The Beginners Guide To Classical Music

The wonderful world of classical music can seem intimidating, elitist, or even outright incomprehensible to many when they first encounter the genre. However, with just a little context, we believe that anyone can enjoy the glory of classical music and open their musical horizons to an entire new level of musical appreciation.

Today, we intend to break down the walls of what makes classical music such a struggle for so many modern listeners and offer guidance, support and a little history into the genre to help appreciate the ways in which it has evolved over the centuries.

Selection of classical compositions

The main issue that many face when first encountering classical music is the idea that it all sounds rather…similar. Orchestras, (sometimes) lack of lyrics, long and confusing names, it can be difficult to deduce the tonal differences between the sound to begin with.

Compare this to more modern music where genres largely dictate the sound, it makes comparison between artists far more simple, for example it’s far easier to ask the average person: What’s the difference between Kayne West and ABBA? But far less straightforward to compare the operas of Verdi and Wagner for example.

However, with just a little know-how, you too can sound like a classical connoisseur.

What Makes A Piece ‘Classical’?

Classical music is rather similar to most modern music in that it generally follows some kind of structure with highs, lows and intervals, however instead of choruses, classical music generally revolves around a particular theme or trend. It’s almost more akin to telling a story, with a beginning, middle and end.

This can be particularly well exemplified by the ways in which classical collections were catalogued by those who wrote them. For example, instead of using song names, many classical pieces are defined by a system called ‘Opus Numbers’, which in latin, simply means ‘Work’, or in today’s terms they could be considered similar to albums.

For example in the case of something like Chopin, Op. 9, No. 2, Nocturne in E-Flat

We are actually being given a great amount of information here.

We know the piece is part of the 9th collection by Chopin
It is the second movement (or in today’s terms, the second song) within that work
The piece has been written as a Nocturne – This is a style of music or genre that represents a theme, in this case, nocturne meaning night time.
Finally, the E-Flat tells us the key of the piece.

Suddenly, without even listening to the piece, we are able to understand what we can roughly expect to hear.

A classical score

Some composers use different Opus numbers based on their influence or style, for example Mozart uses K. or K.V. – Bach, uses B.W.V. This being said, it’s also not uncommon to come across very famous classical pieces with names that have been attached to them. Interestingly, for many, naming of songs didn’t come until much later and most names are actually just fan-given, for example ‘Moonlight Sonata’ was originally called Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor.

Many modern classical lovers still assign their own names to pieces with longer, less memorable names based on how it makes them feel, this gives you a more emotional and personal connection to the piece as it feels more like your own.

A Very Brief History Of Classical Music

What can be even remotely considered as the foundations of classical music as we know it dates back as far as 1000AD, with over 1000 years worth of music to cover, instead of doing a full in depth review, we wanted outline some of the key eras, themes, names and ideas that were surrounding the different styles of classical music.

Largely speaking, classical can be broken down into roughly five eras. Medieval & Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern.

Medieval / Renaissance

Medieval music drawing

The real journey of classical music dates back to around 1000AD as this was when people, particularly the churches and religious organisations, began writing music down. This was essentially to allow all of those singing to be singing from the same hymn sheet. This style was generally a melancholic chanting all in one pitch and is commonly known as Gregorian Chanting.

As the church and aristocracy began experimenting with the ways in which voices can work together, by the time of around 1200AD, the idea of polyphony was introduced. This concept literally means ‘Many voices’ and is still a term we use today when speaking about digital pianos for example. By introducing many voices, each singing their own notes or tunes, there was a shift in musical expression and exploration.

One excellent composer of polyphony was Pérotin Of Notre Dame school of polyphony. 

This period was also home to the likes of the Renaissance, where suddenly composers felt far more free to express their personality within their music. It is also around this time that musicality takes centre stage over the likes of vocals.

With this new found expression and freedom to explore musical possibility, Italy became the forefront of the classical scene and the likes of Opera’s by iconic composers such as Claudio Monteverdi began to inject drama and further musical technicality or theory within their work. Other musical themes such as the sonata also began to become more prevalent here. Italian influence is still an incredibly large part of classical heritage and largely still influences some of the terminology to this day.

