Book Review: Robert Greenberg - How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History Culture, and Heart

Greenberg provides us the tools for identifying the basic elements of music and learning to appreciate genres we feel can be too intimidating.
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As Robert Greenberg writes in his book How to Listen to Great Music: A Guide to Its History, Culture, and Heart, “we Robert Greenbergcan't go outside the box unless we first perceive the existence of the box.” Thus I decided to accept the challenge when sent this paperback, part of of the Great Courses class How to Listen to and Understand Great Music. While I feel well grounded in rock and jazz, I admittedly know far less about classical music and opera. With slight ambivalence, I tackled the book, and found that Greenberg's clear yet witty writing style kept me interested and educated me on music basics.

Greenberg, a composer, academic, and Great Courses lecturer since 1993, clearly understands his audience. He keeps overly technical terms to a minimum, but clearly defines them when he must (a glossary toward the back of the text also provides useful information). Using concrete examples, such as likening notes to atoms and “motives” as molecules that accumulate to form melodies, aids the reader in understanding some abstract concepts. In addition, he clarifies that what I previously called “classical music” is actually “concert music,” a broader term that encompasses the various developments in music. Indeed, he covers developments from Medieval times to the early 1900s, a huge time span that he nonetheless synthesizes and analyzes succinctly. He also discusses a healthy amount of history, which is essential for understanding how composition and instrumentation evolved.

Packing all of this information into one book runs the risk of either overwhelming or boring the reader. Thankfully Greenberg possesses a dry wit, and inserts humor into otherwise dry lessons. Subtitling one section “Stavros, Stavros, he's our man; if he can't play it, no one can!” Greenberg demonstrates that he does not wish to intimidate the audience, but rather explain in layman's terms the major concepts of music. I felt he was addressing me when he begins the chapter on opera thusly: “Opera. To know thee is to love thee. Yet many fine and upstanding lovers of music perceive opera as a strange and artificial construct in which large people in horned helmets scream God-knows-what in each other's faces from a distance of half an inch.” He then convincingly argues that one must learn about opera's fundamentals because “opera is the ultimate musical art form. . . Let us not be afraid. Opera is good.” He does not demand that the reader love it, but makes his case that most modern music can be traced back to the genre.

Can I claim to love “concert music” now that I have read How to Listen to Great Music? While I would still choose to attend a jazz or rock concert over an opera performance, I believe I now have a better understanding of its crucial contributions to modern day music. I once took a doctorate-level class, and a fellow student argued against having to learn—and strictly adhere to—grammar rules. After all, she posited, writers such as e.e. cummings totally disregarded grammar, and they were still considered great artists. To rebut this, I said, “you can't break the rules unless you learn them.” To me, that best summarizes what Greenberg's course is about; learning the fundamentals of music enables us to better appreciate how modern songs are composed, and the role music played—and still plays—in society. Music communicates the feelings of the composer, and evokes emotion in the listener. Greenberg defines music as “sound in time,” that the art “crystallizes and intensifies human experience, rendering it universal in the process.” Whether one is referring to the Renaissance or the 21st century, that principle stands, and Greenberg's book provides us the tools for identifying the basic elements of music and learning to appreciate genres we (or at least I) feel can be too intimidating.

For more information on this and other Great Courses on music and accompanying books such as How to Listen to Great Music, visit the Great Courses homepage and Robert Greenberg's site.