Shostakovich 3. MELODY


Notes and Letters


One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.

Bob Marley


CHAPTER AIM: Recognising the DSCH motif and understanding notation



DSCH introduced

This is not a long movement, only a couple of minutes in total, and it is fast, really fast.

This chapter we’re only going to look at 6 seconds of music, that come about just after the start. But things happen quickly inside those short six seconds, so you’ll need to pay close attention:

0.27-0.33   Shostakovich Quartet no 8 2nd movement   

We’re looking for a short phrase, a motif. This sequence of four notes is repeated a number of times. Second note up, third note down, fourth note down like so:

DA – DA -DA – DA

This phrase is known as the DSCH motif, actually appears right at the front of the first movement of this same quartet (no8). And because the phrase comes so fast in our 2nd movement, this first appearance will be easier to identify.

It comes in low, with the cello:

Shostakovich Quartet no 8, 1st movement opening  



Six Short Seconds

Once we’re familiar with that slowed down version, it’s easier to pick up the phrase in our 6-second section:

0.27-0.33   Shostakovich Quartet no 8 2nd movement   


But here the many uses of this phrase are rapid. And I mean rapid!

0.27-0.33   Shostakovich Quartet   


The cello plays it first, then it flames up through each of the strings: viola → 2nd violin → 1st violin…before going back down → 2nd violin → 1st violin → cello → viola.

These eight repetitions have taken all of a three seconds! Can you hear them all?



Three Short Seconds

That’s not all, as the phrase in now handled in a different way in the second half of the clip.

Here, the first violin plays the phrase three times, at a slower speed, one after the other. And that is joined at once by the second violin, also playing the phrase three times, but slightly out of step with the first violin.

Here is that short section isolated:

0.33-0.36   Isolated section   


The first violin is much easier to hear than the second. Once both join in, the phrase locks together and turns, like meshed gears.

It’s not easy to hear both phrases separately, but together they build a hypnotic yet disquieting throb. Like a vortex, into which we’re being sucked:

0.33-0.36   Isolated section   


It’s worth listening to those compact six seconds, until you can distinguish the phrase in each of the four instruments:

0.27-0.33   Shostakovich Quartet   



The First Minute

When you’ve got the hang of that, let’s listen to the first minute of this movement, and see how many more times you can spot this phrase:

Whole lot   


How many times did you hear it?

Let’s go over it, and see:

Whole lot  

  • 00.27     Here are the first 8 times it is used, rapidly flung up and down the strings
  • 00.30     Here the first violin repeats the phrase 3 times, as does the 2nd violin. Total: 6 times
  • 00.44     Twice in the first violin, fast.
  • 00.45     Again twice in the first violin.
  • 00.49     Twice in the cello.
  • 00.53     Six rapid repeats in the first violin, joined just after by the same (lower an octave) in the second violins.

That’s 32 uses of the phrase in as many seconds.


What is happening here? Why is Shostakovich repeating this four note phrase? And not just here, but in a different movement of this quartet. In fact in many other works by the composer. Why is it so important?

To understand why we have to take a quick diversion into the writing of music, a system we call notation.



First Notes

Miser.Arraiolos.Liv. B-4aTracing back the history of the writing of music takes us back to our dark-aga monks (we first met in Harmony). Intoning prayer through the use of song, this simple style is known as plainchant.

Much learning by rote was required. So some time between 800 and 900 AD, monks and scribes began to add marks above the words  indicating if the tune was supposed to go up or down. It was an aid, to help memorise the melody.

Soon, more detail was added to the marks. Staves (horizontal lines across the page) were used to indicate the relative pitch of the notes, a more accurate and exact indication of how high or low a note should sound. And different shaped blobs meant notes of different duration.


Next came bar lines. These vertical lines divide up the staves, and represent a time axis for the music, and therefore the music’s beat. By around 1200 AD, musical notation, in the sense we understand it today, had pretty much been established.


By Perotin


This had a profound effect on music. You might compare it to the invention of writing on Literature. It transformed what was a social and cultural activity into an art-form.

It is only when you fix notes onto a page that the song can begin to change. Before the invention of notation, music was intoned repetitiously. That’s the only way our dark-age monks could remember it. Sing – repeat – sing – repeat…

The invention of notation meant much less time memorising, and more time for being creative.


More importantly still, composers now had the means to record their musical thoughts, and pass them on people in different places or even different times.

It’s no coincidence that the first great early composers, like Perotin or Hildegard von Bingen, emerged immediately after notation had become codified. It was a period of high musical invention after what had been centuries of slow and steady development.



Notes & Letters

So what has all this to do with Shostakovich, and our 4-note motif? To understand this, we have to sit before a piano keyboard:


We divide our musical scale – our octave – between eight notes (as discussed in ( Beethoven 4). But more importantly, in musical notation, we give a letter to each of these seven notes. Those seven letters go from A through to G, before repeating again at the A, at the next octave up.

120px-Music-flat TITLE

But what about the black notes? If we look at the keyboard above, we can see there are black notes, as well as the white ones named by letters. The entire musical octave is in fact divided into 12 notes, when we count black keys as well as white.

120px-Music-sharp TITLE

Those 5 black keys are known as sharps or flats, depending on whether you’re travelling up or down. And we don’t give those notes different letter names. Rather we define them through the use of  a sharp sign (#) or a flat one (b).

Sharp (or ‘#’) means up, and flat (or ‘b’) down. Which mean black notes can have different letters. So the black note between D and E can be termed D sharp (D#) or E flat (Eb).


And that Eb is important for understanding our DSCG motif.



DSCH explained

Shostakovich Quartet, 20′ in  



When we can translate music into letters, we have the opportunity to write in code, to use a musical form of cryptology.

Firstly take the four notes of our DSCH motif: they are in turn D-Eb-C-B.


However, German musical notation works differently from English. The flat (‘b’) is replaced by ‘es’ or ‘s’. And the note ‘B’ (for reasons that are not entirely known) is replaced with the letter ‘H’.

And so, when we write this D-Eb-C-B phrase in German, we get D-Es-C-H.

Replace the ‘Es’ with its phonetic ‘S’, and you have D-S-C-H. Or Dimitri SCHostakovich.

It’s not like a signature. It is one.



Signature Tune

B-A-C-H  fugue  

Shostakovich was by no means the first composer to embed his name into his music.

More than 200 years earlier, J S Bach used what is now known as the Bach Motif, most famously in the Art of Fugue. This four note sequence, comprising notes Bb-A-C-B, spell in German musical notation the notes B-A-C-H.

This same musical sequence was alluded to by a succession of composers, as a nod to the great master. What you are hearing now isn’t Bach himself, but a Schumann fugue composed a century later, and based on the B-A-C-H motif.


Shostakovich Quartet no 8 2nd movement   

So is this a way for Shostakovich to sign his work? Like those cameos by Alfred Hitchcock in his own movies?

If that’s the case, why are there so many uses of the DSCH phrase? So quickly? Is this more like spray-canned initials on a wall??

To understand this work, we need like detectives to delve into all the background evidence behind its composition. For there is a lot contained in these brief two minutes of music, many stories that we will unfold in the coming chapters.


Next we turn to the harmonic language of this piece, where we will begin to hear more of the many voices contained in this short flurry of notes.