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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: