Arkiv for January, 2011

Listening to “classical” music

Friday, 28th January, 2011

We can appreciate beautiful sounds without knowing anything about them. We can appreciate music without knowing anything about music, just as we can appreciate a good wine without any knowledge of wine, a painting without any insight into art history, etc. But if we know and understand, then our experience as listeners will be enhanced.

This is the first in a series of guides to guides on often labeled “classical music”. I am not presetning the music, but sources I have used to learn more on the music. In this first part I will present introduction to musical understanding and overview of the history of music.

A lot of what I have read as history of music has been history of composers rather than history of music. Knowing the life of the composers may be interesting. But I have been searching form studies on how the music has developed, without having to go very deeply into advanced academic literature on the subject.

Eventually I have found some. After a posting on the subject on my norwegian blog, a reader directed my attention to several series by Robert Greenberg, published by The Teaching Company. At the time I did not know neither Robert Greenberg nor The Teaching Company. This was one of the best tips I have received for a long time. The last year I have spent a lot of time listening to a number of his series (but have I not yet had the time to listen to all of them). Robert Greenberg is a composer and music historian, and takes an inside view on the music. We really get an understanding of the music. The music is presented in its political and cultural context. And he is an excellent ane entertaining lecturer. Could we wish for more? I am confident that this has made me a better listener, and hopefully a better musician too.

The Teaching Company has series on a vast number of subjects. So far, I only know their series on music. Inspired by the quality of their music series, I have bought some DVD-series on art history, but have not yet had the time to play and view them.

Some words on the sales practise at The Teaching Company before going into the music: They say that all their series are on sale at least once a year. In practise, they are on sale more often. At any given time, a large number on their series are on sale. Being on sale typically means a 70% discount. So unless you are very rich or need to have a specific series NOW, wait till what you want is on sale — and maybe buy another series in the meantime.

You can choose between DVD, CD and Audio download. To me, music is an audible art. I do not have to see the presenter. All my comments refer to the audio-versions. The advantage of audio is that we do not have to look at it. I listen to these series while I am training, preparing food, etc. I could not have watched the videos while doing that. With each series you get an extensive printed supplement, downloadable as pdf-files if you choose audio download.

I recommend that you start with Robert Greenberg’s series “How to listen to and understand great music”. It is a series of 48 lessons of 45 minutes each. For details on the content, go to The Teaching Company’s website. Robert Greenberg’s approach, even in an overview of 2000+ years of music, is to choose some key works which are analysed in some depth, rather than giving a little bit of everything. In my opinion, this is a good apporach, which helps ut to get an in-depth understanding rather than a superficial overview.

I assume that a large proportions of you who are reading this are guitar players. I do think that you, or i can say we will benefit from having a good understaning of many types of music. No matter what you play, you should never limit your listening to your own style of music. As musicians, we must constantly widen our horizons.

Let’s face it: We guitar players are generally unschooled musicians. We may be very good at playing our instruments, but many of us lack a profound understanding of music. If we serach for books and vidoes to help us improve our playing, we can find a lot about licks, scales and transcpritions. But it is hard to find anything on how to turn a lick into music. Knowing a little bit about the compository techniques of old masters like Bach and Beethoven and how they developed there themes and motifs into great music may help some of us escape the repetition of licks and scales, and turn it into some real music. From Robert Greenberg, we get a lot of this, even though his courses are focused on listening and understanding, not composing and playing.

Fore musicians without any formal musical training, I will also recommend Robert Greenbergs series Understanding the Fundamentals of Music,. It is more techincal in its approach, like having a book on grammars when you are trying to learn a new laguage. Generally I find Robert Greenbergs series entertaining, but I found this one a bit boring. I may have found it boring because I realised that I already knew what he was teaching. But even if it may be a bit boring, it can be very useful.

Some years ago, BBC radio had a series on “The making of music”, presented by James Naugthie. It is a series of 60 episodes, each lasting 15 minutes. It is now available as two boxes of 6 CDs. It was my favourite until I discovered Robert Greenberg series. It is more an overwiev compared to Greenberg’s series, but it is an excellent overwiev — as we will expect from BBC. James Naugthie does not inside the music as much as Robert Greenberg does. I will say get both, but if you will have only one, go for Greenberg.

The third option is a 4 CD set issued by Naxos, called The History of Classical Music.It is number three on my list. But if you want more after having listened to Robert Greenberg and maybe James Naughtie, then you should go more in depth rather than get another overwiev.

The first book I found with an approach I really like is Joseph Machlis and Kristine Forney “The Enjoyment of Muisc”. I have the 8th edition. An 11th edition will be available February 1, 2011. My understanding is that this is a book much used in colleges and universities. It is a book that presents the music.

Music is an art of hearing. Those who are really experts may read a score and enjoy the music, just as Beethoven read and enjoyed the score to Rossini’s “The Barber in Seville”. But I am not among those who can read music in this way. To the book, there is a box with 8 CDs containing music presented in the book. If you get the book, you have to have the CDs as well.

If you read music good enough to follow a score while listening, I recommend that you get The Norton Scores vol 1 and vol 2, two books with scores to the music on the CDs. But if you do not read music, the scores will not be of much help.

Another classic is Aron Copland’s book “What to Listen for in Music”. It was first published in 1939, and are sold in 1,5 mill copies. It seems that it is currently not in print, but we could hope for another reprint.

I also like “A History of Western Music” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Grout and Claude Palisca, a book that is now available in its 8th edition (I have the 6th edition). Again the book is the core of a package. There are three sets of CDs with the music presented, “Norton Anthology of Western Music”: Vol 1 (Ancient to Baroque), Vol 2 (Classic to Romantic) og Vol 3 (Twentieth Century), and three volumes with scores to the music: The Norton Anthology of Western Music Vol 1, Vol 2 og Vol 3.

If you want more on the history of music, the five volume “Oxford History of Music” is available in a paper back edition at a good price.

I will come back with more. Nest time it will be on opera. Stay tuned!