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Classical Music For Dummies®

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By opening this book, you’ve taken a flying leap into the frightening, mysterious, larger-than-life universe of classical music, where 100 people dressed like 18th-century waiters fill the stage, doing some very strange things to hunks of metal and wood, filling the air with strange and exotic sounds.

We can sense the hair beginning to rise on the back of your neck already. But don’t be afraid; whether you know it or not, you’ve experienced classical music all your life — in movies and video games, on TV, on the radio, and in elevators everywhere. We’re willing to wager that you already know more than you need to get started.

About This Book

We know that you’re a highly intelligent person. After all, you managed to select this book from among a whole shelf (or website) of highly qualified music books.

But in this vast, complex, information-overload society, you’re expected to be fully conversant with 1,006,932,408.7 different subjects. (The .7 is for square dancing, which doesn’t quite qualify as a complete subject.) So it’s only natural that even the greatest genius doesn’t know everything. It happens that you, O Reader, are still in the incipient stages of Classical Music Geniusdom.

That’s why we use the words “For Dummies” with a twinkle in our eye. Truth be told, this book is for intelligent people who want to discover more about a new subject. And for us, it’s a chance to share with you what we love.

If you’ve never touched an instrument or sung a song, Classical Music For Dummies, Second Edition can give you the basic understanding you need. If you want an easy-to-read reference when you hear a recording or attend a concert, this book provides it. If you want to get a thorough grounding in the subject, the book allows for that too. Even if you’re already very well versed in classical music (and a surprising number of our readers are), you can discover something in each chapter to enhance your delight even further. This book is meant to meet you wherever you are and bring you to a new level. We’ve even been thrilled to discover that many teachers have used our book as a text in classes about music history, theory, composition, orchestration, or appreciation. Well, sure, that works too!

Foolish Assumptions

We, your trusty authors, have made some mighty foolish assumptions about you.

If we’re right about any of these things (and we’re hardly every wrong), then this book is for you. It will deepen your understanding of music, make you comfortable discussing it, and help you understand its form. And although this book isn’t a suitable alternative to a graduate degree in music, it’s much more fun and costs about $90,000 less.

Believe it or not, you have a great advantage over many of the world’s classical music fanatics. You enter this amazing artistic realm unencumbered by preconditioning or music prejudice. You enter the concert hall with an open mind, a clean slate, and an empty canvas upon which the great composers can paint their emotional landscapes.

This situation is what many music aficionados often forget: In classical music, the intellect should take a back seat to emotion. More than many other arts, classical music is meant to appeal directly to the senses. In this book, we show you how to activate those senses — and unlock your capacity to experience one of life’s greatest highs.

Icons Used in This Book

Throughout the book, icons clue you in about certain topics. They indicate material in which you may be especially interested, or material you may be eager to skip. Let them be your guide.

tip This icon clues you in on a handy shortcut, technique, or suggestion that can help you get more out of your classical music life.

remember This icon alerts you to what we think are important pieces of information that you should stow away in your mind.

forvirtuosos So that we don’t fry your brain by surprise attack, we’ll place this icon next to advanced topics and special terminology.

tryityourself This icon marks an opportunity for you to get up, march over to a keyboard or a sound system, and run a little experiment in real life.

checkitout If you go online to, you can find nine excerpts from the greatest music in the world. Whenever we discuss one of them, this icon lets you know.

technicalstuff Music has been around longer than most countries. This icon alerts you to the beginnings of trends and rituals that are still around today. This information isn’t essential to understanding classical music, but it sure is downright interesting.

Beyond the Book

In addition to the very book you’re holding in your eager little hands, we provide some delicious online goodies for your enjoyment. For example, take a look at the Cheat Sheet at There you can find a quick description of the instruments and their locations in a typical symphony orchestra, as well as a timeline of classical music, for easy reference next time you attend a concert.

You also can discover more interesting bits and pieces of information online about how today’s concert experience is changing, what it takes to send an orchestra on tour, great music of the 21st century, and more. Head to

Best of all, we provide many, many musical examples, in the form of links to recordings online at These recordings are your key to entering the world of classical music — a painless introduction to all different styles and time periods. As we describe some of the great masterpieces, you can actually listen to them right away. These recordings set Classical Music For Dummies apart from all the other books on the shelf.

