Strong Beat and Driving Rhythm Found in Top Classical Pieces

2011 Symposium2

The popularity of classical music is of interest to those who teach music, and to those who run symphony orchestras. One of the things that attracts audiences to concert halls is favorite repertoire being on the program. Contemporary composers of classical music have at times been at odds with audiences, because their music was not what people wanted to hear. Much has been written about the lack of appeal that atonal and aleatoric music has to audiences, but knowing what audiences do like and want to hear is important if orchestras are going to attract and audience outside the tried, true and aging faithful. A list of the top 100 classical music pieces found on kickassclassical provides some interesting food for thought. Let’s look at what is there.Top Ten Classical Pieces

While there are really no surprises on the list, what I find particularly interesting are the keywords associated with each piece. I counted the number of times each keyword shows up in the top 25 pieces; here is what I found. Four pieces or 16% (rank 3, 6, 15, 19) are matched with key words that are or suggestive of life events. Ten of them, or 40% (rank 1, 2, 4, 8, 9, 11, 14, 16, 22, & 23) are matched with key words that are or suggestive of emotions, and half of them are in the top ten. Five, or 20% pieces are associated with the word cartoon. This is born out in my classes. Students will invariably get the most excited and motivated to listen when they hear classical music that they recognize from or that sounds like music they have heard in cartoons.

Another interesting finding from this list is that all of the top five and 8 of the top ten have prominent rhythm in the themes. This produces an overall more driving, active kind of music, and it also results in a more explicit beat. This last point I believe is key. Young people in particular enjoy the heavy rhythm and beat emphasis of popular music. I have observed in my classes that the more rhythm and beat are prominent in a classical work, the more likely it is that they will enjoy that piece. Though not on the list, it is worth mentioning that among contemporary composers, the minimalists, including John Adams and Philip Glass, have been among the most popular, and that minimalist music is much more rhythmic than other styles.

It is also noteworthy that 15 of the top 25 pieces were written in the 19th century, and that the two most popular composers on the list are Beethoven (3) and Tchaikovsky (2). If my students are any indication, it appears likely that Beethoven’s popularity is driven in large part by two works, one of which (surprisingly) did not make the list: the fifth symphony, and Fur Elise. Tchaikovsky gets heavy promotion in the United States every American Independence Day (when the 1812 overture is common fare) and every Christmas season with the innumerable productions of The Nutcracker. 

In general, I could conclude that pieces that have been worked into popular culture are also the most popular in the symphonic concert hall. Between weddings, holiday celebrations and films, many of the pieces on this list are familiar to a large population of people who have rarely or never been to a symphony orchestra concert. That familiarity breeds popularity is a well worn adage in the popular music industry, which relies on heavily promoted concerts and frequent plays on radio stations to popularize its product, and it was well understood by Richard Rodgers, who once explained that he could pick a song from a show and make it popular by placing it in the overture, in the first act, in the n’tract, and reprised in the second act. By the tie the audience left, they had heard the song four times and were humming it on their way home.

Singablility may well be another hallmark of more popular classical pieces. The bottom half of the list also includes many pieces made well known by use in popular media, but many of these have less lyric melodies. These works include Grieg’s Piano Concerto (used in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film Lolita), Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem (used in a recent DirectTV commercial), Overture to The Magic Flute, “Mars The Bringer of War” from Holst’s The Planets (used often in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and referenced in the opening bars of (Imperial March” from Star Wars), and even “March” from  The Nutcracker, which comes in at only number 75. In conclusion, it may be that the most popular classical pieces strongly appeal to at least one emotion, are already popular to audiences through popular media, and are comprised largely of memorable and singable melodies.

Reflections On Attending A Live Performance With Students

2011Symposium_1_2As I write today’s post, I have just returned from a trip to the New Haven Ballet’s production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. This is a trip I have been taking with my fifth graders for several years now. Some look forward to the trip, some are skeptical about seeing ballet, and a few are sure they don’t want to go but do because I talk them into it. Without exception, the skeptics and objectors are changed boys and girls. Their eyes are now lit up, they are smiling, excited, and can’t stop talking about how awesome the show was. I’ll discuss some of the things about the performance my students enjoyed, but first I want to make the point that this transformation in their attitudes, and this unconditional enjoyment that they find in attending The Nutcracker is a testament to the power of live music and theater. As much as each student enjoys recorded music, they literally don’t know what they’re missing until they attend a live performance. The idea of ballet, including what they have learned about it, is replaced with the emotion born of sight and sound; the music, dancers, costumes, scenery, and the energy of an audience of their peers is so much more than what they expected.

