A high proportion of what is heard on today's concert stages is music from the classical period, roughly dating from 1750-1820. It is hard to think of any other industry that relies so heavily on products that are over two hundred years old. Nevertheless, the influence of music from this period is enormous and becoming aware of the basic rhetoric and forms of Classical music can only help the dedicated listener to attain a better understanding of all music. The two most influential features of musc of this time are the classical phrase and classical forms.

The Classical Phrase

One of the most salient features of classical music is its periodicity, that is, its tendency to move toward goals. We can think of this goal-directedness in a way similar to language. In language, a sentence needs a complementary subject and verb and ends with punctuation; in classical music complementary musical phrases end with a cadence. This musical statement, in multiple phrases, ending with some sort of musical punctuation has come to be called a period. Within a classical period one often finds a firm point of arrival (clear solid cadences) and complementary internal arrangements (that is, an internal symmetry, within the period or phrase acheived through harmonic, melodic or other means.)
One can think of these symmetrical internal arrangements much in the way that one thinks about classical architecture. The great front of the Parthenon in Greece displays a perfect symmetry in its architectural components: the pillars on the left match those on the right and so forth. Taken together they form a convincing and attractive whole, contained under the triangular pediment, and owing to the way in which they satisfy one's sense of proportion and symmetry. Such satisfaction was something that classical composers were very much interested in duplicating.
Put in the realm of language this periodic rhetoric becomes quite clear. Consider the following compound sentence:

The monkey and the hippo went to the store;
the monkey and the hippo bought some butter.

If we were to diagram this sentence using letters we could see that the subject of the two sentences are the same: the compound "monkey and hippo." In the first sentence we have a sort of half closure, we know they went to the store but the thought is incomplete: why did they go to the store? This tension is resolved in the second half of the sentence when their true purpose is revealed. We could diagram the units of the sentence as "abac." A musical analogue might be this brief example, the opening of the Romanza movement of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Listening to it, we can hear the parallel structure of the two musical phrases; the half-close at the middle and the full close at the end.

The Parthenon, Athens

This melody, by an anonymous composer, is an example of the second type of classical period. Again there are two halves that complement each other, a half close at the middle and a full close at the end. The difference is in the actual material within the period - the two parts do not parallel each other; we could diagram its units as: "abdc" or think of it as having a beginning, half-close, continuation and ending. Translating it into a word sentence we migt have:

The monkey and the hippo went to the store.
After happily scanning the shelves, they bought some butter.

Ths melody also demonstrates how this notion of complementary phrases works on smaller and larger levels. If we break the melody into two halves: Part One and Part Two, and look at them individualy we can see that each half of the initial melody is comprised of two complentary parts. In larger scale classical works, such complentary parts are reflected on all levels of the composition.
When you listen to classical music one thing to be aware of is these periods and how one period balances against another period. In the finest classical music the interplay of periods is reflected on larger and larger scales: one period can be symmetrical with another; those two taken together are symmetrical with the next two and so forth. This can also work down to smaller levels as well. Once we understand how the periods themselves can interact, one can begin to appreciate when a composer consciously subverts this paradigm.

Composers are not so dull, however, and more often than not, this pervasive symmetry is illusory. Many times, the composer has subtly altered various portions of the phrase to deny the symmetry, yet preserve the overall form of the composition.

Classical Forms

Arguments similar to those made in regards to classical phrases and periods can be made in regard to musical form: once we understand the orthodox musical form, we can better appreciate how a composer works within and alters that form. These subtleties are what keep the music moving forward and the developed tensions developing.
The classical desire for elocution manifested itself in a number of new musical forms, that is, structures for musical argument. Four of the major forms came to bec used for the four movements of a standard Classical Symphony. These are: sonata form (often used for the first movement of a symphony), theme-and-variations (second movement); minuet and trio form (third); and rondo form (fourth). In listening to classical music, it is often good to have the idea of the form in your head and as you go along try to place the sounds you hear into the mold you have for the work.


All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
Not to be reprinted without permission.