Lockdown Lesson 11

Music History – Introduction
Today we are moving onto a new topic – looking at different genres (styles) of music (for example, pop, classical, rock, dance music, jazz, hip-hop etc). In each of these lessons we will look in depth at one genre, understanding how it developed, and listening to examples. Your aim is to be able to identify a song’s genre and era by listening to it, and to be able to name some famous examples of music within that genre.

Before we look at specific genres in depth, we’re going to spend a couple of lessons looking at the progression of music from pre-historic times all the way through to modern day. First, we will look at the history of art music (classical). Next week we will look at the history of popular music

You only need to listen to 3-4 minutes from each video. There won’t be any questions this lesson, but you should write down facts about the different styles as you go along, as well as explanations of any new words you learn.

Pre-Historic and Ancient Eras
Humans have been making music for tens of thousands of years. The oldest musical instruments ever discovered were flutes made from bones and ivory over 40,000 years ago.

Around 1400 BC (2000 years after the invention of writing), humans began to notate (write down) music. Thanks to this ancient notation, we have some idea how this very early music would have sounded. This is the oldest song known to mankind, from an area we now call Syria. It’s a hymn for Nikkal, the wife of their ancient moon god.

Unfortunately, musicologists (people who study the history and theory of music) can’t even agree on how music was performed 300 years ago, let along 3000 years ago. It’s impossible to say exactly how this would have sounded, but we do have a very rough idea. Here is one interpretation:

Medieval Era (c.400-1420 AD)
Around 2,000 years later, in 1,000 AD, we begin to see the beginnings of modern sheet music – staff notation, which uses lines and dots to indicate pitch. Although it looks very different to today’s music and is very basic, musicologists can understand it well.

Left: early staff notation. Right: modern staff notation with exact notes, rhythms, and dynamics.

Renaissance Era (c.1400-1600)
As notation developed over the next few hundred years, so too did music theory. Some combinations of notes that used to be considered harsh sounding (or even evil) became accepted into the mainstream. Arising from these changes was a new harmonic language based on major (happy sounding) and minor (sad sounding) chords. These developments, along with increasingly precise notation, allowed complex new forms of music to emerge, and remain the foundation of music we listen to today.

Interesting fact: A pair of notes called a tritone was known as the “devil’s chord”. It was considered so evil sounding that the Catholic church banned it. Now we hear the tritone all the time, like in the first two notes of The Simpsons (the notes on “The Si” form a tritone).

Here’s a sample of some Renaissance music.

The Common Practice Period (c.1600-1900)
The next few centuries are known as the ‘common practice period’. This period, which gave rise to composers such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, is often referred to broadly as ‘classical music’ (spelled with a small ‘c’). Within the common practice period, we have three main eras: Baroque (c. 1580-1750), Classical (spelled with a big ‘C’, c.1750-1820), and Romantic (c. 1800-1910).

Baroque Era (c.1580-1750)
Baroque music is generally considered the earliest form of classical music as we know it today. There was an explosion of fantastically complex music during this era. Pieces of music would contain many musical themes all playing at the same time (counterpoint), while also adhering strictly to the newly established principles which had developed out major and minor harmony.

Orchestras were very small in comparison to later eras. Very little percussion was used in Baroque music, and the piano had not yet been invented. There was another invention in the Baroque era though, the pipe organ, which was used to great effect. These days, it’s common for Baroque music to be performed on a piano. Some people don’t like this because they say it isn’t authentic (it’s different to how it originally would have been performed). However, there is little doubt that Bach would have used a piano if he’d had access to one.

Music was generally for religious purposes or for dancing to. As a result, Baroque music often had a steady rhythm so that large groups of people could sing or dance to it. Composers would often take a very short musical idea and develop it with increasing complexity, such as JS Bach’s fugues (pronounced ‘fyoog’), are some of the most intricate pieces of music ever created.

Classical Era (c.1750-1820)
The Classical era (not to be confused with ‘classical music’ more generally), is most commonly associated with Mozart. Pieces from this era contained more contrasting moods and tended to focus on elegance and clarity (a step away from – or maybe even a rebellion against – the mind-boggling complexity of Baroque music). There tended to be a clear ‘melody’ which stood out, rather than lots of themes happening at the same time. Although it was simpler in this respect, composers were still pushing the harmonic language to discover new ways of expressing themselves through sound.

