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Music Theory for Ballet Students


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Hello, I was hoping someone may have some recommendations for books on Music Theory. I can read music pretty slowly but I think it would be best to assume I don't know anything- I forget most of it.


I am especially curious about the choice of music for barre exercises: how to identify the rhythms (and syncopation within squareness?) and how to potentially choose music myself for these exercises. I don't think it's simple because I notice less experienced accompanists make lots of mistakes in their choice, especially for Rond de Jambe, but I can't say why- all our exercises are 32 counts... Sometimes the accent is on the "and" and sometimes on the "count". Sometimes there are 2 staccato (double tendu) moves followed by a whole (regular tendu) or even a held tendu (say for 2 counts). How does this relate to the music? See, I can't even express what I am curious about! And I find myself wondering about the music when I should be focusing on the exercises & technique!



I did a search here and came up with this book recommended by a student:

"Ear Training for the Body: A Dancer's Guide to Music [Paperback]"



This one on Amazon also looks ok to me:

"The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory, 2nd Edition [Paperback]"


Does anyone have any comments on either of these books or hopefully a recommendation for others?


Thank you!

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I can get you a host of Music Theory book recommendations from DH who is a music teacher. However, I am a bit confused on what you need the book to help you with. If it is simply to make the music played by the pianist match the rhythm and intensity you want exercises performed it may not be a music theory book you need.

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Reading music (which is really what Music Theory is) and Hearing Music (usually referred to as "Aural Harmony") can be very different. I'm not clear on whether or not you're trying to read the pianist's music, or just understand WHY certain music is used for certain exercises. If it's more about the hearing, to some people, hearing comes naturally. (To me, it's completely natural. To my husband, it's work.) I suggest working on strictly hearing "rhythms" over actual notes. Knowing the difference between a C sharp and a B flat isn't really going to help you in this case.

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Thank you for responding. I just wanted to let you know I read your responses- I won't be able to really answer until tomorrow night- just too busy here and it'll take some time to explain myself.


I am reminded of iambic pentameter (forget how to spell) from high school poetry class- that is the name of a rhythm. There are others. Each exercise at the barre seems to have a dfferent rhythm but I don't know how that relates to music.



I took a bit of piano when I was a child- what I am asking, I think, is about more than just the time signature.


I will do a better response later this week- thank you both, Momof3Darlings & Irishprincess!

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Learning music theory could help but not necessarily. I read music well and know theory (I'm a professional singer) and honestly it does not help me at all to consciously think about beats when I'm dancing. Most of the other students in my classes are NOT musicians and they are better at thinking about the beats and rhythm consciously than I am. I have always tended to just feel or intuit the music when I'm dancing.


I am also confused about your statement 'Each exercise at the barre seems to have a different rhythm, and how does that relate to music." The instructor chooses the music and the the rhythm. Perhaps my instructor sits there and figures out first what kind of accents and steps to put in a barre exercise and knowing the counts then searches for a piece of music he/she has that fits it. (such as something in 4, or maybe a waltz (in 3). When we had live accompaniment at other studios usually the teacher would just say, "play something in 4 or in 3". And with drumming, for modern classes, usually the drummer maintained a steady pulse. For other types of latin dance with drums, the instructor would sing the counts and the drummers would improvise a beat to it.


If I were to create a ballet exercise probably, I would do the reverse, as a musician, and pick the music I like and then devise the ballet steps and accents/rhythm to fit into it. My teacher said that there is a certain pattern for ballet exercises at the barre (which she/he follows) on a count of 8.

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Maybe a ballet teacher could help on the time signature factor? I know that most exercises (if not all?) require equal phrasing. I could probably work it out to a certain extent, for you, but I think it would be better to get a general opinion from an experienced ballet teacher!

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Addy, if you go to emusic and do a search for "music for ballet", quite a few albums come that are for use in ballet class. Here is one of them, and notice that the track names have the barre exercise listed followed by a time signature. Perhaps this will be part of what you are looking for: http://www.emusic.com/album/Don-Caron-The-...d/10857012.html


I agree that you should ask your teacher how the music choices are made. However, I have met quite a few competent dancers (including competent teachers), who are really not very good at explaining musical concepts. They understand it at a more visceral level (or maybe Right brain is a better term) and impart it to their students the same way. This can be frustrating for those of us who utilize both right and left brain processes in learning.


Another idea is talk to the studio piano player. Ask him/her how the music is structured.


I suspect that it comes down simply to rhythm, tempo, phrasing, and total counts. Also whether the music sounds smooth or staccato to match the movements being done. You don't really need to wade through a whole book on music theory to learn a little about those concepts.

