Writing Good Music Questions for Musical Novices

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Writing Good Music Questions for Musical Novices

Postby magin » Thu Nov 07, 2013 12:37 pm

There seemed to be some interest about a thread giving advice for non-music players on writing good music questions, so I thought I'd offer some advice, having edited music for the past three ACF Nationals.

I think the number one problem players without much knowledge of music have is thinking that good music questions need to include music theory or score clues. If you don't know any music theory or can't read a score, then you'll have no idea what makes for a good, unique, memorable theory or score clue. If you can't look at a score and figure out what aspects of a piece are unique or memorable, then I advise against trying to use clues straight from the score. Similarly, if you don't understand Spanish, you wouldn't try to guess that some lines of Don Quixote you don't understand happen to be memorable clues; instead, you'd try to select clues you do understand.

So if you don't understand music theory and can't read a score, what can you do? Luckily, there are many possibilities.

Instrumentation: Every piece of music uses at least one instrument. Sometimes, the instruments are unusual, and therefore memorable. For instance, some instruments are fairly rare; not many canonical pieces use a glockenspiel or a saxophone. Other times, instrumentation is unusual for deviating from established formulas. This takes a little more research, but let's say you find out that a standard Classical-period orchestra uses two oboes. However, you find a Classical-period symphony that uses three oboes (this is all made up from the top of my head). This could be a good clue! If a piece has an unusual number or arrangement of instruments for its time, then something like "Unusually for a Classical symphony, this piece includes three oboes" might be a good clue. Obviously, this requires looking up a little bit of the history of music and learning what instrumentation was standard in each period, but I think that's a lot easier to look up than trying to decipher a score.

Solos: Some pieces have really memorable solos. When listening to an orchestral work, it can be really tough to isolate specific instruments if many are playing at once. However, it's much easier to figure out which instrument is playing a solo. Sometimes when I'm not familiar with a piece of music, I go to YouTube and type in "[name of piece] solo" and see what comes up frequently. If something has a ton of hits, it might be a significant solo. Program notes are also a good source for this information. Once you've found a solo you think is memorable/significant, it's important to add context. When does the solo play? Does it represent any theme/character or quote any other piece of music? Is it a notoriously difficult solo? Is it played in an unusual style? Does it dramatically shift keys from the previous music? Is it truly a solo, or do any other instruments play during it? All of these questions can help you craft a memorable clue.

Musical quotations: Sometimes, when reading program notes, you'll be told that a piece of music quotes another piece. These can be good clues! As before, context is important. Why is this piece being quoted? There's usually some reason; Tchaikovsky doesn't quote La Marseillaise in the 1812 Overture just because he liked how it sounds. Is it a recurring quotation? Does it come from another piece of classical music, or is it a folk song? Are there words? If so, what do the words mean? When I'm trying to write a tossup, and I find a quotation clue, I like to look up the piece being quoted and listen to it, then listen to the original piece and try to find the quotation. This can dovetail with the above two points: is the quotation played by unusual instruments or a solo?

Performers/performances: Sometimes, performers are renowned for performing certain composers. Did a performer premiere a work? Was it written for him or her? Did he or she give a renowned concert featuring it? If you're not sure whether a performance or premiere was historic, I again advise you to look up program notes. In Google, I usually type in "[name of piece] program notes" and look for webpages of major orchestras. If you keep finding a particular premiere or performer mentioned, then odds are, that's a memorable clue! It's important again to remember that context is key. One performer may have premiered many works; when was this premiered? Was it a special occasion? Did it take place at an unusual location?

Genres of music: Particular genres or types of music are prominent in classical music. For instance, waltzes became popular in a specific historical time period and context and are almost always in 3/4 time. Does this piece include or quote a particular style or dance? Is the time signature or instrumentation unusual for that style or dance? If a piece includes a waltz in 7/4 time (as a hypothetical), that could make a good clue.

As an aside, I've mentioned key changes and time signatures so far. However, I understand that many people don't have the knowledge to tell what key or time signature a piece is in. If you think you've found a good key/time signature clue, but you aren't sure, I recommend asking someone who knows more about music. If you can't find one, you should either do enough research until you're confident your clue is memorable, or select a different clue.

