Classical Music For Dummies, 3rd Edition
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The earliest classical music was composed primarily for singing (for example, in church) or dancing. Very little “easy listening” took place in ancient times. If you go to a concert and hear a minuet, you’re hearing a form that was originally meant strictly for dancing. In the old days, the only people who simply listened to minuets were people without dates.

But as concert music began to develop, composers drew upon what they knew. And so it was that certain rhythms, changes in harmonies, and musical structures — originally created strictly for dances — found their way into music that people just listen to. Ironically, these days, virtually nobody in the concert hall gets up and starts dancing when a minuet begins.

Much of the classical music you hear today falls into this category — it’s composed in a form that was originally designed for dancing.

If you’re listening to a dance form, several things are likely to be true:

  • The rhythm is steady. After all, who can dance to an unsteady rhythm? Even in 500 B.D. (Before Disco), people needed a good beat.

  • The music is likely to be repetitive. That is, it’s not developed too much. The musical ideas that you hear come back again and again. Here, too, nothing has changed; think “That’s the Way (I Like It)” or “Let’s Get Physical” or “Hey Jude.”

  • The title sounds like the name of a dance. It might be “Waltz,” for example, or “Mambo.”

A suite is a bunch of musical movements grouped together. Suite comes from a word meaning “follow,” and it refers to a sequence of things that follow, one from the next (as in a suite of rooms).

In early times (the Baroque period, for example — late 1600s to mid-1700s), a musical suite consisted almost entirely of dances, and the movements were named according to the type of dance they represented — for example, allemande, gavotte, bourrée, minuet, rigaudon, sarabande, gigue, and courante. Much as they may sound like a roster of the French Parliament, these were, in fact, courtly dances of the European royalty.

Handel’s ever-popular Water Music (Track 01) is from a Baroque suite like this. If you listen to this track, you’ll understand what is meant by steady rhythms and a dancelike feel.

In the last century, the word suite came to signify any grouping of movements that belonged together: “Suite from Carmen,” for example, consists of various melodies and interludes from the opera Carmen, by the French composer Georges Bizet (1838–1875). You can also find suites from The Nutcracker, West Side Story, Star Wars, and Shaft. Probably.

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About David Pogue David Pogue is a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and has performed magic at parties, special events, on TV, and even over the radio for 25 years. He created and taught the beginning magic programs at the New School for Social Research and the Learning Annex. He has been known to mesmerize audiences with his magic tricks while on tour promoting his many bestselling books, including Macs?? For Dummies??, 5th Edition, Opera For Dummies??, and Classical Music For Dummies??. Contributor Mark Levy, magic consultant, has levitated and read spectators' minds for nearly 30 years. His writings have appeared in some of magic's most revered literary sources, including Richard Kaufman's CardMagic, Apocalypse magazine, and Magic.

Scott Speck has conducted hundreds of ballet performances throughout the United States and Europe. He is Music Director of the Joffrey Ballet, Artistic Director of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra, and former Conductor of the San Francisco Ballet. Evelyn Cisneros danced for the San Francisco Ballet for 23 years and is the Artistic Director of the National Dance Institute of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

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