Beginner's Guide

Listening to Classical Music

It’s not that people don’t like classical music. It’s that they don’t have the chance to understand and to experience it.

– Gustavo Dudamel

I have spent over twenty years teaching students in high school and continuing education classes about music history. Most students enter my classes knowing little about music, and I have gained much experience helping those who are new to classical music — the tyros, I call them — learn to understand and enjoy what they are hearing. To help students in my classes I have come up with five suggestions for learning to enjoy classical music.

Five Steps Toward Understanding and Enjoying Classical Music

1. Listen to a piece of music several times.
If I placed only one suggestion on my list, this would be it. The more you listen to a great piece of music, the more you will understand it, and the more you understand it, the more you will enjoy it. It’s almost that simple.

Unlike most movies or books, a piece of classical music gets better if you have experienced it numerous times. As much as you might enjoy watching a film like
The Shawshank Redemption, you probably don’t need to repeat the experience dozens of times. Even the greatest films have their limits.

But that is generally not true of great music. If you only listen to Beethoven's
Fifth Symphony once, you might not be able to grasp the narrative of each movement and how the movements relate to each other. If you listen to the symphony several times, however, you should begin to understand the narrative, and it should eventually begin affecting you intellectually and emotionally.

Think about it. A rock group's biggest ovation at a concert most likely comes from a song the audience knows well, not from a song the audience has never heard. The same is true with classical music. You are most likely to enjoy the pieces you know best. With good music, familiarity does not breed contempt, it breeds adulation.

The desire to hear a great piece of music several times is not limited to classical music. It is also true of so-called popular music. I assume most Beatles fans enjoy the song “Let It Be.” Even if those who like the song have heard it a hundred times, they could probably listen to it again. A good song never grows old.
The same is true of classical music, although classical music differs from pop music in a significant way — most pop songs are easier to understand than classical music. Whether a pop song is about unrequited love or some other version of “can’t get no satisfaction,” the music and message are generally understandable after only a few hearings, maybe even the first hearing.

Understanding classical music, however, usually takes a little more work. For one thing, a piece of classical music is generally longer, containing much more information and musical content. But if you give classical music the time it deserves and listen to a piece of music several times, the rewards will be tremendously satisfying. Music composed by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven has survived over two hundred years for a reason — it is great music. The music is too good not to enjoy, and repeated hearings will only enhance your enjoyment.

2. Put some time and effort into learning the terminology of music.
Again, enjoying classical music is different from enjoying a good movie. In most cases, you can understand a Hollywood film while possessing little or no knowledge of cinematic technique. Most films require no extra homework to figure them out.

A piece of classical music, on the other hand, requires a little work. Without knowing a few basic musical terms and the general outline of music history, a piece of classical music might not make sense, sounding like a series of random tones, some more pleasant than others. Classical music requires you to know the difference between a concerto, sonata, symphony, and symphonic poem. You need to know the characteristics of music from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras. And it takes a little effort to learn all this.

Before you can begin to understand Mozart’s
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, you should probably know the answer to a few questions. What is a symphony? How many movements are in a symphony? What are the expectations for each movement? What does it mean that the symphony is in a minor key? What did audiences expect from a symphony in Mozart’s time? Is it a "programmatic" symphony?

Mozart, Symphony No. 40, First Movement (New England Conservatory Youth Symphony)

If you don’t know the answers to those questions, you can still enjoy Mozart’s symphony, or at least parts of it. However, you will likely enjoy it much more if you listen with a little knowledge about what is happening in the music, as well as the symphony’s historical context.

If you know nothing about music and the task of learning so much history seems daunting, hang in there — your knowledge and enjoyment will grow exponentially. The more you learn, the more you will discover that new pieces of music are easier to understand. The more you learn about Mozart’s
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, for example, the easier it will be to understand his Symphony No. 41 in C major, as well as Haydn's symphonies. You will then have a frame of reference for understanding Beethoven and the innovations he brought to writing symphonies. You will also be on your way to a better understanding of the composers who followed Beethoven. It’s all related.

3. Be able to place a piece of music within its historical context.
All works of art are a product of the time and place of their creation. When you look at Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel you are not only observing the works of a great artist, you are paying a visit to the Italian Renaissance. Reading a book by Charles Dickens can take you back to Victorian England, and John Steinbeck can take you back to the Great Depression. Art and literature are like time machines that can transport you to a different world and help you better understand that world.

