Remedial Beethoven for Assholes
March 1, 2013 2:41 PM   Subscribe

I don't particularly like classical music. But I would like to rapidly acquire a broad but shallow education in the basics of classical music. How do I best do this?

This is incredibly shallow and vain of me, but I'm getting my butt kicked in this trivia game I play because I have barely any knowledge of classical music. Basically everything that happened in the Western cannon inbetween monks and ragtime, I'm SOL. I mean, I've heard the names of probably 50 or so composers, and could give you a fair guess at the century they were working in and the country they were from. That's....really about it. So, what should I do if I wanted to pick up a shallow but broad education in this? Stuff to listen to? Stuff to read?
posted by Diablevert to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
This site is wicked basic, but it'll get you a little above total-noob level.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 2:43 PM on March 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Go pick up a used copy of the Norton Anthology of Western Music. That's what we used in school. If you can/like to read music, they have companion books with score excerpts.

Check out Alex Ross' writing. The Rest Is Noise is about 20th century music; Listen To This is a little more esoteric.
posted by Madamina at 2:57 PM on March 1, 2013

Well, here's one good trivia item: Beethoven only wrote one opera, and it is called Fidelio.

What is the form/content for the trivia game you play? Knowing this might help us tailor our answers. I think you've got a good start with name, country and century. The next step would be identifying say, the three major works of each of those composers, the general style that they composed in (romantic, classical, neoclassical, atonal, post-modern etc.) and perhaps what makes them important to know i.e. "Wagner invented the concept of the gesamtkunstwerk, the total artwork, in which all aspects of a performance were intentional and related." or "Schoenberg pioneered the use of the 12-tone scale, setting the stage for a shift in the way composers thought about functional harmony."The only words you really need to know in either one of those sentences are Gesamtkunstwerk and 12-tone (just make sure you associate them with the appropriate composer!) I think to the wiki might be your next best move, Batman. Either that or a basic music history textbook, preferably with accompanying CDs.

Cred: I have a degree in music that pretty much means nothing in my day to day life, not even as a musician.
posted by Polyhymnia at 3:04 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Classical Music for Dummies by David Pogue and Scott Speck. It may be a bit more in-depth, but it's very browsable.
posted by lharmon at 3:12 PM on March 1, 2013

If you don't actually care about or like classical music at all (and that's not a value judgment, it's just a conditional), then the best way to get good at classical music trivia would probably be by studying classical music trivia questions, like any old Jeopardy questions about classical music. I'm not personally familiar with one but I'm sure there's at least one site out there that catalogs old Jeopardy answers and questions.
posted by telegraph at 3:12 PM on March 1, 2013

You should listen to the kids series "Classical Kids". I think you can buy the original recordings on iTunes now.

I am not joking. These are intended for children, yes. But they are very, very good and if you listen to all of them you will have a basic knowledge of the life and music of Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Handel and Vivaldi, which is a great start. They are semi-historical, by which I mean they are fictional stories grounded in accurate historical context with accurate details. It isn't very hard to determine which parts of the story are real and which aren't. Each story is about one of the great composers and it features exclusively that composer's music as both the incidental music accompanying the story and as a major part of the plot.

Because all of the music accompanies a story, it is very easy to a) remember the music, b) become involved in the music, c) love the music and, d) associate the music with the story and thus the correct composer.

As a life-long classical music lover and violinist, I can tell you this: classical music is, to a significant degree, an acquired taste. It is complex enough that it takes examination to understand and appreciate it. This doesn't mean you have to know anything about it (although that certainly doesn't hurt and sometimes helps) but it does mean you have to invest time and/or energy in to listening carefully.

This is true even of experienced musicians and music lovers. I've played violin for more than 20 years, and I play in a symphony with people who have played between 20 and 50 years. All of us still find that we warm up to new music as we get to know it intimately. It's quite common for me to feel pretty indifferent about a piece before I study it and totally infatuated with it afterwards.
posted by Cygnet at 3:28 PM on March 1, 2013 [7 favorites]

There's a section on music on Memrise which includes some "courses" on composers. There's one matching composers and pieces.

