Quiz: Hearing modes in Bartók

This aural analysis of a piece from Béla Bartók’s ‘Mikrokosmos’ gives a glimpse of the kinds of exercises I give more advanced music students.

Written between 1926 and 1939, Bartók's Mikrokosmos is a collection of short piano pieces ordered by difficulty. The collection is comparatively popular with piano students and their teachers. The following questions concern the piece entitled ‘Boating’ (from volume 5) and are meant to be answered by listening to a recording and not consulting the score. If you know this piece well, please do not give away answers but let others try. You may answer any or all of the questions!

The piece starts with a one-bar ostinato in the left hand, lasting the first 22 seconds of the piece. We will focus only on this passage (LISTEN HERE). If the link does not work, search for another recording of the piece, but make sure it's without the score!

1. Which scale/mode does the left hand suggest at the beginning, taking the lowest note (G) as fundamental? One note is missing from the scale, which one? And why might Bartók have chosen to omit it?

2. What ‘chords’ are suggested by the left hand in the beginning, taking the notes in groups of three to form a chord? The chords can be described neutrally as a collection of intervals. How can the six notes of the ostinato be rearranged to form two chords that have a more 'tonal' effect?

3. Which type of scale is suggested in the right hand? What are the first two melodic intervals and how does this relate to the left-hand ostinato?

4 (summary). How do the two scales/modes relate to each other? What is the overall result?

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