My Western Culture articles/lectures 3: Music, part 1

JISHOU, HUNAN — This is the article I posted for my students to read before class last week. I didn’t lecture, but played the selections indicated in the article and made brief comments.


This is the first article about Western music. Please read this before class. We will listen to the music in class, instead of my giving a lecture.

Western Music

How is Western music different from other cultures’ music? One major difference is the pitch 音乐音高 of the notes used.

Most world music, and Chinese music, is based on a pentatonic (five-tone) scale 五声音阶: do re mi sol la (do)

Most Western music is based on diatonic 全音阶 (or heptatonic – seven-tone) scales, such as the familiar: do re mi fa sol la ti (do)

Putting it another way, let’s look at the keyboard of a piano.

You can play pentatonic tunes using only the black keys. To play diatonic tunes, you also need some (or all) of the white keys.

The origin of the diatonic scale dates back to ancient Greece, but perhaps earlier cultures in the Near East also used it. Seven-tone scales are also part of music from the southern part of India.

The musicians of the European Middle Ages established diatonic scales as standards, using ancient Greek musical theory as their guide. They identified eight modes, each one starting on a different note in the scale. Later musicians added other modes. Only two have survived as commonly used modes:

the major scale: do re mi fa sol la ti do (called the Ionian 爱奥尼亚 mode after 1547)

the minor scale: la ti do re mi fa sol la (called the Aeolian 风成 mode after 1547)

(Technical note: More specifically, most Western music uses whole tones W and half tones H as standard pitch differences.

The major scale goes like this: do W re W mi H fa W sol W la W ti H do.

Another way to look at it is to use the piano keyboard above. Starting at C, white keys separated by black keys differ by a whole tone W, while those that don’t have black keys between them (E and F, and B and C) differ by a half-tone H. Also, there is a half-tone H difference between neighboring white and black keys.)

The ancient Greeks and Romans left us very few written records of their music. The written musical history of the West really begins in the Middle Ages.

Middle Ages

The music of the Middle Ages centered around two main activities: worship in church and entertainment among the aristocracy.

Gregorian chant was the primary style of church music from about the 4th century until about the 13th century. It was monophonic 单音音乐, meaning everyone sang the same notes at the same time. At first, it was for voice only, but later organ and other accompaniment 伴奏 was added. Chants were sung using one of the eight modes then in use.

Selection 1: Gloria in excelsis deo (Glory to God in the Highest) – Gregorian chant, in Latin, 9th century(?)

There were also songs by troubadours, who were traveling musicians. They wrote for a single voice, though perhaps there was simple instrumentation, such as the lute, which resembles the pipa 琵琶 but has more strings, or the recorder, a kind of flute. Most of these songs are now lost. This love song is from the 12th century. The language is Occitan, a local language of the Languedoc region of France.

Selection 2: A chantar m’er de so qu’eu no volria, troubadour song, 12th century, France

Later songs became more complex in design. Guillaume de Machaut (France, 1300-1377) lived during the time of Dante and Chaucer. He wrote music for church and everyday life. This is a love song for a small group of singers.

Selection 3: Doulz viaire gracious (Sweet Gracious Face), rondeau, Machaut, 14th century, France


Sweet gracious face, I have served you with a sincere heart,
If you will have pity on me,
Sweet gracious face,
If I am a bit shy, don’t embarrass me,
Sweet gracious face, I have served you with a sincere heart.

Renaissance music (1450-1600)

Music of the Renaissance became more complex. Composers introduced polyphony 复音音乐– different notes sung or played at the same time and counterpoint 对位法 — different rhythms sung or played at the same time. There was also use of the growing number of instruments available at the time.

Instruments: violin, lute, guitar, harp, recorder, several kinds of reed instruments, like crumhorn, cornamuse and shawm

Selection 4: Kyrie, from Requiem Mass, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (Italy, 1526-1594 — the time of Copernicus, and young Shakespeare) – This is church music.

Madrigals were the “pop music” of the day. Most were cheerful and dealt with love in all its forms. Shakespeare used some for his plays. Palestrina also wrote madrigals. This one, however, is from England.

Selection 5: Now Is the Month of Maying, madrigal, Thomas Morley, England, late 16th century

Now is the month of maying,
When merry lads are playing, fa la,
Each with his bonny lass
Upon the greeny grass. Fa la.

The Spring, clad all in gladness,
Doth laugh at Winter’s sadness, fa la,
And to the bagpipe’s sound
The nymphs tread out their ground. Fa la.

Fie then! why sit we musing,
Youth’s sweet delight refusing? Fa la.
Say, dainty nymphs, and speak,
Shall we play barley-break? Fa la.

Nymphs were a kind of woodland spirit, like a fairy. Here, the word refers to pretty girls. Barley-break was an old phrase for “having a roll in the hay,” that is, making love outdoors. Pop music has not really changed much in 400 years.

Baroque period (1600-1750)

This period begins in the late Renaissance and extends into the Enlightenment. Composers expanded the use of polyphony and counterpoint, and expanded the use of harmony 和声– playing/singing different notes at the same to make a pleasing, full sound.

Baroque music (as well as baroque art and architecture) uses a lot of fancy “ornamentation,” meaning that there are many notes played or sung very quickly. The number of singers was greater, and the newly available instruments were generally louder than their Renaissance forebears.

