Classical Music: Why You Must Listen – Part 1

This is the first of many articles to convince skeptics, naysayers, and country music listeners (scoundrels all of them!) why they should turn down the Bieber and turn up the Beethoven.

First of all, let me say that I believe in only two types of music:  good music and bad music.  Is all classical music good music?  Absolutely not.  In fact, even Mozart wrote some bad music.  Now some may argue about what defines good and bad music, but here are two general guidelines that I think are pretty hard to disagree with.

  • Is it boring?
  • Is it pointless?

Notice that I left out anything about the way the music sounds.  That is because good music can sometimes sound bad or downright unpleasant.  However, it still might serve a purpose or be really effective at achieving its goal.  For example, I think that even the most hardcore punk rock fans would never tell you that their preferred music sounds pleasant.  The point of punk rock is arguably completely the opposite of delighting the ears–it’s supposed to sound unrefined and raw.  That’s punk rocks’ purpose and it’s effective at achieving it, regardless of how unpleasant it may sound.  Having said that, plenty of punk rock bands are actually straight up bad because they can’t even create that unrefined, raw sound and they just end up being plain old boring.

Speaking of boring music, classical music is often associated with boredom, and in many cases I would agree. Modern society has so bastardized and commercialized the art that the public perception is that the only thing Beethoven is good for is selling luxury automobiles.  Many classical artists, including Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, have tried to cross the boundary between classical and commercial music but the majority of musicians have  opted to put themselves up on an elitist pedestal, creating a divide between the artist and the audience. This elitist divide bolsters the sense of boredom by detaching regular people from the music. So it’s really no surprise people have a perception that classical music is boring, that is the way it’s being marketed and presented to the public.

This brings me to the purpose of these articles. I am hoping to explore the more intriguing types of classical music, with the intent of exposing the reader to something that may spark his or her interest.  I will also take a look at the different eras of music to help answer the question of purpose.  Whether or not these articles convert you into a classical music freak, I hope that they will at least cause you to take a closer look at the music you already enjoy.  And, yes, whatever music you have playing on your Spotify playlist right now — it’s not as good as Beethoven…

Ancient Music and the Birth of “Western Music”

Before I delve into what essentially will be an extremely topline history of music, let me preface this by saying that I am not a musicologist.  Musicologists are music historians who might devote their entire career to studying how Mozart’s preference for Swiss cheese influenced his sonata form.  Most of my ideas are taken from my experience as an orchestral cellist and from whatever I picked up between naps during my college music history courses.  If you want to call me out on some discrepancy, by all means go ahead, but I am assuming most people don’t really care if a composer completed his third symphony in the fall of 1845 or in the spring of 1846.

Let’s start with Medieval and Renaissance music:

  • Medieval era: music predating 1400.
  • Renaissance era:  music written between approximately 1400 and 1600.

Music–and by music I mean specifically “Western” music–had to begin sometime.  People were probably strumming away on primitive instruments even before language was invented, but most of the written records we have date back to the Medieval era, when “sheet music” was first generated.  You can probably guess that the invention of the printing press had a lot to do with our having any idea about what the music from that era sounded like.

Supposedly, a really really long time ago a bird was sent from God to whisper a collection of single-line chants into Pope Gregory’s ear, which he then wrote down for monks to sing in church.  This is sort of the unofficial birth of Western music.  A pretty ridiculous start, I know, but we are talking about Medieval times here.  Monks would sing music that consisted of a single line, and then when they got bored with that, they would add an additional line either a fifth or fourth above or below for a second voice.  You can sort of guess what happened from that point on, as more and more voices were added.

Key terminology from Medieval music:

  • Plain chant:  a single voice singing a line
  • Gregorian chant:  monks singing all church-like
  • Polyphony:  music with several different parts going on at once
  • Sacred music:  no real need to define this one
  • Secular music:  music without any specific religious context
  • Modal:  music that is not written in a standard “major or minor” key

Music from the Medieval period can be hauntingly beautiful.  There is something almost eerie about hearing a single voice chanting a tune in the mixolydian mode (a musical “mode” used by the medieval church).  And then when another voice is added a fifth or fourth above or below the original line, the music gets more  depth.  Here is an example of a chant by one of the earliest known female composers, named Hildegard Von Bingen.

Listening to this type of stuff can get old pretty quickly, but in small doses I find it absolutely gorgeous.

Renaissance music, which includes more secular music and slightly more complex lines, became a bit more interesting and complex.  In the Renaissance period instrumental music also became much more popular, so you hear early instruments like the lute and viol, which are essentially precursors to the guitar and violin.  Here is a famous secular tune by the English composer John Dowland, which features a lute accompaniment.

I won’t dwell too much on “Med-Ren” music because basically I’m a cellist.  I never took the time to learn a tremendous amount about about this music because, frankly, the cello wasn’t invented yet, so I had no practical motivation.  But before moving on to the next era, I have to mention the infamous Carlo Gesualdo.  He was a late Renaissance Italian composer who used certain harmonies that were far ahead of his time.  In fact, experts argue that music as chromatic as his wasn’t heard again until the late 19th century.  But even more interesting is the fact that he was a murderer, although his noble status granted him immunity from prosecution. He murdered his wife and her lover after catching them in bed together.  He also eventually murdered his son for questioning his paternal connection to him, along with, allegedly, other assorted people involved in his life.  Needless to say, the guy was nuts. Here is some of Gesualdo’s crazy Renaissance music for your enjoyment:

A final note on Renaissance music is that you can start to see the emergence of distinct styles coming from the different European countries.  These differences become more pronounced as music history progresses and nationalism plays an important role in the development of Western music.

Here are some other composers I recommend you “YouTube”:

  • Josquin des Prez
  • Clement Janequin
  • Orlando de Lassus
  • Thomas Tallis (Yes, the same guy that was on the tv show “the Tudors.”)
  • William Byrd

Coming up next:

The birth of Baroque music and why the joke “If it ain’t Baroque don’t fix it” is hilarious…. (not really).

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