Music Theory: Why Classical Music is Amazing
Most people that I know of find classical music to be extremely boring. It has no hummable jingle that played over and over, it has no words (unless its opera) that we can identify with, it's not released by a known artist on their newest album. Growing up, my mother would make me and my sisters listen to classical music in the car on the way to our music conservatory every Saturday. I hated it: who cared about Beethoven and Bach when we could have been listening to Britney Spears. It was only later that I started to appreciate the true genius of classical music.
I'm going to start out by trying to condense eight years of Music Theory into one paragraph. First of all, it is pretty well known to people that a scale is made up of seven notes. We'll use the C major scale as our reference scale for this hub because It is the most basic key signature (you don't have to know what that means). So the notes of the scale are:
C D E F G A B
I'm going to use a piano keyboard to illustrate the seven notes. As you can see above, after the B, the scale starts over again with C D E F G ...
The important thing to gather from this is the fact that the C is the first note (which is why the scale is title C major) and that the B is the last note. The order of the notes is very important, so I'm going to label the notes with numbers below, just 1-7.
OK, so this is where we start to get into second or third year theory. To put it simply, each note of a scale has a function in that scale. The first note, the C in our case, is always called a tonic. No matter where you are on the piano or violin, the first note of the scale or key signature of your piece is called the tonic for analytical purposes. The next most important function to know is the fifth note, called the Dominant. So, every G, if we're analyzing in C major is dominant. Get it?
It is kind of confusing. The fact is that these function names such as tonic and dominant don't mean a note. A dominant isn't always a G and a tonic isn't always a C, they only talk about relationships. So a dominant is ALWAYS the fifth note of the scale. You know how the absolute value of a number isn't always the same as the number, but rather its relationship to 0? It's exactly the same, the function of a note is it's relationship to the first note of the scale.
The other functions I want you to know for this hub is the 4th note (in our case the F) called a sub dominant (notice its below the dominant 9G) and therefore called a subdominant) and the 6th note (A in our case) called a submediant. So, just to quickly summarize the functions I've mentioned, they are
First note of scale = Tonic (C in our case)
Fourth note of scale = Subdominant (F in our case)
Fifth note of scale = Dominant (G in our case)
Sixth note of scale = Submediant (A in our case)
Now, one more quick thing to go over. We have to understand the difference between minor and major. Most children who go to a music conservatory or take Theory classes learn this with in the first week of class. To put it as simply as possible a major chord vs. a minor chord is the difference in the sound. A major chord sounds happier than a minor chord. It's hard to explain without a listening sample, so I'm linked a video explaining it below. After you watch the video, all you need to know is that the Tonic, Subdominant and Dominant functions that we talked about, when formed into chords are major, while the Submediant is minor. This isn't crucial to understand, but still is kind of important. So anyway, that means that the C F G and A chords we were talking about are actually C major, F major, G major, and A minor. Got it?
Identifying Major and Minor Chords by Ear
Ok, so now to get to the real nib of the hub, here's the deal. I'm first going to talk about pop music because it's fairly easy to talk about. In pop music, most songs have four chords repeated through the whole song. Sometimes, in the bridge of a song, the chords slightly altered, or maybe even a fifth chord is thrown in. But the problem with the fact that there are only four chords is that A) this is extremely unoriginal and easy to do and B) they are usually chords of the same function. In 80% of pop songs, the four chords used are the Tonic, Dominant, Subdominant and Submediant. The Tonic and Dominant are givens, there is NO pop song out there without using those two chords, and more than 90% of the time, the other two are the subdominant and submediant. Let's look at some popular pop songs.
How about some soft rock? Let's try Train's Hey Soul Sister. The four chords in this song are F major, A minor, C Major and G Major. And aren't these the four functions that we discussed?