Finally, here's an example. For last year's ACF Nationals, I wrote this tossup:

12. This instrument shares a solo with an English horn over soft strings in Aaron Copland’s Quiet City. Three of these instruments introduce the song “We have built a stately house” in Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. The second movement of Respighi’s Pines of Rome features an offstage solo for this instrument, which uses the high clarino register in J. S. Bach’s second Brandenburg concerto, where it plays the opening solo of the third movement. In a composition by Charles Ives, this instrument poses The Unanswered Question. The funeral march that opens Mahler’s fifth symphony begins with a solo for this instrument. Joseph Haydn wrote an E flat major concerto for this instrument, which is played by Wynton Marsalis. For 10 points, name this brass instrument for which Jeremiah Clarke composed a “voluntary.”
ANSWER: trumpets


To go line by line:

This instrument shares a solo with an English horn over soft strings in Aaron Copland’s Quiet City.


Trumpets are everywhere in classical music, so I knew I'd have a ton of possible clues to use. I started with a clue about a shared solo from a piece that's in the repertoire, but not really famous. If you've heard this piece, you should have an idea about what the other solo instrument is from this leadin.

Three of these instruments introduce the song “We have built a stately house” in Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture.


Here's a clue combining instrumentation with a quotation. Someone who is really familiar with the Academic Festival Overture is likely to know what this sounds like.

The second movement of Respighi’s Pines of Rome features an offstage solo for this instrument,


Another solo clue, combined with an unusual location and a specific movement to let players trigger a memory.

which uses the high clarino register in J. S. Bach’s second Brandenburg concerto,


This is a technique clue I discovered in my research. Someone who knows what the second Brandenburg concerto sounds like has an advantage here.

where it plays the opening solo of the third movement.


And now, more context about the second Brandenburg concerto's use of the trumpet. I considered this solo more famous than the one in Pines of Rome, but less famous than the upcoming clues.

In a composition by Charles Ives, this instrument poses The Unanswered Question.


If you've listened to The Unanswered Question, the specific instrumentation is extremely clear. If you don't know which instruments question and which answer, you're at a disadvantage.

The funeral march that opens Mahler’s fifth symphony begins with a solo for this instrument.


This is a really famous and prominent solo; I made sure to give the context of a funeral march and the position of the solo in the music (at the beginning, in this case) to make this unambiguous.

which is played by Wynton Marsalis.


A famous performer of the trumpet. I would imagine many buzzes here if not already.

For 10 points, name this brass instrument


Really narrowing it down at the end here to help people with very little knowledge.

for which Jeremiah Clarke composed a “voluntary.”


Ending with a very famous piece of music with "trumpet" in the title. Probably not the very easiest clue in the world, but I imagine this is a giveaway for a majority of teams at Nationals.

Note that all of these clues are specific and contextual. To write this question, I wrote down some famous trumpet clues I knew already (Marsalis, the Trumpet Voluntary, the Mahler 5 clue) and started looking up trumpet solos, where I found many of these other clues. I don't think this is a perfect tossup, but I think it's filled with useful and buzzable clues that won't frustrate players with musical knowledge, and I hope this post helps some of you write solid, non-frustrating tossups going forward.
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Re: Writing Good Music Questions for Musical Novices

Postby Auroni » Thu Nov 07, 2013 1:10 pm

This is an excellent post. As music editor for this year's ACF Nationals, I advise everyone submitting packets to read it very carefully.
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Re: Writing Good Music Questions for Musical Novices

Postby Cheynem » Thu Nov 07, 2013 1:53 pm

Good post. Can someone recommend how to write music questions that do not primarily use orchestration clues?
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Re: Writing Good Music Questions for Musical Novices

Postby ThisIsMyUsername » Thu Nov 07, 2013 2:19 pm

This is indeed an excellent post.

I would like to emphasize something. Please note the attribute that is common to Magin's descriptions of the different clues he's picking: the feature being described has to be unusual. The fundamental way in which Music is different from Literature or Painting is that the "pick a minor but non-trivial detail and describe it" method is almost guaranteed to fail unless you do further research on the detail in question. Very few unique musical moments in a piece retain their uniqueness when translated into English. The majority of instrumentation, performer, and genre facts about a piece are not useful, because they are completely generic. The most important skill you need to write good music questions is to be able to distinguish which facts about a piece are genuinely remarkable, and which are mere description of a feature common to many pieces. If you are at all un-confident in your knowledge of this subject matter (or even if you are confident), I strongly encourage you to employ reverse clue look-up.

