Consider, if you will, the following story.
Two aliens named Zirg and Zok are visiting Earth for the first time and want to experience Earthís culture. Zirg is interested in hearing our music, and Zok wants to see our paintings. Having cleverly disguised themselves with alienesque technology to make them look like Humans, Zirg and Zok go to a city and head to the cultural district. Unfortunately, they cannot stay very long, so Zirg has time to go to one concert and Zok to one art gallery. On their way back to their ship, they meet up and discuss their experiences.
"Earthlings have a large variety of music," Zirg says. "I saw jazz clubs, concert halls, theaters, and advertisements everywhere for upcoming shows and live bands. I decided to go to a concert of classical music."
"How did you like it?" asks Zok.
"I didnít," Zirg sighs. "I heard this musical form called a symphony, which had been written by an Earthling named Mozart. It was boring, repetitive, and far too long. I donít like Earthling classical music Ė itís too stuffy and uninteresting. I wish Iíd tried one of those jazz clubs instead."
"Thatís disappointing," Zok replies. "I visited an art gallery which featured the works of an Earthling painter called Monet. It was just all these blurry blobs of color, and the closer I looked, the less sense I could make of the pictures."
"It sounds like you had a disappointing experience as well," Zirg comments.
"Yes," Zok says disgustedly. "I donít like Earthling paintings Ė theyíre just smears of color. I wish Iíd spent my time looking at Earthling sculpture or architecture instead."
Shaking their heads at uncultured Earthlings, Zirg and Zok climb aboard their spaceship and fly off to explore the arts and music of the next planet they come across.
And the moral of the story is...
Okay, show of hands. Who didnít notice anything unusual about Zirgís line of reasoning? He listened to classical, didnít like it, and wanted to try a different genre instead. On the surface, it sounds sensible.
Now, take Zokís position. We recognize right away that his reasoning is specious. Heís dismissing all of Earthling paintings based on the works of one painter in one art style. But the truth is, Zirg has judged classical music in exactly the same way. Zok saw the works of one painter and decided he doesnít like paintings. Likewise, Zirg heard a symphony by one composer and decided he doesnít like classical music. Therefore, although it may not appear as obvious at first sight, Zirgís reasoning is just as flawed as Zokís.
I donít think any of us are Zoks. Iíve never met someone whoís said, "I donít like art." They may not like all art, but thereís some style somewhere that they like. But with art, itís a little different. People automatically know that if you donít like one style, try another. Unfortunately, when it comes to classical music, which is more sequestered and less mainstream these days, a lot of us are Zirgs. I canít begin to count the number of people Iíve heard say, "I donít like classical." Whenever I ask them what classical theyíve listened to, I usually get a fumbled reply along the lines of, "Oh...... you know, some Mozart. Uh, Bach. And Beethovenís 5th. You know, ĎDa da da daaaaa!í"
So, in other words, theyíve listened to the German classical tradition spanning a period of about 150 years. And based on that sampling from one small region of Europe in one relatively short time period, theyíve judged all of Western and Eastern classical music from every time period. This is why whenever I hear someone say, "I donít like classical," I know that they donít know what classical music really is.
Classical music: a global tradition
The thing about classical is that itís so much more than Bach and Mozart. Too often, people think "classical music" means "European music by dead guys like Bach and Mozart." The truth is that the term is a catchall definition for a wide variety of musical styles from all ages and all parts of the world.
So if you donít like Bach, thatís fine. Thatís one tiny part of it. The Western European style of classical Ė like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven Ė has been enormously influential and dominated the world in the way that a lot of Western European traditions have. But there is over one thousand years of classical music to listen to, not just from Europe but from all around the world. Most of it doesnít sound remotely like Bach. Somewhere, somewhen, thereís a style youíll like.
A lot of the classical music we never hear about actually predates the European tradition. For example, the music of India and Persia is one of the oldest expressions of classical music in the world, extending back thousands of years. In China, Confucius believed that music was a form of education, and in Chinese music, each note was related to a specific element: earth, metal, wood, fire, and water, thus making music representative of the universe as they knew it. Greek classical music existed thousands of years ago before becoming extinct by the Middle Ages. Indonesian music, which influenced Debussy so strongly at the 1889 World's Fair in Paris, has a complex, multi-layered kind of instrumental music performed in gamelan ensembles. Japan, Korea, much of Africa, Australia, and countless other cultures also have strong classical traditions as well.
Okay, what is classical?
Hopefully by this point, any Zirg diehards are realizing that Mozart is but one twig on the huge tree of classical music. So the next logical question is, if classical music is so varied, what is the definition of classical music? What makes it different from folk music or popular music? What does the music of a Shakuhachi flute being blown by a monk in Japan have in common with a Javanese gamelan performance or Mahlerís 3rd?
