Classical music subgenre labels
September 14, 2006 7:54 AM   Subscribe

I have some questions about categories (?) of classical music since that is one area of music I be the stupid regarding.

So the wife and I were eating at a local French bistro chain called la Madeleine. They were playing music that sounds like the music on their website. So the wife said she liked the music and asked me what it was. I guessed "classical." She asked if I had anything more specific. All I could come up with was "music to surrender to."

We then discussed instrumental classical music, and we came to realize that, although we love music, we were not very knowledgeable about classical music. Obviously we can pick out our Beethovens, Mozarts, Wagners, and Rachs, etc. But I am more interested in labels.

What would you call that kind of music on that website? Is the label based on the time period it is made? Based on the geographical region it comes from? Or are there labels based on the mood it evokes?

We are more interested in the latter. Like all music, classical music has the ability to change moods or accentuate them. I would say that the music on that website is light-hearted, cheery, and mildly relaxing. Would classical music that does that have a particular name? In terms of contrast, would there be a name for classical music that is dark and depressing, like a dirge or something? What about music that makes the blood race? And the one that we are most interested in, is there is a label for classical music that is placid and relaxing to the point that it would put you to sleep?

Next time we go eat there, I want to be able to drop some knowledge on her hardcore like. Then she can go to the Borders classical music section and look for _______.

posted by dios to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, you can divide classical music by era.

On my filesystem (and ipod) I rather arbitrarily divide classical into genres by era. Roughly chronologically: Classical: Medieval/Renaissance (I need to split that one), Classical: Baroque, Classical: Classical, Classical: Romantic, and Classical: 20th Century. I also use some broader categories, namely Classical: Orchestral (I dunno what I was thinking, that one needs to die), Classical: Vocal (which also needs to die), and (what can you do) Classical: Christmas for Christmas music.

Opera is a separate category entirely, which is divided by composer, and then sub-divided by conductor or company (this is better for stuff I have multiple versions of, like the Ring Cycle, or the Gilbert & Sullivan operas).

(Then (purists be damned), Musicals are another section entirely, divided by composer + librettist, then work.)

As far as mood, dividing by era works decently. Baroque music sounds like math, for "dark and depressing" or "blood racing " you want Romantic, stately and swelling is Classical, placid but fun is waltzes (in the Romantic category).

Real music aficionados will no doubt find my categorization severely lacking.
posted by orthogonality at 8:20 AM on September 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

This music is definitely from the "baroque" era of Classical music. If you buy Bach's Brandenburg Concerti, 1 through 6, you will be very pleased. Handel's Water Music is also very good and similar.

You can tell it's baroque because there's multiple melodic lines going on at the same time. Great stuff for weekend morning coffee!

Even more specific, it's concerto grosso style. Vivaldi and Corelli did a bunch in this style.
posted by umlaut at 9:07 AM on September 14, 2006

Formal classical categorization tends to focus on time period, composer, compositional form (sonata, symphony, concerto, etc.) and ensemble type (solo, orchestra, quintet, etc). There are other means of categorization, but I'll stop there for now.

A survey of music appreciation will give you some idea of the trends for each. And it will lead to a you an knowledge of other influences, such as compositional "schools", or how much a conductor or performer can alter the feel of a piece. You can get this information from survey books (like the Norton Anthology), or just reading those liner notes that come with CDs.

Further more, within pieces themselves, there will be indicators such as keys (major vs. minor) and overall tempos.

All of this information will let you glean the overall "mood" of a piece.

For example, if I saw a Handel sonata for oboe & organ with an adagio movement in D minor, I'd expect it to be a slow, sad sounding aria. I'd expect the organ line to be simple and the oboe part have lots of embellishments that vary from performer to performer. If the overall piece that contained this movement was in a major key, my knowledge of the form and time period would lead me to expect a much brighter, happier, and faster movement immediately follows afterwards.

But, as you progress through the history of music, things get more and more unpredictable as composers begin redefining what music "is". Once you hit the Romantic era on up, multiple moods within a piece become more and more common. (You'll notice many sampler CDs start to focus on excerpts, rather than complete pieces.)

