A Beginner's Guide to Pentatonic Scales

Pentatonic (five-note) scales are ubiquitous in music. They have been heard since ancient times and form the basis of traditional Japanese, Chinese, and Celtic music. They are heard in blues and rock guitar solos for decades, and if you have heard “Amazing Grace,” written by John Newton in the eighteenth century, or “I Got Rhythm” and “Summertime,” written by George Gershwin in the twentieth century, you have heard music based on pentatonic scales.

To create a pentatonic scale, take the seven notes of a major scale (C – D – E – F – G – A – B) and remove the fourth and seventh notes (F and B). What’s left is a pentatonic scale (C – D – E – G – A).

Look closely at those five notes and notice how there are no half steps. This means you are less likely to hear discordant sounds in pentatonic melodies and harmonies. You are also less likely to hear a strong sense of the tonic, causing the music to have fewer, if any, tonal “punctuation” marks. If the timbre is not too harsh, pentatonic scales will provide you with benevolent melodies and pleasant harmonies.

As a guide to identifying the pentatonic sound in classical music I have embedded a video in which Bobby McFerrin demonstrates the “naturalness,” as well as the predictability, of the pentatonic scale.

After watching the video, listen to
The Girl with the Flaxen Hair and Arabesque #1 by Claude Debussy. Notice the use of the black keys on The Girl with the Flaxen Hair. If you play only the black keys on a piano, you are playing a pentatonic scale. Notice in both pieces how a pentatonic scale creates music that “flows,” music that has few moments of tonic rest and almost no discordant harmonies.

Enjoy, and don’t overlook the postscript after the
Arabesque.

Bobby McFerrin at the 2009 World Science Festival


Debussy, The Girl with the Flaxen Hair (via BachScholar.com)


Debussy, Arabesque #1 (1888) (performed by Stephen Malinowski)


Postscript: Bobby McFerrin’s demonstration of a pentatonic scale was part of a discussion at the 2009 World Science Festival titled “Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus.” The discussion centered around the brain’s interaction with music, and focused on answering the following questions:
  • Is our response to music hard-wired or culturally determined?
  • Is the reaction to rhythm and melody universal or influenced by environment?
I have embedded the entire discussion below. It might be long, but it’s also enlightening and well worth the time.

"Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus," 2009 World Science Festival

A Beginner's Guide to Major and Minor Tonality

Should it matter to a listener whether a piece of music is composed in a major or minor key? If we find ourselves listening to Mozart's Symphony No. 41 in C major or Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, do we need to pay attention to the "major" and "minor" labels?

These questions were asked recently by a student in a lifelong learning class I was teaching titled "How to Listen to a Symphony." The questions were elementary, but consequential. Considering the sincerity of the questions, I wanted to follow Albert Einstein's maxim, "If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself." I hoped a six year old would be able to understand what I was about to say.

My answer was uncomplicated and direct: "Yes, it does matter."

It matters in the same way as deciding before going to the theater whether you want to see a comedy or tragedy. In most cases, the entire mood or tone of a piece of music is determined by whether it is composed in a major or minor key.

Here’s what the average listener with little or no understanding of the language of music needs to know: If a piece of music is composed in a major key it will generally sound bright, happy, sunny, cheerful, or joyful. A piece in a minor key will generally sound dark, sad, grave, sinister, or dramatic. A piece in a major key can sound delicate or light. A piece in a minor key can sound heavy or weighty.

Listen to the following pieces and note the differences.

Classical Music in a Major Key
Beethoven, Sonata No. 15 in D Major, Op. 28, "Pastoral," Fourth Movement


Classical Music in a Minor Key
Beethoven, Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, “Pathetique,” First Movement


Movie Music in a Major Key
Vangelis, "Theme from Chariots of Fire"


Movie Music in a Minor Key
John Barry, “James Bond 007 Theme Music”


Now, back to the pieces my student asked about in the first question.

Mozart, Symphony No. 41 in C major, First Movement


Mozart Symphony No. 40 G minor Symphony, First Movement


The German composer Paul Hindemith once said, "Tonality is a natural force, like gravity."
As I explain it to my students, the center of gravity in major tonality will likely pull you toward the "light" and in a minor tonality it will likely pull you toward the "dark."
May your days always end on a major tonality.



A Beginner's Guide to Melody

Defining "melody" is one of the least difficult tasks for a teacher explaining the elements of music to students who are new to classical music.

