Western classical music often tends to be labelled as “music for older people”, “boring music” or “music for relaxation or sleeping”. While these are misconceptions that have been caused partly due to how classical music is portrayed by mainstream media, the declining interest in classical music among the general public is also due to the fact that we currently live in a fast-paced environment where we have reduced attention spans and crave for instant gratification. This is evident if we take popular music of this generation which is usually short in duration, averaging around 3 minutes and makes use of minimal musical elements and attributes. With the popularity of video as a medium, there is also a lot of emphasis on using video to make the music more interesting using whatever means necessary to capture the attention of the viewer. While there is nothing wrong with listening to and appreciating popular music, someone who wants to learn music will greatly benefit by starting their education with classical music. Classical music is a high-information music genre. What this means is that classical music employs the use of various musical attributes or elements to a greater extent compared to most modern music genres. If you wanted to learn literature, would you study the works of great authors like Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens and Hemingway or would you study the works of an author who is currently popular because of his or her light novels?
Before proceeding further, what exactly is classical music? Classical music is a broad term used to describe the standard music produced by Western culture from the Middle Ages till the present date. It is composed by musicians who are trained in the art of composing and music notation so that other musicians can play it. Classical music is not to be confused with the term “classical period” in music which refers to the period between 1750-1825 often associated with consolidation and lucidity in the Western music scene.
Let us now look at the various attributes and elements of music and how classical music makes the most of these.
Pitch in music specifies how high or low a note’s sound is when compared to the complete range of sounds. Due to the variety of instruments used, each having its range, classical music has a repertoire with a larger variety of pitches.
Rhythm defines how music is divided into beats (time signature) and how fast or slow the notes are played (tempo). When it comes to time signatures, classical music has repertoire right from simple time signatures (2/4, 3/4, 4/4), compound time signatures (9/8, 12/8), to other complex forms of time signatures like mixed, irregular, additive to name a few. There is a variation in tempo as well right from very, very slow to very, very fast.
Dynamics describes how loud or soft a piece or a part of the piece is played. Classical music uses varying degrees of dynamics right from very loud to very soft. A piece can also have a gradual increase or decrease of loudness.
Phrasing is for music what punctuation is for language. It breaks down the piece into different segments or parts. Think of it as putting commas and full stops in the piece. Phrasing plays an important role in how the piece is expressed in classical music.
There are a variety of styles found in classical music. Styles can be influenced by the period in which the music was composed (medieval, renaissance, baroque, classical, romantic, modern, and postmodern), the country of the composer and the individual characteristic of the composer.
Articulation determines how the notes are played. They can be played in a smooth connected manner (legato) or they can be played in a shortened detached manner (staccato).
Timbre, also known as tone colour, is the quality of the sound or note played. The same note sounds different depending on what instrument was used to produce it. Considering the variety of instruments used in classical music, there is also a variety in timbre.
Texture describes how melody, harmony and rhythm are combined in a composition. The texture can be a single melodic line without any accompaniment (monophonic), a melody accompanied by a harmony (homophonic), or multiple melodies existing independently of each other (polyphonic).
Form defines the overall structure of the music. Examples of forms are strophic where the same sequence is repeated (AAA…), binary form (AB…), ternary (ABA), rondo (ABACA or ABACADA), and sonata (exposition, development, and recapitulation).
Tonality describes how melody and harmony work around a central note following some level of hierarchy. A piece can be major, minor, bitonal, modal, atonal or have a change in tonality within the piece.
Other Compositional and Expressive Devices
There are also various other compositional and expressive devices that are extensively used in classical music like pedal notes, dotted rhythms, passing notes, imitation, syncopation, anacrusis, cadences, etc.
Classical music also has a major influence on modern popular music genres like pop, rock, metal, and soundtrack music. Most popular music artists would have undergone some form of classical music education during their childhood before they chose to specialise in a specific modern music genre. The below interactive map shows how much influence classical music has on popular modern music genres.
While classical music could take some time to get used to for a person who has had zero or minimal exposure to it, putting in the effort to learn and appreciate classical music will definitely be a rewarding experience in the long run especially for someone wanting to learn the piano. Keyboard instruments have been popular right from the early periods of European music history due to which there is a large repertoire of keyboard music available for a pianist to explore and learn. Once you can start appreciating classical music, you will realise how profound the genre is as it will allow you to experience thoughts, emotions, ideas, stories and philosophies of many centuries through music.