Let's try some country, how about Taylor Swift's Teardrops on my Guitar? The sequence in this is C G E minor D. So this doesn't work right? The thing is, that this song is in G major not C major. But, the functions are still the same, this is going to be very confusing, but D is the fifth not of G major, so it’s the Dominant. C is the fourth note, so it’s the subdominant, and E minor is the sixth so it’s the submediant. The only reason that these chords aren't the usual C F G A minor that we were talking about is because G major suits Taylor Swift's voice better that C. Perhaps she can't reach the notes that she wants to if she sang the song in C major, or maybe she put it in G because it's easier to play those guitar chords instead of the C F G E minor, we don't really know, but the relationships of the notes to each other and the way they sound is exactly the same. You can sing her song in G major, or C major, and as long as you use the Tonic, Subdominant, Dominant, and Submediant, it's exactly the same and no one would know unless they had perfect pitch.
How about some Jason Mraz? In I'm Yours the chords he uses are G D E minor C, again the same four functions and again in G major instead of C major.
how about Lady Gaga? Practically every song she makes is only made up of Dominant and Tonic, with some submediant thrown in.
It’s the same for Britney Spears, Kesha, Rihanna, Pink, and even Billy Joel, the same four functions are used over and over in the song, over and over and over again. verse, is C F G A, Chorus is F A G C, again and again. But why don't all of the songs we hear sound the same? It's because of the melodies that the "artists" sing. Just in case you don’t know, the melody of the song is the part that you sing along to, the “oh baby baby, how was I supposed to know” part or the “All the Single ladies, all the single ladies”. The harmonies of the song are the instruments in the background and the back up voices.
Back to my point about why songs sound different when they are in fact made up of the same thing--- here’s an example: I'm Yours uses the exact same sequence of chords as Somewhere Over the Rainbow, but they sound completely different. However, that is why I'm Yours and Somewhere over the Rainbow are often sung together or mixed in a capella performances, because while the majority of the a capella group singing the chords can sing the same notes for the pieces, only the singer singing the melody has to change from saying "I won't hesitate, no more, no more" into "Somewhere over the rainbow" and singing the different melody. They may sound like very different pieces but this is only because the guitars in the two pieces are strummed differently giving them different feels and moods. Does this make any sense? If not, don't worry about it, it's kind of hard to get this much information in so little time, the point is that all pop songs are made up of the same four chords which are played over and over. The only reason they sound different to us is because the melodies are different and because they are in different key signatures (ranges of notes) so that the singers can actually reach all the notes. So now let's talk about classical music.
So, what do you really know about classical music. Probably that A) it was written a billion years ago, and B) its boring. But the thing about classical music is that it is completely underappreciated. In Beethoven's sonatas or Bach's Two Part Inventions, every chord in the scale is used as well as chords out side of the scale called secondary function chords. Specialty chords like Neapolitan 6s and diminished chords are used. Melodies are woven in and out of countless progressions, sequences, and they don't repeat every two seconds the way they do in pop music. Not only this, but there is not one piece of average level classical music that stays in only one key. This music moves from C to G to F back to C and so on and so forth. This is not even to mention the fantastic ways in which the composers were able to play with the music. For example, you know Beethoven's Fifth Symphony? Do you know the rhythm in the beginning, the famous dah dah da dah? Did you know that that rhythm is repeated over and over throughout the whole piece in different sections of the orchestra? It is emphasized and highlighted a million throughout the whole piece, not just the four or five times that most people think it is. Right after the first four notes, the violins take up the dah dah dah da, going up and up, and did you know that the notes they land on, the last dah are the notes that make up the minor submediant? Every single measure in every single classical piece can be analyzed and broken down into harmonies that are made up of the chord functions, Tonic, Dominant, Subdominant, Submediant, Mediant, Leading Tone, Subtonic, Supertonic and more. Every single note in classical music has a purpose, in taking Music Theory, you are required to label every note as either a Passing Tone, a note that helps to connect to harmonies, an upper or lower neighbor, simply a decorative measure, or the note of one of the chords. Did you know that a majority of pieces end with the two functions Dominant to Tonic, and yet, they sound completely different because the composers may make the dominant chord with a ton of chord tones in the violins, or maybe they'll put the dominant in a giant arpeggio, or perhaps they'll make the dominant only on the down beats of a scale. When analyzing classical music, many people ask if the Composers knew what they were doing. Doesn’t Beethoven just hear the melodies in his head and write them down? The Answer?