Baroque

By the time of the 1600s, the Baroque era was in motion. This era is defined by the likes of some of the most famous composers to ever live and is characterised by immense levels of expression and personality within pieces. Names such as Baraldi, Handal and Vivaldi are all commonly attributed to the Baroque area, however one name famously stands above the rest as perhaps the most iconic Baroque composer. Johann Sebastian Bach.

Statue of J.S Bach

Bach was a German composer who introduced an extraordinary level of technical innovation into his pieces. Fugues and counterpoints are littered throughout his works and each brings with them an immense level of expression, whilst still being grounded and humble to the ear. Bach’s pieces are passionate and emotionally led, taking the imagination to truly extraordinary places.

Around a similar time, the likes of the Harpsichord – an early rendition of what later became the piano – became far more commonplace within the classical genre with composers such as Telemann beginning to introduce a far more softer approach to their music.

Classical

As we move into the classical era in around 1750, the classical culture shifts from the likes of Germany and France, firmly into Vienna, where culture and musical experimentation became of paramount importance to the demands of high society. As such, many of Europe’s finest musicians flooded to the city in the quest for securing their place in musical history.

The classical era is famed for having such a unique approach to musical difference and conflict between composers, this is where you truly begin to see varying personalities and techniques come into the forefront as new styles emerge.

It is during this period that the likes of Haydn, also known as the “Father of symphony” became incredibly prevalent, yet it was his friend and student whose name has stood the test of time perhaps even greater…Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Portrait of Mozart on a piano.

Mozart changed the way that classical music was composed and throughout his life, he continued to experiment with emotional connection to music, placing humanity, dramatics, struggle and personal searches firmly in the spotlight. Particularly within his final four operas and his famous Requiem, the characters truly come to life.

Yet this was not all that the classical period thankfully blessed us with and the likes of Ludwig van Beethoven also came to fruition. Beethoven was a true experimentalist in the finest sense of the word and despite coming from traditional classical background stylings, his exploration for new sound left him changing the musical world forever.

Statue of Beethoven

Beethoven stretched traditional forms, with many considering his work to be incredibly expressive, daring, disturbing and moving. Despite his famous deafness, Beethoven created some of the most sensational symphonies of all time. In fact of his 9 symphonies, it has become an iconic part of classical history that few have attempted to write more than him, as his were so good.

Romantic

As we shift into the Romantic era, the technicalities of music continue to adapt, change and improve. A particular theme around this time was the increased use of piano music.

Here the likes of Chopin, Schubert and Liszt all explore their lust for experimentation and with them write some of the most intricate, delicate, expressive, bold and iconic pieces of piano and orchestral music of all time.

As was laid out in the classical period, the Romantic era truly was a time for separation within the styles and approaches of music. The likes of Wagner adopted a more dramatic, almost over the top approach to create loud, dynamic pieces, whilst the likes of Verdi and Tchaikovsky reignited the approach of operatics, string orchestra and too a unique take on piano playing. 

Modern

The modern era of classical essentially covers everything from the early 20th Century until today and as such is far more of a broad spectrum which in its own right has continued to evolve as society does.

Portrait of Claude Debussy

Iconic household names still stand here and each with them brings their own level of musical experimentation and flare. Debussy for example, created many of his pieces using unique scales and modes, Stravinsky played brilliantly with Rhythm, adding even further dramatics into his pieces, and the likes of Steve Reich has helped create what is known widely as the ‘minimalism’ classical genre. Classical music is continuing to evolve and develop to this day and even making waves within the pop, rock and folk genres through the likes of modern composers such as Ludovico Einaudi!


There we have it, a VERY brief introduction to the world of classical music, but we hope this brief insight has piqued your curiosity enough to explore your own musical ventures. The world of classical is winding, ever growing and there is literally a near infinite amount to explore. Explore the bigger names, who you like and begin your explorative journey from here!  Want to learn more? Why not read our ‘what age did famous composers write their most famous pieces?’

If you would like any further advice on beginning to play classical music, or the best instruments to help express yourself through classical, contact our experts today!

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