The Basics of Music History
As a child, my least favorite part of my music theory workbook was the chapter about Music History. I dreaded memorizing the long lists of dates and names, and I never understood why I needed to learn such boring information about dead composers if I could play their pieces well enough already. For those of you who are in the same boat, here's a breakdown of why music history is essential, and what you need to know:
First, the importance of music history. In today's world of techno-music and autotune, it's easy to forget the roots of our art. Over hundreds of years, classical piano has transformed into something beautiful and highly respected in the music world. By understanding and considering the unique styles of each composer, we have a chance to revive history in every piece we perform. We must understand the composer's intention behind the music, but we must not let this framework limit us from expressing our own musicality.
So, what do we need to know about music history?
The Four Periods of Music Baroque (1600-1750): characterized by polyphonic texture (multiple melody lines), ornamentation, and terraced dynamics; most keyboard music was written for harpsichord, clavichord, and organ (since the piano was not invented until late in this period). Notable composers include J.S. Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, and George Frederic Handel. Classical (1750-1830): characterized by homophonic texture (clear melody line with accompaniment), Sonata/Sonatina forms (Exposition, Development, Recapitulation), and Alberti bass; composers indicated dynamics and ornamentation more commonly, rather than leaving it up to the interpretation of the performer. Notable composers include W.A. Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Ludwig van Beethoven (considered a Classical/Romantic composer). Romantic (1830-1900): my personal favorite period of music to listen to; characterized by colorful harmonies, lyric melodies, complicated rhythms, chromaticism, and Programme Music (written about people, places, feelings); during this period, the piano grew in popularity. Intensity of emotions is delivered through rubato and dramatic climaxes. Notable composers include Frederic Chopin, Felix Mendelssohn, and John Field. Contemporary (1900-today): my personal favorite period of music to play; characterized by polytonality (multiple key signatures at the same time), non-tonal harmonies, and irregular meters. Composers pull away from musical norms and experiment with keys and rhythms. Notable composers include Francis Poulenc, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Sergei Prokofiev.
(Source: Johnson, Julie McIntosh. Julie Johnson's Guide to AP Music Theory. J. Johnson Music Pub., 2010.)
After you learn the basic characteristics of each period, try to figure out which period your pieces are from. You'll start to recognize new aspects of your music that you've never noticed before, like polytonality or Alberti bass. And whenever you get a chance, as you're showering or driving to school, listen to music from different musical periods. You'll never know what kind of music you like until you go out and explore.