Music works the same way. Just as songs written by the Beatles can take you back to the 1960s, Bach’s music can teach you something about German culture in the early eighteenth century. Shostakovich’s music can teach you volumes about Stalinist Russia.

The more you know about history, the more you can understand the environment in which a piece of music was created, and the more you understand that environment, the more you can enrich your experience of listening to music.


4. Learn about the composer who created the music.
Some composers are best described as skilled craftspersons who may not have been concerned about putting their personal lives and philosophies into their music. Other composers, however, used music as a form of personal expression, and some of their compositions cannot be completely understood without an examination of their personal biographies. In either case, you will want to know something about the person who composed the music your are trying to understand.

Although a composer like Bach did not generally use music as a form of personal expression, knowing something about his biography can help you understand the context in which his music was created. For the last twenty-seven years of his life, Bach created music for several churches in Leipzig, Germany. Much of Bach’s music was therefore utilitarian, designed for performance in church. To understand Bach we should appreciate the degree to which his music glorifies God, not because he was a religious man (which he was), but because his job required him to create music for church services.

Beethoven, on the other hand, was one of the first significant composers to use music as a form of personal expression. The suffering he endured from loneliness and debilitating illness can be heard in some of his music. His Third Symphony can be heard as a testament to his personal heroism. His Fifth Symphony can be heard as an expression of the fate he confronted in losing his hearing. An understanding of Beethoven’s personal life enriches the experience of listening to his music.

Whether we are listening to Bach or Beethoven, a little biographical knowledge enhances the enjoyment of their music.

5. Learn to recognize how a piece of music is organized.
Just as a high school student writes an essay with an introduction, body, and conclusion or a haiku with three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, composers follow certain “forms” to give structure to their music. Understanding how to hear those forms is probably the most difficult of my five suggestions for learning how to understand and enjoy classical music. Nevertheless, learning to hear musical form is an essential element in taking your enjoyment of classical music to a higher level.

Listening to music with no knowledge of musical form is somewhat like attending a sporting event with no knowledge of the rules of the game. Imagine watching a football game and not even knowing what players must do to score points. The game would be a jumbled mess. The game is more fun if you simply knew that players are trying to move the ball ten yards in four downs with the ultimate goal of scoring a touchdown.

For those who are new to classical music, knowing how a piece of music is organized is similar to learning the rules of a sporting event. Suddenly, everything will begin to make sense. The music will have a goal — a “story” with a beginning, middle, and end — and deciphering that story can be great fun.

I hope my five suggestions will help the Classical Tyros reading this blog become connoisseurs of great music. After all, the journey that people take to understand classical music is a journey that is guaranteed to bring more beauty and pleasure into their lives — a journey worth taking, I'd say.

If you're looking for more to help you get started, here's three articles from
The Atlantic about how to appreciate classical music.

"The Secret to Enjoying Classical Music: It's Just Music"
"How to Listen to Classical Music, and Enjoy It"
"What Stephen Strasburg Has in Common With a Violinist"

A Beginner's Guide to Pentatonic Scales

Pentatonic (five-note) scales are ubiquitous in music. They have been heard since ancient times and form the basis of traditional Japanese, Chinese, and Celtic music. They are heard in blues and rock guitar solos for decades, and if you have heard “Amazing Grace,” written by John Newton in the eighteenth century, or “I Got Rhythm” and “Summertime,” written by George Gershwin in the twentieth century, you have heard music based on pentatonic scales.

To create a pentatonic scale, take the seven notes of a major scale (C – D – E – F – G – A – B) and remove the fourth and seventh notes (F and B). What’s left is a pentatonic scale (C – D – E – G – A).

Look closely at those five notes and notice how there are no half steps. This means you are less likely to hear discordant sounds in pentatonic melodies and harmonies. You are also less likely to hear a strong sense of the tonic, causing the music to have fewer, if any, tonal “punctuation” marks. If the timbre is not too harsh, pentatonic scales will provide you with benevolent melodies and pleasant harmonies.

