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Music Theory and Practice – So What's Bach Ever Done for us?

Or, how studying music history makes you a better musician–no matter what genre you work in.

Studying the history of music is beneficial for every musician, no matter what genre or style in which they chose to work; it helps every musician to understand the greater cultural context in which unique musical works were created well as providing insight into the musical compositional techniques, performance practices, and genres/styles that composers have used throughout history. This knowledge can inform and facilitate an individualized musical practice, helping you to make informed choices as a composer, instrumentalist, or vocalist. It can also broaden your understanding of the various traditions, genres, and styles that have shaped the music of different cultures and time periods, providing a deeper appreciation and comprehension for the diverse artistic world of musical expression. Moreover, studying music history helps every musician develop finely-tuned (pun intended) analytical skills and a greater understanding of music theory. Music theory is just technical exercises when removed from its cultural context. Overall, studying music history creates more informed, well-rounded, and knowledgeable musicians.

Here are a few musical examples of how studying music history makes better musicians:

Case Study One: Contextual Understanding

How Perceptions Chance Over Time

Vivaldi's Adagio Molto from Concerto No. 3 in F major, Op. 8, RV 293, "Autumn" (L'autunno)

Contextual understanding: By learning about the historical and cultural context in which a piece of music was created, musicians gain a better understanding of the motivations and influences that shaped the composer's choices. For example, if you are studying the music of the Baroque period, you might learn about the political and social conditions of the time, which can help makes sense of why certain musical techniques and styles were used and how listeners of the time would receive them. One example of this is the second movement of Vivaldi's Autumn from his much performed The Four Seasons.

Each of the movements in The Seasons is accompanied by a sonnet which is though to be penned by Vivialdi himself. The one for the Adagio Molto from Autumn reads:

"Everyone is made to forget their cares and to sing and dance

By the air which is tempered with pleasure

And (by) the season that invites so many, many

Out of their sweetest slumber to fine enjoyment"

The text tells the tale of a fulfilled evening, where revelers loose themselves to libations, lusts, and lutes. Listen to the beginning of the movement and hear what the music evokes for you:

At first, modern listeners may feel that the music is anything but the happy and carefree scene described in the sonnet. Conductor and podcaster Joshua Wellerstein in his fascinating and well-researched podcast Sticky Notes (I highly-recommend it to musicians of all experience) describes it as "If you had to guess what this music is about; you might think it's about something quite unsettling..."

Vivaldi choose a key, d minor, which sounds dark and somber to modern ears that have been tuned to more modern aural sensibilities, especially popular, film and television music. However, in the Baroque period, the idea that minor equals sad moods and major equals joyous ones did not yet exist. Many Baroque dances were composed in minor keys and many sad arias were composed in major ones. Vivaldi creates the "pleasure" of the autumn evening not by relying of major harmonies, but by choosing more complex minor key harmonies that create a sense of magic. In fact, the mood he creates with the D minor harmonies is reminiscent of the ghoulish giddiness and spooky sensuality of Halloween and very fitting for autumn. John Williams made a similar decision when he composed Hedwig's Themey for Harry Potter. The minor harmonies aren't "sad" here either, they create a sense of the supernatural.

As you listen to Adagio Molto, do you feel that the sound of the music reflects the text? Why or why not?

Case Study Two: Form and Analysis Skills

How to Become Fluent in Musical Grammar

Beethoven's Sonata No.8 in C Minor, Op.13 No.1

Analytical skills: Studying music history can help musicians develop the necessary analytical skills for composing, interpreting, and/or performing. For example, learning about Sonata Allegro form can help you understand what Classical and Romantic composers wanted to express in their many of their sonatas, symphonies, and concertos.

Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 is also known as the "Pathétique" (meaning "Moving" or "Emotive"). Like most Beethoven piano sonatas, the first movement in is sonata allegro form. This form is a specific structure that is often used in the Classical and Romantic Era in particular for movements in sonatas, symphonies, and other instrumental works. It is characterized an optional Introduction, followed by a first section called the Exposition that uses of two main contrasting themes in related keys. These are then developed in a middle or Development section. The third sections called the Recapitulation ("back to the head") restates the main themes of the movement both (usually) in the work's main key, bringing the movement to a close, sometimes with a "big finish" called a Coda.

Listen to "Pathétique,"y in the video above and see if you can hear and see how Beethoven uses Sonata Allegro form as a type of grammar for his musical expression. Does Beethoven use an Introduction? How does it relate to the rest of the work? Can you identify the main themes?

Case Study Three: Appreciation for Diversity

How to Understand Unfamiliar Music

Appreciating Masinko Music from Ethiopia

Studying music history can also help musicians appreciate the diversity of musical styles and traditions that have developed all around the globe, even outside of a Western context. Music history is the study of the development and evolution of music over time, and it can provide insight into the cultural, social, and artistic context in which different musical traditions developed. For example, if you are studying masinko music from Ethiopia, you might learn about the cultural and historical context in which the music developed, and how it has been influenced by various cultural and artistic traditions.

Music history study will help you to identify the family of instrument being played, such as strings, brass, woodwinds, or percussion. In the case of the masinko, it's a string instrument that is played with a bow. We may also be able to understand how the development of the masinko is related to development of other strings with which we may be more familiar with such as a violin or cello and how string instrument performance practice evolves over time.

As you watch the video, what observations do you make about the sounds you hear and the performance techniques you see?

Case Study Three: Knowledge of Music Theory

What Has Bach Ever Done For Us?

JS Bach's 389 Chorale Harmonizations

Studying music history can also help musicians develop a greater understanding of music theory, as you will learn about the various musical techniques and principles that have been used historically by composers. This knowledge helps musicians to make more informed choices about their musical compositions and performance practice. For example, nearly all, if not all, music theory students will study the four-part chorales of JS Bach as part of their education. While Bach's chorales are beneficial for his use of melody, harmony, counterpoint, and simple forms, seeing how they relate to his larger works, including his hundreds of cantatas of which 200 are extant today.

Browse through some of Bach's chorales in the video below. What musical phrases do you notice? How does he punctuate them? How does the harmony used relate to harmonies you hear in popular music today?

For Further Information

Sticky Notes Podcast

The Four Seasons Sonnets

Sonata Allegro Form

Beethoven Series

World Music Playlists from Smithsonian's Folkways

Four Types of Texture in Music

Bach Chorales

Introduction to Counterpoint


Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.



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