When listening to a piece of music we hear notes that are arranged both vertically and horizontally. By “vertical,” I am referring to the different notes that are played simultaneously. By “horizontal,” I am referring to the notes that are played one after another.

Melody is a successive arrangement of notes. We can therefore think of a melody as a musical "sentence." Just as we hear one word after another in a sentence, we hear one note after another in a melody. All told, melody, for most people, is the most recognizable element of music, the one element that most people hear first.

Here's one of the world’s most timeless melodies:

Mozart, Eine Kleine Nachtmusic, Fourth Movement


Some melodies are singable, conforming to the natural abilities of the human voice. If the singable melody is also memorable, the type that gets stuck in your head, we can generically call it a “tune.”
Here's a great tune from Beethoven.


Some melodies are not singable, as represented by this melody from "Mood Indigo."

Duke Ellington, "Mood Indigo," performed by the Clark Terry Quartet


Sometimes music provides a short series of notes rather than a complete melody. When a series of notes is too short to form a complete musical sentence, it's called a
motif. Sometimes a series of motifs can be used to complete a musical sentence and form a melody. Sometimes the motifs stand alone.
Here's one of the most well-known motifs in music history, a motif that stands alone as the primary theme of the music.

Beethoven,
Symphony No. 5, First Movement, performed by the Canadian Brass


A piece of music generally presents a melody in one of three different ways.

1. Monophony: Music that provides a single melody with nothing else happening. The melody has no accompaniment.

Sanctus Lambertus, plainchant


2. Polyphony: Music that provides two or more melodies at the same time. Polyphony can get complicated, and the two ears that nature gave us might not be enough to hearing everything that’s going on.

Bach, “Little” Fugue in G Minor


3. Homophony: Music that provides a single melody with an accompaniment. Almost all pop music is homophonic and most people's ears are well-acquainted with homophony. Think of a singer strumming a guitar. The singer is most likely providing the melody and the guitar the accompaniment. That’s homophony.

The Beatles, Blackbird


There it is. Listening to classical music requires much more than identifying a melody and how it is being used. Nevertheless, I can think of no better place to begin a journey through music history than being able to recognize the melody in a piece of music.


Franz Xaver Gruber, “Silent Night” (1818)

With high hopes that the spirit of peace and joy of the holiday season continues beyond the beginning of the year, I'm posting this video of the great Plácido Domingo singing "Silent Night." May love and kindness bless us all.

Placido Domingo with the Children's Choirs of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC

John Adams: An American Treasure

In 1987, John Adams composed Nixon in China, a work that has been called the greatest American opera since George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. In 2003, Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for On the Transmigration of Souls, a piece composed as a tribute to the victims of September 11. In 2009, Adams was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. John Adams is a national treasure.

Music critics sometimes use the word “minimalist” to describe Adams' music, grouping him with two other minimalist composers: Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

If minimalism is defined by its few musical ideas and repetitive, sometimes monotonous, forward motion, I suppose Adams' music could, in some cases, be labeled “minimalist.” However, his music contains much more. According to such writers as H. Wiley Hitchcock and Michael Walsh, Adams bridges the gap between minimalism and more traditional styles of music.
a
Adams’ music represents less of a conscious break with the past than either Reich’s or Glass’s; instead [he] draws inspiration from composers like Beethoven, Mahler, Sibelius and Stravinsky. His works have a lushness and emotional depth largely absent in the ascetic though fundamentally cheerful sounds of Reich or the giddy, explosive rhythms of Glass.... Adams has forged a big, strong style, expressed in complex forms that employ a more extensive use of dissonance than other minimalists. – Michael Walsh, “The Heart is Back in the Game,” Time, September 20, 1982 (as quoted by H. Wiley Hitchcock in Music in the United States, p. 338)

John Adams, Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986)
Marin Alsop conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra



John Adams, Nixon in China, "News, James Maddalena, Houston Grand Opera (1987)


John Adams, On the Transmigration of Souls
Lorin Maazel conducting the New York Philharmonic


While I'm in the midst of writing a blog about a composer named John Adams, I might as well provide a quote about the arts from John Adams, the second president of the United States.

