending iron and a purfling cutter. Hide glue is used to bond the pieces together.

One of the most important skills needed to make a violin that produces  good sound is precise measurements.  A scientific study, that compared the Stradivari and Guarneri violins to contemporary violins, concluded that consistent density in separate pieces gives those vintage violins a superior sound. Imagine that level of precise craftsmanship 500 years ago!

Most of the work involves careful shaving of the wood to the desired thinness, and painstakingly cutting notches and grooves. We’re not going to get into every detail here, but rather provide a broad overview of how to make a violin. That said, let’s get started!

Templates Guide the Way

After selecting or creating a design, a luthier makes templates for the various pieces from plywood. Once a piece of maple is cut into strips, they are used to form the ribs, or sides of the violin, with a bending iron. The iron uses steam to gently make the wood flexible. Bent into shape, the ribs are then glued to blocks on a form. This is used to trace an outline on the spruce and maple that will become the top and bottom of the body. 

Watch a violin being made

Let the Carving Begin

After following the pattern to cut out the wood for the top and bottom, the violin maker uses gouges, starting with a larger one and gradually working down to a finer tool to carve the pieces. Planes and scrapers are used to further hone and smooth the wood. The body is then rounded into shape following guides with exact measurements.

Next, channels are cut into the top and bottom pieces, followed by inlaying the purfling (three layered strips of wood) into the channels. Once the purfling is in place, the bottom is essentially finished.

When the top has been carved and smoothed, it’s time to measure and cut out the f-holes. Next up is adding the bass bar. Then the top and bottom can be joined together and the bridge attached.

Now it’s back to a good deal of gouging and carving as the neck and scroll are fashioned. There’s no template for the scroll, which is carved from the luthier’s imagination. After the pegs are fashioned, they are inserted into the neck below the scroll.

At this point, the bulk of the work is done. Before attaching and setting up the strings, the violin requires several coats of varnish. It could take weeks to dry and once it does, a finish is added. The violin can now be strung, tuned, and ready to play!

Watch how a violin is set up

Even in shops where violins are mass-produced in a type of assembly-line approach, the individuals responsible for each piece work the same way as a single luthier. There may be subtle differences in the way different violins are made, but the fundamentals remain the same. Starting with the proper wood, patterns are cut out, pieces are purposefully honed and shaped and then assembled with hide glue. Like the wheel, there’s no point trying to re-invent what’s already perfect! 

Now enjoy a beautifully played violin:


*Taken from a publication by StringOvation Team

Why Music makes you cry?

Ever find yourself moved to tears by music? Mascagni’s “Intermezzo” from Caballeria Rusticana does it for me. How about you?

Many types of music can move people to tears; blubbering in the balcony is iconic in opera. The phenomenon of crying sparked by music is an interesting, but little-studied behaviour.

According to some studies, whether music does or does not make you feel like crying reveals something about your fundamental personality, and the particular shade of emotion gripping you as you feel choked up is different for different personality types.

Researchers Katherine Cotter and Paul Silvia of the University of North Carolina, and Kirill Fayn of the University of Sydney, collaborated on research to investigate the emotions that people experience when music makes them feel like crying. Evoking emotion is the main point of music, after all, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that songs can put a lump in our throats. Music can calm or excite; it can motivate, uniting worshipers in peace and devotion, or driving people into battle with the sound of drum and bugle. Crying is a complex human behaviour that can accompany a variety of intense experiences. It can be provoked by grief, as at a funeral, but also by extreme happiness, as at a wedding. But helplessness, gratitude, and other subtle emotions can also provoke tears. What emotion do most people feel when they are moved to tears by music?

The researchers surveyed 892 adults to determine how many had experienced feeling like crying while hearing music, and what emotion they were feeling at that moment. The first finding is that being moved to tears by music is not unusual; 89.8% of the people in the study reported that they had experienced feeling like crying by hearing music.

The participants were asked to rank their emotional feelings accompanying that response across a spectrum of 16 emotions, including euphoria, happiness, awe, anxiousness, sadness, depression, etc. The researchers found that people who had been moved to tears by music could be clearly separated into two groups: those who felt sadness, and those who felt awe. The majority (63%) reported feeling sad when music made them cry, and 36.7% reported feeling awe. Is there something about the personalities of people in these two different groups that could explain why these two very different emotional reactions — sadness and awe — provoked tears while listening to music?