As a guide to identifying the pentatonic sound in classical music I have embedded a video in which Bobby McFerrin demonstrates the “naturalness,” as well as the predictability, of the pentatonic scale.

After watching the video, listen to
The Girl with the Flaxen Hair and Arabesque #1 by Claude Debussy. Notice the use of the black keys on The Girl with the Flaxen Hair. If you play only the black keys on a piano, you are playing a pentatonic scale. Notice in both pieces how a pentatonic scale creates music that “flows,” music that has few moments of tonic rest and almost no discordant harmonies.

Enjoy, and don’t overlook the postscript after the

Bobby McFerrin at the 2009 World Science Festival

Debussy, The Girl with the Flaxen Hair (via

Debussy, Arabesque #1 (1888) (performed by Stephen Malinowski)

Postscript: Bobby McFerrin’s demonstration of a pentatonic scale was part of a discussion at the 2009 World Science Festival titled “Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus.” The discussion centered around the brain’s interaction with music, and focused on answering the following questions:
  • Is our response to music hard-wired or culturally determined?
  • Is the reaction to rhythm and melody universal or influenced by environment?
I have embedded the entire discussion below. It might be long, but it’s also enlightening and well worth the time.

"Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus," 2009 World Science Festival

A Beginner's Guide to Major and Minor Tonality

Should it matter to a listener whether a piece of music is composed in a major or minor key? If we find ourselves listening to Mozart's Symphony No. 41 in C major or Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, do we need to pay attention to the "major" and "minor" labels?

These questions were asked recently by a student in a lifelong learning class I was teaching titled "How to Listen to a Symphony." The questions were elementary, but consequential. Considering the sincerity of the questions, I wanted to follow Albert Einstein's maxim, "If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself." I hoped a six year old would be able to understand what I was about to say.

My answer was uncomplicated and direct: "Yes, it does matter."

It matters in the same way as deciding before going to the theater whether you want to see a comedy or tragedy. In most cases, the entire mood or tone of a piece of music is determined by whether it is composed in a major or minor key.

Here’s what the average listener with little or no understanding of the language of music needs to know: If a piece of music is composed in a major key it will generally sound bright, happy, sunny, cheerful, or joyful. A piece in a minor key will generally sound dark, sad, grave, sinister, or dramatic. A piece in a major key can sound delicate or light. A piece in a minor key can sound heavy or weighty.

Listen to the following pieces and note the differences.

Classical Music in a Major Key
Beethoven, Sonata No. 15 in D Major, Op. 28, "Pastoral," Fourth Movement

Classical Music in a Minor Key
Beethoven, Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, “Pathetique,” First Movement

Movie Music in a Major Key
Vangelis, "Theme from Chariots of Fire"

Movie Music in a Minor Key
John Barry, “James Bond 007 Theme Music”

Now, back to the pieces my student asked about in the first question.

Mozart, Symphony No. 41 in C major, First Movement

Mozart Symphony No. 40 G minor Symphony, First Movement

The German composer Paul Hindemith once said, "Tonality is a natural force, like gravity."
As I explain it to my students, the center of gravity in major tonality will likely pull you toward the "light" and in a minor tonality it will likely pull you toward the "dark."
May your days always end on a major tonality.

A Beginner's Guide to Melody

Defining "melody" is one of the least difficult tasks for a teacher explaining the elements of music to students who are new to classical music.

When listening to a piece of music we hear notes that are arranged both vertically and horizontally. By “vertical,” I am referring to the different notes that are played simultaneously. By “horizontal,” I am referring to the notes that are played one after another.

Melody is a successive arrangement of notes. We can therefore think of a melody as a musical "sentence." Just as we hear one word after another in a sentence, we hear one note after another in a melody. All told, melody, for most people, is the most recognizable element of music, the one element that most people hear first.

Here's one of the world’s most timeless melodies:

Mozart, Eine Kleine Nachtmusic, Fourth Movement

Some melodies are singable, conforming to the natural abilities of the human voice. If the singable melody is also memorable, the type that gets stuck in your head, we can generically call it a “tune.”
Here's a great tune from Beethoven.

Some melodies are not singable, as represented by this melody from "Mood Indigo."

Duke Ellington, "Mood Indigo," performed by the Clark Terry Quartet

Sometimes music provides a short series of notes rather than a complete melody. When a series of notes is too short to form a complete musical sentence, it's called a
motif. Sometimes a series of motifs can be used to complete a musical sentence and form a melody. Sometimes the motifs stand alone.
Here's one of the most well-known motifs in music history, a motif that stands alone as the primary theme of the music.

Symphony No. 5, First Movement, performed by the Canadian Brass

A piece of music generally presents a melody in one of three different ways.

1. Monophony: Music that provides a single melody with nothing else happening. The melody has no accompaniment.

Sanctus Lambertus, plainchant

2. Polyphony: Music that provides two or more melodies at the same time. Polyphony can get complicated, and the two ears that nature gave us might not be enough to hearing everything that’s going on.

Bach, “Little” Fugue in G Minor

3. Homophony: Music that provides a single melody with an accompaniment. Almost all pop music is homophonic and most people's ears are well-acquainted with homophony. Think of a singer strumming a guitar. The singer is most likely providing the melody and the guitar the accompaniment. That’s homophony.

The Beatles, Blackbird

There it is. Listening to classical music requires much more than identifying a melody and how it is being used. Nevertheless, I can think of no better place to begin a journey through music history than being able to recognize the melody in a piece of music.

Identifying "Great" Music

"Good" music is music that you enjoy, music that for a brief moment takes you away from your problems and makes you glad to be alive. It doesn't matter whether you are listening to Johannes Brahms, Chuck Berry, or Beyoncé — if the music makes you smile, tap your foot, dance, shed a tear, or reflect on the human condition, you are obligated to say nothing more than you enjoyed it.

The question is: when does music become more than something you simply enjoy? When does it become “great”?

Music, like all art, is a product of the world in which it is created, the creation of a person living at a certain time and place in history. I doubt that Johann Sebastian Bach composed music thinking about a world that would not exist until decades and centuries after he died, a world that he could not imagine. He was composing for the audiences — mostly church goers — of his time.

The fact that Bach's music still speaks to us almost three centuries after it was composed is what makes his music “great.”

Quite simply, great music is any music that has stood the test of time, any music that is still worth listening to long after the era of its creation has come to an end.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, for example, is not performed in concert halls today because it is a fascinating artifact from long ago; it survives because it is an entertaining and inspiring piece of music that works for modern audiences. Even though the Ninth Symphony was composed almost two centuries ago, it remains a timeless piece of music with a message that reaches far beyond the world in which it was created.

According to Mark Evan Bonds in
Music as Thought, European composers wrote 16,558 symphonies in the late-eighteenth century. Only a handful of those symphonies — mostly those composed by Haydn and Mozart — have stood the test of time and are able to strike home with modern audiences. Looking at this information we should ask ourselves an obvious question: why have so many of the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart survived while others have been forgotten? Why do some works endure while others are ignored?

In my opinion, a piece of music will survive for at least one of the following reasons:

1. It is the work of a highly skilled artist.
Modern audiences remain awestruck by Johann Sebastian Bach's musical genius. The complexity of the themes and harmonic progressions that he developed within well-defined musical forms and contrapuntal technique are still used to teach theory and performance to music majors. Bach may have died in 1750, but his music is immortal due to his extraordinary expertise as a composer.

2. It elevates the human spirit.
Listening to the organ with all stops pulled out at the conclusion of Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony or the brassy “Paradise” theme at the end of Mahler’s First Symphon
y can make audiences glad to be alive. Saint-Saëns and Mahler wanted audiences to feel an emotional rush when their symphonies were first performed in the nineteenth century, and audiences are still experiencing that rush in the twenty-first century.

3. It identifies an eternal truth about being human.
Although the song “Der Erlkönig” by Franz Schubert is almost two hundred years old, it remains a frightening experience for modern audiences, giving voice to the universal childhood fear of evil creatures lurking in the dark. Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is one of the saddest pieces of music ever composed because it draws from the deep despair that is too often a part of the human experience. Timeless music taps into something timeless about being human.
In the spirit of keeping great music alive, I invite you to listen to a piece of music today that was composed over 200 years ago, something by Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven, for example. I hope you will enjoy what you hear.

(This blog was composed under the influence of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, a truly great piece of music.)

Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

Form in Classical Era Music

One of the many reasons I enjoy classical music is that it gives me an opportunity to exercise my brain. Better than working on a crossword or Sudoku puzzle, listening to a piece of instrumental music and trying to identify its component parts provides me with an intellectual challenge on par with reading a great novel or trying to learn a foreign language. For those who have never thought of music in this way and would like to “deconstruct” a piece of music simply for the mental exercise it provides, I recommend beginning with music composed by Mozart. The sections of his music are, in most cases, so clearly defined that he may be the best composer for beginning an understanding of musical form.

Here’s how to get started with deconstructing instrumental music.

First, be able to identify the four primary musical forms of the Classical era (1730-1820).
  1. Theme and Variations
  2. Minuet and Trio
  3. Rondo
  4. Sonata Form
Next, sit and listen to a piece of music that represents one of those forms (again, I recommend Mozart). Give the music your full attention and don’t do anything else while you are listening. Listen again and again until you can recognize each of the component parts of the form.

It’s not easy, but with repeated listening your ability to identify the sections of each form will increase exponentially.

Here’s an example of each of the four forms and a simplified, basic definition of each form :

Theme and Variations
A theme and variations begins with a main theme that is transformed through a series of variations.

Mozart, Sonata in A Major, K 331, Andante Grazioso (1783)
James Liu, piano

  • 0:05 – Theme
  • 0:50 – Variation 1
  • 1:32 – Variation 2
  • 2:11 – Variation 3
  • 2:54 – Variation 4
  • 3:35 – Variation 5
  • 5:15 – Variation 6
Minuet and Trio
A minuet and trio is composed in triple meter, which means the beat can be divided into groups of three. A minuet and trio contains three sections: a minuet waltz, a contrasting section that is called a trio, and a return to the beginning that is called the da capo.

Mozart, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K. 525 , Third Movement (1787)
Gewandhaus Quartett

  • 0:07 – Minuet
  • 0:48 – Trio
  • 1:46 – Da Capo
A rondo begins with a main theme that is usually light and engaging. After several departures the main theme keeps returning, providing listeners with a sense of satisfaction upon each return.

Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D major
Hilary Hahn, violin

  • 0:00 – Rondo Theme
  • 0:48 – Departure
  • 1:54 – Rondo Theme
  • 2:56 – Departure with cadenza at 4:17
  • 5:53 – Rondo Theme
Sonata Form
In sonata form composers provide two or more themes and then develop those themes before returning to them at the end. Sonata form is usually organized in at least three sections. In the
exposition we hear the main themes that will serve as the unifying element of the entire piece. The exposition is usually repeated so that listeners can hear the themes a second time. In the development the composer tells the “story” of the main themes. Composers are free to do almost anything in the development. In the recapitulation the main themes of the exposition return and listeners are given a sense of resolution after the instability of the development.

Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, First Movement (1788)
Graphic animated score from Music Animation Machine

  • 0:08 – Theme 1
  • 0:38 – Modulating Bridge
  • 0:57 – Theme 2
  • 1:23 – Closing Material
  • 2:02 – Theme 1
  • 2:33 – Modulating Bridge
  • 2:50 – Theme 2
  • 3:17 – Closing Material
  • 3:56 – 5:10
  • 5:10 – Theme 1
  • 5:39 – Modulating
  • 6:20 – Theme 2
  • 6:52 – Closing Material (Coda)
The descriptions and examples I have provided above will only get you started on what is sure to be a neverending journey. What fun you will have learning to recognize changes in tonality and discovering the unlimited ways that composers can play around within the forms to surprise you and develop their unique artistic vision.

And there it is, an introduction to four of the musical forms from the Classical era. Learn to identify the components parts of musical form and classical music will never again sound the same. Enjoy!

Defining "Classical" Music

The term “classical” is used in so many different ways when applied to music that defining it is difficult, maybe impossible. Such a wide variety of music has been labeled "classical" that I’m tempted to ignore the issue of trying to give it a definition and simply state, “You know it when you hear it.” However, having a working definition of the term is important, especially for people who are new to the genre.

The term "classical," in the strictest sense, refers to the cultural traditions of the ancient world. Therefore, when we call music "classical," we might be describing only the music from ancient Greece or Rome.

