How to Unlock (and Actually Feel) the Profound in Classical Music

jonathan-j-castellon-khu7J_G_U-U-unsplash.jpg

As many of you know, I trained for many years to become a professional opera singer, including both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music. In my undergrad music studies, I took one particular class which has stuck with me for years, and which totally transformed how I think about classical music. In fact – and this is just coming to me as I write this – I think that course might be the basis for everything I do now.

That class was called (and get psyched for this): Structural Analysis.

Now if that doesn’t make classical music sound sexy and dangerous I don’t know what will. But, just in case the words “structural” and “analysis” don’t make you as giddy with anticipation as they make me, let me take a moment to rename my favourite class:

How to be Profoundly Moved by the Great Works of Classical Music.

Why could that be the alternative title? We’ll get there. First, what the heck does structural analysis even mean? Well, works of classical music adhere to certain conventions. One of the biggest of these is musical form – i.e., what order the composer put things in. For example, the vast majority of pop songs follow the same musical form: alternating verses and choruses, plus an intro and outro on either end of the whole tune. If we were to summarize that musical form, it would look like this:

intro - verse 1 - chorus - verse 2 - chorus - verse 3 - chorus - outro 

Or, if we didn’t think about the lyrics and only about the music, the form could be summarized as:

(intro) - A - B - A - B - A - B - (outro)

And just like that, you’ve learned your first musical form!

But why the heck does this matter? Well, it matters for one big reason: standard or conventional musical forms create rules for the composer. How the composer follows or breaks those rules is what we hear and process as emotionally moving

A classic example of this in pop music is what we call “the beat dropping”. In really great EDM, this is done through much more nuanced compositional mechanisms, but in Top 40s pop music you hear on the radio, that feeling of waiting for the beat to drop is basically a glorious manipulation of your senses based on the fact that you know the chorus is supposed to happen at any moment, but it’s being postponed for maximum effect. Your brain is like, “verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse… wait… they’ve added a little extra bit making me wait for the chorus!… Come on!… wait wait waaaaaaaait forrr itttttt……. *EXTREMELY SATISFYING BEAT DROP* aaand CHORUS!”. 

The music producer creates the effect of euphoria by delaying part of the musical form. This tension between expectation and reality is one of the biggest tools composers use to imbue their music with emotions. It’s one of the primary ways we feel music, even when we don’t realize it.

Which brings me to musical forms and my beloved Structural Analysis class. Just as pop songs are written in predictable patterns, so too are just about all great works of classical music – the only difference is the number of possible forms, and the size/length of the pieces of music. Music students learn this from a really young age (I’m talking the age where your feet are still swinging beneath the piano bench), then grow and refine their understanding and insight into composers’ uses of different musical forms as their training progresses. By the time you’re in a class like Structural Analysis, you’re basically dissecting every moment of hour-long symphonies and finding Easter eggs of clever gems the world’s greatest composers hid in their pieces. But you don’t have to start there. You have to start where musical kids start: with the basic musical forms. Once you know them, you completely unlock classical music for your ears, your mind, and your heart.

Classical Music Forms

There are lots of different forms that classical composers employ to order and structure their compositions, but for today, let’s learn five big ones:

STROPHIC

You actually already know this one. Think of church hymns and Christmas carols… you know how there’s just one tune you need to know, but there are three or four verses of lyrics? Perfect strophic form. Think of this as “verse form.” In classical music, you’ll find it in opera arias (the songs singers sing in operas), art songs (classical songs written for a classical singer, but not from operas),  and pieces written for choir. Basically, the strophic form is ideal for composers to do what is called “text setting”: taking a text (like a poem) and writing music for it. Since loads of poems are in strophic form (maybe you’ve recognized the term from English class long ago?), it makes sense to set them to strophic music. Listen to the following song by Schubert, which opens the song-cycle (that’s like a mini solo opera made up of songs that tell a story) Die schöne Müllerin (performed by opera dreamboat/megastar Jonas Kaufmann):

THROUGH-COMPOSED

Sometimes you don’t want the same thing over and over… in fact, you never want the same thing. You just want to go on a bit of a musical wander. That’s through-composed form. The composer starts somewhere, and everything written from that point on is new to the listener. There are some wonderful debates online about identifying pop songs that are or aren’t through-composed, but you’ll get the basic idea if you think of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or The Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” Or one of Schubert’s other most famous songs “Erlkönig”, here turned into a spectacular solo piano piece by Liszt (played by worldwide piano celebrity Yuja Wang):

RONDO

Heyo – guess what? You basically already know this one too, because it’s just A - B - A - B - A (rondo means “round” – as in, go round and round in the same pattern), and it’s super common in instrumental classical music. Think of it as verse - chorus with no lyrics. Check out a classic Mozart Rondo played and conducted by violin legend Itzhak Perlman (it’s so charming):

THEME AND VARIATIONS

This is a variation (pardon the pun) on rondo form, and ohhh boy was it ever popular for a couple centuries of classical music. Remember how our pop song example at the beginning was broken down A - B - A - B - A - B, with A being the verses (which were all the same, musically speaking) and B was the chorus (same in both text and music)? Well, Theme and Variations is exactly what it sounds like: a theme (A) and then variations on it. Which means it ends up looking like this:

