Part of Scores of Scores.

Exercises for Intrepid Students

The Notes for transcribers mentions that encoders benefit from the task of copy-editing music itself, that musicians have written out scores as part of their education for as long as records exist.

That’s all very well, but perhaps you want to take this a little further and integrate it into your musical education more substantially. Well good for you! Here are some advanced music theory exercises that are commonly used (in so far as advanced music theory is commonly taught and learned!) and which might appeal. Incidentally, this is the basis of the forthcoming ‘Cut Outs’ project.

Exercise 1: Pastiche composition (What would Schubert do?)

Take the vocal line and write an accompaniment that works ‘grammatically’ and is in keeping with the style of the composer in question. A few notes to start with:

  • If you’re new to this, then start with songs from the beginning of the 19th C and work forwards, i.e. don’t try to run (Hugo Wolf) before you can walk (some but by no means all Schubert).
  • Conversely, don’t be afraid to just give it a go and see what happens. Lots of songs have a very simple harmonic basis as a background to brilliant slights of hand in the local detail. Capturing a sense of that background (which chords, where modulations occur etc.) is a great step in its own right.

You can then compare your solution with the original song (using the IMSLP links provided), or if you fancy a further step in the process, then why not try:

Exercise 2: Aural transcription

Whether you’ve already had a go at the pastiche exercise above or not, you could now set yourself the task of listening to the song in question and trying to write down what you hear as exactly as you can. Start with a broad outline of the basic rhythms and harmonies; for an advanced version of this exercise, see how much detail you can capture of the chord spacing, for instance. Feel free to use the logical deductions involved in Exercise 1 here too.

Exercise 3: Comparison and transcription

Now compare your work with the original song, preferably while it’s fresh in your mind, to see what solutions the composer came up with. Remember that there are many ways to complete the same task so don’t be put off if you took a different route, just ask yourself why and which version you prefer.

At this stage, obviously it’d be useful if you’d go back to the transcription task so that your work can also benefit the Scores of Scores project. The process of changing what you’ve done to match the original solution will help consolidate your memory of the parts you approached differently and the composer’s approach.

Still hungry for more? Now that you know the piece, you could see if you can write it out from memory.

Specific tips for Romantic Lieder

Texture / accompaniment

  • Idiomatic textures include homophonic and melody–accompaniment (various figuration options).
  • Common in any case to double the vocal line in the highest voice of the piano part (embellished or otherwise)
  • Consider a change of texture at strategic moments like the start of a new section (verse).


  • Try thinking of piano writing in terms of 4-voice counterpoint, with one ‘voice’ in the LH and three in the RH.
  • Maintain good voice-leading in those ‘voices’ and keep them interesting (even when ‘just’ accompanimental).
  • Idiomatic accompaniment figures include various broken chord configurations.
  • In any case, include all harmony notes in the piano chords (including duplicating vocal notes)
  • Use chord defining notes on strong metrical positions (e.g. root and 3rd sounding together at start)


  • Deduce from the given vocal part and its text.
  • Simple conventions (e.g. strophic).
  • Piano only links can serve to echo previous melodic gesture / introduce the following one.
  • Coda: can repeat whole phrase or last sequence, for instance.
  • Take care to pace the whole: don’t overdo strong cadences etc. all the time.

Harmony: Some Common Extensions of Common Practice

  • Frequent, transitory, local toncisations without firmly establishing key change.
  • Passing melodic chromaticisms linked to chromatic harmony (eg. IVb - aug6th - V and V - V+ - I).
  • Minor borrowings in major key (eg. iv-I).
  • Unexpected resolutions: use of enharmonic equivalence for remote modulation; chromatic pivot chords.
  • Modulation by changing construction with minimal voice-leading for dominant function in new key: e.g. major / minor triad into diminished, or dominant 7th into a diminished 7th.

Ok that’s enough to start with. Good luck, and here’s to a new generation of brilliant musicians in the making!


Mark Gotham