The participants in the study had been given a psychological test to classify them according to five personality attributes — neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. When the researchers sorted the data, they found that people who ranked high on the neuroticism scale experienced sadness when they had been moved to tears by music, and people who scored high in the openness to experience scale felt like crying because the music provoked a profound sense of awe.

In Mascagni’s “Intermezzo”, the emotion evoked is definitely awe. I feel awed by experiencing the extraordinary and moving piece. I guess my reaction puts me among the minority who cry at music because it invokes awe, compared to the two-thirds of people who cry because a song is sad. If the correlation with personality traits is correct, I should not rank particularly high on the neuroticism scale (thankfully). But I’m not too sure.

This thought-provoking study is a good start, but it has some limitations. The experimental group was comprised of college students, which may not adequately reflect the population as a whole. Also, 69.6% of the participants were female, and the possible effect of gender was not analyzed. Another consideration is that in relying upon each person’s recollection of a time in the past when they had felt like crying while listening to music, the study depends on self-reporting to be accurate.

But in my opinion, human emotions are complex. They don’t always fit like pegs into the slots that researchers provide in their experiments. I remember recently being moved to tears while hearing Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah”. The predominant feeling I had at the time was sadness. I was thinking of all the loved ones we have lost during this pandemic and how the world still has to overcome racial, religious and social injustice, the horrors of a war, etc.

But it was not only sadness that I felt as I listened to the song. It is possible to experience both sadness and awe simultaneously. I felt a bittersweet mix of sadness and awe. Then I felt very motivated to try to make the world a better, more peaceful place, to inspire students to be better human beings, and do it with the only thing I have — music.

Music is powerful indeed! Unfortunately, the world we live in today is full of weapons, wars, injustices. Perhaps what the world needs now is a few less bombs and a lot more music.


***Taken from an article of psychologist R. Douglas Fields Ph.D.

Fun Facts about Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is arguably one of the most well-known composers of all times. From his deafness and notoriously angry look to the movie dog who got his name from howling at the famous first four notes of the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven is still recognizable in today’s culture. His music and life are incredibly complex and this blog barely brushes the surface, but hopefully you will learn something new and interesting.

1. No one knows for sure Beethoven’s date of birth. He was baptized on December 17, 1770. In that era and region where Beethoven was born, it was the tradition of the Catholic Church to baptize the day after birth. Therefore, most scholars accept December 16 as Beethoven’s birthday.

2. Beethoven’s father wanted to pass his son off as a child prodigy so he lied about young Beethoven’s age at his first public performance. For a good portion of Beethoven’s life, he believed he was born in 1772 instead of 1770.

3. In March 1787, Beethoven traveled to Vienna with the intention of studying with Mozart. His visit was short-lived. Two weeks after his arrival, he learned that his mother was ill and he returned to his home in Bonn, Germany. Shortly after, his mother died and his father succumbed to alcoholism, making Beethoven responsible for the care of his two younger brothers. After remaining in Bonn for five years, Beethoven finally fulfilled his dream of moving to Vienna in 1792.

4. Beethoven began losing his hearing at an early age. There are letters to his friends from as early as 1801 describing his symptoms. No one knows the cause of Beethoven’s deafness although some theories cite typhus or auto-immune disorders as possible causes.

5. One of the great mysteries to this day is the identity of the intended recipient of the famous “Immortal Beloved” letter. Written over two days in July 1812, the letter is an impassioned cry of longing for someone only addressed as “my Immortal Beloved.” Musicologists have proposed many theories as to the identity of Beethoven’s mystery woman, but it is unlikely we will ever know for certain. In 1994, the Immortal Beloved movie suggested the identity was the wife of Beethoven’s brother Kaspar, but this is not based on fact.

Find here the full transcript of the Immortal Beloved letter.

6. From instrumentation to length, Beethoven played a significant role in the evolution of the symphony. He was the first to use three horns instead of two in Symphony No. 3, Eroica. Trombones appeared in a symphony for the first time in the fourth movement of Symphony No. 5.  The contrabassoon also made its symphony debut in Beethoven’s Fifth. Symphony No. 9 was the most progressive of all, being the first to use a full choir. While he wrote far fewer symphonies than his famous predecessors Mozart (41) and Haydn (106), they are arguably more complex and of much greater length. At nearly an hour in length, Symphony No. 3 was the longest symphony up to that point.

