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A Listening Guide to Classical Music

This author has been an educator, conductor, and trombonist for the past 40 years. His experience qualifies him as an expert in this field.

The 3 Levels of Music Listening

Aaron Copland, was a famous American composer, writer, and conductor. In his book, What to Listen for in Music, he explains the concept of three different levels of listening in music.

Level 1: Awareness, passive listening

The first is a basic level that encompasses the awareness of sounds and/or music around us. This level requires a very small amount of brainpower. We usually associate this level with “background music."

Level 2: More awareness, some breakdown of the music, active listening

The second level is where the brain kicks in and it is able to help us identify sounds that we recognize. This would include environmental sounds, people's voices, and music examples that we have stored in our brains. This level requires some concentration, as we can feel some sort of emotion from the music, even if we can’t identify it. But we do know it’s there. Most people listen to music at this level. No commitment to analysis.

Level 3: Full commitment to analysis, high leve active listening

The third level of listening to music falls in the category of “analysis mode." Many people do not reach this level because it requires the brain to analyze all aspects of the music. This could also be called the “musicians listening mode."

Understanding how music is put together opens many new genres for listening. Read on to learn more.

Understanding how music is put together opens many new genres for listening. Read on to learn more.

The 5 Elements of Music

We can learn a lot about music and how to listen better if we learn to listen like a musician. We don’t have to have the instrumental or vocal skills to do this, but thinking on this level will allow us to learn and appreciate what a musician goes through every day. It is second nature to them.

Musicians listen and perform music using the five basic elements of music.

  • Rhythm: Organized sounds and silences in time.
  • Melody: Series of notes (pitches) that move in time, one after another.
  • Harmony: Two or more notes played at the same time.
  • Form: Blueprint of a piece of music. The different sections.
  • Timbre (pronounced Tam-ber): Tone color or quality of the sound.

Listening Exercise

In this exercise, we will be listening to a piece of music called: “Fanfare for the Common Man." This composition was written by Aaron Copland. It is a very vibrant and ceremonial piece of music and a relatively short performance.

To make this an easy exercise, I have provided a video example for you to click on, accompanied by a chart below it to follow along with why you are listening.

  • Please listen to the different combinations of instruments. Brass and Percussion
  • Listen for the blend of the four different brass instruments: Trumpets, French Horns, Trombones, and Tubas. This is the element of music called—Timbre (Tone Color).
  • The rhythm in this composition is very simple. Quarter and eighth notes.
  • As you listen for the melody, you will find that this is not your regular type "melody", but often referred to as a "theme."
  • Harmony in this fanfare is simple but powerful.

List of Musical Elements: "Fanfare for the Common Man"

TimeInstrumentsFamily

0:04

Gong, Timpani, Bass Drum

Percussion

0:05

Timpani, Bass Drum

Percussion

0:10

Gong

Percussion

0:24

Trumpets

Brass

0:46

Timpani, Bass Drum

Percussion

0:51

Trumpets, French Horns

Brass

1:07

Timpani, Bass Drum

Percussion

1:09

Trumpets, French Horns

Brass

1:20

Gong, Timpani, Bass Drum

Percussion

1:29

Trombones, Tubas

Brass

1:32

Timpani

Percussion

* after this point all brass and percussion are playing together.

The 6 Periods of Classical Music (Western Art Music)

History provides us with six distinct periods in western art music. Over the years we've come to call all of it classical, but an educated listener will start to understand the differences between artists from different eras.

  1. Medieval (800–1400)
  2. Renaissance (1400–1600)
  3. Baroque (1600–1750)
  4. Classical (1750–1825)
  5. Romantic (1825–1900)
  6. Modern (1900–present)

Below is a list of compositions to seek out from each period and I've included a representative video as well.

1. Medieval Period (800–1400)

CompositionComposerCountry

Messe de Nostre Dame

Josquin Des Prez

France

J'aim sans penser

Guillaume de Machau

France

Antiphon; O quam mirabilis est

John Dunstable

England

A poste messe

Hildegard von Bingen

Germany

2. Renaissance Period (1400–1600)

CompositionComposerCountry

Missa Ave maris stella

DesPrez

France

Vespro della Beata Vergine

Monteverdi

Italy

Preludio no 4

Elias Mertel

Germany

Sonata pian' e forte

Giovanni Gabrieli

Germany

Domine secundum actum meum

William Byrd

English

3. Baroque Period

CompositionComposerCountry

Concerto for Two Cellos

Antonio Vivaldi

Italy

Royal Fireworks Music

George Frederick Handel

Germany

St Matthew Passion

Johann Sebastian Bach

Germany

Rondeau des Indes Galantes

Jean-Philippe Rameau

France

Prelude and Fugue in D Major

Bach

Germany

Marche pour la cérémonie des Turcs

Lully

France

Brandenberg Concertos

Bach

Germany

4. Classical Period (1750–1825)

CompositionComposerCountry

Trumpet Concerto in A-flat Major

Franz Josef Haydn

Austria

Symphonies 1-9

Ludwig van Beethoven

Germany

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Austria

Symphonies 4 & 5

Franz Shubert

Germany

String Quartet No. 62, Op. 76

Haydn

Austria

Exsultate Jubilate

Mozart

Austria

5. Romantic Period (1825–1900)

CompositionComposerCountry

Turandot: Nessun Dorma

Giacomo Puccini

Italy

Symphony Fantastique

Hector Berlioz

France

New World Symphony

Antonin Dvorak

Czechoslovakia

Hungarian Rhapsody no 2

Franz Liszt

Germany

Ride Of The Valkyries

Richard Wagner

Germany

Nabucco - Overture

Giuseppe Verdi

Italy

Symphony No 4

Peter I.Tchaikovsky

Russia

6. Modern Period (1900–present)

CompositionComposerCountry

Symphony No. 5 in D minor

Dmitri Shostakovich

Russia

The Planets

Gustav Holst

England

Rhapsody in Blue

George Gershwin

United States

Battle On The Ice

Sergei Prokofiev

Russia

Semper Fidelis March

John Philip Sousa

United States

Telemusik

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Germany

Hungarian Sketches

Béla Bartók

Hungary

100 Classical Music Pieces

To help you with A Listening Guide to Classical Music is the 5 CD collection of 100 music pieces. I purchased this collection some years ago and listen to it often. I highly recommend this set.

The 5 CDs include music from the listening list I provided along with several others from the various musical periods.

Further Reading

  • Differences Between Hearing and Listening
    Many people do not know that there are differences between the words Hearing and Listening. Read on to discover how these two words work for you.
  • The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach
    The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach has for centuries been regarded as standard music for the church as well as a primary foundation for musicians to study young and old alike. Read about and listen to the music of this great Baroque composer.
  • Why Not Listen to Classical Music?
    With all the choices in music to listen to today, it's no wonder that many people shy away from music that they don’t understand.This article will give you helpful information so that you might say - Why not listen to classical music.
  • Listen to Music Through Form
    Form in music is the structure or “blueprint” of the composer. This article will show you how you can listen to music through the form and understand it better.

© 2018 Reginald Thomas