The performance we attend is a special student performance, edited down to a ninety-minute presentation, mostly by omitting the first act, the party scene, and then including a behind the scenes look at the stagecraft of a professional ballet production between acts two and three, where an intermission would normally go. During that time, the children were given the opportunity to ask questions. “How does the snow fall?” “How does the curtain go up and down?” “How long did the dancers have to practice?” What is the snow made of?” These are the questions children asked. They all have to do with the parts of the ballet that they could not see or even imagine from listening to the music ahead of time, or learning the story of Clara and her adventure with the nutcracker turned into her prince.

Then there is the music, which nearly every child has heard at some point. Many have been well-prepared by theirThe Nutcracker music teachers before attending, so that at least the tableaux pieces are familiar. Many have also heard some of the themes in television commercials for Lexus and jewelry. There is a delight  in them as they sit there watching the ballet and taking it all in at the moment they recognize the next musical piece. Smiles, eyes opened wider, and perhaps a whispered “I know that music.” There it is, the Russian Dance or Snowflake music that they had heard before, but that now has a magical, illustrious sparkle amid bright costumes, expert dancers, and even falling snow.

During this interval, the students were also shown how the dancers do some of the moves and steps they had been watching. The Snow Queen and her partner showed how they did pirouettes and jumps, how she danced on point, and how he supported her during a spin. Because we were seated in the first rows of the theater, my boys were able to appreciate how much strength it takes to be a male ballet dancer, lifting the girl over his head and often holding her while carrying her across the stage. They understood by being up close to those dancers that men who dance ballet are strong and athletic.

Next year at about this time, if things go the way they usually do, I’ll have some students, mostly from those who initially did not want to attend The Nutcracker, ask me if they can go again. Every year I have sixth and seventh graders who want to go. This experience is worth doing for precisely this reason. Attending live music and theater is not only fun and emotionally rewarding, it is the stuff that life-long memories are made of.

Preparing students to attend “The Nutcracker”

2011Symposium_1_2One of the delights of this time of year is the yearly field trip to see Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. While literally children of all ages attend performances of this holiday time favorite, I take the fifth grade at my school to a special morning performance our local ballet company puts on for students. Most of my students have never seen The Nutcracker before I take them, and many have never been to live theater. In fact, they are surprised to learn that I am not taking them to a movie! Today I would like to share with you what I have found to be worthwhile activities to do with the students prior to attending the performance.

My preparation has three goals. Before they see the production, I want my students to know the story and which piece of music is associated with each part of the story, I want them to recognize the major musical themes, and I want them to recognize the five basic ballet positions as they watch the dancers. Because the ballet director goes over the story before the performance, I spend the least amount of time on that. His recitation will be a review for my students, reinforcing their preparedness to follow the plot. Recognizing the musical themes is the most important goal for me. For this, I first play musical excerpts as I tell them the story for the first time. This is an introduction and overview to the music. Next, I use a chorus arrangement; Nutcracker Jingles arranged by Chuck Bridwell and published by Alfred. It is written for 2-part choir and is an ingenious combining of “Jingle Bells” with themes form The Nutcracker. It begins with a piano introduction playing the opening of the overture, followed by a rollicking setting of “Jingle Bells.” Next, “JingleThe Nutcracker Bells” is set as a partner song with “Marche” with added words for the latter derived from “Jingle Bells.” That is the approach for the rest of the arrangement: the main theme from a piece is set to words derived from “Jingle Bells.” Included are “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Dance of the Reed Flutes,” and “Waltz of the Flowers.” The students enjoy learning these sections, and by the time they get to the performance of the ballet, they are delighted to hear the themes they know well enough to sing. The only downside to all of this is that I occasionally have to stop them from singing along during the performance!

The next part of my preparation for them is to teach them the five basic ballet positions. These are described with photographs on numerous websites. I have them all stand and go to each position, and learn them by name. Then I teach them how to do stage fencing using third and fourth positions. We use rhythm sticks for “swords” and each student must maintain third and fourth positions, especially with toes always pointed in the right direction. The students enjoy pretending they are swashbucklers, and they gain appreciation for what it is like to travel about a stage with your feet pointing in strange directions. When they attend the performance, they can watch the dancers’ feet and recognize which position they are in when the dancers are doing ballet steps. My students also pantomime the opening scene of decorating the Christmas tree, trying to stand in one of the positions whenever they are not traveling across the stage.

The final part of their preparation is to learn about the composer, Tchaikovsky. For this I use an activity I found at Each student has to pretend they are Tchaikovsky applying for either a teaching or composing job. The students have to read about Tchaikovsky and then, from the information in the article, write a resume for the job they are applying for. I then interview each student, asking them specifics about what they have put down. The questions I ask at the interview are all answered in the article, but they force the students to pay attention to every detail, instead of just gleaning the facts they need for their resume. While they work on this, I play lots of different music by Tchaikovsky, so that as they write down what musical works they (as Tchaikovsky) have written, they can hear the pieces and perhaps describe them in the interview. In all, preparing my students for their trip to the ballet takes about four 45-minutes classes. We have a lot of fun, and are well prepared to get the most out of our experience at the theater.