7. Beethoven’s musical style is divided into three periods: early, middle and late.

The early period, which lasted until about 1802, is more classical in nature, along the lines of Mozart and Haydn. Famous works from this period include the first two symphonies, the Opus 18 string quartets, the first two piano concertos and the Pathetique piano sonata.

The middle period, 1803-1814, was greatly influenced by his personal struggles with his ensuing deafness. Works from this period are larger in scale and represent struggle and heroism. They include symphonies 3-8, Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, the last three piano concertos, and the Moonlight and Apassionata piano sonatas.

The late period began around 1815. By this time, he was completely deaf. Characterized by exploration of form, these pieces include Symphony No. 9, the last five string quartets, the last five piano sonatas and his Missa Solemnis.

8. Many of Beethoven’s portraits are based on a life mask that was taken in 1812. He is portrayed as unhappy or angry because, in order to take a life mask, one has to lie absolutely still without smiling.

9. Beethoven loved macaroni and cheese! Here is a recipe, courtesy of the online exhibit Schulz’s Beethoven: Schroeder’s Muse. (Beethoven’s Macaroni & Cheese or Traditional Austrian Spaetzle with Cheese and Sweet Caramelized Onions)

10. Speaking of Schroeder, he is the character bent over the piano in Charles Schulz’s classic comic, Peanuts. When Lucy asks Schroeder what the meaning of life is he yells, “Beethoven!” The composer was featured in hundreds of Schulz’s comic strips. The Charles M. Schulz Museum and Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University developed an online web exhibit examining in detail Beethoven’s relationship to the comic.


Here is one of the many gifts Beethoven left for us: Moonlight Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, Op. 27 No. 2 1st Mov, on the hands of the great pianist Daniel Barenboim.

Musical Instruments and their Families Series: The Percussion Family

For the last three blogs we have been talking about musical instruments families. This families of instruments are related because they are often made of the same types of materials, look similar to one another, and produce sound in comparable ways. 

Today will be our last blog on this topic and will be dedicated to The Percussion Family:

The percussion family is the largest in the orchestra. Percussion instruments include any instrument that makes a sound when it is hit, shaken, or scraped. It’s not easy to be a percussionist because it takes a lot of practice to hit an instrument with the right amount of strength, in the right place and at the right time. Some percussion instruments are tuned and can sound different notes, like the xylophone, timpani or piano, and some are untuned with no definite pitch, like the bass drum, cymbals or castanets. Percussion instruments keep the rhythm, make special sounds and add excitement and colour. Unlike most of the other players in the orchestra, a percussionist will usually play many different instruments in one piece of music. The most common percussion instruments in the orchestra include the timpani, xylophone, cymbals, triangle, snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, maracas, gongs, chimes, celesta, and piano.


People disagree about whether the piano is a percussion or a string instrument. You play it by hitting its 88 black and white keys with your fingers, which suggests it belongs in the percussion family. However, the keys lift hammers inside the piano that strike strings (indeed, the piano has more strings than any other string instrument), which produce its distinctive sound. Which family do you think it belongs to? Wherever it fits in, there’s no disputing the fact that the piano has the largest range of any instrument in the orchestra. It is a tuned instrument, and you can play many notes at once using both your hands. Within the orchestra the piano usually supports the harmony, but it has another role as a solo instrument (an instrument that plays by itself), playing both melody and harmony.


Timpani look like big polished bowls or upside-down teakettles, which is why they’re also called kettledrums. They are big copper pots with drumheads made of calfskin or plastic stretched over their tops. Timpani are tuned instruments, which means they can play different notes. The timpanist changes the pitch by stretching or loosening the drumheads, which are attached to a foot pedal. Timpani are a central part of the percussion family because they support rhythm, melody and harmony. Most orchestras have four timpani of different sizes and tuned to different pitches and they are usually played by one musician, who hits the drumheads with felt-tipped mallets or wooden sticks. The timpani player must have a very good ear because he/she usually needs to change the pitches of the drums during performances.