"Classical (adj.): Designating, of, or pertaining to the standard ancient Greek and Latin authors or their works, or the culture, art, architecture, etc., of Greek and Roman antiquity generally; specializing in or based on the study of the Greek and Latin classics, or Greek and Roman antiquity generally." – Oxford English Dictionary

With regard to music of the last sixteen centuries — anything created after the fall of Rome — the term "classical" is most accurately used to describe European-based music of the late eighteenth century. During this “Age of Enlightenment," European culture was characterized by a renewed interest in the ancient traditions of Greece and Rome that is often described as “neoclassical.”

In short, when describing musical eras on this blog, I will identify the Baroque era (1600-1750), the
Classical era (1730-1820), the Romantic era (1815-1910), The Modernist era (1900-1945), and the Postmodernist era (1945-present). The term "classical" would therefore describe only the music of the Classical era, primarily the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Now, let’s make it even more complicated.

In most cases, it seems, people use the term "classical" to describe European-based “art” music, both sacred and secular, of the last 800 years. Admittedly, that covers a lot of ground. Often, when people describe music as “European-based” they are including music from Russia and North America, and the term “art” is used in reference to almost any type of music that’s not “folk” music (whatever that is).

"All music is folk music, I ain't never heard no horse sing a song." – Louis Armstrong

Confusing, eh? We have few clear guidelines for labeling music as "classical" and must also cope with the problem that the term has been applied to all types of music from medieval plainchant to modern movie music.

We do, however, have a way out of this mess. In a book titled
Music in the United States, musicologist H. Wiley Hitchcock offers guidelines for distinguishing classical music from other types of music. Dr. Hitchcock recommends dividing music into two simple categories: vernacular and cultivated.

According to Dr. Hitchcock,
vernacular music is the everyday music of ordinary people, music that develops “democratically” within a culture. Vernacular music can be used for entertainment. It can also be music that is created and performed for practical use: work, weddings, funerals, festivals, etc. Vernacular music is often labeled as “folk” music or “popular” music.

Cultivated music, on the other hand, requires a community' conscious effort for its creation and maintenance. Quite simply, if the music is not “cultivated,” it dies. It’s a type of music that would not exist without a foundation of knowledgeable teachers, well-trained musicians, educated audiences, and substantial financial support. Cultivated music is a type of music that is usually longer and contains more musical information than so-called folk music or popular music.

And there it is. Unless we want to restrict our use of the term "classical" to refer only to music of the ancient world or music of the Classical era, we can use the term as a generic description of any music that is “cultivated." The historical era makes no difference.

Classical or "cultivated" music is not necessarily “better” than vernacular music. It is simply different.

And I say, enjoy it all!

Vernacular Music: "Turkey in the Straw"

Cultivated Music: Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, Second Movement

This blog was written under the influence of Leonard Bernstein’s
Symphonic Suite from “On the Waterfront.”

Defining Music, Part Two

In a previous blog I described music in simplistic terms as “the moments defined by what I am listening to.” In this blog I want to provide four additional items to my description. I should also add that any attempt to define something as abstract as music is probably a futile task.
In any case, here's some food for thought.

1. Nothing should be ruled out when describing something as "music."
What someone calls "music" might be a Mozart piano concerto, the songs of a humpback whale, or the cacophony of a hammer hitting an anvil — it depends on who is listening and how they want to label it. We are not obligated to like what others call "music," but common courtesy requires us to refer to something as music when others think of it that way.

John Cage, Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 112 Radios
(performed by students of Hunter College of The City University of New York)

John Cage, 4’ 33” (composed in three movements, performed by David Tutor)

2. Music is the language of emotion.
In ancient Greece music was described as a language that spoke directly to human emotion. In what has become known as the
doctrine of ethos , the Greeks expressed an idea that the right kind of music had the power to heal the sick and shape personal character in positive ways. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that when a piece of music was designed to imitate a certain emotion, a person listening to the music would have that emotion. Aristotle’s idea of music is still alive in the way we use music to exaggerate the drama, horror, or comedy in Hollywood films.

