You definitely need the wisdom of this article if any of these statements apply to you:

  • You failed music appreciation in junior high school.

  • You don't know the difference between a flute and a piccolo (you heathen!).

  • You think that "classical" music is anything composed before 1972 ("Stairway to Heaven" - now that's classic).

Even if all three of those statements apply to you, take heart: Learning about classical music is not as boring or difficult as you might imagine it to be. In fact, without realizing it, you're probably already familiar with many classical songs because they're everywhere - at the dentist office, in car commercials on TV, accompanying your favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon. Your cell phone may even play Beethoven's "Fur Elise" when it rings.

We're going to teach you the basics about classical music partly because we figured that a bum like you could use some breeding, but mostly because unlike listening to Eminem, listening to classical music can be a beautiful, powerful, and emotionally rewarding experience. And if those aren't good enough reasons for you to stick around for the lesson, becoming a classical music buff will make you a foolproof babe magnet.

Now, onto the world of Stravinsky, Mozart, and Beethoven. (By the end of this SYW they'll be Igor, Wolfie, and Lud-Master V. to you.)

(By the way, we have tons of music for you to listen to, but you'll need to download Real Audio Player or some other audio listening program. Don't panic though -- Real Audio is free).


The Middle Ages: The Birth of Classical Music

Classical music wasn't always about violins and conductors. In fact, a bunch of monks and a man named Pope Gregory I are credited for starting it all. Singing had been going on for centuries before Pope Gregory came along, but he was the first to come up with the idea of writing music down…and sheet music was born.

Gregory gave each note that he could come up with (four in total) a corresponding letter: A through D. We still use these notes today, but E, F, G, and all the half notes between each note on the scale have been added since Gregory's time.

Soon, monks started writing and singing songs using Gregory's rules. These simple, yet meandering melodies were called Gregorian Chants. If you listen to them, they really sound like a bunch of monks singing in a monastery - spiritual, calming…and just a little soporific.

A few years later, a monk named Guido of Arezzo decided that writing A, B, C, and D was too babyish. He invented the music notations do, re, mi, fa, so, la, and ti, and drew them as notes on a staff. Notes and staffs are now a lot more complicated than when Guido first came up with them, but he can certainly be credited as being the first.

The Renaissance: Madrigals and Operas

During an age when visual art and religious beliefs were being reborn, music was not about to be left out. Madrigals, a form of vocal music that incorporated at least three voices (but often more), was created and quickly became popular. Madrigals involved being a team player, sounding beautiful and harmonic, and a fun technique called madrigalism. An example of madrigalism: when singers came across the word "happy" in their lyrics, they would sing that note happily. Or if they were singing about running down a hill, the notes would also descend.

Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi came up with the idea of adding musical accompaniment to madrigals. He also decided to make music more dramatic by inventing opera. If learning about opera interests you, we have thoughtfully written another article entitled, "SYW Learn About Opera?"

The Baroque Era

Around the late 1600s, it was fashionable for the royalty and rich households to employ a composer (sort of like a maid or a chauffeur). Composers also resided in churches and wrote music for mass. So writing music wasn't a hobby for composers like Vivaldi, Handel, and Bach - it was a high-pressure job. And they were the best at it, each creating hundreds of pieces that are still played and cherished today (along with hundreds of others that are lost forever because composers wrote and performed their music so casually).

The Classical Period

The classical period, which lasted from the mid-1700s to early 1800s, yielded some of the most popular composers in history. Classical music really became popular during this time, and everyone waited anxiously as composers, who were like 19th century Britney Spearses, came out with new concertos, sonatas, and symphonies. There were many one-hit wonders, but composers like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn rose to the top and stayed there. They defined classical music at the time.

The Romantic Era

During the romantic era (early to mid-1800s), music took a turn for the highly emotional and poetically personal. Structure, though still important, was second to expressing oneself freely. A beautiful sunset or a lovely member of the opposite sex would send a composer running for his quill pen. Berlioz, Chopin, Brahms, Liszt, and Strauss are just some of the romantic greats.

Nationalism in Classical Music

Prior to the mid-1800s, composers typically went to Vienna, Austria -the Mecca of classical music-to become great. But then it became fashionable to just stay home and compose music from there, instead. Composers like Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and others made up songs that had a bit of hometown flavor, and this style of incorporating your country's folk music into classical music was a hit, lasting until the beginning of the 20th century.

Twentieth-Century Classical Music

When a new century dawned, composers like Debussy, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Gershwin changed all the rules again by making their music very "visual." Their pieces were like musical movies. Disney took advantage of this fact and incorporated several twentieth-century pieces into Fantasia.