My last blog post was the beginning of a two part series entitled The Great Chasm Part 1. The idea for this post came from the problem among students and teachers with the thinking that rock music and classical music are worlds apart. The effects of this belief can have a huge negative impact in the orchestra room. It alienates classical music and is a contributing factor to an ever increasing pessimistic stereotype that classical music is slow, relaxing, and boring music. I mentioned in my last post that I find this to be a horrible stereotype. I mentioned that there are boring pieces of classical music, but there are also a ton of boring pieces of music in all genres of music, including rock music. It’s our job as teachers to find classical music that rocks. In other words, we need to connect the dots between classical music and rock music. This post is going to show you in more technical ways how to do just that.
FIND THE SIMILARITIES
Upon listening to classical music, students often look at what is different from the rock music they are more familiar with instead figuring out what is the same. When you really break down music into rhythm and notes, classical and rock music use many of the same notes and rhythms. For example, both make use of the pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scale is probably the most used scale in major guitar rock solos. This five note scale is used in so many legendary guitar solos by various artists including AC/DC, Led Zepplin, and Jimi Hendrix. I always say that many guitarists have made millions of dollars and only ever learned how to play five notes. In all reality this pentatonic scale did not start with classic rock. Composers like Dvorak, Chopin, Debussy and many others used the pentatonic scale. For one great example, take a listen to Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No. 5. (Plus you get to see how much of a hipster Horowitz was with his bow tie.) One of my other favorite pieces that uses the pentatonic scale is the last movement of Dvorak’s American Quartet. Jimi Hendrix and Dvorak probably would have been best friends because of their same love of the pentatonic scale.
Another similarity between rock music and classical music is the chord progressions that are used. If you know some basic music theory you know how important the “I” chord and “V” chord are in classical music. In rock music these same two chords are driving many of the biggest rock songs. There was a comedian who found this similarity and used it in one of his routines. There are a couple of inappropriate uses of language used in this act, but if you can work around that, this can be a great tool in class. Check it out here. Upon analyzing classical music, (especially pieces in the early classical period) you will find the chord progressions are eerily similar to rock music. Obviously classical music evolved and become more complicated with chord progressions. You are going to have a hard time finding the German Augmented Sixth Chord in today’s pop music, but nonetheless, the basics of chord progressions from classical music to rock music is extremely similar.
The next similarity you will find is the bass line. I have played bass in many rock bands and in a lot of music I have worked on, I just play rolling 8th notes on the root of the chord. I have also played many Mozart quartets on the cello. Coincidentally, these Mozart cello parts generally have me playing 8th notes on the root of the chord. The bass in classical music and rock music function in the same way. It is the foundation of the music and keeps us grounded. I would suggest you put on your favorite classical piece and listen specifically to the bass instruments on how they function. Turn up the sub woofer and enjoy the majestic bass parts. Here’s a great example of an epic bass part filling out the bottom of this piece by Prokofiev. I always tell the story to students of being in my dorm room and some rude person would blast their rap music so the entire building could hear the bass. I would then compete with awesome bass parts from Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, or Stravinsky. It could easily compete with the rap music, and the reason is because the bass had the same function as it did in the rap music. I then emphasize again how this music that I love is not stuck in the stereotype of slow and relaxing music.
There are plenty of other similarities between classical music and rock music, but these are my favorite. You have to keep fighting as a teacher to not polarize these two genres of music. You need to be a salesmen with your students. You are selling a great product when it comes to classical music. It is your job to keep it exciting, interesting, and relevant.
ARGUING THE DIFFERENCES
We’ve focused a lot on the similarities, but what about the differences? Obviously to a student, this is what they hear first. How do you fight the glaringly obvious differences? My personal teaching style is a more in your face football coach approach. I push pretty hard in rehearsal and I have gained some clout with my students. So when selling classical music and explaining the differences I also push my opinions pretty hard. I personally believe that you will need to sell pretty hard to break down the stereotype that has been built over the years. Here are some of the obvious differences that I have heard and I’ll give you some suggestions on how I’ve overcome them.
The biggest difference students obviously hear is that there aren’t any words. Obviously there are plenty of songs with words, but your typical symphony or quartet does not have any words. This is the first argument many students make against classical music. I first explain to the student that there is a tradition and standard that has been established for hundreds of years with instrumental music. I then share how it’s their job to try to depict with their mind what the composer is trying to say. It is a great exercise of creativity and imagination to have students come up with their own story to fit the music. I would encourage you to pick a programmatic piece and explain to them how the music is all that is needed to tell the story. Pictures at an Exhibition, The Firebird Suite, or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice are all great examples to use for this type of exercise. I often relate classical music to reading a book. When we read a book we have to envision what the characters look like, how they sound, and how they act all in our mind’s eye. You have to work harder with absolute (non-programmatic music) to discover what the composer wanted to say. It’s all open to our interpretation. I then explain that there are plenty of great examples of other genres of music that are only instrumental, including rock music. I ask students if they like jazz. Much of jazz music is only instrumental. In the rock genre there are a ton of great examples. One of the most legendary is Eddy Van Halen’s Eruption guitar solo. One of my all time favorite bands is an instrumental band called Explosions In The Sky. These guys are awesome and I use them in class all the time to show students how great instrumental music is. One of the purposes of Clocks & Clouds is to write epic instrumental music. Our goal is to combine classical and rock elements together to create our music. We have a huge desire to build a bridge between to two so that young people begin loving both classical and rock music. We have played many different schools and have been received really well by students of all ages. Our music convinces me that classical music is not a hard sell, you just have to have the right pitch.