I've used Memrise to learn other things, like country capitals, but not music. It's pretty good for learning the kinds of things you could learn from a set of flashcards. It's very easy to create your own course if you don't see what you need there already.
posted by OrangeDisk at 3:31 PM on March 1, 2013

Oh, I meant to add: it's possible for you to become shallowly/broadly knowledgeable about the composers, their major works and styles, the various quirks of their lives, etc. However, if by "education in classical music" you mean you want to understand music *theory* - that is, how Western classical music is structured, how harmony works, the rules on which the music is based, and so on, that's acutally... not so possible without diving in more deeply. I can't imagine learning basic theory without knowing how to read music and at least plunk out a few notes on a piano, for example. Feel free to memail me if you want more info about this.
posted by Cygnet at 3:32 PM on March 1, 2013

Oh good call on the Classical Kids, Cygnet! We used to BEG for Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery in my elementary school music class. I'm thrilled to see that they have one focused on early music as well (cause that's my bag)!
posted by Polyhymnia at 3:50 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh my gosh, you're right, Polyhymnia! (Awesome name... are you a Madeleine L'Engle fan too?) When I was growing up (and Classical Kids were my favorite thing ever), I'm pretty sure that one didn't exist. My parents will be thrilled - they are early music folks.

You know, Diablevert, if you'll permit me a little hyperbole, I think those silly kids tapes could kinda chage your life if you listened to all of them. That could be a ridiculous notion - maybe it only works on kids? - but I actually think it's a powerful thing to learn amazing music in the context of a story. For example, Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery takes place at the School of the Pieta. That's a real place, in Venice. When I had the opportunity to go to Venice 5 years ago, there was this one magical day when it snowed (it was January), all the tourists and Venetians stayed inside, and I walked across the whole city alone, to that school. With nobody around, and a stiff breeze blowing the snow and the ocean, I really felt as though I had been transported back to the school as portrayed in the story. And of course, I could hear the music playing in my head - "Winter" from The Four Seasons....

Ok ok then, I'm done rambling.
posted by Cygnet at 3:58 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you don't actually care about or like classical music at all (and that's not a value judgment, it's just a conditional), then the best way to get good at classical music trivia would probably be by studying classical music trivia questions, like any old Jeopardy questions about classical music. I'm not personally familiar with one but I'm sure there's at least one site out there that catalogs old Jeopardy answers and questions.

I have yet some shame. The motive to fill in this lacuna of mine may be shallow, but even if my reasons are dumb my methods can be honest. I'd rather read a few books or articles and pick up some basic knowledge than just study flashcards....if the reason I don't know about something is that I don't care about it, then it's better to try and care a little more than to fake caring, if that makes sense. So feel free to give me some homework, is what I'm saying.

What is the form/content for the trivia game you play? Knowing this might help us tailor our answers.

Pretty free form. There's been questions which required one to name a well known chord progression based on a couple of context clues and the musical notes (turned out to be something by Pachebel?), ones which ask for the name of a composer or a work based on clues and some name that tune ones. All over the board, really.
posted by Diablevert at 4:04 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Check out The Vintage Guide to Classical Music.
posted by kindall at 4:16 PM on March 1, 2013

There's a great Intro To Classical Music course in iTunes U. I think it's an intro class for non-majors taught at a directional university in Missouri? It's super accessible, interesting enough, hits all the high points, and the professor is pretty engaging for it being a directional university in Missouri.

Searching classical music or probably just browsing through the music section of iTunes U should lead you there.
posted by Sara C. at 4:31 PM on March 1, 2013

Check out all the old Leonard Bernstein TV shows on YouTube.
posted by neroli at 5:05 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just a thought - although you didn't mention these questions, you may also want to brush up on the instruments/sections of an orchestra and possibly smaller groups and older instruments.
posted by clerestory at 5:53 AM on March 2, 2013

Watch old Warner Brothers cartoons. You'll be amazed at how much classical music you know.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:05 AM on March 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

This course is not cheap but vanity should be costly. :)
How to Listen to and Understand Great Music
Check your library for a copy first before attempting to buy it.

There is also an upcoming music class on Coursera you can sign up. From the Repertoire: Western Music History through Performance.

posted by Carius at 7:47 PM on March 2, 2013

I LOVED the Classical Kids tapes when I was younger, especially the Vivaldi one.

Also, if you need to learn to identify instruments/instrument groups, I'd recommend Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.
posted by naturalog at 10:56 PM on March 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I read a great book called From Metal to Mozart that might fit the bill.

I also enjoyed Who's Afraid Of Classical Music?
posted by wittgenstein at 1:53 PM on March 5, 2013

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