Instruments: organ, harpsichord, clavichord, various wind and brass instruments, harp, guitar, lute

Early baroque composers included Giovanni Gabrielli and Claudio Monteverdi of Italy, and Heinrich Schuetz of Germany. Somewhat later, other famous composers were Arcangelo Corelli, Antonio Vivaldi and Domenico Scarlatti (Italy) and Henry Purcell (England).

Two well known musicans of the late baroque era are Georg Friedrich Handel, who was born in Germany but later moved to London, and Johann Sebastian Bach. Both composed for voices and for instruments.

Selection 6: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for organ, J.S. Bach 巴赫, about 1705

Selection 7: Choruses from Messiah: “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” “Hallelujah,” Handel亨德尔, 1742 (using lines from the King James Bible:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given:
and the government shall be upon his shoulder:
and his name shall be called
Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God,
The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace
– Book of Isaiah chapter 9, verse 6.)

[Most of the students recognized the Hallelujah chorus, to my surprise.]

Classical period (1750 to 1820)

Music during this time became less “fancy” and more dramatic than baroque music. There were many composers during this time, but the best known are Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig von Beethoven, who were all born in German-speaking cities of the Holy Roman Empire.

Beethoven can also be considered as a member of the Romantic movement, because of the emotional impact of his works.

Piano music became very popular at this time. Earlier keyboard instruments, like the harpsichord of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, made very soft and gentle sounds. It was difficult to play them loudly without damaging the instrument. Around 1700 another keyboard instrument was developed, the fortepiano. (Forte is Italian for loud, piano is Italian for quiet.) It could be played softly or loudly quite easily. By 1800 there were enough fortepianos available for composers to write for them.

At the same time, there were more and louder wind instruments available. Orchestras grew in size and volume.

Selection 8: Piano Concerto No. 24, Allegro, Mozart莫扎特, 1800

Selection 9: Symphony No 5 in C minor, Allegro con brio, Beethoven贝多芬, 1804-1808

[The students all recognized the dum-dum-da-dum of the the Fifth Symphony.]

Romantic period (1815-1910)

Romanticism was a broad movement in the arts, including music and literature, which opposed the growing industrialization and urbanization of Europe. Composers looked for inspiration in their national folk music traditions or “exotic” themes from gypsy culture or the East. They tried to create music that deeply affected their audience’s emotions. Orchestras were now quite large, with perhaps as many as 100 musicians. European opera, a combination of theater and music, also became very popular at this time.

Selection 10: 1812 Overture, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky 柴可夫斯基, Russia, 1880 — Representing a key battle between France and Russia during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. It includes the French national anthem, to represent the invading army, and church bells and folk tunes, to represent the Russian people. The composer also called for real cannon fire for dramatic effect.

Selection 11: Flight of the Bumblebee, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Russia, 1900 — Flight of the Bumblebee, originally written for violin, has a main theme resembling the noise of a bee. It was used as the theme “song” for a long-running American radio drama called The Green Hornet. When the show was adapted for TV in the 1960s, the theme was adapted for jazz trumpet. (This TV show co-starred Bruce Lee 李小龙, by the way.) It reappears in the movie Kill Bill. The 2011 movie version of The Green Hornet, co-starring Jay Chou 周杰伦, also includes the theme in its soundtrack.
Selection 11a: The Green Hornet theme, played by Al Hirt, 1966

Modern period (Early 20th Century)

Modernism affected nearly every Western art form. As in literature and art, musicians explored music outside traditional forms. Some compositions are very challenging to the listener, such as works by Arthur Schoenberg 阿诺德·勋伯格 (Austria) and Igor Stravinsky 斯特拉文斯基 (Russia), who avoided traditional methods of composition altogether. Others, like Claude Debussy 德彪西 and Maurice Ravel 拉威尔 (France) and George Gershwin 格什温 (USA), created more pleasant-sounding works that were still innovative.

Selection 12: Piano-Rag Music, Stravinsky, 1919 — Ragtime piano was a popular style of the first decade of the 20th century. Stravinsky, however, did not compose a normal ragtime tune. The style is entirely his. The rhythm changes several times and there is no clear melodic line.

Selection 13: Bolero, Ravel, France, 1928 — This work for orchestra repeats the same theme over and over, over a steady drum beat, as the main theme passes from one instrument to another. Meanwhile, the volume gets gradually louder. Bolero is a Spanish dance style, and the work was intended to portray a bolero dancer’s gradually more energetic dance. However, some have suggested the work can also represent sexual intercourse, an idea repeated in a 1980 American movie called 10.

Selection 14: Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin, USA, 1924 — The Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, mostly wrote popular songs for Broadway shows. But this is a “serious” work for piano and band that combines classical style with jazz, blues and pop styles popular in the 1920s. Many people associate it with New York City, the Gershwins’ hometown. Part of it is used in TV advertisements for United Airlines.

Aside from these kinds of serious music for theatrical audiences, there was also a flourishing in the 20th century of popular music made possible by three inventions: the phonograph, the radio and the television. Now, people could listen to any kind of music they preferred, and musicians could expand their audiences very quickly to include millions. That’s the topic of the next article.

Just as a reminder: © John J. Wheaton, 2012

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