Bela Bartok’s Mikrokosmos 1 is a book you can pick up and start playing from if you’ve never touched a note on the piano in your life. All you need is a basic understanding of how to read basic notes, basic rhythms, and what the letters on the keys are. If you’re lost on any of these topics, check out the videos below:
Introduction to Note Reading – what the keys are on the piano, and how to read them
Introduction to Rhythm – whole note, half note, quarter note and time signatures (plus PDF exercises)
Sheet music for Mikrokosmos 1
Note: imslp.org has Mikrokosmos available online, but it’s only legal to access in certain countries – Canada, China, Japan, and South Korea, to name a few, but NOT USA. Always observe your country’s copyright laws, and consider purchasing the book (at the bottom of the page) if you like it!
And with that in mind, let’s get started!
1 – 6: Six Unison Melodies
This is a great introductory exercise in parallel motion (hands playing the same notes in the same direction). It’s slow, straight-forward, and all based in a C 5-finger scale.
Still in a C 5-finger scale, this one has more twists and turns, and is a little faster-paced given the usage of quarter notes – but all the notes move stepwise (no leaps), and continue parallel motion.
Now we switch over to A minor pentascale (penta = 5, as in 5 fingers). This introduces two new notes in each hand to get busy reading, which shouldn’t be a problem considering this tune still moves in simple, stepwise parallel motion.
Enter the D minor pentascale. This exercise sees more of the same – parallel motion and stepwise notes – but in a different spot on the music staff, so you can practice reading a different set of notes.
This set of 5 notes isn’t based on any regular pentascale, but rather a modal scale (a whole other ball-park we won’t get into today). All you need to know is that is sounds creepy and dissonant. Since it starts on B and ends on F, it’s yet another spot on the staff to practice reading.
This exercise sees two changes. First of all is a slightly quicker tempo (from 96 to 104), and it involves not starting on finger #1 – this time, we’re starting on finger #2. Be sure to play through the little guide above the piece to get your fingers coordinated. The point of this is to get your fingers used to starting in different spots, and to avoid developing any bad habits, like “finger 1 means C”.
Also at a slightly quicker tempo, this is a simple exercise, with the addition of a quarter rest. Be sure to lift the sound fully for this rest, and that your fingers aren’t dragging over the sound from the previous bar. This rest upsets the flow of the piece and creates more excitement. Master it here, so when you see more difficult rests in the future, you aren’t completely lost.
7. Dotted notes
Our first piece with a dotted half note (worth three beats), and the half rest. Just like in the above exercise, make sure you’re completely lifting the sound during the rests. No lazy fingers! Be diligent with counting, and these dotted half notes should pose no problem at all.
This exercise is titled “repetition” because, you guessed it, it involves playing repeated notes. It also includes a key signature, which is that sharp you see hovering at the beginning of each line. This sharp is on the F line, which means every time you get to an F in your music, you must play it as an F sharp. Also be careful – halfway through, your hands must shift position by one note – watch the finger numbers and you’ll be good to go.
Syncopation just means an interruption of the regular flow of beats. So the rhythm is a little more unusual, more exciting. You’ll see this every time the tied note carries over the bar line – usually, we press a note on beat #1, but to spice things up, some bars don’t see a note pressed until the second beat. Traditionally, the second beat is much weaker than the first beat, so to ignore the first beat in favor of the second is syncopation.
10. With alternate hands
Finally our hands get to go rouge and play separately! The way this piece is composed, it’s almost like a game of tag – one hand ends, and the other begins – with the right hand being a complete copycat of the left. Note the single flat in the key signature, hovering on the B line – any time you encounter a B, be sure to play it flat. This is also the first exercise in a ¾ time signature, so watch out that you’re not hesitating at the bar lines in memory of 4/4.
11. Parallel motion
Yes, all this time we’ve been playing parallel motion. The difference here is that now you start on different notes in each hand. This creates harmony – throughout the entire piece, the notes are spaced in thirds (F and A as the starting notes), which is a very common and very simple way to harmonize a melody.
In this piece, “Reflection” simply means “contrary motion”, where your hands travel in opposite directions. The nice thing about contrary motion playing, you’ll notice, is that you’re always using the same finger numbers – when RH finger 2 plays, LH finger 2 plays, and so on. The tempo might not seem faster at 100, but the denominator has changed – the tempo is 100 in half beats (200 in quarter beats). So pick up the pace!
Don’t be afraid of the time signature change near the end. As long as you’re counting, it’s nothing to worry about.
13. Change of position
In ways, this exercise is a bit of a breather. The notes move in our familiar parallel motion style, and the movements aren’t challenging – the big hurdle in this one is to switch hand positions several times without faltering and losing the rhythm.
14. Question and answer
This piece is a slightly more difficult version of #13, with a major songwriting rule thrown in there for good measure – the question/answer format. Notice that the first phrase ends in a rise of notes (F-G-A), just like a question, while the second phrase ends in descending notes (F-E-D), which creates an “answer” sound (just think about how you talk – your voice rises when you ask questions). Not only that, but when we’re playing in D pentascale, “D” is our “home” note, so a musical answer will land on a “D”.
Notice how the third and fourth phrases also follow this question-answer format – this is an unbelievably common songwriting technique and you’ll see it pop up again and again.
15. Village Song
Just an amped up version of previous exercises – changing hand positions (with very little turnaround time between measures 10-11, so be careful), with an F sharp in the key signature for good measure.
16. Parallel motion with change of position
Again, an amped up combo of techniques you’ve already been practicing. This one combines the shifting hand positions with the parallel motion harmony, which moves in thirds for the entire piece just like #11.
17. Contrary motion
This contrary motion exercise, as you might expect, is more difficult than #12. What makes this a challenge is the sharps – one hand will be playing a sharp, while the other hand plays a regular white key. This involves more coordination than you might think, as the tendency will be for your hands to completely copy each other. Also, you’ve still gotta contend with changing hand positions, so there’s that.
Four unison melodies
Our first piece with a leap! A leap to the interval of a fourth, even. If you remember the Question and Answer format discussed in #14, you’ll notice this principle being repeated in full force.
Here we go – more leaping notes. You’ll notice this piece is full of leaps to a third (for example, E – C in the first measure). Watch for these leaps carefully as you’ll play. You’ll notice that stepwise motion always travels from a line to a space, or a space to a line – whereas a leap of a third is always a space to a space, or a line to a line.
This one here is a big interval grab bag. First you’ve got a lot of fourths, then a fifth to spice things up, and some thirds for good measure – really watch that your note reading is accurate.
Accents! Those wacky triangles mean to play the note with more emphasis (ie louder). They give the rhythm more drive and excitement. Also, this piece uses a combination of parallel motion and hands-separate imitation, making this one possibly the most difficult so far.
Stay tuned for the next half of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos 1!