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I haven't studied music and couldn't read a sheet of music to save my life, but I have developed a way of explaining what I'm wanting:


I explain that music is written similarly to how one might write a story: String words (beats) together to make sentences (measures) and string sentences together to make paragraphs (phrases) and string paragraphs together to make the whole story (the whole song).


Sentences must be structured with a beginning, middle, and end, or else we call it a fragment, and it's the same with music. I talk about how in dance, 8 measures (sentences) make a phrase (paragraph), and I'll sort of sing along to the music as if I were telling a story for one phrase so that they can hear the inflection in the music in the same way it's in my voice.


Then I talk about breath- the space between the beats that determines tempo. I'll speak without taking a breath like, "SoifIspoketoyouwithouteverbreathingitwouldmakearun-onsentence, right?" and that seems to make the point about the speed of the music- more breaths in between the beats make for a slower song; less space in between the beats makes for a faster song.


We talk about how the heart beats in a steady rhythm, and that it's their job to find the heart beat in any piece of music. It may be faster, it may have a few different sounds in between, but every song we will dance to will have some sort of steady, never-wavering heartbeat.


I tell then that the piano player plays different things with each hand, & sometimes I'll ask the painist to just play the melody, and then, to just play the underlaying beat- the heart beat.


Let's take a slow Waltz (typically used for plié and rond de jambe): ("See Jane Run") or 1, 2, 3

The 1 count is the heaviest or strongest beat, so it is the first word in the sentence- "See" then there are 2 more beats before we come round to another 1 again, so "See Jane Run. See Jane Run." etc. or 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3.


Now we have to get those pesky 8s figured out: We can't really do much of anything when we meet a stranger until we are introduced, so we talk about the musical equivalent- the introduction or preparation, that for our purposes, is aquainting us with the tempo, timing, and movement quality. I tell my students that the pianist is giving us a hint only, so we have to figure it out quickly. This means that your body must be "at the ready" before the music begins.


Now, we'll take that waltz with the intro, and because the pianist is just giving us a hint, she is starting with the very last sentences in the whole story, just to give us a taste, so we'll count that as follows: "5,2,3 6,2,3 7,2,3 8,2,3" Then we'll begin at the beginning!


The way dancers keep track of which sentence they're reading is to count the first beat as the first word in the sentence, for a set of 8, so:










That way, we can keep track of where we are in the combination. A typical plié combination might correspond as such:

1,2,3 (demi plié on the way down)

2,2,3 (demi plié on the way up)

3,2,3 (repeat above

4,2,3 (same)

5,2,3 (demi plié on the way down)

6,2,3 (continue on down to grand plié)

7,2,3 (coming back up to demi)

8,2,3 (finishing the demi)

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What an excellent way of explaining music! I'm collecting all sorts of things/ideas/imagery for when I become a teacher - would you mind if I used that one day to explain to children?


And then, in terms of time signatures, the plié exercise that Clara described above would probably be in 6/8 (that should be written the six on top of the eight with no line in between) or possibly 3/4 time. In 6/8 time, each bar would have 2 emphasized beats so as follows:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. The 8 just refers to the length of each of those beats (quaver lengths, if that makes sense).


Counting to 8 in ballet class would mean counting in emphasized beats, as Clara showed above.

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Excellent Clara! I really understood that. You have a great sense of music and can explain it well if this is an example.

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Thank you!! It seems to work for me. And yes- please take what you think might work. I believe we are all just conduits to work and words that have passed before us, so even what I am saying isn't truly only mine!

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Wonderful explanation Clara76!!!!!

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Addy, I think what you are looking for is really more like Dalcroze Eurythmics than Music Theory.


Although the method was designed with Music Education in mind, it is very applicable to what you are inquiring about.


Dalcroze Eurhythmics is a unique approach to Music Education. It is based on the premise that the human body is the source of all musical ideas. Physical awareness or kinaesthetic intelligence is one of our most powerful senses, yet it is often taken for granted. We use it in everyday situations to keep our balance, judge distances, and manipulate the objects around us. In a similar way, we must move with flexibility, fluidity, and economy in order to play a musical instrument with both passion and skill. Dalcroze Eurhythmics allows us to gain a practical, physical experience of music before we theorise and perform. This ensures that the whole person (not just the fingers and the brain) is educated in the development of musicianship and artistry.
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Interesting - I don't recall being taught how to count but your explanation, Clara, dredged up some memories now of childhood. Things I take for granted learning as a kid, second nature now (I'm a compulsive counter, find myself doing it with all sorts of music). :) Funnily enough, also something I remember being reinforced in Aerobics classes I took with my mom when I had the summers off in the 80s. :)

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Hello!. Well I apologize for not responding sooner- I have been quite busy and I find this topic so overwhelming I don't know where to begin.


