Music is made up almost entirely of patterns. Patterns can be defined as notes that are organized in a predictable manner. If you are able to find these patterns in music, you can often predict what is coming next. Understanding patterns can also help in learning and memorizing a piece much faster. Many students of music understand that patterns exist, but they fail to use them to learn their music, instead of relying on learning one note at a time.
Finding, labeling, and sometimes extending patterns, are the first things that you should do while learning a piece of music.
Why Patterns Matter
Identifying patterns helps with everything from initial memorizing of a piece of music, retrieval of the memorized music, understanding the music, and the speed at which a piece of music is learned.
Everyone has had a point where they have tried to recall something from their long-term memory, but were unable to. Often you feel like what you are trying to remember is on the tip of your tongue. Having a cue is one of the best ways to retrieve memories and to avoid that tip of the tongue phenomenon.
Cues can come in many different forms, one of the most effective types of cues is recognized patterns. As a simple example, let’s pretend that a section of music you were working on had sequential ascending scales. If you memorized the music without making this distinction, you would have to remember every note, or at least every scale.
f you recognized that each scale started one note higher than the last, you would just need to remember what the first scale was, and then you could recall the rest. Every time that we identify patterns in music we are better equipped to recognize that pattern again in a different piece of music. You’ll begin to develop an almost unconscious repertoire of these patterns. This pattern repertoire can then easily be applied to new music.
Although a pattern in music that you are learning may be different than one that is in your repertoire, it may be similar enough that you don’t have to learn an entirely new section of music. You can depend on the similar patterns you learned before to aid you in your learning.
Just playing music alone does not help you learn these patterns.
In order to build a repertoire of patterns you must be actively looking for them. Many musicians learn their music note for note. They never develop this all important repertoire of patterns because they don’t spend any time identifying them in their music.
Music Theory and Patterns
Music theory is simply the study of patterns in music. Music theory puts labels on all the different sounds and movements that music naturally makes. There is nothing special about the words we use to describe these patterns. Scales, chords, form, all of it are just our attempts as humans to label patterns in music.
Having the labels created by music theory committed to memory can help you describe music in fewer words which aids in your ability to conceptualize music on a larger scale.
Macro and Micro Patterns
I like to divide the patterns we find in music into macro and micro patterns. Micropatterns are those small patterns that make up a motive, a phrase, or a small section. When we speak of patterns, these are most often the patterns that students think of first.
A macro pattern, however, is a larger construct that shapes an entire piece. The form of the piece is a macro pattern. The form of a piece can help a musician assemble all of the small micro pieces.
Think of the form of a piece as the picture for a puzzle you’re working on. Without it, each puzzle piece can be confusing. With the picture, however, each puzzle piece has more meaning.
Explaining Music in Words
In college theory classes, students learn how to articulate what is happening in music using just words. Music theory students have to write essays analyzing a piece of music using the labels that they’ve learned.
This kind of activity shouldn’t be compartmentalized to just being used in college music theory classes. All students need to learn how to explain what is happening in the music with words because this is how we begin to recognize and repeat patterns in the music you’re learning.
Beginners Can Label Patterns Without Music Theory
Knowledge of music theory isn’t required to explain music in words. Using the correct terminology can help, as it gives you a vocabulary to pull from when labeling patterns, but it’s not necessary. Beginners should learn to label patterns using their own vocabulary. Once some common patterns are found, the teacher can help the student use music vocabulary to label them.
Ideally a teacher would encourage the student to explain the music in words, but for young students this may be difficult, so often the teacher will need to do it instead. The important part is that the patterns are recognized.
Beginner Piece Explained
Let’s look at an example of an early beginner piano piece, and I’ll explain it in words without using musical terminology to give you an idea of how a beginner student would be able to accomplish this. The piece we’ll use is “Babies Don’t Keep” arranged by Gilbert DeBenedetti. The teacher will need to do most of the talking at first to help the student understand what they should be looking for.
The key for beginners is to point out what the music is doing, without using normal music theory jargon. The teacher’s explanation should make enough sense that a young student would be able to play the music with only the teacher’s explanation. If you need a demonstration, you aren’t being specific enough.
Music should still be shown to the student, and they can play what is written first, but at some point during the initial teaching of the music there should be some attempt to help the young student recognize patterns. Here is my example:
There are two different notes in the first two measures. In the first pattern, you play one note and then you repeat a higher note twice. In order to get to the higher note you need to skip two other notes. The two notes can be black or white keys, it just has to be two notes away. You play this pattern two times.
After you play that pattern two times, you start the next pattern with one note lower than the last note you played. This new note will be the new bottom note of the same pattern. You then play the pattern like before by skipping two notes and playing that new higher note twice.
The first three measures are made up of one pattern. The point should be to make sure the student understands what pattern that is, because this minor third will often continue through the rest of the piece. Let’s continue. The note in the next pattern will start by skipping one note (it can be black or white). The next two notes will be lower and you’ll skip a note each time. Finally you’ll end on the same note you began this pattern on.