Classical music is best defined as an art form that spans the entire spectrum of human emotions, searches for the sublime, and prompts an emotional response from its listeners through its aesthetic exploration. Any culture can have classical music, as long as they have enough time and money to afford a form of art that isn't related to the necessities for daily survival.
Although so many types of classical music exist, there are several common elements that define what classical music is as opposed to traditional or popular music. One element is the presence of a well-organized framework of music theory and a systematical concept of music. (Not necessarily a form of music notation, however, as music has so often been an oral tradition.) Another element of classical music is that it is performed by professional musicians who have spent their lives in learning their art through formal music training. Also, the music itself has reached a level where it is presented in concerts or performances solely for the enjoyment of others.
Classical music and the other arts
The same things that have influenced classical music have influenced other arts as well, especially the visual arts. Using Western arts as an example, especially in this last century, what happened in an art like painting had its parallel in music. When we had Impressionism in painting, we had Impressionism in music with Ravel and Debussy. When there were Expressionist painters, music had Schoenberg, who was also an Expressionist painter himself. With Cubism, music had Schoenberg again, and Igor Stravinsky, who was influenced by Picasso. Surrealism influenced composers like Edgar Varese and Bohuslav Martinu.
Architecture is another important influence, too. When the Gothic cathedrals of Europe were being built in the thirteenth century, the music of the time was influenced by the Notre Dame school of composers like Leonin and Perotin, who were based at the great cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Their slow, pure music was perfect for being sung in cathedrals in which a short sound can reverberate for several seconds, and where faster, more complicated music becomes a jumbled mess. These composers also had religious reasons for writing the style of music they did, but theirs isn't the only case of the relation between music and architecture. In the Baroque period, when architects wanted to shake up the more austere Renaissance style, and introduced movement, drama, and an absolute explosion of decoration into their buildings, the Baroque music of the time featured the same kind of florid embellishments in sound. (Baroque music today looks plain and simple, but only because it was expected that the performer would add ornaments and other decorative improvisations.) Generally, the arts are all related to one another, and if one likes a certain style in one art, its parallel can be found in the other arts.
Traditional and popular music
While this page focuses on classical music, definitions for traditional and popular music may prove useful. Traditional music is another very old form of musical expression, but generally involved the whole village or community, and was often connected to dancing, which was a way of using music to release emotions. The purposes of traditional music are entertainment, story-telling, cultural identity about the people to which it belongs, morals, and healing, such as a sad song which is about a once true event.
Popular music, like the kind so prevalent today, is more one-faceted in terms of its range of emotions, something which makes it light and enjoyable. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but in limiting itself to awaking one or two kinds of feelings in its listeners, it doesn't cover the whole spectrum of emotions in the way that classical music does.
The power of classical music
The Mozart effect is not a myth. Countless studies and brain scans have shown the benefits our brains receive when we listen to classical music, whether weíre hearing a CD or even just having a piece go through our heads. Music may be the food of love, but classical music is the food of the brain. And just as we take care to eat healthily by balancing nutricious food with snack food, we need to take care of our musical diet as well. Like it or not, classical music, with its full spectrum of emotions and aesthetic exploration, is the healthy food that contains all the vitamins and nutrients our brains need and respond to. Popular music, however tastier it may seem on the surface, generally lacks as much nutricious value. (Remember those ubiquitous science fair projects and the mice who listened to classical finding their way through the maze more quickly than their compatriots who listened to rock?) Just as one wouldnít exist solely on snack foods, I believe one shouldnít limit oneís musical diet either, but include some kind of classical music along with oneís normal fare.
The point of all this
Not that I launch into all this every time I hear someone say he or she doesn't like classical music. :) But I often wish I could, so that's why I made this page. Writing off classical music after hearing one or two dead European composers is like writing off the entire visual arts after seeing paintings by only one or two dead European painters. In just Western music alone, there's so many different styles to explore, as well as the classical music from India, Iran, Japan, China, Indonesia, and too many other cultures to list. All this diversity of musical styles and cultural influences means that there's something somewhere in some kind of classical music for everybody, no matter what their tastes may be.
Below, I'm going to list some of my favorite pieces from as many different styles as I can. Most are from Western music since that's what I know best, but I'm exploring the music of other cultures, too, so I'll include non-Western examples as I come across them. If you don't know much about classical music and want to experience something beyond Bach and Beethoven, then I hope this helps you out.
Note: I had sound clips but had to take them down due to mp3 search engines linking them and maxing out my bandwidth.
The Early Twentieth Century:
The Mid-Twentieth Century (Or, In Other Words, Examples of Music To Avoid):
The Late Twentieth Century:
Medieval / Renaissance: