In the world of computer systems that I used to work in, there are two general approaches to building and maintaining computer systems that are sometimes distinguished as the “Pets or Cattle” approach. That is, do you build each of your computers individually and with tailored care, naming each one with nice, human-friendly names …or do you build them according to a template, naming them with robot-like names whose specifics are neither relevant nor particularly human friendly?
When you want to begin listening to classical music, how do you get started? Which pieces or composers are essential to the point of being almost ‘compulsory’ and which aren’t?
Well, to begin with, I should state very clearly that there is absolutely no compulsion for anybody to like every, or any, particular piece of classical music! Each of us has individual tastes and what is glorious and wonderful to one person is found to be tedious and discordant to another.
As this website is all about listening to “classical music”, I thought I’d better start off by defining what exactly is meant by the phrase, ‘classical music’, at least when this website uses it!
At its broadest, the term ‘classical music’ means something that sounds like this:
…or potentially like this:
The first of those samples was written around 925; the second in around 1979. There’s getting on for 1000 years of history between the two …yet both are usually thought to be examples of ‘classical music’ (and both might be played on BBC Radio 3, which might thought to be another defining characteristic of all ‘classical music’!)
But using the one term to cover both pieces (and everything in between, written over a thousand years or so) is, I think, stretching language beyond the point where it remains meaningful.
It doesn’t help, either, that there is a period within that thousand-year history when genuinely “Classical” music (with a capital C!) was being written, by the likes of Mozart and Haydn. The truly Classical period, in art, architecture and music, was the few decades around the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, sandwiched between the Baroque and the Romantic periods.
So, we are cursed with using the term ‘classical music’ when we want to refer to any piece of music that could have been written any time in the last thousand years -or maybe within just the 40-odd years either side of the turn of the 19th century. It’s not really a very helpful term, then, is it?!
It is because of the manifest absurdity of using one term to mean pretty much anything musical written in the past thousand years that other terms are sometimes used in its place, such as ‘Art music’ or ‘Serious music’… but those have their own problems: is a 19th century comic opera ‘serious music’, for starters?! And isn’t Jazz just as much a legitimate art form as a violin concerto by Mozart?
But let me take one word from that last paragraph as the real key to what we’re talking about here: “written”. That which we call ‘classical music’ is all, for the most part, written down, on a stave (or staff), indicating pitch, note durations and rhythm. Classical music is a literate form of music -in a way that, for example, ‘pop’ music rarely is. Compare Beethoven’s ability to write down the music of his 9th Symphony when completely deaf -the same notes we play today in much the same way as Beethoven intended with his ‘inner ear’- to the way the Beatles ‘wrote’ their music, for example:
In their early years, Lennon and McCartney wrote songs together and one of their rules was that if they wrote a song but then couldn’t remember how it went, they’d junk it. Since they were trying to write songs that were catchy, this rule worked very well. They wrote words down and changed them on the page, and they might scribble guitar chord names above the words, but as far as the tunes and guitar parts were concerned, they just remembered them.