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

– John Adams, letter to Abigail Adams, 1780


Stephen Malinowski and the Animation of Music

Some people claim to see colors when they hear music. I’m not one of them. I wish I were. I would love to be able to visualize the tapestry of sound that so easily sets fire to my emotions. I would love to see what it looks like when my emotions change from sorrow to joy with a single key change. Music affects how I feel, but it does not evoke color in my mind’s eye.

Fortunately, I have Stephen Malinowski and his
Music Animation Machine to help me with seeing the color of music. Malinowski creates animated graphical scores for great pieces of music, and I faithfully follow his YouTube channel to see his newest creations.

I have always enjoyed following printed scores while listening to music. Knowing what’s in a score brings music to life. I can see individual notes and voices as they weave together, generating music’s magic. Following a printed score helps me understand how a piece of music is organized and grasp the musical narrative.

Malinowski’s animated scores serve the same purpose — and they do it with much more power and excitement than printed scores. His videos allow me to see what I am hearing and anticipate what is coming. The persistent forward motion of the shapes and colors in Malinowski's videos has changed how I hear music. Malinowski helps me understand what it must be like to have some form of synesthesia and be able to see colors when hearing music. If synesthesia meant that music would conjure up colors in the manner of a Malinowski video, I would welcome the diagnosis.

Malinowski published his first YouTube video — a recording of Bach's
Toccata and Fugue in D minor — in December 2005, and I am posting this blog in celebration of the thirteenth anniversary of that event. Although Malinowski has posted well over 500 videos, that first video has remained his most popular, receiving over 28 million views on YouTube. (That's right, 28 million!)

Malinowski told me via email that his first video of Bach’s
Toccata and Fugue was “crude and the recording was poor.” He recorded the music for that video on a synthetic pipe organ and decided to celebrate its tenth anniversary with the creation of a new version. His first choice for the new recording was organist Hans-André Stamm, and Malinowski was thrilled when Stamm agreed to collaborate.

Here's how Malinowski described his 2015 version of Bach’s
Toccata and Fugue in D minor. (The video he is describing is embedded below. The toccata begins at 0:05 and the fugue begins at 2:26.)
“Since 2005, I've been developing tools and techniques for visualizing music, but for this video, I decided to keep it relatively simple (as a tip of the hat to the simple original video) and not distract from Stamm's performance: I use balls for the fast-moving parts of the toccata, rectangles for the toccata chords, and octagons for the fugue. The three-note motif that is the seed of the piece is highlighted in red."
Thank you, Stephen Malinowski! Thank you for bringing so much pleasure to those of us who love classical music and for introducing millions of people to classical music who might never have listened to it without you.

Hans-André Stamm on the Weyland organ in the Catholic parish church
Heilig Kreuz in Köln-Weidenpesch Cologne (Köln), ca. 1992.



Follow the links below for a sampling of what you can find at Malinowski's YouTube Channel. Enjoy!

Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Second Movement

Debussy, Syrinx (for solo flute)

Satie, Gymnopédie No. 1

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (Part 1)

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (Part 2)

Vivaldi, Flautino Concerto in C major, 1st movement

Identifying "Great" Music

"Good" music is music that you enjoy, music that for a brief moment takes you away from your problems and makes you glad to be alive. It doesn't matter whether you are listening to Johannes Brahms, Chuck Berry, or Beyoncé — if the music makes you smile, tap your foot, dance, shed a tear, or reflect on the human condition, you are obligated to say nothing more than you enjoyed it.

The question is: when does music become more than something you simply enjoy? When does it become “great”?

Music, like all art, is a product of the world in which it is created, the creation of a person living at a certain time and place in history. I doubt that Johann Sebastian Bach composed music thinking about a world that would not exist until decades and centuries after he died, a world that he could not imagine. He was composing for the audiences — mostly church goers — of his time.

The fact that Bach's music still speaks to us almost three centuries after it was composed is what makes his music “great.”

Quite simply, great music is any music that has stood the test of time, any music that is still worth listening to long after the era of its creation has come to an end.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, for example, is not performed in concert halls today because it is a fascinating artifact from long ago; it survives because it is an entertaining and inspiring piece of music that works for modern audiences. Even though the Ninth Symphony was composed almost two centuries ago, it remains a timeless piece of music with a message that reaches far beyond the world in which it was created.

