Rules of Thumb


There is music in every child…


This time-honored quote from Frances Clark is a comfort and also a challenge as we patiently attempt to turn a student’s correct but unmusical performance into a compelling musical experience.


“So what,” we ask “makes a performance ‘musical’?”  My ready response is: “when the sound has dynamic shaping.”  A series of questions may ensue which might be summarized in a generic “Are there guidelines about shaping sound that students can follow?”  I believe so.

Rule I:  The last note of a phrase is the quietest.

My elementary piano students and I sing.  We sing with the piano, we sing away from the piano as we draw the melodic shape in the air, we sing as we move to the meter of the piece.  And with all of that singing there is melodic shape.  One observation we make is that the last note of a group (phrase) is the quietest.


When discussing a specific piece on the assignment, we determine what the groups (phrases) are.  Having determined the groups and their last notes, and armed with the “Rule of Thumb” about shaping the sound, the performance of an elementary piece can be breathtakingly expressive.  The young student focuses on playing the final note of the phrase more quietly, and the result is a well-shaped phrase.  Simple, but beautiful.


Rule II:  Determine the focus of each phrase.

A number of Rules can proliferate from this concept.  They all focus on finding the moment of greatest tension in a phrase, building up to that focus, and releasing the accumulated tension for the remainder of the phrase.  Basically we are dealing with a guided crescendo and diminuendo.


  • One of the subset of rules could be:  Avoid playing two or three notes in a row at the same dynamic level. 


  • Students are quick to observe that the majority of phrases in their music are either two-measure phrases or four-measure phrases.  After analyzing a number of two-measure phrases, they are quick to articulate the rule:  In a two-measure phrase, the focus falls on the downbeat of the second measure.   Further analysis of four-measure phrases reveals consistently that In a four-measure phrase, the focus is in the third measure.   We shorten that rule to the formula  Out of 4, go for 3.  Interestingly, this can apply to a series of four chords, or a phrase of four measures, or four short phrases than need an overall dynamic structure.


Rule III:  The melody is always louder than the accompaniment.

Teaching some students to balance sound when playing melody and accompaniment may take considerable time, patience, and practice.  We teachers realize that this is a matter of muscle control, and that the mind must send different messages to each of the hands.  Exaggeration of the dynamic levels is a helpful step in the process of acquiring that control.  My students are urged to play the louder melodic tones deep into the bottom of the key, and the quiet accompaniment tones on the surface of the key.


Rule IV:  The first note of a two-note slur is the louder.

When composers write two-note slurs, they are consistent in their meaning.  Regardless of whether the second note is longer than the first, regardless of whether the first note is an upbeat, the meaning of a two-note slur remains consistent:  the first note is louder than the second.  When students play the two notes at the same dynamic level, or play the second note louder than the first, they misunderstand the composer’s intention.  This rule seems to be iron-clad.


Rule Va:  Emphasize the harmonic dissonance.  Relax the sound as that dissonance resolves.

Rule Vb:  Find the I 6/4 chords at the endings of phrases and sections.  Build the musical (dynamic) tension to that chord, then relax (diminuendo) for the ending of the phrase.

Harmony is a major factor in determining the shape of our music.  Composers drive a phrase to the harmonic climax, often featuring dissonance which requires resolution.  The ubiquitous dominant seventh (V7) represents harmonic tension which resolves to its expected tonic (I).  In a great majority of the classical repertoire, endings of sections feature a focus on a tonic chord in second inversion (I 6/4).  This is invariably followed by a V7 and then the expected (required) I.  Students should be instructed to recognize these important, focal I 6/4 chords.  They are, indeed, the harmonic focus of that section.


These Rules of Thumb have been helpful to my students as they strive to produce effective musical interpretations of their repertoire.

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