From Mozart to Mahler - A Listening Guide to Classical Music
Unlike today's grand rift between classical and popular music, in the 19th century classical music was popular music.Skip to next paragraph
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Nearly everyone with any breeding played an instrument, and frequent soirees - musical parties - provided ample opportunity for amateur musicmakers to have their bit of spotlight and composers to have their works performed again and again.
In modern times, however, classical music has become stereotyped as a rarified art form only for the elite and the highly knowledgeable. Those not knowing their Mozart from their Mahler are often too intimidated to venture into the concert hall, despite continuing efforts of orchestras and performers around the world to make the art form more accessible. Outreach programs range from family concerts and preconcert talks to special food and music-subscription packages designed with "singles" in mind.
But if you stop to think about it, classical music is all around us - as background for commercials, in films, on elevators - and is perhaps more accessible than we might think. Music of any style, after all, is a form of entertainment. And classical music especially has the power to move the soul and charge the spirit, to rouse as well as comfort. Like gourmet food, one can appreciate it without fully understanding the intricacies of its preparation.
But "a little knowledge can go a long way," and a basic foundation can help empower a listener to greater appreciation and understanding.
Scads of books have been written on the subject (see selected list, left), and with a little demystification, classical music can come to be seen as quite approachable, even (dare I say it) fun.
Here are some basics that may prove helpful as a guide into unfamiliar waters. Classical music's powerful adventure is as close as the nearest concert hall, classical radio station, or record store.
An 'exact' art form
First of all, the term "classical" music is used in two different ways.
Most specifically, it is an era of music defining the second half of the 18th century. But it is more commonly used to connote the music from the Western Hemisphere written within the past few hundred years that is generally found in the concert hall, sung or played by orchestral instruments, guitar, or keyboards.
Conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein called it "exact" music, implying that is usually written by a composer and intended to be played in a very specific way, interpretive differences aside. One way to look at it is music that is "classic," a genre with enduring appeal throughout the ages despite changing musical tides.
Keys, chords, and harmony
The majority of classical music is written in a "key" (even if the key changes a lot in the course of a piece). This means that the music relates to a central pitch, often beginning and "cadencing" (ending, think of a period) with that sense of center.
The "melody" is the tune (not all music has one of these) and the "harmony" is the arrangement of the other notes, usually underneath the tune, creating a sense of dimension and fullness.
A "chord" creates harmony by outlining several notes played at once. The "theme" is an important musical phrase or idea (it's not always melodic), and "counterpoint" (Bach was famous for this) is when two or more themes set up shop all at once. A "fugue" is a kind of counterpoint in which a theme has sequential entrances, thereby creating counterpoint with itself.
In the majority of Western music, a theme is established near the beginning of a piece (think of the "short-short-short-long" sequence opening Beethoven's Fifth Symphony) and then developed.
Part of the fun of listening to classical music is recognizing how those themes come in and out of a musical texture, hearing the many ways composers play with variations in pitch, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, and instrumentation.