Another obvious difference is the instrumentation. In classical music you don’t have a drum kit, distorted electric guitars, and several other electric instruments that are in a typical rock band. I ask students how Mozart was supposed to use instruments that weren’t invented? In retrospect, these great composers had to be so much more creative getting a big sound by putting hundreds of people on stage without the use of a big sound system. They didn’t have different effects pedals that gave them different timbres and sounds. They had to use different instruments to get the same effect. I will often play Ravel’s Bolero to demonstrate how creative he was with getting different sounds through the use of the different orchestral instruments. Here’s a great youtube video of Bolero done by a flash mob in Copenhagen. Often the percussion is described as being missed a lot in classical music. While it’s true you miss that classic rock beat, there are several classical pieces that have a great percussion section. I love the percussion section used in the opening of Verdi’s Requiem Dies Irae. These are just big rock and roll hits. Also on the plus side, you can point out that a bass drum in the orchestra is much bigger and more epic than a kick drum on a drum kit.
Another huge difference that students often have a hard time overcoming is the length of the music. A student has a hard time sitting through an hour long symphony. I often tell students that I can understand this. There have been times when I’ve been sitting in a concert and wished the piece was done. Not every piece has me sitting on the edge of my seat and not every piece of classical music gives me goosebumps. However, there are pieces that I know every single note and connect with every moment of the piece. I love every movement in every Brahms symphony and only wished he had composed more. It’s important to describe to students that there is a different tradition. Back in the day, people didn’t have ipods with thousands of songs on them. They didn’t even have the radio. So when they wanted music, they had to hire an entire orchestra to play live. Music was written specifically for a concert. What would happen if you went to see your favorite band and they only played for 5 or 10 minutes? You would demand your money back. Composers wrote music for a concert and the length was part of the tradition. Today we live in a completely different age of music and we have a different pace and a lot different expectations when it comes to music. We can listen to music all day long with a touch of a few buttons or we can listen to one song for 3 minutes and move on with our day. We obviously don’t have to hire an orchestra to come and play a three minute song. Now with that being said, it’s certainly something that a young student needs to get around and you as the teacher can help guide them in creative ways. If you use the right pieces and sell it the right way, a student will not even care that the song is longer than a typical 4 minute rock song. I think often times giving them the really juicy historical details of a composer can be a huge help. Students love crazy stories, and some of these composers have some of the most bizarre lives ever. By describing what the composer was living through when he wrote a particular piece, or even just telling some fun stories about the composer, students begin to see that classical composers were real people to whom they can relate.
The last difference that I’m going to hit on is the fact that when there are words in a piece, they typically aren’t in English. This argument drives me nuts. I say to the student “So you are upset that an Italian composer would have the audacity to write his opera in Italian? How very un-American of that composer.” I personally believe that opera has some of the greatest pieces of music ever written. The stories are compelling, the music is amazing, and all the elements together can make me laugh and cry all at the same time. Opera has an even worse stereotype than instrumental classical music. To make matters worse, most people have never watched a whole opera to have even have formed an educated opinion. I have played in many opera productions and it is easily one of my favorite things to do. I often think that selling opera is one of the easiest things to do for young people. The comedic operas are hilarious, while the tragic operas have some of the most gut wrenching stories ever. The Lord of the Rings has nothing on Wagner operas. Go through the story of any Mozart opera and much of the content is far more controversial than any student would ever imagine. The fact that Mozart wrote an opera where at one point a son almost marries his mother unknowingly is crazy. Also, the amount of cross dressing Mozart uses is impressive. At the same time, there isn’t a movie out there that can match the emotional anguish that is reached in La Boheme when Rodolfo cries out with Mimi dead in his arms. Students often have no clue what an opera even is, and it’s only the fault of the teachers to never teach this great artform in a compelling way. It’s not hard to do. After I teach opera, the students beg me to find an opera for me to bring them to.
There are certainly more differences and more nuances in classical music. This post is already longer than I wanted it to be. The point is as a teacher you need to sell the product. You need to let students know that rock music and classical music are not all that different. You need to let students know that Beethoven is the best composer that ever lived. Students need to know that without classical music, rock music wouldn’t exist. I truly believe that classical music is still relevant to young people and students can still fall in love with classical music. It has been my experience that showing how great classical music is to a young student isn’t difficult. You need to educate and excite.
My last hope is that in the comments section you continue to share your thoughts. Share how you have had success connecting the dots between classical music and rock music. How have you turned this great chasm between these two worlds into a smaller manageable stepping stone?