On a whim in January 2014, I started listening to a classical music radio station in my car. Some of the music was nice, but I just didn't "get" what classical music is all about.
To me, classical music always sounded like notes rapidly wandering up and down all over the place, seemingly at random. I always wondered, when people love classical music, what are they hearing that I'm not hearing? What do they "get" that I'm not getting?
I began reading books and articles and listening to a lot of classical music in order to learn all I can, and this website is my way of capturing what I've been learning.
An Analogy to Help You Understand Classical Music
Think about the movies that you've seen. There's a story line which is developed throughout the movie, with a main plot and usually some sub-plots. The opening scenes set the stage for the story, and throughout the movie there might be funny parts, and sad parts, and happy parts, and angry parts, and exciting action sequences, and dramatic moments, plus a conclusion which wraps everything up. In every scene, the moviemakers dress the actors and actresses in clothes which are appropriate for the scene, and the location and props are appropriate for the scene, and so on.
Now, take all of that and do it
with music. In a nutshell, this is what many classical music pieces are all about. It was eye-opening for me when I first heard this analogy.
In a classical music piece, the composer usually has a "theme" (a short melody) which he or she explores and develops throughout the piece, similar to the plot development in a movie. Often there are secondary themes which are interwoven and developed throughout the piece, similar to the sub-plots in a movie. A classical music piece usually starts with an opening sequence to set the stage, and there might be funny parts, and sad parts, and happy parts, and angry parts, and exciting action sequences, and dramatic moments, plus a conclusion which wraps everything up. In each part of the piece, the composer uses rhythm and melody and harmony and "tone color" (i.e. the various sounds that the instruments can make), with a quick or slow tempo, and loud or soft sounds, to dress the scene in the appropriate way for whatever the composer is trying to say in each section of the piece.
The classical music composer weaves together intricate melodies and harmonies, using specific instruments for specific purposes, developing and exploring the themes over the course of the entire piece (which can last for 45 minutes or more). This means that we must listen to classical music in a different way than we listen to rock songs, blues songs, pop songs, or country songs. It's important to take an "active listening" approach, because there's a lot going on in a classical music piece which we'll miss if we don't know what to listen for.
An Overview of What to Listen For
There have been several distinct periods in the history of classical music, and each period had its own formulas and structures and forms which were popular at the time. Composers experimented (and continue to experiment) with these musical forms and structures in different ways. When we know who composed a piece, and in what period it was composed, and what was happening in the composer's life and world at the time, and so on, these things can help us "get" what's going on in the piece. This is why live symphony concerts usually have programs (booklets) which describe the background of each piece that will be performed.
A composer usually starts with a "theme" (a musical idea), such as a simple melody or a simple rhythm. He examines this theme and determines what feelings it expresses, and thinks about how loudly or softly it should be played, and so on. Then he tries to find other themes which fit well (or contrast well) with the one he has chosen for the piece, and he looks for ways to bridge from one theme to another. He fits all of these musical ideas together, interweaving the initial theme and the secondary themes, and taking the themes apart and reconstructing them in different ways. While doing this, he also allows opportunities for the performers to show off their talents, while staying within the framework or structure which he has chosen for the piece (e.g. sonata form, rondo form, etc., which we'll examine later). The composition becomes an intricate tapestry of musical ideas that express various feelings at various times, in which everything fits neatly together as a whole and contains a thread of an idea which winds its way throughout the piece. These are some of the things we should be listening for, and we'll examine them in more detail later.
Classical music pieces might sound like notes rapidly wandering up and down all over the place, seemingly at random. However, behind the scenes there's actually an amazing amount of structure, with intricate melodies and harmonies interwoven together with great care and thought. This requires listening in an active way and paying close attention to what's going on in a piece in order to appreciate it (and possibly even enjoy it).
So in order to "get" classical music, it's important to learn what to listen for and then do a lot of listening to classical music.
An Overview of What You'll Learn Here
The navigation bar on the left contains links to the following pages:
Structures and Forms
- This page describes some of the well-accepted "forms" which composers use as a structure or framework for their music, with YouTube examples of the forms. Knowing more about these forms, and which forms are being used in a piece of classical music, will enable you to better understand and appreciate the piece.
- This page shows the instruments which are typically used in a modern orchestra, with references for further reading. Artists have materials that they work with, such as a painter who uses different types of paints and colors and brushes and brush strokes to paint on a canvas. For composers, the classical music forms are similar to the canvas that a painter would use, and the materials that a composer works with are rhythm and melody and harmony and tone color (i.e. the various sounds that the instruments can make). A composer chooses specific instruments for their specific qualities in order to express whatever emotion, mood, etc., that he or she is trying to convey. Knowing more about the instruments used in a piece can help you better understand and appreciate the piece.
- This page provides definitions for the terminology that you're likely to encounter when you hear about classical music.
Periods in Western Classical Music History
- Western classical music (music that was composed in Europe or America) has gone through several distinct periods: Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and so on. Each period is described in a separate page (listed in the navigation bar on the left), along with some of the composers of that period and some YouTube videos of each composer's works. Composers are influenced by any number of things, such as the period they're living in, and the composers who came before them, and events in the world around them, and events in their own lives. For example, Beethoven published his first composition at age 13, and he published his last compositions at age 55 after he had gone deaf, so his early and late compositions were influenced by his age and experience and life events. Knowing when a piece was composed, and in which period it was composed, and who composed it, and what was going on in the composer's life and world at the time, etc., can help you better understand and appreciate the piece.
June 24, 2014 - New website.