The orchestra expanded in size with more performers of each instrument taking part, and started to include percussion more regularly. The piano was also invented around this time and was used extensively by composers, although it sounded quite different from the piano we know today. You can hear Mozart’s actual piano being played here in the first minute:


Here’s a recording of a piano concerto by Mozart, performed on period instruments (instruments that the composers would have used, i.e., from their time period).

Despite composing some of the most beautiful music ever written, Mozart famously found poo hilarious and even wrote songs about it.

Romantic Era (c.1800-1910)
The Classical era was short lived, in no small part due to innovations by Beethoven, who’s increasingly dramatic and emotional music broke free from the delicacy of Mozart’s time.
Beethoven’s visionary approach, pushing the boundaries of harmony and increasing the size of the orchestra, ushered in the Romantic era. His Ninth Symphony was regarded as a kind of miracle by composers who followed him. As well as inspiring a new generation of composers, the shadow of Beethoven loomed large, setting the bar terrifyingly high for those that followed (unlike Bach and Mozart who fell out of fashion and were not fully appreciated until after their death).

While the previous generation of composers had been considered staff by their wealthy (and often regal) employers, Beethoven insisted on being treated as a peer. He demanded status for his genius, and he was given it – the superstar musician was born.

The word ‘Romantic’ doesn’t mean lovey or soppy – Romantic era music often focused on dramatic themes that cover all sorts of emotions – love and loss, pleasure and suffering, life and death, comedy and tragedy. Music was often composed to tell a story (program music) and could be inspired by poetry and literature. Harmony was complex and took many unexpected twists and turns as composers pushed the 12-note scale to its limits.

Composers that followed Beethoven took these Romantic ideals to ever greater extremes – using increasingly complex and dramatic harmony – and began composing virtuosic (incredibly difficult) music to show off their superstar technique. Here’s a concerto written by Rachmaninoff, one of the last Romantic composers. It’s worth watching this one for a bit longer so you can see the virtuosic piano writing.

The Modern Era
In the 1900s, the Common Practice Era came to an end – musical language had been pushed to its extremes to the point that the rules that had governed the previous 300 years fell apart. It’s difficult to create something when there are no rules or boundaries to work with and to rebel against. Composers began experimenting with all sorts of different systems to establish new musical languages. The result is 100 years of music very different to anything that had come before.

Some composers continued to push harmony by creating their own rules compositional rules, for example serialism – a technique that meant every note must be treated equally, with no ‘main’ note. This contrasts with most (possibly all) music which came before, which would centre around a clear home key. The result is an alien sounding music that never quite resolves.

Some composers experimented with chance, others took inspiration from other cultures, or from technology and warfare. Some even began to question what the difference is between sound and music and would compose music which broke down this barrier. Here’s a snippet of a composition by the furturist composer Russolo.

John Cage famously wrote a piece called 4’33” (Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds), in which the performers didn’t play anything. You can see an explanation and performance here.

Composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass took inspiration from traditional African and Indian music, using their rhythmic patterns and the concept of repetition to create minimalist music.

Unlike some of the other modernist pieces we’ve heard today, minimalist music was easy for the wider public to understand and enjoy, and as a result has had a huge impact, inspiring composers such as Ludovico Einaudi and Yann Tiersen, as well as influencing film scores and popular music.

Post-classical Music
It’s not easy to define what our period of music is. There are no longer commonly accepted rules for music making – some continue to compose extremely complicated or experimental music like the Schoenberg piece we heard earlier, others have fused minimalism, electronic, and pop music together to create something that isn’t quite any of them. In this sort of music, the lines between classical and popular music have broken down completely. For this reason, some people it Post-classical music (meaning ‘after classical’).

Well, that was a long lesson – we’ve covered 40,000 years of music making, so well done for that!
I hope you now understand that ‘classical’ music covers many different styles, many of which sound nothing alike. Each era had its own character, defined by the accepted musical language of the day, as well as technology (new instruments, and the discovery of electricity). Next week we will take a similar route for pop music.

If you enjoyed any of the music we looked at today, I have a playlist for my students which features music from the Baroque era all the way through to contemporary, Post-classical music.