11/11/2013 10:55 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Classical Music 101a:Why There's Nothing to Worry About

I want to offer a few general thoughts about music - what we call classical music and what it actually is - free of politics and free of esthetic evaluations--and the latter frequently acting as a mask for the former.

So, let me start with a definition of the term "Classical" when it comes to music - because we really do not have a phrase that encompasses what I am talking about, and why, I believe, there is nothing to worry about. Sometimes classical music is called Western Music and, in a way, that makes sense. It is a language that developed in what we still call "the West." (I have frequently asked myself one of those Unanswerable Questions: West of what? But I will let that go for another time.)

This is a huge and complicated story, but here's a brief summary: The musical language that we call "classical" developed over thousands of years and was first described in detail by the greatest philosophers of Western Civilization: Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, and the lesser-known Aristoxenus. In their writings we learn about the power of music to control behavior, to ennoble our character, to find meaning from collecting and building up impressions from memories. We learn that it follows natural laws, that music has height and depth, that intervals are perceived in visual terms: higher and lower, bigger and smaller -- and that it trains character, for better or worse. The modes (or what we call scales) - the unique series half-steps and whole-steps in a melody - were believed to represent the characteristics of the Greek tribes: the Dorians, the Aeolians, the Ionians, as well as the warlike outliers from the Balkans, the Phrygians. In other words, Greek music was an expression of the fundamental culture and personality traits of its various tribes.

It is a uniquely simple language but one that can find endless possibilities of development. It easily accepts external influences - a new color, a new combination of intervals, a rhythmic pattern - and it has the capacity of continually renewing itself. Those composers who bought into the theory that this ever-evolving system was dead at the beginning of the 20th century were enthusiastic and passionate adolescents, almost all of whom later recanted and got back to writing music, having passed through their tantrum phase. Hindemith, Weill, Copland, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Bartok, Shostakovich - they all ended up in a very different place from their bang-on-a-can, yell-in-your-face entrance onto the international stage.

We don't teach that version of history, mind you. We are meant to believe that classical music just got more and more complex and experimental - and continues to. But the only way to accept that idea is to eliminate the data, since this explanation of the 20th century describes a fraction of the music actually composed and listened to. If you were a physicist, and proposed a theory of the Universe that simply ignored 99% of perceivable information, you would be laughed out of the Academy.

Our Music - the music that was described by the Greeks and passed on to the Romans, survived the Dark Ages and was nourished by the arrival of North African Muslims, was codified in the Renaissance, brought to the New World and once again expanded through the indigenous music of native populations and African slaves - This music conquered and displaced other kinds of music because it is an omnivorous language of metaphor and onomatopoeia. It is built on two very simple rules: 1) faster frequency pitches are heard as "higher" than slower frequency pitches, and 2) every piece of music has a home base. Once you accept any idea of high and low (in the physical sense) and that a melodic line must return home, you've got an invisible/aural language that acts as a metaphor - through time - of the physical world. It is implicitly understood to be a journey and it creates an acoustical environment that elicits certain kinds of behavior. And while "home" is the terminology for the "key" of a work, the aura around that key is an echo of the physical properties of all objects in the universe that are flexible-- that is, everything that bends or vibrates. Thus, a piano string or the column of air in a flute vibrates causing sound.

These vibrations contain other, less obvious sounds. This phenomenon is known as the harmonic series in which each tone contains within it the major and minor chords we hear as the normal accompaniment to the melodies we sing. This is called tonality and it is embedded, or at least implied, in the way humans perceive the physical universe. Pythagoras saw it the other way -- the very being of the universe is bound by musical principles.

And that's really all you need to know about Western music. You know everything else. It has been taught to you when your mother sang to you, by the scores to Looney Tunes, Disney movies, the radio, parades, athletic events, Sunday morning church services, and every television program you saw as a child. It is honed every day when music is heard in your life, creating a world of generally accepted metaphors placed within your personal experiences.

Over the centuries, Western music has built up a symbolic language that we all associate with experiences. It is invisible, but it can, and does, embody and project meaning, in spite of the theory that music is not about anything. What we still refer to as "Western music" is absolutely not absolute. In 1921, Igor Stravinsky was quoted as saying, "I consider music by its very nature powerless to express anything: a feeling, an attitude, a psychological state, a natural phenomenon, etc."