The xylophone originally came from Africa and Asia, but has a Greek name that means “wood sound.” The modern xylophone has wooden bars or keys arranged like the keys of the piano, which the player hits with a mallet. You can change the quality of the pitch by using different kinds of mallets (hard or soft), and by hitting the wooden bars in different ways. Attached to the bottom of the wooden bars are metal tubes called resonators, where the sound vibrates. This gives the xylophone its bright bell-like sound.

There are several other instruments similar to the xylophone, which are also part of the percussion family. They include the marimba, a larger version of a xylophone with wood or plastic resonators attached to the bottom of the wooden keys, which give it a mellower, more rounded sound, and the vibraphone (known as vibes), which has both metal bars and metal resonators, with small rotating disks inside. The disks are attached to a rod, which is turned by an electric motor. When you play a sustained note on the vibes and the motor is running, the disks create vibrato, or a wiggly pitch. In addition, percussionists often play a glockenspiel (pronounced GLOCK-en-shpeel), which is a miniature xylophone with metal bars instead of wood. The percussionist uses hard mallets to play the glockenspiel, which sounds like clear tinkling bells.





Cymbals are the biggest noisemakers of the orchestra. They are two large metal discs, usually made of spun bronze. Cymbals, which are untuned, come in a range of sizes, from quite small to very large. The larger the cymbal, the lower the sound they make. Cymbals can be used for drama and excitement, to accent the rhythm or create delicate sound effects. You can play the cymbals either by hitting one cymbal against the other, or you can use sticks, mallets or brushes to hit one or both cymbals.



You’ve probably played a triangle yourself at one time or another. It’s a small metal bar that’s bent into the shape of a triangle and makes a ringing sound when you hit it. There are many sizes of triangles and each one sounds a different pitch. You play the triangle by holding it on a string and striking it with a metal beater. The size and thickness of the beater can change the sound the triangle makes.


Snare Drum

The snare drum is a smallish drum made of wood or brass with drumheads made of calfskin or plastic stretched over both ends of a hollow cylinder. It has a set of wire-wrapped strings stretched across the bottom head (the snare), which give the snare drum its unique “rattling” sound when the drum is hit. A small switch on the side of the drum allows the player to turn the snare on or off depending on the requirements of the piece. The snare drum is an untuned drum, so it doesn’t sound distinct pitches. It is often used in military music and is a central part of any marching band. Snare drums are used to keep the rhythm and make special sounds, such as drumrolls. You play the snare drum by hitting the top with drumsticks, mallets or brushes.

Bass Drum

The bass drum, like the double bass, is the biggest member of the percussion family and therefore makes the lowest sounds. The bass drum is built like a very large snare drum, although without the snare; it is also an untuned instrument. You play the bass drum by hitting either drumhead with sticks that have large soft heads, often covered with sheepskin or felt. It can produce a lot of different sounds from roaring thunder to the softest whispers.


Have you played one of these? A tambourine is a small drum with metal jingles set into the edges. Both the drumhead and the jingles are untuned. To play it, you hold it in one hand and tap, shake or hit it, usually against your other hand.


Maracas come from Mexico. They are rattles, often made from gourds (a kind of squash), filled with dried seeds, beads or even tiny ball bearings that make them rattle. Maracas can also be made of wood or plastic; the sound they make depends on what they’re made of. To play them, you hold them in your hands and shake.


The gong, also known as the tamtam, is a very large metal plate that hangs suspended from a metal pipe. It looks similar to a cymbal and is also untuned, but is much larger and has a raised center. To play it, you hit the center with a soft mallet. Depending on how hard you hit it, you can make a deafening crash or the softest flicker of sound.


Chimes are metal tubes of different lengths that are hung from a metal frame. When you strike the tubes with a mallet, they sound like the ringing bells of a church. Each chime sounds a different pitch.


These fun wooden instruments come from Spain and are used to punctuate the music with a distinctive clickety-clack. Castanets are made of two pieces of wood tied together. To play them, you hold them with your fingers and click the two pieces of wood together. In the orchestra, castanets are sometimes mounted on a piece of wood, and the percussionist plays them by hitting them with his/her hands.


The celesta looks like a tiny upright piano and sounds a lot like the glockenspiel with its delicate bell-like tone. Celestas usually have a keyboard of 49–65 keys. As with the piano, you make sound on the celesta by pressing down on a key with your finger, which lifts a hammer inside and strikes a metal bar. You can play many notes at once using both your hands.


Now you can listen to all these instruments here: