Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, First Movement (1804)

With the two E-flat major chords that begin this symphony Beethoven started a revolution in music. This first movement alone was almost as long as entire symphonies of the time.

Leonard Bernstein conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker

The 20 Greatest Symphonies

The September 2016 edition of BBC Music Magazine included a ranking of "The 20 Greatest Symphonies of All Time." The ranking was based on a poll of 151 of the world's greatest conductors, including such notable maestros as Marin Alsop (São Paulo State Symphony), Sir Andrew Davis (Lyric Opera of Chicago), Alan Gilbert (New York Philharmonic), Zubin Mehta (Israel Philharmonic), Peter Oundijan (Royal Scottish National Orchestra), Sir Simon Rattle (Berlin Philharmonic), and Leonard Slatkin (Detroit Symphony Orchestra).

The conductors who took part in the poll were obviously well-acquainted with the greatest symphonies in the classical repertoire, which, for me, gave the results some credibility. In other words, it was more than just a popularity poll taken from classical music audiences. The conductors were asked to rank their top three symphonies in any order, and based on their selections here are history's 20 greatest symphonies.
  1. Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, “Eroica” (1804)
  2. Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D minor, “Choral” (1824)
  3. Mozart, Symphony No. 41 in C major, “Jupiter” (1788)
  4. Mahler, Symphony No. 9 in D major, “Farewell” (1909)
  5. Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C minor, “Resurrection” (1894)
  6. Brahms, Symphony No. 4 in E minor (1885)
  7. Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique (1830)
  8. Brahms, Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1876)
  9. Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique” (1893)
  10. Mahler, Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1896)
  11. Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor (1808)
  12. Brahms, Symphony No. 3 in F major (1883)
  13. Bruckner, Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890)
  14. Sibelius, Symphony No. 7 in C major (1924)
  15. Mozart, Symphony No 40 in G minor (1788)
  16. Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 in A major (1812)
  17. Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5 in D minor (1937)
  18. Brahms, Symphony No. 2 in D major (1877)
  19. Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 in F major, “Pastoral” (1808)
  20. Bruckner, Symphony No. 7 in E major (1883)
Like all lists of this sort the rankings are not definitive, and the list should primarily serve as food for thought and a topic for entertaining discussion. In thrusting myself into that discussion I want to provide a few of my own takeaways from the list.

1.The ranking offers few surprises, containing a list of the traditional composers and pieces that I would expect. Beethoven leads the pack with five symphonies, followed by Brahms (four), Mahler (three), Bruckner (two), Mozart (two), Berlioz (one), Shostakovich (one), Sibelius (one), and Tchaikovsky (one). (Note that Brahms is the only composer on the list to bat a thousand — all four of his symphonies made the list.)

2. When I first heard about the project, I assumed Beethoven’s Ninth would earn the top spot on the list. I will say, however, that I am thrilled that Beethoven’s Third was chosen the “world’s greatest symphony.” I have taught classes deconstructing both the Third and the Ninth and find that I need much more time to explain what happens in the Third, a symphony that contains an abundance of musical content to analyze. It's a symphony that takes listeners on a journey through a complicated musical narrative that never fails to prompt great discussions after it is over. The first movement provides a roller coaster of edge-of-your-seat excitement, and the almost comic anarchy of the final movement gives listeners plenty to think about. The symphony’s message is abstruse and ambiguous, and it's difficult to imagine someone would listen to Beethoven's Third without wanting to hear it again and again and again.

3. I find personal validation in Mahler holding three spots in the top ten, beating out Beethoven and Brahms who each have two. For several years I’ve been tooting Mahler’s magic horn (!) in my music history classes, and now I have a list from
BBC Music to validate my passion. I also love that Mahler’s Ninth is so high on the list, although I am not surprised. Mahler's Ninth juggles a variety of ideas and emotions that in the end become achingly silent. All music eventually goes silent, but only Mahler has ever connected music to silence so elegantly. For me, the end of Mahler’s Ninth sparks the sort of transcendent soul searching that can only come from music.

4. Although I have no significant complaints about the ranking, I would like to provide some of my own honorable mentions: composers and works that I would not have been surprised to see on the list. I have decided to avoid listing additional works by the composers who already made the list.
Regardless of how history's great symphonies are ranked, every symphony listed on this page is worth hearing — every one of them will provide a few of those nice moments that can only come from music.

Just for fun, here's an animated score of the breathtaking first movement of Beethoven’s Third. (The animation comes from the
Music Animation Machine and the recording comes from the Bezdin Ensemble.)



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Visit the Official Website of BBC Music Magazine at http://www.classical-music.com

Beethoven, "Ode to Joy" (1824)

Here it is, a performance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with a choir of 10,000. (That’s not a typo.)

According to
CBS News, the Japanese affection for Beethoven’s Ninth began during World War I when German POWs performed it for the first time in Japan. The piece then evolved into an end-of-year tradition for the Japanese. What I’ve posted below is a performance from December 2011 when the Japanese were recovering from the earthquakes and tsunami that had hit their nation nine months earlier. My recommendation: Jump forward to about 6:30 and crank up the volume.

"If you want to end war and stuff you gotta sing loud.” – Arlo Guthrie

Separating the Composer from the Music

I often play Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss in my music history classes, using it to demonstrate the characteristics of romanticism and define the concept of a tone poem. It’s a piece of music that my students — whether they are teenagers or adults — seem to enjoy.

How could they not enjoy it? In portraying the transfiguration of a human soul and the metaphorical “white light” that comes after death, it provides orchestral music that might best be described as “spiritual.” It’s guaranteed to raise a few goose bumps and moisten the eyes.

In any case, one of my students recently pointed out that before anyone became too enamored with Strauss's music they should know he cooperated with German Nazis in the 1930s. He dined with Adolf Hitler, socialized with Nazi officials, and served as president of the Reich Music Chamber. Strauss’s defenders point out that he was a reluctant Nazi who was generally apolitical and did not share the Nazi Party’s most disgraceful ideas. In 1935 he was even forced to resign from the Reich Music Chamber for his lack of Aryan loyalty. This defense does little to mollify the victims of Nazism.

And Strauss was not the only notable composer guilty of objectionable behavior or beliefs. Beethoven’s deranged behavior drove his nephew to attempt suicide. Berlioz attempted to kill the fiancé of his lover. Saint-Saëns enjoyed the companionship of adolescent males and reportedly said, “I am not a homosexual, I am a pederast.”

Fortunately, none of these personal transgressions appear in the music these composers created. Their music has brought beauty and inspiration to generations of concert goers. People’s lives have been transformed by listening to their compositions.

And then there’s Richard Wagner — a lousy, no good human being. He was greedy and ruthless. He ran away from his debts and had affairs with his friends' wives. He was racist and viciously anti-Semitic. He regarded himself as a god and once said, “I am not made like other people. I must have brilliance and beauty and light. The world owes me what I need.”

Despite his shameful legacy as a human being Wagner’s music dramas are filled with messages of the redemptive power of love. His work has moved music lovers to believe in the possibility of personal transformation through love and the purity of the human heart.

So what should I make of all this? Should I never again listen to or enjoy the music of Strauss or Wagner? Should I quit playing music by Beethoven, Berlioz, or Saint-Saëns in my music history classes? Should I enjoy works of art created by such misguided, unpleasant, and sometimes evil human beings?

If I decided not to listen to their music, I would only be denying myself some of the greatest music ever composed. And where would I draw the line? Should I abandon Brahms due to his habitual transactions with prostitutes? Should I not be inspired by the Beatles’s recording of “All You Need is Love” because John Lennon mocked people with physical disabilities? Should I avoid music (or any other art) created by someone whose personal behavior or philosophy I find despicable?

I think not. Life is short, and I see no profit in denying myself great music because the person who created it was vile or corrupt. Music not only helps me make it through the day, it sometimes serves as my only salvation during those inevitable dark nights of the soul. If I require my composers to be good and decent human beings, I’m not left with much, if any, music to serve my needs. I must accept that some composers are flawed, imperfect, and sometimes odious creatures who nevertheless can create works of exquisite beauty.

Tannhäuser, Overture (Zubin Mehta conducing the New York Philharmonic)


Tristan and Isolde, "Love-Death" (Daniel Barenboim conducting Waltraud Meier at Scala Milan)

Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and a Utopian Vision of the Future

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is one of the most influential pieces of music ever composed, and the “Ode to Joy” of the last movement is certainly one of the most recognizable melodies in music history. A complete deconstruction of the symphony would require more than I can provide in a single posting on this site. In any case, I would like to say a few words about the power of the "Ode to Joy,"

First, let me provide a little information about symphonies.

When you listen to a Classical era symphony — a symphony composed between the mid-1700s and the 1820s — you are expecting to hear instrumental music composed for an orchestra. You are also expecting to hear music that takes you through a variety of "emotions" developed in four movements. If you are new to classical music, I would ask you to think of a Classical era symphony as a “story” told in four “chapters.”

The first movement (or chapter) is normally the most challenging of the four, and when the movement is finished you might want to turn to someone and say, “Wasn’t that interesting?” The second movement is generally slower and more peaceful than the first, which might prompt you to ask, “Is it time to wake up yet?” The third movement is a faster movement in triple time, and you might want to ask, “Do you want to dance?” The last movement is generally fast and upbeat, designed to leave you wanting more. If the composer ends the symphony on the right note (no pun intended), you should be saying, “Wasn’t that fun?”

In short, think of a Classical era symphony in these terms:
  • The first movement challenges the intellect.
  • The second movement provides relaxation and time for reflection.
  • The third movement is dance-like and "physical."
  • The fourth movement provides pleasure.
Although Beethoven's Ninth has as many interpretations as it has members in its audience, let me give you one interpretation to get you started. To understand the Ninth, think of it as an epic story of human suffering that ends with a utopian vision of the future. Remember, it's a symphony, and the story is traditionally told in four movements.
  • First Movement: This movement can be heard as an exploration of the suffering and turmoil that humans must endure. The movement moves back and forth between minor and major tonalities. If you think of a minor tonality as “darkness” and a major tonality as “light,” you should begin to hear the movement as a metaphor for the contradictions and uncertainties of our lives. The movement ends with a statement of darkness and terror.
  • Second Movement: Instead of the slow, quiet music that we are expecting in a second movement, Beethoven gives us a violent introduction that is followed by music played in a fast triple time beat. Although the movement may make us want to get up and start dancing, we should notice that the music is often in a minor key, and we just might be dancing with death. (Serious guy, this Beethoven!) Fortunately, the movement ends in a major key, giving as a glimmer of hope before we move to the third movement.
  • Third Movement: In this movement we finally get the slow and quiet music we had wanted to hear after the first movement. The movement is long and achingly beautiful. We might even sense a little peace of mind in the third movement. Beethoven might be telling us that even though the world is full of darkness, terror, and uncertainty, humanity will endure and prevail.
  • Fourth Movement: This is a long and complicated movement that begins with a terrifying chord of darkness and despair. The frightening chord that opens the movement then leads to a “conversation” between different parts of the orchestra providing quotes from the first three movements. Then comes the “Ode to Joy,” and we should immediately realize that the symphony had been moving toward this melody all along. Beethoven ends the instrumental introduction of the "Ode to Joy" with vocal soloists and a full choir singing the melody. (Before Beethoven's Ninth, symphonies had been defined as music composed for an orchestra — no voices.) The words sung in the fourth movement come from a poem by Friedrich Schiller titled “Ode to Joy.” All told, the poem — and Beethoven's use of it in the Ninth Symphony — describe a utopian view of the future, a world built upon brotherhood, peace, and joy. If you are not inspired to try to make this a better world after listening to this final movement, you're not really listening.
The elegant tune that Beethoven gave us for the “Ode to Joy” has become one of humanity's most enduring and recognizable melodies. Today, the “Ode to Joy has become the European Anthem of the Council of Europe and the European Union, and we would be hard pressed to find a better anthem than the "Ode to Joy" to inspire the cooperation of European nations.

I spent time at the beginning of this blog describing the basic elements of a Classical era symphony so that the power of the "Ode to Joy" can be understood in context. On its own, the "Ode to Joy" is a beautiful melody that will remain in your memory long after you first hear it. In the context of a symphony that explores issues of human suffering, uncertainty, and terror, the melody has tremendous power to lift your spirit and elevate your soul.



Friedrich Schiller, “Ode to Joy”(1785)
O friends, no more these sounds?
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
more full of joy!

Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Thy sanctuary.
Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.

Whoever has created
An abiding friendship,
Or has won
A true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join in our song of praise;
But any who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.

All creatures drink of joy
At nature’s beast.
Just and junjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
A tried friend to the end.
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God?

Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
Which He set on their courses
Through the splendor of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race,
As a hero going to conquest.

You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, abobe the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving Father.
Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your Creator?
Seek Him in the heavens!
Above the stars must he dwell.

Flash Mob – Beethoven, "Ode to Joy" from Symphony No. 9 in D Minor



The Convalescent's Soul: Beethoven's Opus 132 (1825)

"[Beethoven's] last quartets testify to a veritable growth of consciousness, to a higher degree of consciousness, probably than is manifested anywhere else in art."

J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Journey


"You never get to the bottom of [Beethoven’s quartets]; they may be the most single profound statement that any human being ever contributed to the world of art."

– Peter Oundjian, violinist and conductor (Toronto Symphony Orchestra)


Take the quotes above as an example of the well-deserved and universal praise for Beethoven’s late string quartets. The maestro’s last five quartets (Nos. 12-16) plus the
Grosse Fuge, which was originally composed as a finale for No. 13, have received almost universal recognition as some of the greatest music ever composed.

Beethoven began composing the quartets at the request of Prince Nikolaus Galitzin, an amateur cellist from the Russian aristocracy. Galitzin loved Beethoven’s music and offered fifty ducats for each of three quartets. Two years after Galitzin made his offer Beethoven delivered what the prince had requested — three quartets — and was only paid for one. Even so, Beethoven wrote two more quartets and a different finale for No. 13. No one had asked him to write the new music, and he composed it with no commission. One can’t help but feel that Beethoven had discovered something to say with the first three quartets and felt compelled to get the rest of his ideas written down. Whether or not he was paid seems to have made no difference, and the quartets serve as one of history’s greatest examples of art that was created for the sake of art.

As with any music containing as much content as Beethoven’s late quartets, listeners must do some research and expose themselves to repeated hearings. Rest assured, however, that the time invested in Beethoven’s late quartets will provide tremendous rewards.

If you are new to the quartets, I recommend beginning with the
Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132. Although Beethoven composed it as the second of his late quartets, it was published as the fourth and is therefore labeled No. 15.

Listen to
Opus 132 and think of it as an exploration of the universal human struggle against both physical and spiritual pain. The first, third, and fifth movements provide the greatest intellectual and emotional challenges, while the second and fourth movements provide a respite from those challenges. If you have never heard the quartet, the third movement is the one that is most likely to catch your attention. The movement shows a spiritual side to Beethoven that allowed him to create one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed.

Beethoven titled the third movement, “Holy Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Divinity in the Lydian Mode.” The title speaks volumes about what is in the music.

First, the Lydian mode heard in much of the movement was used in medieval church music to represent healing and recovery. If you are a musician, think of the Lydian mode as a major scale with a raised fourth. If you are not a musician, think of the Lydian mode as sounding “bright,” somewhat like music in a major key.

Second, the movement is a hymn of Thanksgiving that Beethoven composed after surviving an illness in April 1825 that almost killed him (possibly Crohn’s disease). The movement was a product of Beethoven's premonitions of death.

Third, take note that Beethoven describes himself in the title as a “convalescent.” He had suffered for years from health problems associated with lead poisoning. And, as almost everyone knows, Beethoven was deaf, an affliction that caused him also to suffer from the pain of loneliness.

As Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon writes in
Late Beethoven, “He was a deaf composer, painfully confined within an ever-darkening inner space.” In reference to Beethoven describing himself as a "convalescent soul," Solomon states, “the invalid is another kind of prisoner, afflicted and weary, in whom there is need to cross a threshold, or to awaken from a frightening dream. The invalid, too, yearns for an open space, looks upward to the presumed realm of the deity. Beethoven’s sufferer — later convalescent — prays for deliverance more from a sickness of the soul than of the body.”

Watch the animated recording I’ve embedded below and notice how the music moves back and forth from a hymn of thanksgiving to an expression of joy for being alive. Use the following outline to guide yourself through the piece.

0:00 — Hymn of Thanksgiving
This section explores the world of the spirit. It is composed in the Lydian mode and employs few flats and sharps.

3:18 — Interlude
This section explores the world of the flesh. The music in this section is highly chromatic.

5:38 — Hymn of Thanksgiving

8:16 — Interlude

10:44 – Hymn of Thanksgiving

15:07 – Coda



If you have not yet heard all of Beethoven’s late quartets, I urge you to do so and wish you the very best on your journey.

Happy Holidays!

Moments of Elevation in Music

“The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport.” – Longinus, On the Sublime (1st century CE)

Longinus tells us that good writing and persuasive rhetoric can affect us, but his message might also apply to music. Great music, however, does not necessarily “persuade” us. Instead, it transports us and provides us with moments of elevation.

Roger Ebert described moments of elevation as a “welling up of a few tears in my eyes, a certain tightness in my throat, and a feeling of uplift.” All of us have experienced uplifting moments in books and movies that move us and fill our hearts. Even great athletic feats in a sporting event or stories of heroism in a local news report can bring us a moment of uplift.

For me, nothing provides more moments of elevation than music, and I don’t know how to describe why those moments happen.

In most cases I can describe the reason something touches me emotionally in a film. I know, for example, why I am moved by the young chess player named Josh in
Searching for Bobby Fischer. Josh is a good and ethical soul. He makes unselfish choices and cares how others feel. I am touched by his goodness.



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I can also describe the reasons I experience moments of elevation during sporting events. I once watched an NFL playoff game between the Dolphins and Chargers that went into overtime. The Charger tight end Kellen Winslow (#80) played a heroic game, catching 13 passes, even though he was treated during the game for a pinched nerve in his shoulder, dehydration, severe cramps, and a cut on his lower lip that received three stitches. Teammates had to help him off the field after the game. Such grit and resolve is inspirational.

But why does music affect me so much? Why does the transition from the third to the fourth movement in Beethoven’s
Fifth Symphony provide me with a moment of elevation?

I have no idea.

All I know is that the beginning of the fourth movement touches me at a visceral level, sometimes making me smile, sometimes moistening my eyes.

Roger Ebert wrote that he was most moved by “generosity, empathy, courage, and by the human capacity to hope.” That explanation works well for what I might read in a work of literature or see in a film. It might even work well in describing something that moves me in a sporting event or news report.

No words, however, can describe what I feel when listening to the transition from the third to the fourth movement in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

Here's how I might describe that transition in technical terms.

The transition begins with an ostinato in the kettledrum and the reduction of the dynamic level to triple pianissimo. This section is then followed by a crescendo that leads to a phrase played forcefully in C major, completing the attacca between the third and fourth movements.

I wouldn't be surprised if that description leaves you cold. Quite simply, words are inadequate for describing moments of elevation in music.

What do they say? Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.

The transition from the third to fourth movement in Beethoven's
Fifth Symphony is embedded below. The ostinato in the kettledrum begins at 22:45. The moment of elevation comes at the beginning of the fourth movement, which begins at 23:23.

Turn up the volume and enjoy!

Chung Myung-Whun conducting the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra

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.

Beethoven,
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
Rondo
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


Exposition
  • 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
Development
  • 3:56 – 5:10
Recapitulation
  • 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 One

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
WAS MUSIC

– 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.