John Williams, Theme from "Jaws"
(performed by John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra)

3. Instrumental music is a prime example of abstract art.
Just as abstract visual images might refer to something that goes beyond reality, instrumental music might be used to portray aspects of human existence that cannot normally be described with sound. After all, what is the sound of "love," "fear," or "spiritual redemption?" Why does Rimsky-Korsakov's music sound so “Russian” and Aaron Copland's music sound so "American"? Only great music can answer that question, and the answer cannot always be expressed in words.

Rimsky-Korsakov, Russian Easter Overture
(performed by Valery Gergiev and the Marlinsky Orchestra)

Aaron Copland, Rodeo, Fourth Movement
(performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Warfield)

4. Some music requires repeated hearings before it can be fully understood or appreciated.
Musical masterworks tend to get better the more they are heard. The first time you listen to Beethoven's
String Quartet, Opus 127, it might have little effect on your emotions. After hearing it several times, however, you might begin to describe it as "spiritual" and marvel at its ability to express profound truth. Listen to the quartet embedded below, and think of it as providing a contrast between Beethoven's inner turmoil and his public persona. It may take several hearings, but you should eventually be able to hear the difference between the "private" and the “public" in the composer's life.

Beethoven String Quartet, Opus 127
(performed by the Jasper String Quartet)

And so it goes...
This blog was written under the influence of Mozart’s
Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major.

Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major
Yeol Eum Son, piano

Defining Music, Part One

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:

– Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

I love all types of music. I find great energy and fun in the Beatles’ early songs, as well as anything recorded by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I am thrilled by the seemingly stagnant music composed by Phillip Glass. I am deeply affected by both the power of Beethoven’s symphonies and the elegance of Chopin’s piano etudes.

I also find joy in the sounds of everyday life. Listening to the rain fall outside my bedroom window at night calms me down, as does the sound of a train in the distance. Some of the most enjoyable sounds I have heard came from when I was with my father on the banks of the Kiamichi River in Oklahoma. Late at night we would wait for the cowbell to ring on the trotline we had spread across the river, a sound telling us that we had hooked a catfish. The campfire was crackling. In the distance some dogs had treed a possum and were howling to save the world.

I call all of that, “music.”

For me, music is the moments defined by what I am listening to. It doesn't matter whether I am spending three minutes listening to Bruce Springsteen moaning about love's desire or ninety minutes listening to Gustav Mahler passing judgment on Judgment Day. It’s all music. When I spend an evening listening to children splashing in a swimming pool at the house next door, I refer to it as “music” to my ears.

Music does not only come from the sounds I hear. It also comes from the sounds I pay attention to, sounds I experience for the pure joy of listening.

Sometimes the joy of listening comes with no need for musical knowledge. Knowing about major and minor tonalities is unnecessary to understanding the beauty (and possibly the terror) in the sounds of a thunderstorm on a summer evening. A knowledge of musical meter contributes nothing to the euphoria of hearing fireworks exploding on the Fourth of July.

Sometimes, however, I need a little musical knowledge or I might not understand what is happening in a piece of music. Without knowing a few basic terms I might not fully appreciate the music I am hearing.

In most cases, the need for knowledge comes when I am listening to classical music. Classical music can be so full of musical content that the “story” told in a sonata, concerto, or symphony might escape me unless I understand the terminology.

I might not need lessons on how to listen to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Flatt and Scruggs. However, I need someone to explain Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, or I might never really understand the power of its message.

When I spend time listening to a symphony by Haydn, for example, simply knowing that it will be divided into four movements helps me enjoy it more. Knowing that the first movement is in sonata form and the third movement is in triple time makes the music even more meaningful. And I can't stop there. Haydn's symphonies are endlessly entertaining — if I am willing to learn about them.

None of this means that classical music is
better than other types of music. It only means that classical music is different. In most cases, classical music requires knowledgeable audiences. Many other types of music, on the other hand, require little more than listening and having a good time.

I'll say it again, I love it all. Music of all types enhances my life, feeds my soul, and elevates my spirit. It doesn’t matter whether I’m listening to Johann Sebastian Bach, Johnny Cash, or that cowbell ringing on the trotline in the middle of the night.

Flatt and Scruggs, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”

Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, “Eroica”

How to Play the Cowbell

This is Part One of my two-part attempt to define music. There's more to come in my next posting when I will provide four additional elements of music that I use to help my students on their journey through music history.