NB: This post assumes basic knowledge of scales and arpeggios.
In honor of Halloween, let's spend some time talking about skeletons.
I like to call the most important notes in a piece the "skeleton." In every piece, there are pillar notes that make up the core of the melody, and there are ornamental notes that enhance the melody. Generally, the shorter the note length, the more likely the note is to be ornamental.
Just like the skeletons in our bodies give us structure, the skeleton of a piece gives it structure. It's the framework that a composer uses to build a piece; it's the basic idea that lies beneath all the other notes.
So why is it helpful to figure out what lies at the core of a piece? Because knowing where the pillars are will help you maintain a sense of forward motion in your playing. It also makes phrasing clearer and helps you determine appropriate places to breathe.
Let's take a look at the process of finding a piece's skeleton. We'll use the first 24 measures of Fantasia No. 5 from Telemann's 12 Fantasias for Flute without Bass as our example.
Start by making a copy of the piece you're analyzing so you can write all over it without ruining your original.
Most of the time, the skeleton of a piece will be made up of three elements:
Begin your analysis by looking for any repeated notes; these are usually ornamenting something much simpler. The first line is a good example of this; when you ignore the repeated C, you reveal a scale pattern that ends with an arpeggio.
After you finish finding all the repeated notes, look for any measures with long notes in them. Take out any shorter notes that are surrounding the long notes and see if a scale or arpeggio reveals itself. The second line of this fantasia shows this well; the half notes and dotted half notes make up a simple scale pattern.
Sometimes you will need to displace a note up or down an octave to clarify what the skeleton is. We see this in the final line of the movement. Even when the longest notes in the measure are circled, they seem to leap around all over the place, like so:
But if you displace the middle circled note of each measure down an octave, you reveal simple arpeggios and one whole note. Here's a comparison:
Here's what the entire marked-up movement looks like:
And here's a comparison of the original and the skeleton:
If none of the approaches above yield any results, take a look at what happens on each downbeat. The most important stuff usually happens right on the beat, so that's a good place to start if you get stuck.
Once you have the skeleton at your disposal, use it in your practice! Notice how when you have a sense of the bigger idea, getting to the end of a phrase without running out of air becomes easier. Notice how things that seemed wandering or repetitious suddenly sound full of life and direction.
BONUS ROUND: Once you have your skeleton, see if you can simplify it even further. (Perhaps looking at just what happens on beat 1 of each measure will reveal yet another pattern?) Again, look for scale patterns, arpeggios, and anywhere a measure could be refined down to a single pitch. Here's the analyzed skeleton:
And here's the final version (click image for larger version):
EXTRA BONUS ROUND: If you've never heard it, check out Danse Macabre, Op. 40, by Camille Saint-Saëns. It's a spooky piece inspired by an old French Halloween legend and stars lots of skeletons (albeit of a different variety)!