Back To CourseMusic 101: Intro to Music
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Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.
While we may sometimes think that the great classical pieces of Western music are timeless, they really aren't. After all, most of what we consider to be truly classical music has only been composed in the last 500 years or so. For anything else to be considered classic, besides a car, we have to go back to the actual Classical civilizations, the Greeks and the Romans. The reason for this is relatively simple - we as a culture only seriously began regarding music as something more elevated than a child's cartoons within the last thousand years. In this lesson, we'll take a look at the evolution of musical forms throughout the past millennium.
Despite the fact that we've only treated music as an elevated art form for the past 500 years, a great deal can be learned in how music was treated between 500 and 1,000 years ago. Traveling minstrels certainly influenced music, popularizing such instruments as the harp, the fiddle, the flute and many others. However, it is in the highest forms of the medieval and Renaissance periods that music reached its greatest heights. Heights is actually an appropriate word, as this music was meant to be performed in the massive Gothic Cathedrals that dotted the European landscape. For us today, there is certainly a strange beauty in Monastic Chants, but for the Europeans of hundreds of years ago, it was heavenly.
In the Renaissance, music made use of new instruments to continue the act of worship. Primary among these efforts was the musical mass, a principle act of worship in the Catholic faith. Traditionally, masses had only featured the voice of the celebrants. The pipe organ had been a staple instrument of some churches, and harpsichords and pianos began to be added. Now music was used to heighten the experience for the worshipers. With the invention and evolution of new instruments, people began to think of music as something that could also be played outside of the Church.
During the Baroque period, this idea of music for the sake of beautiful music reached its height with the opera. Although the form had its roots in Renaissance music, as well as the earlier traveling shows of the minstrels, it was thoroughly a Baroque experience. The combination of dancing, singing, acting, and musical instruments was simply too grand of an expense to imagine before then.
Opera was not the only form of the Baroque period. Concertos and sonatas celebrated the abilities of the new instruments, as well as the characteristic style of the Baroque Period. Both of these celebrated the abilities of one instrument, but concertos featured an entire orchestra of strings, woodwinds, brass, harpsichord and sometimes voice, while sonatas instead relied only on one instrument with a piano to accompany. After all, the name 'Baroque' itself comes from the Portuguese word for a misshapen pearl. It was as if the whole period was music that was ornamented when it served no reason to be so, just like a misshapen gemstone.
However, as the 18th century began, a new style of music emerged. More somber than the melodies of the Baroque period, this new period is referred to as simply the Classical period. The latter half of this period is often called the Romantic period and stretched until the end of the 19th century. Composers began to focus more on the story that music could tell, especially its ability to create an emotional response, and less on music for the sake of sound. Instruments were placed more in concert with each other rather than in competition - pianos and violins became prominent during this period.
At the same time, music began to move even further from its religious roots. Operas moved always from classical themes and on to more everyday occurrences, as well as allusions to other mythologies. Instead of invoking religion or Greek mythology, now operas could draw from events like the French Revolution or less celebrated stories, like Viking myths. It's hard to imagine Wagner's dark compositions about Germanic culture being played on a bright piccolo. However, it wasn't just in high art that the Classical and Romantic periods saw new forms. With growing social comfort, people wanted to hear fine music at social occasions, even for dancing. Pieces were written especially for four- and five-piece orchestras, while the waltz, a composition in ¾ time made for couples dancing, made its appearance for the first time ever.
The waltz was not enough to satisfy those who wanted to dance closely. As a part of modern music, various new forms, ranging from salsa to jazz emerged from 1900 onwards, incorporating the use of guitar and later, electric instruments, in addition to older instruments. From these, our own contemporary types of music appeared. During this time, dance also became an art form to watch, as evidenced by ballets from the period. Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' was certainly not Romantic, after all. It was full of dizzying arrangements of music that actually caused a riot in the seats the first night it was played. Considered to be little better than noise, 'Rite of Spring' would go on to be a defining piece of early modern music.
Yet it wasn't just dancing that encouraged new forms of music. With the advent of moving pictures, films and television shows began using music to underscore stories and create moods. These soundtracks and scores added a great deal of depth to visual performances. More recently, even some video games have found acclaim for the music performed. All of these forms would have been unthinkable to those Gregorian Monks of just 600 years ago.
In this lesson, we looked at how musical forms have developed over the past several centuries. We see that music was first embraced as a tool of the Church for widespread performance during the medieval period, although it reached its greatest heights during the Renaissance. Coupled with new instruments and new audiences, opera was born in the Baroque period, although the idea of music eliciting emotions would emerge best from the Classical and Romantic periods. More recently, music has expanded to include films, television and video games.
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Back To CourseMusic 101: Intro to Music
12 chapters | 101 lessons