According to Mark Evan Bonds in
Music as Thought, European composers wrote 16,558 symphonies in the late-eighteenth century. Only a handful of those symphonies — mostly those composed by Haydn and Mozart — have stood the test of time and are able to strike home with modern audiences. Looking at this information we should ask ourselves an obvious question: why have so many of the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart survived while others have been forgotten? Why do some works endure while others are ignored?

In my opinion, a piece of music will survive for at least one of the following reasons:

1. It is the work of a highly skilled artist.
Modern audiences remain awestruck by Johann Sebastian Bach's musical genius. The complexity of the themes and harmonic progressions that he developed within well-defined musical forms and contrapuntal technique are still used to teach theory and performance to music majors. Bach may have died in 1750, but his music is immortal due to his extraordinary expertise as a composer.

2. It elevates the human spirit.
Listening to the organ with all stops pulled out at the conclusion of Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony or the brassy “Paradise” theme at the end of Mahler’s First Symphon
y can make audiences glad to be alive. Saint-Saëns and Mahler wanted audiences to feel an emotional rush when their symphonies were first performed in the nineteenth century, and audiences are still experiencing that rush in the twenty-first century.

3. It identifies an eternal truth about being human.
Although the song “Der Erlkönig” by Franz Schubert is almost two hundred years old, it remains a frightening experience for modern audiences, giving voice to the universal childhood fear of evil creatures lurking in the dark. Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is one of the saddest pieces of music ever composed because it draws from the deep despair that is too often a part of the human experience. Timeless music taps into something timeless about being human.
In the spirit of keeping great music alive, I invite you to listen to a piece of music today that was composed over 200 years ago, something by Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven, for example. I hope you will enjoy what you hear.

(This blog was composed under the influence of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, a truly great piece of music.)

Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

Couperin, Les Barricades Mistérieuses (1717) – Harpsichord

"The harpsichord is perfect as to it compass, and brilliant in itself, but as it is impossible to swell out or diminish the volume of its sound, I shall always feel grateful to any who, by the exercise of infinite art supported by fine taste, contrive to render this instrument capable of expression."

– François Couperin, Preface to Pièces de Clavecin , Book 1 (1713)

Three days ago I posted a piece by Couperin played on the guitar and here's the original version for harpsichord. The piece is almost 300 years old and still sounds fresh.

Katherine Shao, harpsichord (animated graphical score by Music Animation Machine)

Couperin, Les Barricades Mistérieuses (1717) – Guitar

François Couperin was the most famous member of a family that dominated French music throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Between 1713 and 1730 Couperin published 230 pieces for harpsichord that he had composed and organized into 27 ordres or "suites." Each ordre was a series of dances that Couperin identified with a descriptive name, such as The Little Windmills or The Knitters. Embedded below is one of my favorites from Couperin's ordres for harpsichord, The Mysterious Barricades, adapted beautifully by Michael Chapdelaine for steel guitar. (Chapdelaine is a National Fingerstyle Champion and Professor of Guitar at the University of New Mexico, giving me yet another reason to be proud of my home state.)

Michael Chapdelaine, steel string guitar


Beethoven, the Beatles, and Electricity

Contrary to what we hear from many critics, classical music activity in the U.S. is certainly greater today, by any tangible measure, than it was 20 years ago.

– Douglas Dempster, 2000


Some people are lucky enough to live in the midst of a rich musical culture — Vienna, New York, New Orleans. I’m not one of those people. I was born in a small town in Arizona and raised in a small town in southern New Mexico. I still live in New Mexico and have spent my entire life in a literal and cultural desert.

If not for my hometown’s high school band (about 60 members in a good year), I would have known nothing about live music when I was growing up. I was dependent on radio, television, vinyl records, 8-track tapes, and the local library to teach me about music. From Jimi Hendrix to Leonard Bernstein, the recordings I heard at home and in my car taught me what great music sounded like.

In
Listen to This, music critic Alex Ross has included a chapter titled “Infernal Machines: How Recordings Changed Music.” Ross addresses the issue of whether technology has destroyed classical music or helped it thrive. Ross points out that he discovered too much of his favorite music through LPs and CDs to lament technology’s impact on classical music.

I’m in the same camp. Like Ross, I can’t believe that recordings have destroyed classical music. What else could a desert dweller think? For me, technology turned a cultural backwater into sanctuary for great music. I’ll concede that recordings may rob music of the spontaneity of a live performance. However, I will always be grateful for electricity and the technology it powered because that's how I learned about Beethoven and the Beatles.

