Pomp and Circumstance: Congratulations Graduates!

The tune Pomp and Circumstance, by English composer Edward Elgar, is often associated with high school and college graduation ceremonies. Elgar composed six “Pomp and Circumstance Marches” over his lifetime. The first five of these marches were composed between 1901 and 1930. The sixth march was published posthumously in 2005-2006, based on musical sketches.

The trio section of March No. 1, “Land of Hope and Glory”, is well known and often referred to as “Pomp and Circumstance”, or the “Graduation March”, in the United States, Canada and the Philippines.

This summer I attended an outdoor and socially distanced graduation party in August for my niece. The party was delayed due the coronavirus pandemic. My niece was a band student and played trumpet. In attendance at her party were fellow classmates from her school’s marching band and concert band. Ironically, these band students would have typically played at the annual graduation ceremony. Given that there was no in-person graduation ceremony this year, I felt bad for them. Since they have played music at graduation ceremonies for prior graduating classes, now they did not enjoy a traditional gradution ceremony themselves.

So I was inspired to learn this tune and arrange it for guitar. One version is single note melody and guitar chords. The other version is my fingerstyle guitar arrangement.

Congratulations graduates! Best of luck.

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Pomp and Circumstance: Guitar melody, key of G

This tune by English composer Edward Elgar was composed as a march. So it is fitting to have a 2/4 time signature. The two beat measures are to be played at a comfortable walking pace as if you were playing for high school and college graduates to line up in a procession towards receiving their diplomas.

The first 16-bar section begins to repeat again, with a slightly different ending. So the last four measures of the first two 16-bar sections are different. Knowing where there is repetition in the melody and chords can help you to learn and memorize this tune more quickly. The third section is shorter at 8 bars.

Notice that the last phrase of melody is in an octave lower than the rest of the melody. This song is often repeated as necessary to accommodate the number of students graduating. Hence, upon repeat of the melody, the first note is an octave higher than the previous ending note and really stands out! This helps to continue the momentum of this processional tune.

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Pomp and Circumstance: Fingerstyle Guitar, key of G

This tune by English composer Edward Elgar was composed as a march. So it is fitting to have a 2/4 time signature. I first learned the melody and chords for this tune from a simple arrangement for piano.

From there I set about trying to make this work as a guitar instrumental. The bass note pattern is pretty consistent throughout with two quarter notes per measure. You easily imagine taking two steps walking per each measure when you hear the bass notes. So I retained the bass note pattern pretty much as-is on the guitar.

The challenge for this tune are the measures where the melody note is a single half-note. On the guitar the sound of the notes can quickly decay after the note starts to play. On the piano, the notes will resonate louder and longer. When a high school or college band plays this tune, the horns can easily hold each note at the right volume for the full duration. However, on the guitar, during two beats the sound drops off (decays quickly).

Since this is a walking tune and I wanted to keep the momentum going, I did a couple things, one rhythmic and the other melody related. I started each measure by playing a chord on beat one (melody note, bass note and one or two harmony notes). Playing the new chord at beat one established a strong rhythm. The top note of chord is the melody. To keep the momentum going I fingerpicked the chords, primarily with eighth notes (4 eighth notes per measure), The exceptions are where the melody has multiple notes and may also involve some syncopation. In those cases, the bass notes keep things going.

In the fingerpicked chord measures, the second eighth note is a inner harmony note or the chord. The third note is a repeat of the bass note (held as second quarter note bass tone). The fourth eighth note is a repeat of the held melody note. So the result is instead of a half-note melody tone, on the guitar this is dotted-quarter note followed by an eighth note (equalling a half-note duration or two beats). The eighth note at the end of measure is almost like a pickup note leading into the next measure and chord, which gives this arrangement a flowing feel. The result I hope is that you can hear the melody such that the tune is recognized, while the fingerpicked notes, including bass notes, maintain the feeling of a march or procession tune.

PDF: Music notation, tablature and chords
MIDI Audio

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Star Spangled Banner

Happy Independence Day (4th of July)!

The Star Spangled Banner is the official national anthem of the United States of America. The lyrics are from a poem written by Francis Scott Key. Key was an American lawyer and author from Frederick, Maryland. He also wrote poetry and his poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry” is his most famous poem, which became the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner. Francis Scott Key wrote his poem in 1814, while looking at the American flag still waving over Fort McHenry, after bombardment by the British Navy during the Battle of Baltimore, in War of 1812 era.

The Star Spangled Banner melody that is paired with Scott’s poem was a popular English tune titled, “To Anacreon in Heaven”. The tune was used as a drinking song at a gentlemen’s music club in London. The tune was written circa 1775 by John Stafford Smith, a British composer.

This song is often played at 4th of July fireworks displays. Many Americans associate the singing of the Star Spangled Banner with the start of sporting events like baseball, football and basketball games. The song has a very wide vocal range (an octave plus a fifth), so it can be a challenge to sing. Thus over the years, performances of the national anthem at sporting events have ranged from beautiful, soaring and inspiring renditions to out of key and grating attempts at singing.

Needless to say, the choice of musical key is important to match the singer’s vocal range. While I play this song as an instrumental on guitar in the key of C, the upper range is too high for my voice. I am more comfortable singing this anthem in the key of G (a fourth below key of C).

