Monthly Archives: December 2013

Introduction to Western Classical Music, pt. 1

We had a 3-week intensive period of studying history of western classical music. This is a post about how the course changed my thoughts about western classical music.

The course was was highly interesting but I admit, I had preconceptions about the course before it started. I’ve developed the ground for my taste for music mainly listening to popular music such as the synth pop of Pet Shop Boys and grunge of Nirvana.

When I was 17 I went to see a classical music concert as an obligatory part of a high school course. I thought it would have been nice. But no, I left the concert hall totally bored after the first half of the concert. I couldn’t get a grasp of the music, it didn’t transfer any feelings to me. I don’t even remember what the orchestra played. Apart from that, I haven’t had actual bad experiences with classical music. It just hasn’t been a part of my life. I haven’t been exposed to classical music and I haven’t made the effort of introducing myself to it either.

However, I have interest towards classical music. I enjoy all kinds of music – even more so when I pay attention to it. During the recent years I have listened more and more music that has elements from classical music: most prominently post-rock that uses classical instruments and has typically long compositions. So, I was delighted to have the opportunity to expose myself to music that I didn’t know much about. On the other hand, I was skeptical whether it is going to change my attitude towards the whole genre.

How my thoughts changed regarding classical music

At the beginning of the course, classical music to me meant that it was music composed more than a hundred years ago and was played by large symphony orchestras. That attitude changed. I realized that the most interesting part of western classical music was composed in 20th century. And also the ugliest part: the extreme examples of serialism.

I also learned that western classical music doesn’t necessarily mean classical instruments. I hadn’t really thought of that before. I knew that there were classical music developed after the 2nd World War but I didn’t have any name for it. Now I have many names with all the different genres of western classical music developed during the 20th century.

Another important learning outcome was that it is highly important to look at the music in context of the historical era and its habits and events when analyzing classical music. One example is how classical music had a very different role during the Baroque or Classical era. It was designed to serve purpose of entertaining the court people. In that sense it’s quite similar to some genres of popular music that we hear today: music that makes people do more pushups in the gym, or, music that is designed to fill a radio playlist harmlessly in between commercials. However, music that serves a certain function we nowadays rarely call art music, or classical music.

One of the key things was to understand what were the elements of culture and society that made music sound like it did. Classical music was kept alive by patronage, as opposed to folk music which was living as lore among the stories of people.

How my thoughts changed about the agreed rules on classical music

During the course I realized that the closer we are to the modern times, the stricter set of rules classical music has in terms of scales, temperament and notation. Now classical music has pretty much settled to equal temperament and sheet music. It was interesting to see all the different ways that composers and musician are moving away from the current conventions, and hear examples of music with 8 tones in a full scale instead of the full 12-tone scale.

 I hadn’t realized before that music is just math to the extent that it’s fairly easy to create all kinds of alternative temperaments with computers. I think the the times are changing. With computers many complicated  things are easy to try out and hear. In addition to being 8-tonal, what if music contains rhythms that are impossible to present in sheet music? That’s another thing which is fairly easy to test with a computer.

How my thoughts changed regarding defining music into categories

The biggest thing that made me think during the course was splitting music into different genres. Already the fact that the course itself wouldn’t deal just classical music (by it’s strictest definition) made me think that perhaps the boundaries between different genres would not matter that much. There’s just good music, and not so good music (or ugly, if we listen to extreme examples of serialism).

I’m quite sure that proceeding towards the future the attention we give to all the thousands of different music genres we have at the moment will be smaller. Or at least we will have new genres and the least important genres will be forgotten. But it’s important to see the big picture.

Looking at western classical music as we did during the course was eye-opening. Before the course it was just a huge mostly unknown genre of music to me. But when we listened to all the examples and analysed what they were made of, I started to see differences that I didn’t know there were.

The course gave me the push to start listening more to classical music and taking more and more influences from there to my own works.