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5 BIG IDEAS that changed Classical Music!

5 BIG IDEAS that changed Classical Music! featured image

In honour of ideacity this week (July 14 – 16) at Koerner Hall in Downtown Toronto, Kathleen Kajioka was inspired to put together this list of 5 BIG IDEAS in Classical Music!

5 BIG IDEAS that changed Classical Music:

1. Musical notation.
This one’s easy to take for granted, however a majority of musics of the world are still transmitted orally. Without the ability to write it down, any piece involving multiple performers — let alone the richly intricate works of Bach, Beethoven or any composer you can name — would have been flat out been impossible to create, let alone make available for anyone to play after the fact. How would Mahler’s 8th Symphony work without notation? It has over 60 different instrumental parts, and that’s not counting the choir… The system we use evolved in the Middle Ages beginning with Neumes, which were used initiallyto promote consistent performance of Christian holy scriptures the Holy Roman Empire. It evolved from there, et voilà! A Bach Fugue or Beethoven Symphony becomes possible…

2. The Organum.
The practice from the Middle Ages of taking the standard slate of tunes of the day, Gregorian chant, and writing melodies (see Big Idea No. 1) to sing above them at the same time. This would lead us in a straight line to bass-line harmony and marked the birth of counterpoint, which together happen to be the defining elements that make up the entire language of Western Classical Music!

3. Seconda prattica.
An idea that is only familiar to Early Music nerds today, but this one is responsible for the spirit of music as we now know it. Also known as “Stile moderno,” it was a big new idea at the dawn of the 17th century that music should reflect the meaning of the text it is supporting (written music was mostly vocal at the time). It’s a seemingly simple idea, but one that shattered a fortress of rules and led the way to every familiar musical platform: from the solo song to opera, to pure instrumental music in all of its forms, including the sonata, the symphony and virtuoso concerto. Most importantly, it embedded the idea that music is meant to embody and inspire every nuance of human emotion.

4. The Piano.
This instrument needs no introduction, so instead let’s just imagine for a moment: Mozart without the piano… Beethoven without the piano… Chopin without the piano… take away the piano and we’d still have a bit of music from the first two, but Chopin would have written exactly nothing. Why is the piano so central? It was hardly the first keyboard instrument to hit the scene — before it was the harpsichord and much longer before that, the organ — but the piano has proven to have the most staying power. Unlike its predecessors, the “Piano e forte” (that’s its original full name) can play at different volumes, i.e. “soft and loud”. This technical innovation added an indispensable expressive dimension, and has made the piano an ideal partner for voice and solo instruments of every stripe. Let’s face it, without the layered sonorities of the piano, the violin sonatas of Brahms, Franck or Ravel would be too thin to bear. As an instrument that allows a single person to produce fully realized harmony and counterpoint (see Big Idea no. 2) and in a nuanced way, it has inspired reams of music from every composer since it first appeared in the 1700s. Available in smaller sizes, it was the centre of home-entertainment before the advent of recorded music. It also provided a perfect means for composers to sketch out their symphonic ideas before assigning them to the instruments of the orchestra. Other instruments have beautiful qualities to be sure, but the piano is the only one that is entirely self-sufficient.

5. 12-tone technique.
Love it or hate it, the invention of a whole new musical language by Arnold Schoenberg was almost as revolutionary as Big Idea no. 3… For centuries, since the days of the ‘Seconda Prattica’ in fact, music had been governed by a grammar of triadic harmony — this is the well-organized sequence of consonances and dissonances (mostly consonances) that underlies everything from Handel’s “Messiah” to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” In the 1920s, Schoenberg felt this system was as tired as a re-used teabag and decided to liberate all 12 pitches in the chromatic scale. At first he threw them down in any way that came to him, but he quickly found that total freedom was not all it’s cracked up to be. So he invented the 12-tone row system, whereby each of the 12 notes is placed in a specific order, which is then adhered to for the duration of the piece. The result is some of the most un-singable music you’ve ever heard; but it did open up a new sound world that enriched the writing of subsequent composers including Bartok, Britten, Berg, Stravinsky and Shostakovich, and invited into the concert hall a sonic reflection of the hard realities of the 20th century, with all its industrial dissonance and World Wars.

Don’t miss out on more BIG IDEAS at this years ideacity. It’s three days, over 50 speakers, and a ton of inspiration. Can’t be there in person? Watch the live webcast – free! Get the details at

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