Where to Go from Here

We design this book so that you can start reading anywhere. But to help you figure out what might excite you the most, we give you six different areas to choose from:

You don’t need to finish one part, or even one chapter, before starting another. Use the table of contents or the index as a starting point, if you want. Or, if you’re in a romantic mood, turn on some sensual classics, cuddle up with a loved one, and start at the very front of the book. (You may want to skip the copyright page, however, because it can deflate that romantic mood rather quickly.)

Part I

Getting Started with Classical Music


webextra For Dummies can help you with lots of subjects. Check out this book’s Cheat Sheet at to discover more interesting information to make your classical music experience more worthwhile.

In this part …

check.png Discover that you’ve been listening to classical music all your life — on elevators, in movies, in TV commercials, in video games, and just about everywhere else you want to be.

check.png Find out what separates mediocre music from mankind’s greatest musical masterpieces.

check.png Explore the different packages that classical music comes in, from symphonies to sonatas.

check.png Meet all the lovable (and not-so-lovable) characters who collectively created the history of classical music.

Chapter 1

Prying Open the Classical Music Oyster

In This Chapter

arrow Understanding what’s so great about classical music

arrow Identifying the seven habits of highly effective composers

arrow Access the audio tracks at

The world of classical music is a place where idealism reigns, where good conquers evil and love conquers all, where you always get a second chance, where everything comes out right in the end, and where you can have your cake and eat it, too.

Classical music is one of the few living arts. It continues to exist by being constantly re-created, live, before an audience. Unlike the visual arts, classical music envelops you in real time and comes to life before you; unlike literature or theater, it can be understood equally by speakers of any language — or no language; and unlike dance, you don’t need to look good in a leotard to perform it.

Classical music is a place to come to for pure enjoyment, for solace, for upliftment, for spiritual transcendence, and — if you follow our suggestions — for less than 25 bucks.

Discovering What Classical Music Really Is

For the purposes of this book, classical music is the music composed in the Western Hemisphere during the past few hundred years (not including recent pop and folk music). It’s the music generally composed for an orchestra or combination of orchestral instruments, keyboards, guitar, or voice.

forvirtuosos Until very recently (at least in geological terms), people didn’t make such big distinctions between “popular” and “classical” music. In the 1700s and 1800s, it was all just music, and people loved it. People would go to the latest performance of a symphony, concerto, song cycle, or opera just as you might go to a concert in an arena, stadium, club, coffeehouse, or bar today — to have fun! They were enticed by the prospect of seeing their favorite stars, schmoozing with their friends, and hearing their favorite tunes. They came in casual clothes; they brought along food and drink; they even cheered during the show if the spirit moved them. Classical music was pop music.

The fact is that classical music is just as entertaining as it ever was. But these days, it’s become much less familiar. That’s all. After you become familiar with this art form, it becomes amazingly entertaining.

Figuring Out Whether You Like It

Not every piece of classical music will turn you on right away. And that’s perfectly okay.

First of all, some pieces are, as we euphemistically say in the classical music biz, more “accessible” than others. That is, some have beautiful melodies that you can hum instantly, whereas others, on first listening, sound more like geese getting sucked through an airplane engine.

See what you like best at this very moment. There are no right or wrong answers; classical music is supposed to be fun to listen to. The trick is to find out what’s most fun for you.

checkitout Play the first minute or so of each audio track at Each is a musical masterpiece, each in a different musical style. The track list includes pieces from the Baroque style (roughly mid-1600s to mid-1700s), the Classical style (mid-1700s to early 1800s), early Romantic style (first half of the 1800s), late Romantic style (second half of the 1800s), and more modern, often deceptively chaotic-sounding style (20th century to the present).

Does one piece appeal to you more than all the others? If so, begin your exploration of classical music by delving into other works in that style or by that composer.

Or, if you love them all, fantastic! Our job just got a lot easier.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Composers

Despite the incredible variety of styles within the world of classical music, certain consistent qualities make great music great. These sections examine seven of those qualities.