All composers, whether they are from today's contemporary period, or from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, or Modern period, ALL of them were extensively trained in music theory. In the seventeen and eighteenth century, musical theory, the stuff about major and minor, dominant and tonic was common knowledge. A lot of the time, the composers would be playing for or composing for kings and queens, or the church, and those people were extremely well educated in everything. They could tell what function a note had just by listening to it, and all that thought, all that effort to put in the secret dominants, to embed a tonic, to create a theme rhythm, to make sequences of notes which would repeat throughout, undetected, THAT is the beauty of classical music. The reason it's boring to some is because we are used to the never ending and always the same choruses of Justin Bieber "Baby baby baby ooh" (Tonic, submediant, subdominant, dominant). We aren't used to Liszt's Paganini Etudes or Chopin's Fantasy Impromptu. Most people aren't taught to keep an ear out for the subdominant, or watch out for a modulation in key signature. Try listening to Beethoven's fifth symphony below and hearing the reoccurring rhythm made up of "Short-short-short long". Throughout all three movements of the symphony, this motif is used to create "imitations" and "sequences" that help to unify the whole symphony. Beethoven made his first movement follow Sonata form, a form that most classical composers followed like the Bible. This is a form in which two themes are introduced in the Exposition. Then they are basically repeated in many different keys and expanded upon in the Development, and then they are repeated a final time in the Recapitulation. Can you guess what the two themes are? That's right, it's the first Fortissimo passage which includes the "short short short long" and then the slow major passage that sounds like butterflies and birds flying in the summer. Do you know what I'm talking about? How about this fact, the opening theme, the famous first four notes and the few bars that come after them, are written in C minor, the key of the whole Symphony. Then, the slow theme, the butterflies and birds one, is written in E Flat Major, C Minor's relative major. This may make no sense to you at all, so I will try to explain. Basically, majors and minors come in pairs. C minor is paired with E Flat Major and A minor is paired with C Major and so on. I'm not going to go into the technicalities as to why because that would take even longer, but you get the idea. Is it coincidence that Beethoven made his pretty and happy passage start in C Minor's relative major (it's happy pair)? NO! Is it a coincidence that the Third movement (the last movement of the symphony) ends in C major instead of C Minor? NO! This was a common technique called a Picardy Third in which the composers would end their symphony major instead of minor so that the audience was left with a happier feeling. This is only talking about the music of the symphony, and I haven't even touched on 90% of the wonderful things about it, but I haven't touched at all upon the meaning of the symphony. Many people believe that the first four notes, the motif in the beginning that's known worldwide is a symbol of Fate knocking at the door. This was a quote that Beethoven told his assistant Anton during the time when his hearing was leaving him. When you listen to the symphony, do you hear the sharp sharp sharp boom knocks of fate on the door? Do you hear how the first theme comes again and again, no matter how many times it is turned to major? This is the seeming inevitability of fate. Does the "pa pa pa poker face pa pa poker face, ma ma ma ma" represent anything? Unless I am severely mistaken, then no I don't think it does.
Beethoven's 5th Symphony
So, I hope that this hub has taught you some things you didn't know before. I know that classical music is considered nerdy or not as cool as pop music, but it is definitely not something to write off completely. Beethoven's 5th wasn't even his best work, and yet it is still, in my opinion, a million times more thoughtful and clever than Rolling in the Deep. I'm not saying that pop music isn't great, I own over 400 pop songs and I love all the artists that I've listed in this hub, I'm just saying that you should give classical music a try. Some great things to start out with are Dance Macabre by Saint-Saens, Fantacy Impromptu by Chopin, or La Campanella by Liszt. These pieces I think are some of the most engaging and beautiful classical pieces that won't make you fall asleep.
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