What is a Waltz? Characteristics of Waltz Music

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I wanted to talk about the Waltz, a very famous and slightly modern-ish dance and genre (if you consider the 1800s – 1900s modern).

We’ll talk about some of the characteristics of waltz music, and listen to famous examples on both the piano and orchestra. My hope is that this will give you a deeper understanding of this genre, so that when we learn a waltz next week, you’ll already have a good idea of how to interpret it.


Why Learn about Waltzes?

Like any of the other genre videos on this website (such as this one on the Concerto), having a better understanding of the dance will give you a better understanding of how to play it.

When many people learn the piano, they simply regurgitate notes and keys. The notes and keys might sound good, but they don’t have any real meaning to them, aside from sounding pleasant.

Learning the building blocks of music – the dances, the forms, the composers – allows you to see beyond just the notes on a page. It helps you see why the notes are there in the first place. It adds more depth to your playing, and to your understanding.

This degree of detail that I love to teach doesn’t guarantee instant success – you won’t be doing Beethoven Sonatas in two years. You will, however, understand why you’re playing what you’re playing, so that when you get to those Sonatas, they will be far more meaningful to you.

What is a waltz?

So what is a waltz? It was both a dance and a song form popular in the Romantic Era and beyond, especially in Vienna, one of the leading musical centres in Europe.

Though many waltzes were written to be danced to, some composers chose instead to compose masterpieces simply meant to be listened to, like Chopin’s Minute Waltz, which would be virtually impossible to dance to.

So the least you need to know is this: Waltzes were at their height of popularity in the 1800s and 1900s, and served both as music for dancing, and music for listening.

Characteristics of Waltz Music

Waltzes were composed in triple meter, usually ¾ time, and have an mm-BAP-BAP rhythm with one chord per bar.

Generally, a low bass note is played for the first beat, and the other two beats fill out the chord a little higher on the piano. You’ve probably heard this type of pattern before – even modern musicians will occasionally use it, like Adele in her track First Love.

Composition Tip:

If you have any interest whatsoever in songwriting, waltz form is pretty straightforward to write in. You just need a basic understanding of chords – even something as simple as the “Heart and Soul” chord progression can serve as a great launching point into writing your own waltz.

The chord progression is as follows:

I – vi – IV – V

So for example, the Roman numeral I (1) represents the first chord of a scale.

Let’s use C scale, since it’s easy – no sharps or flats! The I chord in C scale would be C major chord:

C E G

Then, the Roman numeral vi (6) represents the 6th chord in the scale: in this case, A. But the lower-case Roman numeral means it’s played as a minor. A minor:

A C E

Next, IV (4) would mean the fourth note in the scale – F major.

F A C

Finally, V (5) represents the 5th note in the scale – G major.

G B D

So when you put that chord progression together, you get:

C – Am – F – G

To play that as a waltz, you simply would play a bass C, followed by two higher C chords. Then a bass A, and two higher Am chords. So on. The important part is to keep a steady rhythm.

Waltzes as a Dance

Waltzes as a dance were considered rather risqué at the time, since it was a very close and intimate couples dance.

So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced on the respectable classes of society by the civil examples of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.
-The times of London, 1816

Into every generation, a dance that worries proper folk is born.

Casting old pretenses aside, we now consider the dance was very smooth and elegant (how the times have changed!). So too is the music, with a bar every 70 beats or so, and flowing, graceful melodies.

This quote by Alfred De Musset explains the dance of the Waltz far better than I ever could, and boy does it sound steamy:

“As soon as we entered I plunged into the giddy whirl of the waltz. That delightful exercise has always been dear to me; I know of nothing more beautiful, more worthy of a beautiful woman and a young man; all dances compared with the waltz are but insipid conventions or pretexts for insignificant converse. It is truly to possess a woman, in a certain sense, to hold her for a half hour in your arms, and to draw her on in the dance, palpitating in spite of herself, in such a way that it can not be positively asserted whether she is being protected or seduced. Some deliver themselves up to the pleasure with such modest voluptuousness, with such sweet and pure abandon, that one does not know whether he experiences desire or fear, and whether, if pressed to the heart, they would faint or break in pieces like the rose. Germany, where that dance was invented, is surely the land of love.”
-Alfred De Musset

The Blue Danube Waltz

One of the most famous waltzes of all time is the Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss.

This orchestral waltz has been played in everything from:

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Hannibal
  • The Simpsons
  • Sherlock
  • Titanic

…and literally hundreds of others. If you haven’t heard it, you’ve been living under a rock.


Main theme begins at 1:40

If you live in Austria, you’ve grown up with this song. As an unofficial Austrian anthem of sorts, it’s played right at midnight on New Year on TV and radio stations all across the country.

Interestingly, this waltz wasn’t a wild success when it was released – probably in part because the original was a choral version, meaning it had lyrics and was sung. When Strauss re-did the waltz as an orchestra-only version, it was much better received.

The “mm-BAP-BAP” (not to be confused with mmm-BOP) character that threads through all waltzes is heard in the Blue Danube Waltz, though it’s a little subtle.

