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How do I educate myself about history of music?

(33 Posts)
LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 05-Nov-12 10:25:36

I am procrastinating with writers' block, trying to write about Books of Hours, and so to try and give myself another way to think about the texts I've been listening to a lot of medieval liturgical music, which has made me aware of how painfully little I know about the history of music. Here's more or less what I know:

Way-back-when BC: people made instruments? Do we know about them?
Greek-Roman times: they had lyres and shit
early medieval: plainsong and no polyphonic music (though I am not entirely clear what polyphony is blush)
[long gap]
Abba. And Madonna.

Can you help me fill in the gaps (and I know it's all Western-centric, sorry!)?

greenhill Mon 05-Nov-12 11:48:26

I've got very little idea about the history of music either, but Wiki normally is a good start for basic info.

Hildegard of Bingen is quite nice, if you like medieval music, have you heard this?

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 05-Nov-12 11:54:01

Thank you! smile

I love browsing on youtube (though I'd not come across all of those linked). I just wish I understood better what was going on in the music, what the exciting developments are across time, that sort of thing. I know I could browse wiki but I was hoping some enthusiastic folk would come along and make it a bit more exciting. Lazy, maybe. grin

TravelinColour Mon 05-Nov-12 11:56:37

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Wallison Mon 05-Nov-12 12:01:01

This covers a lot of ground, often in more depth than you might imagine from such an all-purpose title, will give you loads of ideas for things to listen to and is a good starting-point you can use for finding out even more. It's a huge subject though!:

Wallison Mon 05-Nov-12 12:01:47

Trying again to link:

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 05-Nov-12 12:03:35

Thank you travelin and wallison.

Wallison Mon 05-Nov-12 12:18:08

Btw polyphony is when you have a tune that consists of two or more separate lines of melody being sung/played by two or more separate people/groups. The lines 'fit' together in that they harmonise to a certain degree, but it's different to having a melody with just a harmony accompanying it because the harmony has become embellished to the point that it is melodic line in its own right, and you also get things like hanging on a bit longer to one note while the top line changes, or anticipating the change or whatever.

Wallison Mon 05-Nov-12 12:19:49

Oh dear now I've read that back it makes little sense - hopefully someone will be able to come along and help out a bit more!

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 05-Nov-12 12:30:53

Um ... I admit I'm not following it completely! grin

I'm really shite at music. It's something I regret a lot - I absolutely hated it at school because we had a teacher at secondary school who for some reason didn't anticipate that anyone could have got to the age of 11 without having learned to play the piano and done a few grades, so she always taught as if everyone was at that level, and obviously those of us who didn't understand didn't realize what the heck was going on.

I probably need to sit down with a very basic book at some point.

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 05-Nov-12 12:31:18

(Btw, I am blaming the teacher but I am also just massively naturally shite at music. I wouldn't want you to think otherwise.)

Wallison Mon 05-Nov-12 12:42:15

That's rubbish about your teacher; music can be such a great adventure, like reading books can be - in fact, like both of them should be, imho.

Ok, monophony is when there is just the one line of music - the tune. Like this:

You can have one person singing it, or one person playing an instrument, or a group singing, or a group singing with instruments playing, but they are all playing or singing the same notes.

Polyphony is when you have more than one line - like this:

You can hear that they are all doing different stuff and following their own path, but it fits together because all the parts harmonise with each other. But because they are doing different things and there are several melodies interwoven with each other, it is different to, say, Elton John singing a melody and accompanying himself on the piano. That is called homophony, where there is a distinct tune and then (usually) some kind of chord sequence played underneath it.

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 05-Nov-12 12:46:44

Ahhh ... ok, I get you! Thank you, that is very cool!

That's exactly the sort of thing I wanted to know.


Wallison Mon 05-Nov-12 12:57:56

Once you get into polyphonic music, there are some really exciting things like Bach's work, where you have three or even four 'voices' played on the piano by one person, all working in harmony but with a tension created by the rise and fall, development and resolution of each melody line. That's contrapuntal music, which is like a very complex type of polyphony and some people argue that it shouldn't be counted as polyphony because it is so much more developed than the music that went before it. This is a nice example, played by to my mind the greatest exponent of Bach that ever lived:

And then Mozart came along and betrayed the glorious revolution. grin

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 05-Nov-12 12:59:33


This is amazing - I know the word contrapuntal but it was just a word I attached absolutely no meaning to (which bugs me because someone uses it as a metaphor in some lit crit I read recently and I hadn't the foggiest what he meant).

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 05-Nov-12 12:59:47

So Mozart is sort of a step back to a more traditional style?