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Star Spangled Banner: Guitar melody, key of C

This single note melody arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner is in the key of C. This allows you to play the melody entirely in first position on the guitar neck. The melody range is an octave plus a fifth, so from low C note (5th string, 3rd fret) to higher G note (1st string, 3rd fret).

The melody for the first two lyric lines (top line on music sheet) is repeated again for the second two lyric lines (second line of music). While the melody notes in both musical lines are the same, in this arrangement the chord accompaniments are different. The first part uses C and G major chords, while the second part uses A minor and E major chord.

The last section of the piece is where the melody stretches to the 5th note (high G) above the octave note (C at 2nd string, 1st fret). For singers, this is where the song can become challenging. Sometimes it can help to transpose the melody to fit your voice.

There are three places in the melody where an F# note appears to lead into G note and G major chord. The F# brings with it a D7 chord accompaniment. In musical terms, when a note appears from outside the main key (C Major), it is called an “accidental”. So in this context, F# is an accidental note.

The cadence from D7 to G chords in this song, is referred to as a “secondary dominant” chord progression in music theory terms. That is because G or G7 “dominant” chords lead to C chord (the main key chord). Thus as the D or D7 chord is the dominant chord for key of G, and in this case we a temporarily going outside of the main key (modulating), the D7 is a “secondary dominant” to “dominant” G chord. You can find two places in this song where the chords go from D7 to G and then to C.

Happy Independence Day (4th of July)!

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Star Spangled Banner: Fingerstyle Guitar, key of C

This is my fingerstyle guitar arrangement for the Star Spangled Banner. This arrangement is in the key of C, so it is related to the single note melody of this anthem, also posted on this site.

Most of this piece is in first position on the guitar. There are a few places where you need to play in 3rd position. So there is not a lot of movement horizontally along the fretboard.

In measures 5 and 21 (not counting opening pickup notes) there is a C major chord in 3rd position, which uses 2 open strings and doubles the G and E notes. This makes for a bright sound and makes the melody stand out on the words “proud-ly” and “ram-parts”. The shorthand chord tablature for this chord is x35050, so the notes are C-G-G-E-E.

I like to play this instrumental version of Star Spangled Banner first when I play at the local winter farmers market. Just as with sporting events, this is a good way to start the morning and my first musical set. This is a good song to know for events and gigs where it might be appropriate to include.

Happy Independence Day (4th of July)!

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Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing: 120th Anniversary

February 12, 2020 is the 120th anniversary of the first performance of the song “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”. I first became aware of this tune as a member of the local NAACP chapter in Rutland, VT, at a fund-raising dinner in 2018. Soon after at a Sunday service, I noticed this hymn in the New Century hymnal, one of our hymnals at Grace Congregational Church in Rutland.

The 6/8 time signature and melody have a powerful “anthem” quality to it. In fact, this song is often referred to as the “The Black National Anthem” by the NAACP and African Americans.

The lyrics to this song were written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson. His words were set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson in 1899.

This song was first performed in public as part of a celebration of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, 1900. The singers were a choir of 500 schoolchildren at the segregated Stanton School, in Jacksonville, FL, where James Weldon Johnson was principal. You can view the lyrics and history for this anthem.

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Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing: Guitar melody, key of F

This melody is in the key of F, and has verse structure of A1-A2-B-A2. Knowing the verse structure will help you learn and memorize the melody quicker. This song’s verse structure has first and second sections (A1 and A2) which start out similarly, but diverge and also have a different cadence (last chord resolution) at end of phrase. The second and fourth sections are identical (both A2). Knowing where there is repetition is helpful to learning a song. The third section (B) is very unique and different from the other lines.

This song has quite a few interesting chords and chord progressions, so it is not your average 3-chord song. The third section (B) includes both D minor and Db Major chords, which each share the key note F. So while this section is challenging to both play and sing, it is also very interesting from a musical composition perspective.

Another interesting aspect of this tune is that the first note is not the keynote (F in key of F), or a note from key chord (F, A, C notes in key of F). Rather, this song starts with E note, harmonized with C7 chord. If you were to sing this tune, it would help to play C7 chord at end of introduction, in order to hear the E note before singing.

Given the number of chords and challenging melody, this song is well suited for intermediate guitar players.

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Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing: Fingerstyle Guitar, key of F

Here is my fingerstyle arrangement of this hymn. Like the single note melody, this piece is also in the key of F.

I raised the melody by one octave on the guitar in order to fit bass notes, chords and harmonies underneath. This arrangement uses a wide note range across the fretboard from fret 1 to 10. This arrangement is based on a SATB / keyboard arrangement from the New Century Hymnal, with some adjustments for the guitar. Thus, it is a hymn-like arrangement for the guitar.

This instrumental is well suited for intermediate and advanced guitar players.

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We Shall Overcome

We Shall Overcome
Spiritual hymn, protest song, Civil Rights anthem

This song is often played during the Martin Luther King holiday period, for peaceful protests, church services and vigils. This anthem was sung during the Civil Rights struggle and non-violent protests in the 1960s. The song was played by many folk singers, including Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and the trio, Peter, Paul and Mary.

Rev. Martin Luther King’s birthday is January 15th. The official MLK holiday is celebrated on the Monday on or following Dr. King’s birthday.

My hope is that humankind can move closer to the message of this song. Dr. Martin Luther King advocated for non-violent protest and resistance. The struggle continues today.


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