When we learn a new piece of music, we often break it in to smaller pieces and learn them one by one.
Then we put them back together and smooth out the edges.
But to take our music to the next level, we also need to smooth the edges of the larger musical sections. Just as one bar needs to flow into the next, one section needs to flow into the next.
One name for the connecting points of musical sections is “transitions”. And how we treat them can make or break a performance.
What is a Transition in Music?
A transition in music is where one section or phrase stops and another begins.
(Note: The word “transition” is also used to talk about modulating from one musical key to another. But we’re not talking about that definition here. We’re talking about moving from one section or phrase to another.)
These are often marked by musical symbols, such as double-bars or repeat signs. We may find a long note in the melody or a large pause (a musical “rest”).
Even if it’s not obvious by looking at the music, we can usually hear where a phrase ends. If there were lyrics, we would likely find a period (.).
Beyond the Musical Symbols: Repeats Don’t Repeat
When we learn music, we spend most of our time thinking about the notes and fingerings. But we can make our music more interesting when we give special attention to how we connect one section to the next.
If our goal is to create a long line (where we keep a listener’s attention from the first note to the last), section-endings are potential hazards. We have to take special care not to let the music “sag” or come to a complete stop. We need to keep the music interesting and moving forward.
This way, listeners are drawn into the next section. The new section seems like a continuation of the previous music, instead of something completely new and different.
Imagine an eight-bar phrase with repeat signs. We will play it twice.
But instead of thinking of it as one 8-bar phrase that we play twice, we can think of it as one 16-bar phrase.
The goal now is to keep the music flowing from the first bar all the way to the 16th.
This means we’ll need to connect bar eight with bar nine (the first bar, now repeating).
We can do this using expressive playing. For instance, if we get quieter at the end of the a phrase, we can start the repeat quietly. Likewise, if we get louder at the end of the phrase, we can start the repeat loud and go from there.
Composers and editors use musical symbols to tell us where to go and what to play.
Some common ones are:
- D.C. al coda – Go back to the beginning and play until the coda sign (then go to the coda at the end of the piece).
- D.S. al coda – Go back to the sign and play until the coda sign (then go to the coda at the end of the piece).
- D.C. al fine – Go back to the beginning and play to the ending, marked “fine”.
Just as we can “dove-tail” repeated sections, we can also connect these sections using our swells and fades, louds and softs.
Other Ways to Connect Sections and Transitions
Besides volume (dynamics), we can use other methods to craft our transitions.
We can use tempo (speed) and rhythm. If we slow down at the end of one section, we can take the first couple of notes of the new section to speed back up to tempo. We can do this instead of starting in at full tempo. This will connect the two sections, and works especially well after a fermata.
Likewise, we can finish one section at a steady speed and start the next section in that same speed. This will help keep the music moving, and keep listeners engaged.
Lead Your Listeners: Create One Musical Journey
As musicians, we are story-tellers. Our job is to use the notes on the page to take listeners on a journey.
A good story usually has a beginning, middle and end. And it may also have many other smaller sections (i.e. chapters).
Likewise, pieces of music often have many sections.
One of our goals as musicians is to connect these sections into one continuous “journey” for the listener. So instead of stopping and starting, we can connect sections so they lead from one to the next.
No Wrong Answers: Choose a Way and Play It
While some musical decisions are more effective than others, there is technically no one correct way to play a piece of music. The notes may be the same, but each musician will swell and fade in different places or to different extents. We will all use rhythm, accents, and tone differently in any given moment.
And that’s fine.
The important part is that we make musical decisions, and play them.
Over time, as we mature as musicians, we’ll change our minds. Where once we got louder, now we’ll get quieter. Where once we slowed down, now we won’t.
As long as we’re actively experimenting and trying different options, we continue to progress and improve as musicians. We’ll learn to listen more critically and play more expressively.
And as long as we’re engaged with our pieces and sculpting it as best we can, listeners will thank us.