A - A’ - A’’ - A’’’ 

Or:

A - B - A’ - B - A’’ - B - A’’’ - B

(if the composer felt like throwing what is basically a chorus in between the variations)

Each “A” is some sort of riff on the basic version of A you got to hear first (which is sometimes a familiar or religious tune you might even recognize). To create variations, maybe the composer adds a bunch of frilly notes all around the main melody notes (that’s called “ornamentation”, and I’m sure you can understand why). Or maybe the composer takes the original melody and makes it half as fast and changes the key to minor, so all of a sudden a fun, cheerful melody sounds more like a funeral dirge. Or perhaps the composer feels like making the original melody into a type of dance. The possibilities are endless, and hoo boy do certain composers let you know that. Like Rachmaninov, in the following “Variations on a Theme of Corelli” (Corelli was a famous composer from the 17th century), played beautifully here by one of my favourite pianists, Vladimir Ashkenazy:


SONATA

Sonata form is one of the most important forms, if not THE most important, to know. If you had any musical training as a kid, you probably relate this word to difficult pieces you had to tackle (like piano sonatas, or violin sonatas). Well, the name actually refers to the form, and here’s how a sonata form plays out (and buckle up, because this one is SO critical to knowing and loving classical music, especially all the “greatest hits” of music written for symphony orchestra).

Sonata form is basically a prolonged manipulation of your emotions (see a theme?). First you get the A section. We’re used to that by now. It’s the main melody. The central thought. The “theme.” It’s the main statement of what the piece is all about and the main melodies and harmonies that the composer is going to use. If you were asked to whistle a famous piece of classical music, you’d very likely have the theme from the A section of a symphony pop into your head from hearing it in movies, commercials, or cartoons. 

But then, the big bad B section comes along (keep in mind that the sections are much longer in sonata form than in strophic or theme and variations). Think of the A section as everything going great – all the melodies are working together (even if you’re in a stormy or sad minor key), and all the parts just seem right. Then B comes in and everything starts to shift. You might feel a little tension building. The melodies might start getting cut off, or overlapping, or sounding blurred or mixed up. You might not know it, but the composer is probably shifting the key the piece is in right under your feet… things are getting tense. Through the B section you start to think, I can’t take it much longer! I just want to go back to that very saftisfying A section! And thennnn…. (And you should see this coming)….

BEAT DROP! A SECTION RETURNS. 

The composer takes us back to a shorter sampling of A just long enough to wrap things up. And oh it is such a relief. The drama!

To get marvellously technical, the sections in sonata form aren’t called A - B - A’ like you might expect; instead, they’re called the exposition - development - recapitulation. Get it? The exposition is where the composer says all of their main ideas, the development is where they develop them in all sorts of tension-building ways, and the recapitulation is where the composer recaps the exposition. Common sense! Not so scary!

Here’s an example you might already know the tune for (since it’s in movies all the time and was an early cellphone ringtone): the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. Just listen to the first movement (which is only about nine minutes long) and see if you can hear the exposition, development, and recapitulation:

How Understanding Musical Forms Unlocks Classical Music

One of the reasons pop music is so easy to enjoy is that we understand the form. Whether we’ve ever actually thought about it is beside the point – our ears and, most importantly, our emotions know what to expect out of that familiar verse - chorus agreement we have with the songwriter. Then, as I’ve said, when it gets messed with, so do our hearts (in a good way!).

The reason a lot of people get bored when they go to a classical music concert is that their ears aren’t trained to listen to the musical form in the same way they are basically pre-programmed to enjoy popular music. And the more classical music you listen to, the less you have to say to yourself “okay, we’re in the B section now.” No. You do what you do when you listen to a really good pop song and just enjoy it. But your subconscious knows, “the A section is coming… but how?”

Understanding the constraints a composer was working with helps you understand their genius. It helps you notice when something really unusual happens (“wait… is he not going back to A?”), and most importantly, it primes your brain and your emotions to have an elevated experience. 

Which brings me back to my amazing Structural Analysis class. The more you understand what a composer is doing, the more you get out of the listening experience. Some people would vehemently disagree with me (including some of the dead composers themselves), but I very firmly believe this. Our enjoyment of anything comes from knowing the ropes, understanding conventions, and seeing what the creative person was working with. It also comes from deeply ingrained and hard-won knowledge that lives deeper than our conscious brains, and that can only be acquired through mindfully taking in what we’re trying to learn about. So imagine my delight, as a 21-year-old music student, unlocking the theoretical secrets hidden deep in the forms of some of the greatest works of music ever written. Imagine what the listening experience is like for those works after learning everything about them. It’s shattering. It’s devastating in the best possible way. It is sensing God on earth through the unimaginable creativity of other people. 

That’s why I do what I do here: because the vast majority of people don’t even know that the experience of taking in art and feeling its profundity even exists. It will change your life, and it starts with learning something as simple as verse-chorus.