Their music is from the heart

checkitout Effective composers don’t try to razzle-dazzle you with fake flourishes. They mean what they compose. Look at Peter Tchaikovsky: This guy spent half his life in emotional torment, and — wow! — does his music sound like it. (Listen to Track 7 at and you’ll see what we mean.)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was an incredibly facile composer — melodies just bubbled out of his head effortlessly, and his pieces reflect that ease. Igor Stravinsky was a strictly disciplined, calculating, complex character; ditto for much of his music. Although their personalities were incredibly diverse, these composers wrote great music in a way that was true to themselves.

They use a structure that you can feel

Great pieces of music have a structure, a musical architecture. You may not be consciously aware of the structure while you’re listening to a great work; but still, you instinctively feel how that work was put together. Maybe the piece follows one of the classic overarching musical patterns (with names like sonata form or rondo form, which you can read about in Chapter 3). Maybe it just has a musical idea at the beginning that comes back at the end. In any case, we’d be hard-pressed to name a great work of music that doesn’t have a coherent structure.

Recent studies at the University of California show that students who listen to Mozart before an exam actually score higher than students who don’t. (Of course, we suspect that these students would’ve scored higher yet if they’d actually studied before the exam.) As you listen to a piece by Mozart, your brain apparently creates a logical set of compartments that process this form. These compartments are then useful for processing other kinds of information, as well. Classical music actually does make you smarter.

They’re creative and original

You hear again and again that some of the greatest composers — even those whose works sound tame and easily accessible to us — were misunderstood in their own day. Not everyone could relate to the compositions of Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy, Stravinsky, or Charles Ives when those works were first composed. (Actually, that’s the understatement of the year; the audience at Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring actually rioted, trashing the theater and bolting for the exits.)

The reason for this original lack of acceptance is unfamiliarity. The musical forms, or ideas expressed within them, were completely new. And yet, this is exactly one of the things that makes them so great. Effective composers have their own ideas.

Have you ever seen the classic play or movie Amadeus? The composer Antonio Salieri is the “host” of this movie; he’s depicted as one of the most famous non-great composers — he lived at the time of Mozart and was completely overshadowed by him. Now, Salieri was not a bad composer; in fact, he was a very good one. But he wasn’t one of the world’s great composers because his work wasn’t original. What he wrote sounded just like what everyone else was composing at the time.

They express a relevant human emotion

Great composers have something important to say. They have an emotion that’s so urgent, it cries out to be expressed. The greatest pieces of music (any music, from rock to rap to today’s chart-topping hits) take advantage of the ability of this art to express the inexpressible.

When Beethoven discovered that he was going deaf, he was seized by an incredible, overwhelming, agonizing frustration. His music is about this feeling. He expresses his frustration so clearly — so articulately, in a musical sense — in every note of his compositions. Beethoven’s music is intense.

Now, this isn’t to say that great composers must be intense. Joseph Haydn, for example, exuded cheerful playfulness in almost everything he wrote. Like all effective composers, he had something significant to say, too.

They keep your attention with variety and pacing

Effective composers know how to keep you listening. Their music is interesting throughout.

One technique that achieves this effect is variety. If the composer fills his music with a variety of musical ideas, or dynamics (loudness and softness), or melodies, or harmonies, he’s much more likely to keep your interest. In this way, a great piece of music is like a great movie. An explosion near the beginning gets your attention, right? But have you ever seen a movie with an explosion every minute for two hours? Have you noticed how each explosion becomes successively less interesting, until finally you don’t even notice them anymore? You need variety — something contrasting and different between explosions.

In a movie, one explosion can be thrilling if it’s approached correctly, with a suspenseful buildup. Effective composers know how to use dramatic pacing, too. Their music seems to build up suspense as it approaches the climax. Maurice Ravel’s Boléro (made famous a generation ago by the movie 10) is a stunning example. The entire piece of music is one long crescendo (getting louder and louder) — the suspense builds and builds for 15 minutes, and the climax is shattering. We recommend it.

Their music is easy to remember

In today’s pop music world, the word hook refers to the catchy, repeated element in a piece of music. Beatles songs are so catchy because nearly every one of them has a hook. Think “Help!” or “A Hard Day’s Night” or “She Loves You” (“Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!”). Catchiness is not a scientifically measurable quality; still, you know a hook when you hear it.

