Getting an Ear (or Two!) for Harmony on the Violin - dummies

By Katharine Rapoport

Just as works of art, literature, and architecture have style features that tell us a lot about when and where they were created, so does the harmony we hear in music. People can often tell their Beethoven from their Bartok, but may not know why they sound so different. Here are four main historical styles you’ll want to recognize and a quick primer on how to listen for the tell-tale signs in the sounds:

  • Classical: Although people often refer to “Classical” music as a general term, to contrast it with pop and rock, in fact Classical is a term that musicians use to refer to music composed around 1750–1830. This era is characterized by the development of the sonata and the symphony, and we hear crystal-clear sounds in the harmonies, with easygoing melodies. Pieces and movements are generally short and sweet. The most famous composers of this time are Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and following are some of their best-known pieces:

    • Haydn’s Emperor Quartet with its glorious slow movement incorporating the theme of the anthem he wrote for the Austrian Emperor, Francis II

    • Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

    • Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

  • Romantic: This era includes music written between about 1820 and 1900. The music of the Romantic era is characterized by long drawn-out melodies, rich harmonies in a thicker texture, and very expressive and emotional elements often reflecting longing, unrequited love, or fervent patriotism. This is the era of grand opera and massive symphonies! Three of the most famous composers of the time are Tchaikovsky, Verdi, and Chopin. You’ll likely recognize these pieces and gain a sense of the style:

    • Verdi’s March from the opera Aida

    • Chopin’s Funeral March for piano

    • Tchaikovsky’s ballet suite, The Nutcracker

  • Impressionist: Although many people consider this style to be just another offshoot of the developments taking place in the early part of the 20th century, it does have some distinct harmonic features that make it unique. All the voices of the music tend to move up or down together at the same time, conveying a sense of emerging from nowhere and then returning to nowhere in a floaty, trancelike way. The most famous composers who wrote in the Impressionst style are Ravel and Debussy. These favorite pieces illustrate the harmonies perfectly:

    • Ravel’s orchestral piece Bolero

    • Debussy’s Clair de lune for piano

  • 20th century: You probably recognize the names of Stravinsky, Bartok, and Shostakovich, but you may not have heard much of their music. While it certainly doesn’t qualify as easy listening, music of the 20th century can be exciting and surprising. Some features of this music are a lot of clashes in the sounds and many extreme contrasts in dynamics. Often there is no sense of the music being in a particular key.

    Listen to these works to hear some of the new sounds that emerged around 1900 and kept on developing through the century as the world was torn apart by two epic wars and the Russian revolution:

    • Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra

    • Stravinsky’s ballet Petruschka

    • Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 7 “Leningrad”

    To give you an idea of the turbulent times, Shostakovich completed this symphony during the 900-day Nazi siege and bombardment of Leningrad, during which half a million residents died. The symphony received its first performance on March 5, 1942. The microfilmed musical score was then somehow flown out to Tehran and from there travelled to other centers in the West in April 1942. The symphony received its première in Europe with Sir Henry Wood conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in June 1942.