Wallison Mon 05-Nov-12 13:14:46

Mozart's music - as with all of the 'Classical era' composers - is a lot less complex than Bach and the other Baroque people. There is still some polyphony, but it's more about clear melodic lines with other instruments providing an accompaniment - the 'homophonic' way of writing. Like for eg if you think of an opera aria, there will be the voice with the tune while the instruments just sort of chug along underneath it providing an accompaniment. Also, instruments were changing - for eg piano instead of harpsichord - and the new instruments had greater dynamic variation. I mean, there was more variety in the volume they could produce, and classical composers could use that as a means of ratcheting up tension, rather than having to rely on variation of pitch alone like the Baroque guys did.

Disclaimer: this is all my take on it! I am by no means an expert and I'm sure there are plenty who disagree with me!

Mrscog Mon 05-Nov-12 13:23:55

I love History of Music things - I prefer the detail of later things though and how society influenced the music at the time. I confess my knowledge is pretty much up to GCSE though. If you have enough knowledge you can 'date' most pieces of 'classical' music by the way they sound. there were 3 main periods of music in what we would consider 'classical' pre 1900 music. They were baroque, classical and then romantic. The styles fit in to other artistic styles of the time - ie the romantic poets were writing their romantic poetry at the same time people like Tchaikovsky were writing romantic pieces of music.

The Baroque style is music written between roughly 1600-1750, and was often simple in it's beat, but often quite majestic sounding or decorative -and has lots of 'parts' so bass line, and a melody and other parts think Hallelujah Chorus (Handel) or Four Seasons (Vivaldi), in part because a lot of music was composed for royal courts or the church. Early baroque composers include Monteverdi and Cavelli, the in the mid baroque period there are more recognisable composers such as Pachabel, Purcell and Vivaldi to an extent. For me the music of Handel really sums up the era and it's style.

Classical era music is written between 1750 - 1820 and again fits with other 'arts' (such as architecture) that were popular at the time. It is not as textured as music from the baroque period - often a melody and an accompaniment, and I think more boring ;). The music is often quite 'up and down' with scales written in. Mozart and Bach are the quintessential Classical composers.

The Romantic era spanned (roughly) 1820 - 1910 and built on the classical style but added in much more 'feeling and emotion' in to music. The composers also developed more intricate, detailed music than in the classical period. Tchaikovsky is one of the greatest Romantic composers (my favourite), but other famous ones are Chopin, Offenbach, Brahms, Saint-Saens, Bizet.

Hopefully my memory has served me right with all of that! And like Wallinson says - this is all my own opinion - there is much debate about who belongs to which period!

MrsVincentPrice Mon 05-Nov-12 13:24:21

Put Radio 3 on in the background all day, especially Composer of the Week.
If you hear a term you're not sure about read the relevant Wikipedia article.

That's it.

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 05-Nov-12 13:28:23

Thanks very much everyone! That detail is brilliant, thanks mrscog.

It is so much nicer to hear memory/opinions IMO than to read wiki, because wiki is always so very carefully unbiased, I don't get a sense of why it's interesting - what you said about feeling and emotion really helps me think about it and brings it together with what else I know about that period.

Wallison Mon 05-Nov-12 13:31:05

Mrscog - I agree with you about Classical music being more boring! Baroque is where it's at, definitely! I often wonder what we would be listening to now if it hadn't have been for the Classical guys derailing things. But maybe that's because I'm a 20th century girl at heart - for me, things tailed off after Bach and didn't really get that great again until the late Romantic period where they start getting all chromatical.

Wallison Mon 05-Nov-12 13:36:00

Also, Mozart is boring to play. I mean, yes, it's lovely and some of it does have a bit more depth to it. But just thinking about piano music, with the notable exception of the A minor sonata and maybe a few others, there just isn't a lot to it. That's why when you start off playing your first 'proper' pieces on the piano, they will be Mozart, or Scarlatti, or Haydyn because even someone who has only been learning for a couple of years can manage them. And where's the fun in that?

MarjorieAntrobus Mon 05-Nov-12 13:36:39

Simon Russell Beale (great actor) did a fantastic couple of series of something called "Sacred music" on the BBC. I have DVDs but I am sure it can be picked up somehow else.

He started right at the beginning of Christian music-making. So that is not the beginning of all music-making, obviously, but is at the start of the kind of thing you are looking at.

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 05-Nov-12 13:38:47

Ooh! I like SRB. I will have a good google. Thank you!

I find it really interesting, the idea of Classical music being boring. I suppose because I know nothing about music, I feel as if I have to try to like everything canonical, so it is really interesting to get a sense of what different people on here actually enjoy when they know more about it.

MarjorieAntrobus Mon 05-Nov-12 13:41:00

Here is a link to it, OP, but I bet it isn't still available. Anyway, paid-for DVDs plus other routes will bring it to your pc.

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