In classical music, the same concept applies. A hook helps you remember, and identify with, a particular piece of music. The compositions of Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Frederic Chopin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Georges Bizet, Antonin Dvořák, George Gershwin, Edvard Grieg, and Franz Schubert have hooks galore — so many hooks, in fact, that several of them have been pilfered for the melodies of today’s rock songs. For example, Barry Manilow’s old song “Could It Be Magic?” is a Chopin piano prelude with words added — Barry didn’t write the original tune. And “Midnight Blue” is sung to the tune of Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata. The music of the most effective composers is full of elements that stick in your mind.

They move you with their creations

The most important habit of highly effective composers is their ability to change your life. Ever walk out of a movie or play and suddenly experience the world outside the theater differently? You know, when the real world just after the movie seems to have a feeling of danger, or sadness, or happiness, or just plain wonder, that it didn’t have before?

A great musical masterpiece may give you a greater appreciation for the potential of humankind, or enhance your spirituality, or just put you in a great mood. Nothing is more triumphant than the end of Mahler’s Second Symphony; after you hear it, you emerge reborn, refreshed, and somehow more prepared to face the world.

Chapter 2

The Entire History of Music in 80 Pages

In This Chapter

arrow Blaming it on the monks

arrow Recognizing the Hopeless Romantics — and Baroques and Classicals

arrow Eyeing the gallery of the greatest composers who ever died

arrow Access the audio tracks at

Every great composer was once a living, breathing human being with a unique personality, family history, and personal hygiene regimen. Knowing about the lives of the great composers makes listening to their music a hundred times more meaningful and interesting.

With very little effort and an inexpensive forklift, you can get your hands on a really fine, comprehensive, 800-page history of music. We, however, intend to fit the entire history of music in Western civilization into about 80 pages. Without using a smaller type size, either. Sometimes we amaze even ourselves.

Understanding How Classical Music Got Started

Music has been around since the Dawn of Man — or at least since the Breakfast of Man. Primitive humans expressed themselves vocally, and the sounds that came out were often musical. (These earliest recordings aren’t, however, available on iTunes.)

forvirtuosos Over the millennia, music became more complex. Man invented musical instruments to produce the sounds he couldn’t sing. Pipes and whistles reproduced the sounds of birds and the wind; drums amplified the sound of a heartbeat. Musical scales became standardized. Unions were formed. Classical music was born.

The first songs were probably religious. Humans, awed and scared by their surroundings, sang prayers and made offerings to the elements. When the wind howled, they howled back; when the skies rained on them, they sang in the shower. They also used song to boast of their conquests, give thanks for a good hunt, and remove stubborn stains.

Rhythm appeared early in the history of music to echo the regular beats of walking, running, and pounding one another on the head with rocks. Dances were invented to appease the gods, and music was performed for the dances.

In those early years, music was passed on orally. Indeed, in some Eastern cultures, music still survives in this way. Only in the past thousand years or so have people thought to write music down.

Chanting All Day: The Middle Ages

The period known as the Middle Ages was an era of plague, pestilence, and self-flagellation, but otherwise it was a rollicking good time. Inside the walls of European monasteries, monks were busy developing one of the greatest achievements of music. No, no, not Lady Gaga — sheet music. Here’s what you need to know about the musical Middle Ages.

Gregorian chant

Many a millennium of music-making madness passed before anyone had the notion to get the music down on paper. But around the year 600 A.D., Pope Gregory I (“The Great”) created a system to explain the musical scales that had been in use in church music up to that time. He gets the credit for giving the notes such imaginative letter names as A, B, C, and D — the same ones that we use today!

From Pope Gregory, we get the name for Gregorian chant: a simple, meandering melody, sung in unison with Latin words by a bunch of guys in brown robes. Pope Greg would’ve popped his little pointy pope hat if he’d known that, late in the 20th century, Gregorian chant would become a smash hit worldwide, when a recording called Chant — sung by some hitherto unknown brothers from a monastery in Spain — hit the top of the charts.

This comeback was for a reason: Gregorian chant has a true spiritual depth. If you close your eyes and listen to Gregorian chant, all your daily cares seem to float away. Your breaths become longer and deeper. Your metabolism slows down. Eventually, you gain weight and balloon up like a pig.

But we digress.

