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Leonard Bernstein: ‘Something’s Coming’ from West Side Story (1958)

Updated on September 21, 2016

Leonard Bernstein: 'Something's Coming' from West Side Story (1958)

Revision notes for the Edexcel GCSE Scheme of work

The American musical West Side Story was written in 1957. Leonard Bernstein composed the music and Stephen Sondheim came up with the lyrics. It's a musical with a jazzy feel, taken from Shakespeare's play 'Romeo and Juliet' and set in New York during the 20th century using gang rivalry instead of family rivalry as seen in Romeo and Juliet.

The Sharks from Puerto Rico and the Jets from New York are the 2 gangs in the story. Tony and Maria meet at a dance and fall for each other, although they are from opposing gangs - which eventually ends in their murders

Because of its tragic tone, technical musical style and innovative extended dance sequences, the musical was a massive hit! The accompanying music has elements of many genres of music, such as opera, jazz and Latin American.

The first show was on Broadway and subsequently made into a highly successful film in 1961. Since then the show has been performed many times by theatre companies and schools all over the world.

History of tritones - used to be called "the Devil in music" and has been applied to the interval from at least the early 18th century. During the Middle Ages, the interval was banned in religious music as it was seen as a 'call to the devil' due to its suspicious dissonance. Now, however, it is used more commonly, and is used very well in 'The Simpsons" theme tune (basically the bit at the start of the intro music, where it goes "The" "Simp-" "sons" using 3 chords for each part of the words - the "Simp-" part is the bit with the tritone... i believe a C chord tritone... but dont hold me to that!).

Note from the editor:

I think this piece is one of the few in the set works that, if you don't understand it well enough, you can easily play it and it will help. Try it! Even on a keyboard or piano, it's easy enough, and once you start, you'll start seeing tritones and jazzy blue notes everywhere! But remember to stop once in a while and go back to revision...

Key Features

Musical – short for musical theatre, a lighter 20th century version of opera with more talking and dancing

Orchestration in ‘west side story’

+ Obvious ones: Wind, brass and strings

- Not so obvious: saxophones, piano, electric guitar, mandolin, Celeste

- Lots of percussion! Timpani, drum kit, glockenspiel and police whistle

- Maracas, guiro, castanets are all used to reflect the background of the Puerto Rican gang

Harmony in ‘west side story’

- Tritones: intervals of 3 whole tones apart (C-F#, G-C#) (augmented 4th or diminished 5th)


What is it?

MAD T-SHIRT is a tip for remembering musical features by going through 9 key parts of any musical piece.

They are:

Melody, Articulation, Dynamics, Texture, Structure, Harmony (tonality), Instrumentation, Rhythm, Tempo


Something's Coming


- Tritone motif used - G# & D, adds foreshadowing to the song, even though the song is a happy one

- Extensive use of short riffs - adding anticipation - and long notes, adding to the hopeful effect


- Word pronunciation and articulation in [p] sections is really defined, adding to anticipation


- starts off each new section with [p] dynamics to add suspense and a feel of anticipation


- the texture is very thick with all of the instruments, which adds a richer harmony, but also helps the vocals stand out as just one solo line

- homophonic/ melody and accompaniment


- Intro, section A, section B, section B₁, section A₁, outro

- Use of short riffs with long notes

Harmony (tonality)

- jazz influences - chords have blue notes added to create a swing jazzy feel, reflecting the happy up beat feel of the song

- Bitonal in places - section A is in D major, section B modulates to C major


- Solo song

- Extended theatrical orchestra (about 30 in total): 5 woodwind, 2 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, 7 violins, 4 cellos, 2 double basses, electric guitar, 2 percussionists, piano, drum kit


- Use of syncopation comes from its Latin American roots, and ultimately, the African roots

- Use of push rhythms create an offbeat, anticipated feel to the song

- Triplets give the piece a lazy feel


- Fast tempo - 176 bpm


- For all those words you didn't understand and more! -

- Bebop jazz – a type of jazz with complex harmonies and fast syncopated rhythms

- ‘Blue’ notes – flattened 3rds, 7ths and sometimes 5ths of a major scale

- ‘Push’ rhythms – where the singer anticipates the note and plays a note before the main note

- Tritone – a chord played with the diminished 5th or augmented 4th (C-E-F#), normally resolving soon after

- Riff – short repeated phase, modern name for ostinato

- Word painting – the notes reflecting the tone or feel or lyrics of a piece

- Accent – emphasis on a note or chord, telling the player to play louder or with more force

- Bitonal – characterised by the simultaneous use of two different keys in one composition

- Lyrical – suitable for, or suggesting the idea of a song

- Aria – a solo vocal piece with instrumental accompaniment, like operas or ‘and the Glory’, showing the characters mood

Listen - Get the track!

See if you can apply what you've just learnt!


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