Technology has provided an easy and relatively inexpensive way to access the greatest musicians in the world performing the most beautiful and enduring music ever created. I'm not one to complain that recordings have destroyed music.

For several years I taught a high school humanities class with music history as a central element of the curriculum. I learned from teaching the class that we should have no reason to wring our hands about the death of classical music. Almost every day I spent teaching high school students I was a witness to the truth of
Benjamin Zander’s TED Talk proclamation, “everybody loves classical music, [some people] just haven't found out about it yet.” I was rarely discouraged about the future of classical music when I was explaining it to teenagers.

After learning a little about the language of music, my students generally liked the pieces they heard. Once my students understood both the content and historical context of the classical pieces I played for them, few left my class disliking what they heard. It shouldn’t be difficult to help young people appreciate the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the last movement of Berlioz’
Symphonie Fantastique — and it wasn’t.

Before we lament the perceived decline in the audience for classical music, we should remind ourselves to give the world's greatest music more credit for its power to endure. The music created by master composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven contains enough beauty and power to survive a long time. As a desert dweller, if I had not had the benefit of the recordings that make music ubiquitous, I may have never known about the great music that could turn a dusty, gritty small town in New Mexico into a oasis.

* * *

For an explanation of why we should not bemoan the death of classical music I recommend an article by Douglas Dempster titled “Wither the Audience for Classical Music?” The article was published in 2000, and some of the data Dempster provides may be out of date. I suspect, however, that Dempster's central point is as true today as when he wrote the article.

Form in Classical Era Music

One of the many reasons I enjoy classical music is that it gives me an opportunity to exercise my brain. Better than working on a crossword or Sudoku puzzle, listening to a piece of instrumental music and trying to identify its component parts provides me with an intellectual challenge on par with reading a great novel or trying to learn a foreign language. For those who have never thought of music in this way and would like to “deconstruct” a piece of music simply for the mental exercise it provides, I recommend beginning with music composed by Mozart. The sections of his music are, in most cases, so clearly defined that he may be the best composer for beginning an understanding of musical form.

Here’s how to get started with deconstructing instrumental music.

First, be able to identify the four primary musical forms of the Classical era (1730-1820).
  1. Theme and Variations
  2. Minuet and Trio
  3. Rondo
  4. Sonata Form
Next, sit and listen to a piece of music that represents one of those forms (again, I recommend Mozart). Give the music your full attention and don’t do anything else while you are listening. Listen again and again until you can recognize each of the component parts of the form.

It’s not easy, but with repeated listening your ability to identify the sections of each form will increase exponentially.

Here’s an example of each of the four forms and a simplified, basic definition of each form :

Theme and Variations
A theme and variations begins with a main theme that is transformed through a series of variations.

Mozart, Sonata in A Major, K 331, Andante Grazioso (1783)
James Liu, piano


  • 0:05 – Theme
  • 0:50 – Variation 1
  • 1:32 – Variation 2
  • 2:11 – Variation 3
  • 2:54 – Variation 4
  • 3:35 – Variation 5
  • 5:15 – Variation 6
Minuet and Trio
A minuet and trio is composed in triple meter, which means the beat can be divided into groups of three. A minuet and trio contains three sections: a minuet waltz, a contrasting section that is called a trio, and a return to the beginning that is called the da capo.

Mozart, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K. 525 , Third Movement (1787)
Gewandhaus Quartett


  • 0:07 – Minuet
  • 0:48 – Trio
  • 1:46 – Da Capo
Rondo
A rondo begins with a main theme that is usually light and engaging. After several departures the main theme keeps returning, providing listeners with a sense of satisfaction upon each return.

Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D major
Hilary Hahn, violin


  • 0:00 – Rondo Theme
  • 0:48 – Departure
  • 1:54 – Rondo Theme
  • 2:56 – Departure with cadenza at 4:17
  • 5:53 – Rondo Theme
Sonata Form
In sonata form composers provide two or more themes and then develop those themes before returning to them at the end. Sonata form is usually organized in at least three sections. In the
exposition we hear the main themes that will serve as the unifying element of the entire piece. The exposition is usually repeated so that listeners can hear the themes a second time. In the development the composer tells the “story” of the main themes. Composers are free to do almost anything in the development. In the recapitulation the main themes of the exposition return and listeners are given a sense of resolution after the instability of the development.

Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, First Movement (1788)
Graphic animated score from Music Animation Machine


Exposition
  • 0:08 – Theme 1
  • 0:38 – Modulating Bridge
  • 0:57 – Theme 2
  • 1:23 – Closing Material
  • 2:02 – Theme 1
  • 2:33 – Modulating Bridge
  • 2:50 – Theme 2
  • 3:17 – Closing Material
Development
  • 3:56 – 5:10
Recapitulation
  • 5:10 – Theme 1
  • 5:39 – Modulating
  • 6:20 – Theme 2
  • 6:52 – Closing Material (Coda)
The descriptions and examples I have provided above will only get you started on what is sure to be a neverending journey. What fun you will have learning to recognize changes in tonality and discovering the unlimited ways that composers can play around within the forms to surprise you and develop their unique artistic vision.

And there it is, an introduction to four of the musical forms from the Classical era. Learn to identify the components parts of musical form and classical music will never again sound the same. Enjoy!

Defining "Classical" Music

The term “classical” is used in so many different ways when applied to music that defining it is difficult, maybe impossible. Such a wide variety of music has been labeled "classical" that I’m tempted to ignore the issue of trying to give it a definition and simply state, “You know it when you hear it.” However, having a working definition of the term is important, especially for people who are new to the genre.

The term "classical," in the strictest sense, refers to the cultural traditions of the ancient world. Therefore, when we call music "classical," we might be describing only the music from ancient Greece or Rome.

"Classical (adj.): Designating, of, or pertaining to the standard ancient Greek and Latin authors or their works, or the culture, art, architecture, etc., of Greek and Roman antiquity generally; specializing in or based on the study of the Greek and Latin classics, or Greek and Roman antiquity generally." – Oxford English Dictionary

With regard to music of the last sixteen centuries — anything created after the fall of Rome — the term "classical" is most accurately used to describe European-based music of the late eighteenth century. During this “Age of Enlightenment," European culture was characterized by a renewed interest in the ancient traditions of Greece and Rome that is often described as “neoclassical.”

In short, when describing musical eras on this blog, I will identify the Baroque era (1600-1750), the
Classical era (1730-1820), the Romantic era (1815-1910), The Modernist era (1900-1945), and the Postmodernist era (1945-present). The term "classical" would therefore describe only the music of the Classical era, primarily the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Now, let’s make it even more complicated.

In most cases, it seems, people use the term "classical" to describe European-based “art” music, both sacred and secular, of the last 800 years. Admittedly, that covers a lot of ground. Often, when people describe music as “European-based” they are including music from Russia and North America, and the term “art” is used in reference to almost any type of music that’s not “folk” music (whatever that is).

"All music is folk music, I ain't never heard no horse sing a song." – Louis Armstrong

Confusing, eh? We have few clear guidelines for labeling music as "classical" and must also cope with the problem that the term has been applied to all types of music from medieval plainchant to modern movie music.

We do, however, have a way out of this mess. In a book titled
Music in the United States, musicologist H. Wiley Hitchcock offers guidelines for distinguishing classical music from other types of music. Dr. Hitchcock recommends dividing music into two simple categories: vernacular and cultivated.

According to Dr. Hitchcock,
vernacular music is the everyday music of ordinary people, music that develops “democratically” within a culture. Vernacular music can be used for entertainment. It can also be music that is created and performed for practical use: work, weddings, funerals, festivals, etc. Vernacular music is often labeled as “folk” music or “popular” music.

Cultivated music, on the other hand, requires a community' conscious effort for its creation and maintenance. Quite simply, if the music is not “cultivated,” it dies. It’s a type of music that would not exist without a foundation of knowledgeable teachers, well-trained musicians, educated audiences, and substantial financial support. Cultivated music is a type of music that is usually longer and contains more musical information than so-called “folk” music or “popular” music.

And there it is. Unless we want to restrict our use of the term "classical" to refer only to music of the ancient world or music of the Classical era, we can use the term as a generic description of any music that is “cultivated." The historical era makes no difference.

Classical or "cultivated" music is not necessarily “better” than vernacular music. It is simply different.

And I say, enjoy it all!

Vernacular Music: "Turkey in the Straw"


Cultivated Music: Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, Second Movement


This blog was written under the influence of Leonard Bernstein’s
Symphonic Suite from “On the Waterfront.”