It might sound complicated, but learning the jargon and getting a basic grasp of musical styles can come from just listening, listening, listening to music. Though purists may pooh-pooh samplers, they are a good way to begin finding composers and compositions that share a common thread, usually "mood".
posted by Sangre Azul at 9:31 AM on September 14, 2006

Well, I can't find any music on that site. But in general I would say you can classify classical music according to the following dimensions:

Period: Usually what you will see is Medieval/Renaissance, Baroque (1600-1750 Bach, Vivaldi), Classical (1730-1820 Early Beethoven), Romantic (almost everything from 1820-1900), Modern (1900-on, Gershwin, Copland, Stravinsky, Pärt). These are of course approximate ranges.

Form: A lot of works are written with a specific structure or form. So for example dances (such as waltzes, polkas, tangos, gavottes, and minuets) tend to be short instrumental works with a repeating structure. A concerto is a medium-length work for a soloist with accompaniment. A symphony is a longer work of four or five movements scored for an orchestra.

Here is where you can make some generalizations about mood. Dances tend to be light. Symphonies are meant to be impressive. Opera is often described as comic or tragic. When in doubt check the key. Minor-keyed pieces tend to sound more "moody" than major-keyed pieces.

Ensemble/arrangement: Most music is composed for a specific combination of instruments (piano, orchestra, quartet, quintet, etc., etc..) But it's a fairly traditional practice to adapt and arrange works for a different set of instruments. This is especially true with Renaissance and Baroque music because the instruments are not commonly made. But it's also the case that performers will adapt a work they like for their favorite instruments. For example, Kronos Quartet does an amazing "Purple Haze".

I'll disagree with orthogonality regarding linking mood to era because there are lots of exceptions to those rules.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:35 AM on September 14, 2006

That recording of the 3rd movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 is so slow! It's marked "presto," so it should be pretty fast.

This recording is nice.
posted by free pie at 10:00 AM on September 14, 2006

Oh, I'll just throw a plug in for Magnatune as a nice place to browse for this kind of stuff and get familiar with the field.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:04 AM on September 14, 2006

Well I got here late, but I'll second Sangre Azul's suggestion of looking at the Norton Anthology if you're interested in learning the genres/periods of classical music. After a while of familiarising yourself with the major periods you'll never mistake one for the other.
posted by ob at 10:24 AM on September 14, 2006

Another way of classifying classical music, that works well for deciding whether a piece will "fit" a particular situation, is to focus on the instrumentation, and number of players (parts). For example, the piece on the Web site you linked is played by a chamber orchestra, typically a smaller group than a full symphony orchestra, at somewhere around 30 to 35 players. A chamber orchestra will have fewer horn players, fewer woodwinds, and fewer string players than an 80 player symphony, and usually played in smaller halls, for "court" settings. Many people like chamber music, as it is called, because the voices of the instruments are clearer, there not being so many, and because the smaller group makes for a smaller, more intimate dynamic range.

Continuing with that idea, string quartets are another very popular chamber group. Consisting usually of 2 violins, viola, and cello, the string quartet has most of the "voices" of the string section of an orchestra, and yet each instrument is clear in its sound. There is plenty of repetoire for string quartets, as many composers wrote for them.

In the same way, small groups of brass instruments form groups, one of my favorites being a brass choir. And you find small woodwind groups such as trios represented in the literature.

On the other end of the scale, you find the big works for the big ochestras, that most people hear some time in school. Beethoven, Brahms, and other masters of the symphonic form come to mind, but they also used the big orchestras for setting solo instruments against, in a form called the concerto. There are many piano concertos, as well as violin concertos, because these work well as solo virtuoso instruments. But you can also hear cello, clarinet, horn, and even bassoon concertos, if you dig through the literature for such specialty pieces.

So, that's another way of classifying music, that may make it easier to imagine in various settings. On Sunday mornings, a string quartet may be just the thing for a quiet brunch, but for a Tuesday evening dinner with friends, you may want to find a small chamber orchestra doing Mozart. The size of the venue, and the attention of the audience often determince music selections in the classical world.
posted by paulsc at 10:26 AM on September 14, 2006

If you're interested in learning more about the difference between all these periods and styles, there's an awesome audio course called How to Listen to and Understand Great Music from the Teaching Company that I loved. It's pricey but you might be able to find it at a library or on teh internets.
posted by bcwinters at 1:57 PM on September 14, 2006

I second bcwinters' mention of The Teaching Company. Greenberg's audioCDs are excellent. A few teaching company professors are irritating to listen to, but Greenberg is not one of them.
posted by umlaut at 3:04 PM on September 14, 2006

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