I will start by thanking everyone for your reponses and say that I ordered the "Ear Training for the Body: A Dancer's Guide to Muisc" last night. It is less than $20 and I think it will save me a lot of time in the long run. The Index and Table of Contents are listed at Amazon- and taking "meter" as an example, only 3 pages are spent on that, so it does not go into a huge amount of depth but does seem to cover everything. I will let you know after it arrives.


I did spend a couple of hours yesterday roaming around the internet in search of enough knowledge to explain what I want to know.


Syncopation, meter, accents. (Wikipedia)

What is squareness? (Robert Long answered this one- see below)

How to tell the difference between 2/4 and 4/4 (I think Lau has answered this one!Thank you)

Why do rond de jambes feel different (Clara ansered this one!!- see below)

Why, why why are all exercises 32 counts? How many bars is that? Do more advanced classes have longer exercises- 64 bars for example (I now think the answer in NO- that means I will never dance for more than about 30 seconds??)

I could go on............



FYI, I came upon a hugely educational and entertaining article "The Ballet Accompanist's Handbook". I recognize the 2 types of accompainists this article talks about! It's a pdf and not very long:




Also, this excerp from an interview with Robert Long from http://www.balletconnections.com/RobertLong answered my question on squareness.:



"There's lots of classical music out there. Why do ballet classes need more?"

This may raise some eyebrows but in my experience, a lot of classical music simply won't work. Most ballet teachers require music with "square" phrasing; that is to say, music constructed in 8 bar phrases or 16 bar phrases, with little or no deviation. Beethoven doesn't write music that way. Bach definitely doesn't write music that way. Debussy? Forget it. There are exceptions, but if you do find some square Bach or Beethoven (or Mozart or Haydn, etc.), then you must determine how to apply it. Ballet exercises have their own specific musical requirements (lyrical or percussive, steady or syncopated, grandiose or diminutive, and so on). There are some wonderful waltzes and other selections from Tchaikovsky and Delibes ballets that work very well in class, as well as selections of the ballet music from operas by Gounod and Rossini. I have made good use of some Puccini arias, albeit slightly edited. Mendelssohn, Schubert and Grieg can be fertile sources for selections. Let's not forget Scott Joplin and George Gershwin ragtime and Broadway music can be very useful and ballet teachers love it). But many of these "chestnuts" are pretty "conked" from a lot of use and repetition (think of Prokofiev's Cinderella waltz!). Ballet teachers are forever wanting something different from what they've been hearing over and over.



Both those articles have shed light on why some music seems so much better for a given exercise than others- though both are "correct", one may just make the whole exercise feel like magic while another choice makes me feel like Little Red Riding Hood in a children's cereal commercial- and to the point of embarrassment- why is that? The word Pendantic comes to mind...... But I have yet to really have an answer to this question.



Re Clara's Response:


Thank You!Your explaination was perfect.

I have just re-read both Clara's and Lau's responses- I am going to try to count like that next class, thank you Both SO MUCH for taking the time to help me with this!!


See, I knew Rond de Jambe was in 3/4 time because from my meager piano background I knew 3/4 was a triplet or a waltz. But it doesn't sound like a Waltz- like a Strauss Waltz etc. But now, from Wikipedia, I gather there are lots of "dances" in 3/4 time that are not waltzes (minuets and scherzi for example) which I can't believe- I used to play "minuets" all the time but I totally forget (or never knew) what there were per se.


And my confusion I guess arose from the way teachers count rdj's- they do it "1......2......3.....etc" and I know of course that the "count" occurs at tendu devant or derrière. I think sometimes I count it as "1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 etc"- that just came to me somehow. But on a gut level, I never recognized the triplet nature of rdj's!!


And, for the record, I thought I have good rhythm. I love rhythm, I love music. Dancing for me is all about the music so really, I just want to make clear that I don't think I am someone without musicality-


Then, the timing for Grand Pliés....-


I read Clara's response yesterday, and all day, I was thinking- nope, my teachers must not like 3/4 time because I was sure we don't do Grande Plié's in 3/4. But my arguements was because we are still following an 8 count, eg


demi plié(*1,2*) & straighten (*3,4*), rise (*5,6*) & lower (*7,8*),

grande plié (*1,2,3,4*) , bend front (*5,6*) straighten (*7*) tendu side & lower (*8*).


So to me, because I am counting in 4's I didn't think it could ever be a Waltz- but maybe it is...... I will see, thank you!

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