Why some music is great, and some is rubbish

The other day, as Radio 4 was being boring, I flipped through the other radio channels in the car. I usually only stay on Classic FM for a few seconds, as, by default, you tend to hit some tedious piece from the classical period, typically by someone like Mozart or Haydn. But this time I stayed, transfixed. They were playing a choral piece I would eventually find out was Cloudburst by Eric Whitacre, and it was stunning. I had to rapidly purchase the CD.

It made me try to analyze why my musical tastes differ from some people. It's interesting to compare what I hear in a piece and what my wife hears. We are both singers, but she has always been a soprano, while I (apart from a brief dalliance with alto) have been a bass since my voice broke, around 40 years ago. She primarily listens to tunes. I primarily listen to harmony. It's a weakly supported hypothesis, but our respective singing parts may help explain this. Basses rarely get the tune.

This seems quite a good explanation of why I prefer early polyphonic music, like Tudor and Elizabethan church music, or modern serious music, to music from the classical period. The classical stuff relies heavily on melody, with harmonies supporting the melody. In the early and modern stuff, it's the harmony that rules, and there often isn't a tune per se. Once harmony takes over, you can play around with dischords, which for me provide the most wonderful aspects of music done properly. (It's interesting that the Victorians bowdlerized Bach by taking out the dischords, assuming they were accidents, where actually they are the best bits.)

Please take a few seconds to listen to a prime example. This is just the 'amen' from the end of a piece called Jesu Salvator Saeculi by the sixteenth century English composer John Sheppard. The harmonies start off conventionally enough, but every now and then he does something so modern sounding that it's hard to believe this music is nearly 500 years old. Excuse the amateur recording, but click here to take a listen.

Of course it's entirely possible for music to have a great tune and funky harmonies (the best film music often does this, for instance) - but I do think I might have found out why I struggle so with the classical period composers. Their harmonies are usually boring.

So, to end where we began, here's that Eric Whitacre piece that got me so excited:


  1. Wonderful choral music. That first chord captivated me instantly. Totally took me away from the dark and grim world of job searching...


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