For example, let's say you find it mentioned in program note after program note that Violinist X premiered Concerto Y. Before you make that a clue, research Violinist X in connection with premieres. You may find out that Violinist X in fact premiered three or four major concertos of that era. In this case, you now know that this fact, though important, cannot constitute a good clue on its own, without further specification or contextualization.
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Re: Writing Good Music Questions for Musical Novices

Postby bag-of-worms » Thu Nov 07, 2013 3:52 pm

This post helped me tremendously. I'm sure there are some other great pieces of advice in that thread, too.
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Re: Writing Good Music Questions for Musical Novices

Postby The Quest for the Historical Mukherjesus » Thu Nov 07, 2013 4:17 pm

ThisIsMyUsername wrote:For example, let's say you find it mentioned in program note after program note that Violinist X premiered Concerto Y. Before you make that a clue, research Violinist X in connection with premieres. You may find out that Violinist X in fact premiered three or four major concertos of that era. In this case, you now know that this fact, though important, cannot constitute a good clue on its own, without further specification or contextualization.


It's amazing across how many categories reverse clue lookup is useful.
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Re: Writing Good Music Questions for Musical Novices

Postby Ringil » Thu Nov 07, 2013 5:02 pm

The Quest for the Historical Mukherjesus wrote:
ThisIsMyUsername wrote:For example, let's say you find it mentioned in program note after program note that Violinist X premiered Concerto Y. Before you make that a clue, research Violinist X in connection with premieres. You may find out that Violinist X in fact premiered three or four major concertos of that era. In this case, you now know that this fact, though important, cannot constitute a good clue on its own, without further specification or contextualization.


It's amazing across how many categories reverse clue lookup is useful.


Isn't this literally every category?
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Re: Writing Good Music Questions for Musical Novices

Postby vinteuil » Thu Nov 07, 2013 5:43 pm

This is a fantastic, readable, usable guide. I would also like to echo John by emphasizing the fact that these clues have to be unique and thus are usually extremely unusual—this is particularly difficult to do while writing about solos (although the tossup on trumpets does a great job of avoiding that problem!)—just remember that most orchestral instruments appear in a lot of works and that the solo has to be REALLY famous to be buzzable.

Speaking of which, I feel like a lot of these tips are worded mostly in terms of orchestral music—but I'm pretty sure that most of them (well, maybe not "solos") apply to music in general.
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Re: Writing Good Music Questions for Musical Novices

Postby Lagotto Romagnolo » Thu Nov 07, 2013 7:18 pm

This is probably the best post I've seen anywhere about writing music questions. This part deserves special emphasis:

magin wrote:I think the number one problem players without much knowledge of music have is thinking that good music questions need to include music theory or score clues.


I agree that when score clues work, they're great. But, let's face it, finding good ones is hard. Very hard for new writers. And I certainly don't believe that every music tossup needs to have a theory / score lead-in. So if you're not sure whether a theory clue is useful, I'd say err on the side of caution.
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Re: Writing Good Music Questions for Musical Novices

Postby mhayes » Thu Nov 07, 2013 8:35 pm

As long as the names of movements are unique, those can also be acceptable clues. A clue about a first movement marked "Allegro affettuoso" will almost certainly point to Schumann's Op. 54.
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Re: Writing Good Music Questions for Musical Novices

Postby zachary_yan » Mon Apr 07, 2014 7:08 pm

Should song titles and arias be written in the original language or in English or perhaps both? There seems to be a bit of inconsistency about this.
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Re: Writing Good Music Questions for Musical Novices

Postby ThisIsMyUsername » Mon Apr 07, 2014 8:01 pm

zachary_yan wrote:Should song titles and arias be written in the original language or in English or perhaps both? There seems to be a bit of inconsistency about this.


Short answer: you want to give the aria title that is most-commonly used.

Rules of thumb:
1. If it has a title that is distinct from its first line (e.g. "Flower Duet" or "Champagne Aria"), give that title in English.
2. If it is known by its first line, give that first line in the original language, if it is in Italian, French, or German. If it is in any other foreign language (e.g. Czech, Russian, etc.), you most likely want to translate it into English.
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Re: Writing Good Music Questions for Musical Novices

Postby Matt Weiner » Mon Apr 07, 2014 8:15 pm

While there are divergent opinions on when to translate aria titles, I hope we can all agree that the issue can be largely avoided by not ever writing opera tossups that reduce to a long list of aria titles. Translating those into English makes the questions somewhat more forgiving to moderators, but they're still pretty bad to play on. This is the more important point for "musical novices" to take away.
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Re: Writing Good Music Questions for Musical Novices

Postby vinteuil » Mon Apr 07, 2014 8:47 pm

Also, if you're having trouble finding the "most commonly used name" as per John's good advice, there's a chance that your aria might not be the right one to be cluing.
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Re: Writing Good Music Questions for Musical Novices

Postby theMoMA » Mon Apr 07, 2014 8:52 pm

The aria database is a good resource (and lists many common aria names in parentheses).
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