This is clearly idiotic and an attempt to be trendy and provocative in the decade after he composed three story ballets, The Firebird, Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring. I wonder if these works had been called opus 12, opus 13a and opus 15, whether we would know them today.

In college, I read the following story told by the Roman consul, Boethius, writing around 520 A.D. You may never have heard of him, but through his writings, Boethius transmitted the knowledge of Greek music to the entire Middle Ages. It is a story about Pythagoras, who lived a thousand years before, in 500 B.C.

Who is unaware that Pythagoras, by means of melody, calmed and restored to self-control a young man in Taormina who had become overwrought from hearing music in the Phrygian mode? One night, a certain prostitute was in his rival's house, with the doors locked, and the young man in his jealous frenzy was about to set fire to the house. Pythagoras was observing the motion of the stars, as was his custom. Learning that the youth, inflamed by the sound of the Phrygian mode, was deaf to the many pleas of his friends to restrain him from the crime, he directed them to change the mode, and thus reduced the youth's fury to a state of perfect calm.

We can laugh at this extraordinary story and wonder at the very possibility that Greek teenagers could be so influenced by music. I remember thinking, "How sensitive these Greeks must have been!"

But, now I know better.

Every one of us is just as sensitive to the use of a scale, a color or a rhythm. That sensitivity and our vulnerability to its power have developed over the centuries and over our lives. The Phrygians were lawless, ecstatic peoples of the wild mountainous regions of the Anatolian highlands and making music that represented those people made the young man behave as if he were a Phrygian.

I can give you so many examples of this in our lives. Here are two:

During the past decade, the playing of classical music on the London Underground and in troubled neighborhood supermarkets cut the number of robberies, vandalism, and assaults by as much as 33% - and it is not because the teenagers fled music they hated. Indeed, when questioned, the vast majority of those asked said they actually liked it. The point is that the music created an environment of civility that made uncivil behavior less attractive, just as Pythagoras had written 2500 years ago. It did the very thing Aristotle said: that "music ought to be used for many benefits (including) serving to relax our tension and give rest from it."

In 1951, a film version of Tennessee Williams' play, A Streetcar Named Desire, was screened for the Legion of Decency, the Roman Catholic organization created to protect the "massacre of innocence of youth" from the cinema. The famous scene in which Stanley Kowalski, in a partially ripped T-shirt, yells, "Stella! Hey, Stella!" his pregnant wife, whom he has hit while drunk, descends the staircase, slowly and erotically. Her reunion with her husband should have been something the Legion and the Catholic Church applauded. However, the wailing saxophone and the jazz combo said "sex," not love. The very same film was totally changed when composer Alex North replaced the hot jazz with the white-note chords played by the strings. No longer were these two married people wild Phrygian animals. They were simply a very enthusiastic married couple. And the picture was then approved for Catholic adults to watch.

All right -- So this amazing language is ours -- and everyone knows that harps are for heaven, trombones are for hell, horns tell us a character is a hero, the trumpet announces the king, a bassoon makes us laugh, and a saxophone is not OK, even if you are married. C-major is the key of the king, and therefore sunlight and God - See Beethoven's Fidelio, his Fifth Symphony; Wagner's sundrenched die Meistersinger, Strauss' sunrise for the super-man in Also sprach Zarathustra -leading to the birth of the Superman-as-star-child in Stanley Kubrick's 2001, which led to its use in selling really super Toyotas that would make a man feel like superman and want to buy one. D-minor received its unique quality when Mozart wrote an opera about the death of a father who returns from the dead. Once demarcated, it was the inevitable key of mystery for Beethoven's last symphony, the key of the supernatural storms that begin both The Flying Dutchman as well as The Valkyrie, the opening chord of Strauss' Elektra, which is, after all, about the death of a father, and the key of the Battle to End All Things in Howard Shore's score to The Lord of the Rings - The Return of the King. I asked Howard if he knew why he had composed that part of the score in d-minor and he said he did not, but he knew it had to be in that key. Exactly.

These are not accidents. They are our great, collective language called classical music.

And now, I suppose, you want me to explain what has happened to it. For that you'll have to wait for Part Two.