A monk named Guido

Guido of Arezzo (“a-RET-so”) was a genius monk (not to be confused with Thelonious Monk) who devised numerous musical innovations, such as singing, “do, re, mi, fa …” for the notes of the scale. (You may remember Julie Andrews paying homage to Guido in The Sound of Music when she sang, “Doe, a deer, a female deer; ray, a drop of golden sun …”) This system of singing standard syllables on certain notes of the scale, a centuries-old skill practiced by opera singers and music majors worldwide, is called solfège (pronounced, more or less, “sol-FEDge”).

Guido of Arezzo also devised a new music notation system, using a rudimentary version of the musical staff we use today (see Chapter 11).

It’s hard to imagine what would have happened to the world of music without the innovations of Guido of Arezzo. Luckily, we don’t have to. Guido existed; his musical staff still thrives; and, to this day, scholars everywhere have the pleasure of pronouncing the funniest name in the history of music (with the possible exception of Engelbert Humperdinck).

Mass dismissed!

But monks weren’t the only factors influencing the course of musical history. Their system of worship did, too — especially the Catholic mass. Some of the greatest choral and orchestral works ever written have been masses.

The Catholic mass (or missa in Latin) got its name from the closing words of all Latin masses in the old days: “Ite, missa est” (rough translation: “Scram, you’re dismissed!”). Every mass and musical piece based on the Catholic mass has the same set of lyrics. Even if you’re not Catholic, you’ve probably heard some of them before: Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy” — another ancient piece that was reincarnated as a disco hit single); Gloria in excelsis Deo (“Glory to God in the highest” — familiar from many a Christmas carol); Credo (“I believe”); Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy” — another Christmastime fave); and Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”). If you listen to a musical mass of practically any time period from the Renaissance to the present, you hear these words.

Born Again: The Renaissance

About 400 years after the death of Guido and his monkly cohorts, society entered the phase now known as the Renaissance (French for “rebirth”). The arts flourished during the Renaissance, funded by art-loving rich folks and royalty with no taxes.

One of the most famous Italian composers of the Renaissance was Giovanni da Palestrina (1525–1594), who’s pictured in Figure 2-1. A great favorite of the pope — a veritable pope’s pet — Palestrina was known for his songs written for voices alone, without instrumental accompaniment. Unlike Gregorian chant, the music of Palestrina wasn’t just a melody sung in unison (everyone singing the same notes at once). Instead, he explored amazing harmonies that resulted from singing several simultaneous independent melodies. And thus it was that Palestrina helped build the on-ramp for the long road to Gladys Knight and the Pips.


Source: Creative Commons

Figure 2-1: Giovanni da Palestrina, one of the greatest composers of the Renaissance.

Palestrina was a great composer of masses and other religious music. But around the same time, composers looked beyond the church for words they could set to music. Long passages from great Roman poets, non-religious writing — even Dante’s Inferno — were turned into tunes. Here are some of the ways they turned words into music.

The madrigal takes off

The most popular musical form for these songs was the madrigal (“MAD-drig-gull”). A madrigal is a piece for at least three voices, usually without accompaniment. During the Renaissance, families or groups of friends would get together and sing these madrigals, each person taking a different vocal line and elbowing one another when they hit wrong notes.

Madrigals were fun to sing because they often involved a clever technique known as word-painting. Whenever the lyrics included a particularly descriptive word, the composer wrote music that depicted the word literally. On the word sigh, for example, the composer had the vocal line start up high in a singer’s range and then fall wearily to a lower note. On the word run or fly or even happy, the composer wrote a flurry of fast notes. Fortunately for the word-painters, such lyrics as “I’m your boogie man” and “I am the walrus” were still centuries away.

Opera hits prime time

Composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) lived during the height of the Italian Renaissance. Monteverdi added more hummable melodies and instrumental accompaniment to the already popular madrigal form.

Monteverdi was also one of the inventors of music-dramas, otherwise known as opera. Like so many aspects of the Renaissance, opera was an attempt to re-create the glories of ancient Greece. In this case, the model was the Greek play, which was performed in outdoor amphitheaters with an accompaniment of woodwind and string instruments. Monteverdi and his friends strove to re-create this form in their own time — and music has never been the same. Unfortunately, Monteverdi never got a dime in royalties.