Characteristics of Brahms


  • Location: Germany
  • Age: Musical Romanticism (c. 1815-1910)
  • Polyphonic textures
  • Bass ostinato
  • Hemiola (polyrhythms)
  • Piano, Orchestra – some instrumentation
  • Absolute music – no story conveyed

Johannes Brahms was born on May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany into the period of Musical Romanticism. His birth into Romanticism was not the single aspect of music that defined him; as it was mentioned earlier, Brahms’ style more closely relates to that of classical composers. Brahms’ music, however, took the music of the classical period one step further, in many ways.

Firstly, whereas most other composers of the time used only 21 chords derived from the tonic, dominant, and subdominant, Brahms would utilize all 49. This allowed him to establish a “tonal region,” thus allowing him to stretch conventional chords/progressions to modulate musical ideas slowly.

Another aspect of Brahms’ music is the inclusion of an ostinato. Much of Brahms’ music is based on an ostinato figure that sets the sound of the music by first establishing and continuing a bass line musical idea. This concept will be further explained when the piece analysis occurs.

Still another interesting effect of Brahms’ music is found in his use of hemiola, which serves as a polyrhythmic figure in much of his music, including his Intermezzo, Op.118 No.2.

Other factors to consider are the “absolute” nature of his music and his exposure and resulting strong ties with Hungarian folk music (in part due to Robert Schumann), defining Brahms as a contrasting figure to the “progressive style of the New German School.”

Characteristics of Shona Mbira Music


  • Location: Zimbabwe
  • Age: over 1000 years old
  • Polyphony – kushara/kutinshara
  • Motivic ideas reminiscent of Western ostinato
  • Polyrhythms
  • Mbira, Hosho – some instruments
  • Program Music – ceremonial

Shona Mbira music originates in Zimbabwe, where it has thrived for more than 700 years as it has been passed from generation to generation. The music is central to many spiritual ceremonies of the Zimbabwean people, and the ties of the musicians to the music they perform is incredible from a Western perspective because mbira players

“often find that they hear mbira continuously, even when the instrument is not actually being played, both when awake and while dreaming.”

When a performance starts, the mbira musicians merely join back into the continual sound that they experience.

There are many interesting features of Shona Mbira music. A seemingly obvious one is the polyphony that players experience, because it is generally assumed that whenever more than one player is playing, polyphony exists. However, the way in which the polyphonic tones interact is quite unique; the kushara (leading part) oftentimes leads the kutsinhira (intertwining part) only one beat ahead of the kutsinhira, creating a repeating tone series.

The kutsinhira part is not limited to exact copying of the kushara, though. The kutsinhira remains on its own, while contributing to the polyphony. Through this ability, the music slowly changes, whether it be one note at a time every fourth time around the same melodic figure or the single note changes every 16th figure.

Of course, “pieces” exist mostly as short, melodic ideas that have existed for hundreds of years, and those motivic melodic ideas provide a form of ostinato around which the piece is built.  The cyclical form of the music provides for the melodic idea’s dominance, but variation, as mentioned earlier, allows for manipulation of those ideas.

Also, the percussion feature of the Mbira itself, along with percussion of the majority of Africa, incorporates polyrhythms.

As in the example above, the right thumb is playing in a duple pattern, whereas the left thumb is demonstrating a triple pattern. This allows for a very interesting rhythmic feel that enhances the tambor of the Mbira.

Of course, Mbira music contains more than just the mbira itself. Mbiras are usually modified with bottle caps, a feature that vibrates sympathetically with the instrument, and Hosho (a pair of gourd rattles) can add layers to the playing of the instrument.




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