Beginner Piece Summary
I could obviously go on and finish the rest of the piece, but I think you get the idea. It’s a little confusing if you just read the explanation. If you are sitting at the piano and you can point to the notes you’re skipping and the notes of the pattern, the explanation makes a lot more sense.
When pointing these patterns out to a young student, the goal should be to avoid using technical terms that the student may be unaware of (minor third, whole step, half step) unless you define them. This is how music theory should be taught.
Instead of saying to get the top note you have to skip two notes, you could just say “the distance from one note to the note right above or below it is called a half step.” Then, you could explain the distance of the minor third using half steps.
If the student already understands half steps, you could instead say “when you go up or down by three half steps we call it a minor third”. Then you can use the term “minor third” in your explanation. Always teach to the student at their level.
Eventually the intervals and chords will become so internalized, that they’ll never have to sit down and memorize intervals and chords on their own. They will have learned them from the context of music.
Also notice I purposely did not use any note names in the explanation. I didn’t say what note the student was supposed to start on. Patterns are relative. This is an important distinction. If I start speaking using absolute pitches, you’ll find that students come to think that “G to Bb” is the pattern not a minor third up.
Stopping and Explaining
I’m not saying a teacher should explain the piece verbatim like the analysis I outlined above. Each pattern can be repeated by the student when it is explained. When a pattern is recognized, it can also be helpful to expand the pattern out to different keys. This way the student can understand the pattern in more relative terms.
At first it may seem like it takes longer to learn a piece of music this way, and it does. But what ends up happening as students look at music with a pattern discerning eye, is all music becomes easier. Students start to understand what’s going on in music.
Classical Piece Explained
If you have some experience under your belt and you’re ready to tackle some classical music, analysis should contain more labels from music theory. If at all possible, the student should be the one analyzing the patterns in the music, but teachers can help guide the student in the correct direction.
Let’s analyze the patterns in the first movement of Mozart’s famous piano sonata in C major K.545. Keep in mind that this is not a formal harmonic analysis like you would do in a music theory class. This is pattern analysis. Harmonic analysis is an important skill in understanding patterns, but you also have to be aware of movement and similarities between sections. Let’s begin.
There are a few patterns that are immediately obvious. The pattern in the left hand is referred to as Alberti bass. The first measure is simply a root position C Major chord playing an Alberti bass pattern.
The Alberti bass should already be in your pattern repertoire by now. If it’s not, then this is a great opportunity to read about it, or ask your teacher about it. The right hand simply plays a broken C Major chord ascending in root position. Pretty simple.
If the student was learning this one note at a time, there would be a lot of notes to learn just in the first measure, but because we recognize these patterns, there are really only two things to remember. Play the broken chord pattern in the right hand and the Alberti bass pattern in the left hand. Pure pattern play.
The rest of the line is also pretty simple, but I want to focus on the left hand for now. Starting in measure two there are two beats, a second inversion V7 chord followed by the same root position I chord that was found in the first measure
The next chord is simply a second inversion IV chord followed by the root position I chord again. And finally a first inversion V7 chord followed by I yet again.
Connecting the Alberti Bass in a Larger Pattern
If we start to think back to the beginning of the piece, we can explain every two beats very simply. I I, V I, IV I, V I. Notice that starting on beat three for the entire first line we always have an Alberti bass I chord. There’s no reason to have to practice that over and over again, it’s simple. For memorization purposes all the student would need to know is what is happening on beat one and two of measures two three and four. These chords are simply V7 IV and V.
You could memorize what inversion they’re in, but that leaves a lot left to be memorized. Unless your knowledge of inversions and chords is extremely solid, you would also have to think about what the bottom note is of a V7 second inversion chord in C. That’s a lot to think about.
Instead let’s take the parts of the left hand that are different, and put them next to each other.
Do you see anything here that would help in remembering which inversions the chords come in? Now that they’re next to each other it becomes obvious that the first note of each chord is a step lower than the starting note of the chord before it. The first chord starts on D, the next chord starts on C, and finally the last chord starts on B.
A more efficient way to say this is that the notes descend from D by step down to B. If we remember the chords are V7 IV and V, and we remember the first note is D and it descends by step down to B, then that’s all you need. There is nothing else to remember. Now the entire left hand will have been memorized for the first line.
If you’re just reading this away from a piano, it may seem like doing complex math problems in your head. It’s not as hard as it sounds though. Print this out and go to the piano. When you follow what’s happening on the piano it will make much more sense.
You should always look for patterns that you’ve seen before. In the Mozart sonata for example, the left-hand plays the same alberti bass progression, in a different key, later in the piece. Since you recognized the pattern the first time, you should be able to apply that knowledge later. This saves you the time of learning the pattern over again.
Hopefully these two small examples have shown you the amazing power of learning by patterns. It can be difficult to understand through text away from your instrument, so I encourage you to look for patterns in music that you are working on now.