This is a guest article by Timothy Keefe:


In an episode last year, I talked about one of my long-standing “passions” (and I grit my teeth when I use that hackneyed and abused term) for many years: classical music. In the episode, I talked freestyle about why it’s important to me and why, so I think, anyone “masculine” and “geeky” enough should probably get involved with classical music to some degree. Not to the extent that I have, which is a very well-read amateur with a musical background (though it has been many years ago), and the smarts and educational chops to read books like composers’ biographies, musical theory, and aesthetics. Oh, yes . . . and there are the many concerts I’ve attended both here and in Europe.

If you choose to go down that route, good for you, but it’s not for everyone.

With that out of the way, let me break things down for the newbie or sort-of-newbie using the six main questions . ..


What is “classical music”? Referencing Wikipedia, classical music refers to art music. “Art” for its own sake, mainly, though composers in the past have written music for quasi-commercial purposes (e.g., Mozart and Beethoven). No harm there, because, at a certain time, composers moved out of the space of being in the service of a monarch or the aristocracy to becoming what we definitely call “freelancers.” The difference is that there were no recordings, and so no record deals and no record companies pushing their work. That didn’t change until post-WW II.

Classical music also is tied up with Western cultural forms, particularly religion. Indeed, before the 16th century or thereabouts, most music was written and performed for liturgical purposes. This is why, when you really get into the history of classical music, you can’t escape the fact that many composers, to include the likes of Mozart and Beethoven, wrote (mainly Catholic) masses, hymns, choruses, cantatas, and oratorios. They were Christians, and believers (if only nominally in some cases). Don’t worry . . . no Bible-thumpers here. When you do get to such music, enjoy the music for what it’s worth.

Finally, classical music is about forms. We’ll get to what these forms are later, but for all that’s good and right and true, do NOT be like the unwashed masses and refer to stuff in classical music as “songs.” If I had a dime for every time some rank beginner refers to a symphony, for example, as a “song,” I’d not be working my job. Remember that a “song” is but ONE form among many. It’s a vocalist (could be male or female, or an “it” in today’s Clown World, sadly) singing to musical accompaniment. That’s it. And, yes, there are some exceptions: e.g.., Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words.” But, you get the picture.

To be on the safe side, and one that’s mostly in line with what those in the know do, refer to the stuff in classical music as “pieces” if you’re not familiar with the form. You’ll score points with the snobs like myself. 🙂


Who is involved with classical music? Those people are too numerous to mention, but there are composers, performers, directors, impresarios, etc. As the beginner or quasi-beginner, focus less on what’s a “good” orchestra, ensemble, company, etc., and instead focus on the music and the composer. It’s all about the music in the end, and whether you like it or not. Bach isn’t for everyone; neither is Schubert, Stravinsky, Berg, Britten, etc. Follow your ears (and maybe your heart) to where it takes you.

Also remember two other things. First, several composers were also performers, mainly piano and violin. The piano gained prominence in the 18th and 19th century, and it’s still one of the most versatile instruments out there to flesh out musical ideas. Some of these composers were also what’s called a “virtuoso,” which is a highly talented and skilled performer. Franz Lizst, the famed pianist from the 19th century, is the epitome of a virtuoso. He was the rock star of his day, dropping panties left and right. When you listen to his music, you’ll see why — and think of how well that would go over today, in the era of auto-tune.

Second, remember that many of the great composers wrote in many forms. Lizst, whom I just mentioned, wrote mainly for the piano, but he also wrote concertos, symphonies, an opera, songs, and a mass. Other composers, wrote mainly for one instrument or for one form: e.g., Chopin for the piano, Verdi for opera. You’ll see this in greatest hits collections.


Broadly defined, classical music kind of starts around 1550, which is the first time it was codified into what scholars name the common-practice period. This is where the common forms such as symphonies and sonatas appeared. There also was more emphasis on harmony, rhythm, and duration — technical forms that we still see today.

I won’t go into the specific periods here and will save those for later. Suffice to say, as you get more into classical music, learn something about the periods and the historical context in which a particular composer wrote. For example, the movie “Amadeus” is about Mozart, and the time period is the late 18th century.


Where is classical music? As for where it originated, it’s England and continental Europe. Where to find it? All over the world. It’s also inescapable. You, the newbie, know at least one piece by a famous composer, though you might not be able to name it.


The “how” is though live performance, recordings (YouTube is a gold mine nowadays), and fiddling with it. If you play the piano, you can play classical music right now. Just download the scores from online and go to town.


Most important, WHY classical music? Because, as I intimated above, it’s part of the Western cultural heritage. You can’t escape it, nor should you try. It’s not for everyone, though everyone has encountered at least one piece in their lives and maybe enjoy it.

Because there’s so much out there, it takes time to get into it and to let it become part of you. I’ve been listening to classical music, in varying degrees, since I was about 10, and seriously since about 15. You might be starting around that age, or older. If older, then you might have a steep learning and listening curve, but you also have the benefit of comparing it to other forms like pop, rock, heavy metal, etc. And, you already know some forms from classical music, though you might not be able to pinpoint them. You might in time — just listen.

And, with that, I’ll leave things until next time.

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