The Art of Classical Music, Pt.2: Defining Classical Music

In part 2 of The Art of Classical music, Roger talks about some of the ways in which classical masters such as Handel, Liszt, and Beethoven,among others, are the basis for much of todays music.


I think in modern and contemporary music it’s easily forgotten that pretty much all of the guidelines or rules that are used while putting together something that is sonically pleasing to back up whatever you’re trying to say, is all taken from classical music.  When you break it down, the comparisons are pretty obvious.  A lot of people don’t take the time to listen to classical music because it’s kind of considered an old style that doesn’t really apply anymore, and that’s simply not true.  All the scales, chords, and the theory of circle of fifths – all the theories that are put together for what we consider music - had to be invented at that time and they really had to take the time to do it because let’s face it, they couldn’t throw something down on tape and say “okay that sounds good and that sounds terrible, so let’s cut it out”.  They really had to make it work the first time. 

Some of the more obvious examples I would say  is someone like Ritchie Blackmore from Deep Purple and Rainbow (now Blackmores Night), kind of getting back to his roots, was very influenced by baroque music – Handel, Vivaldi – and that style of composers.  You can hear the scale tones and arrangements he would use on a guitar that would have been split between a lot more instruments.  When you can play 6 notes at a time in chord form on a guitar, you can then condense that style of music into what became that style of rock and roll.  A really good example of that is a song from the DP ‘Perfect Strangers’ album called ‘Under the Gun’, that has a very baroque style of composition going on there and it is very exciting because it’s on rock and roll instruments. 

It’s kind of funny because when baroque music (taken from a Portuguese word meaning misshapen pearl),came out people were like “That’s not music”, so it kind of broke a lot of the rules and engaged a many more minor keys that weren’t really allowed because of religious doctrine at the time.  After that we get into the romantic era, i.e. Beethoven and Paganini, working on a more tonal base – the ability to jam over the same chord for a longer period of time.  You can really hear those styles and influences in people like Yngwie Malmsteen or Steve Vai, both very heavily influenced by composers of this era.   

Next we get to the classical era with composers such as Mozart & Liszt who, unintentionally, got into the rock and roll side a bit.  These days it’s the same old rule, three chord simplicity sells better than anything.  So, Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’, if you cut off some of the fat and boil it down, basically gets you a 3-chord blues song.  The tools - through a lot of years of experimentation, writing music down and deciding what is pleasant to the human ear - really does come from the classical era.   It’s one thing to arrange 4 instruments into a rock and roll song, and another to arrange 60 into a single piece of music.  It’s like we took classical music and put it into a compactor and crushed it down so the verse, chorus and bridge that used to be big, full pieces of music, are now compressed down into ‘x’ amount of bars to get the point across and to get the excitement of the changes. 

It’s actually really exciting to dig down into stuff like that.  You take Mozart’s 25th Symphony in G Minor, definitely one of my favorite pieces, and just listen to the intro you can hear how much technique is going into, say, the violins, being backed by the brass, getting that real big excitement.  It’s not really that different than boiling it all down to a rhythm guitar and guitar solo with a drum and bass, creating a rhythmic backing to it.

Then there’s engineering, they also invented that.  As different time periods went by in classical music, they would move the seating arrangements around between the instruments in order to get more volume from one side than the other.  Sonically, it’s what we do now with things like faders that come out of your stereo system.  Everything that we take for granted in music now from the tools that we use, to the instruments we use them on, and the theory that makes it musical, with a lot of practice can all be seen all the way back to its roots.  Everybody is influenced by everybody else.  In an autobiography by Liszt, he discussed how, as a child, he went to see Paganini perform (Paganini was a virtuoso violin player who has influenced most of the lead guitar players we listen to now).  From that one concert, Liszt decided he wanted to become a high level virtuoso on the piano, so we got a lot of great music from that.   

Now a days in music, and even in film and television, all those arrangements can be traced back to the early music eras.  So when you’re listening to different music, whether it be the horn arrangements in James Brown music, to the string arrangement in the Moody Blues, and right down to the piano and guitar arrangements that Paul and I put together in ‘Mary’ - which I originally wrote as a classical piano piece and was then was turned into an interesting contemporary song.  For every style of music that comes out, you will have a previous generation saying that’s not music, but in the end we’re using the same scales, same notes, same theories – same everything.