Take a listen to the waltz and see if you can hear the 1 – 2 – 3 1 – 2 – 3 rhythm throughout. The first beat comes through strongly, while beat 2 and 3 are light.

Waltzes by Brahms


Among the most famous composers of waltzes for the piano are Johannes Brahms and Frederic Chopin.

Brahms didn’t write many waltzes, but he really loved them (he even lamented that he didn’t write the Blue Danube Waltz himself). One of his most well-known waltzes is the one in Ab major, op. 39, no. 15, which has a very romantic, sentimental flavour.

As a piano-only piece, it is much easier to hear the “bottom – top – top” rhythm of the waltz. You can see it too, by watching Evgeny Kissin’s hands (the left hand carries our waltz chord pattern).

I love Kissin’s take on tender, sentimental piano pieces. And if you enjoy it when piano players make all manner of facial expressions while playing, you will enjoy his performance. 🙂

Brahms isn’t known for wildly innovative and daring music, but that’s okay. Not every musician has to push the envelope. Some composers specialize in making the existing envelope even more awesome.

Waltzes by Chopin


One of my favorite waltzes is Chopin’s Waltz in C# minor, op. 64 no. 2. Take a quick listen to this popular tune. Listen for that distinct “bass-top-top” sound that is characteristic of waltzes, and try to decide if Chopin wrote the kind of waltzes that were meant to be danced to, or listened to.


Theme begins at 0:45

What answer did you come up with?

Chopin definitely wrote the listening sort of waltzes (as opposed to the dancing sort). I suppose you could try to dance to this waltz, but you’d probably be quite breathless after the theme!

Isn’t it a haunting tune? I’m partial to this one because I learned it for one of my RCM exams, but it was one of those pieces that I loved for years and always aspired to.

I want to show you one more Chopin waltz (this part isn’t on the PianoTV video!), just because I’m such a fan of them. We’ve already looked at two – at the beginning of this post, I mentioned the “Minute Waltz”, and now we’ve looked at his Waltz in C# Minor.

Now let’s look at his Grand Valse Brilliante!

Isn’t it great? It’s so catchy, and so bright and exciting. And despite the crazy-fast tempo, you can still hear/see the “bass-top-top” pattern of the waltz.

Valentina Lisitza is always a favorite of mine – her fingers are like liquid. Definitely subscribe to her on YouTube if you haven’t already! In addition to the top-notch playing, her videos are very well-produced.

And if you want to learn more about the main man Chopin himself, definitely check out The Life and Times of Chopin.

“The waltz can be sad and at the same time uplifting. You have to see life from both sides, and the waltz encapsulates that. If you’re in my audience you give yourself to me and the waltz will grab you.”
-Andre Rieu

Tchaikovsky – Sleeping Beauty Waltz

Finally, we’ll conclude this discussion on waltzes by listening to one of Tchaikovsky’s famous orchestral ones.

This one is a waltz from the ballet “Sleeping Beauty”. You’ve almost definitely heard this as a Disney adaptation from the movie Sleeping Beauty, titled “Once upon a Dream.”

Even though this is an orchestral waltz, you should still be able to hear that mm-BAP-BAP character we’ve been talking about.

In fact, if you take nothing else away from this video, I want you to remember the feel of the waltz – the “bass-top-top” rhythm that is found in the left hand 99% of the time.


Theme begins at 0:35

Fun fact: Tchaikovsky’s iteration of Sleeping Beauty was originally a ballet. It was first performed in 1890, and Tchaikovsky wrote all of the music for it. This was a hugely long ballet, lasting for nearly 4 hours (including intermissions, thankfully).

Even further back, most of you are probably already familiar with fairy tales written by the Grimm brothers – stories that are quite dark, many of which Disney has adapted (in a far less dark way).

In Tchaikovsky’s version of Sleeping Beauty, as well as Disney’s version, the princess is named Aurora. But the story of Sleeping Beauty goes back as far as the 1300s, and she’s had several different names over the past 700+ years.

What is a Waltz?

As I mentioned earlier, these are the key takeaways from this discussion on waltzes:

  • The time signature of a waltz is 3/4
  • In piano, the left hand does a “bass-top-top” pattern
  • In orchestra waltzes, this “bass-top-top” pattern can still be heard, but generally spread out across multiple instruments.
  • Waltzes range in tempo from moderate (dancing speed) to quite fast and lively (instrumental speed)
  • Some of the best and most memorable piano waltzes were composed by Chopin and Brahms.

Whether you’ve already learned some waltzes on the piano or not, hopefully this video/blog post on “What is a Waltz” has helped you out, and given you a deeper understanding of the form.

And when you plunk that sheet music on your music stand, you’ll see the “mm-BAP-BAP” rhythm in the left hand, and you’ll have to try hard not to think of Hanson. 

Conclusion

And that concludes our discussion on the characteristics of waltz music. This is in no way an exhaustive list, so if you have a favourite waltz that I happened to skip, please let me know in the comments!

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.

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