Sunday, February 8, 2009

Why is Classical Music different?

A few aspects of classical music make it different from most other genres; especially the mainstream pop music genre.

Classical music pieces are typically:
1. Longer than most music pieces of other genres
2. Highly organized in terms of structure
3. Specified in terms of notation and method of performance

When I say long, what do I mean?

An unconfirmed story tells me that just before the compact disc was first released, its maximum playing time was raised from the initially planned 60 minutes to 74 minutes after Sony’s Vice President Nori Ohga insisted that it be able to accommodate the entire Ninth Symphony of Beethoven.

The typical pop song runs from anywhere between three minutes to eight minutes. In classical music, that timeframe would only accommodate minuets, etudes, ditties, miscellaneous parlour tunes, perhaps some waltzes, fantasies and the like. The typical symphony or concerto on the other hand is anywhere between 20 to 45 minutes long. The invitation is not so much to chat for a while and then shake hands, but rather to go on a fairly long walk; a journey as it were. Techno music can have tracks that run for 45 minutes, but their fabric is clearly based on repetition and inducing a trance-like state in the listener.

That brings me to the second distinction; the highly organized structure of classical music. Leaving aside the simple monophonic (plain melody without harmony) style of the medieval chant, one of classical music’s great attractions is the beauty that comes from creating various harmonies on a melody or various melodies in counterpoint or various and dramatic key changes within a piece. Where a typical pop track would have a lead singer with backup vocals singing in harmony, with possibly one key, modulated once or twice into a new key and an ensemble of guitars, percussion and assorted instruments, a typical symphony would have a 70-100-member orchestra with first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, double bass, woodwind, brass, percussion – all sections playing not necessarily the same melody or in the same rhythm, not necessarily in the same key, following very specific notation and a highly sophisticated organization of layered music with an astonishing number of changes in key, pace, volume and intonation.

To look at a famous (and perhaps extreme) example of the forces involved, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony was dubbed the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ because of the huge number of musicians it called for (850 singers organized in various choirs and 171 orchestral players in the premiere performance of this symphony, conducted by the composer himself).

And before anybody goes off thinking that the complexity in classical music boils down to the number of voices or instruments used, let us not forget that ensemble pieces are not all there is to classical music. The ‘Chaconne’ (that is the last movement of Bach’s Partita Number 2 in D minor for solo violin) shows what the genius of Bach could do with just a solo instrument. Unlike the piano, which gives the composer the benefit of being able to sound out ten different notes at the same time, the violin is typically played one string at a time with the option for double-stopped playing i.e. two strings bowed at the same time or triple and quadruple-stopped playing which in fact are the result of moving the bow swiftly across the first set of double stops and onto the next string or pair to make it sound as one. Bach, with the apparently paltry forces of a single violin, composes a monumental piece of variations, encompassing a virtual universe of emotions and insight; not to mention presenting significant technical and artistic challenges for the violinist to contend with in performing this piece.

The only other genre that has comparable length in its pieces and in the level of organization of the music is, it seems to me, Indian Hindustani or Carnatic music, where the performance of a single raga can unfold over the span of 30 to 45 minutes and involves little or no actual repetition, but rather a mind boggling combination of elaboration, ornamentation, variation and improvisation.

But this blog focuses on the so-called "Western" Classical Music genre. So that is where we will stay.

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