THE WESTERN MUSIC
For some, Western music is what plays in the background in elevators, reception rooms, and lounges. For others, it is what snobbish ‘intellectual’ artsy folks indulge in pretentiously. We will try to go beyond these myopic perspectives and try to get a glimpse of what is great, enlightening, and thoroughly enjoyable about Western music.
The term “Classical music” originates from the Latin classicus, meaning first class, or for the Romans, artistry of the highest order. It encompasses a vast range of music styles over a period of 800 years. Sometimes, the term “Art music” is used. Western music is just one among many different traditions of classical music, so when we’re discussing Western music, we’re specifically discussing European classical music. To make matters more confusing, there is a specific period in history referred to as the “Classical Period”, which differentiates the style of music in that era from other eras preceding and succeeding it. We shall delve into these different “periods” in subsequent posts. The point is to be contextually aware of what is meant by “Classical” when you’re reading or conversing with others.
Throughout the history of Western music, there have been two strands of evolution, usually distinguishable from each other, which evolved in parallel – Church music and Secular music. For example, Church music includes Gregorian Chants, Carols, Mass, and Requiems, while Secular music includes sonatas, concertos, symphonies, and opera. Both Church and Secular music influenced each other, while evolving and adapting to man’s ideological progress in history.
For any form of music, Instruments are the most important assets. We cannot expect even the simplest music without and instrument. Instruments play the most vital role in the western music. There are so many instruments to be played and when all together are played, the beauty produced is invaluable. A brief description of some instruments used in western music is given below.
Western Musical instruments are grouped into different families based on the way the instrument makes its sound. There are four main families of instruments: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion.
The piano is probably one of the most familiar western musical instruments. Not only is it used for solo performances, but it often appears in ensembles and chamber music, and is frequently used to accompany, rehearse, and compose. The piano has figured prominently in all kinds of music from classical to western music halls to ragtime to jazz to rock and roll. It is a keyboard instrument that produces sound when the player presses the keys with her or his fingers, causing small padded hammers to strike the strings. The sound is stopped by a damper when the key is released, though pedals can sustain the note a bit longer. The piano can produce a great variety of dynamics (soft to loud), based on how hard or softly the pianist hits the keys. There are 88 keys (52 white and 36 black) on a standard piano!
The most commonly used instruments in the string family are the violin, the viola, the cello and the double (string) bass. They are all made by gluing pieces of wood together to form a hollow “sound box.” The quality of sound of one of these instruments depends on its shape, the wood it is made from, the thickness of both the top and back, and the varnish that coats its outside surface.
Four strings made of gut, synthetics, or steel are wrapped around pegs at one end of the instrument, tightly stretched across a “bridge,” and attached to a tailpiece at the other end. The pegs are used to tune the instrument (change the length of the string until it makes exactly the right sound). The strings are tuned in perfect “fifths” from each other – 5 notes apart.
The player makes the strings vibrate by plucking them, striking them, strumming them, or, most frequently, by drawing a bow (bowing) across them. The bow is made of wood and horsehair. The instrument sounds different notes when the performer presses a finger down on the strings on the instrument’s neck, changing the length of the portion of the string that vibrates.
The violin is the smallest and highest-pitched member of the string family. It is held under the chin and rests on the player’s left shoulder. The violin often carries the melody in an orchestral work as its brilliant sound carries easily over many of the other instrument. Violin is the most important instrument in the current musical world and is used in almost all styles of the music in the world ranging from folk to classical and classical to western music.
The guitar is a string instrument which is played by plucking the strings. This is usually not used in classical genres but is a mandatory instrument in pop, rock, hiphop, and other forms of western music
The harp, another stringed instrument, is nothing like the rest of the string family. It is a tall, triangular-shaped instrument with about 45 vertical strings. The strings are plucked or strummed with the player’s fingers while seven pedals at the bottom of the harp adjust the length of the strings to produce additional notes. The harpist sits on a chair with the back of the harp between his or her knees, in order to be able to reach the strings and use the foot pedals that can change the pitch of the harp by one or two half-steps.
Instruments in the woodwind family used to all be made of wood, hence the name, but now they can be made of wood, metal, plastic or some combination of materials. They are all tubes with an opening at one end and a mouthpiece at the other end. They each have rows of holes that are covered by metal caps called keys. Pressing on different keys produces different musical notes – the sound changes depending on where the air leaves the instrument (through one of the key holes or out the far end). There are three ways in which the woodwind family creates sound by blowing air across the edge of or into the mouthpiece (flute or piccolo), by blowing air between a single reed and a fixed surface (clarinet and bass clarinet), or by blowing air between two reeds.
The flute is a narrow tube made either of wood or specified metal, with a row of holes. The player blows air across the small hole in the mouthpiece to produce a sound that can be either soft and mellow or high and piercing. Like the violin, the flute may often carry the melody line as it is easy to hear above the other instruments.
The piccolo is an instrument usually made from metal or wood which looks like a smaller version of flute. Because the length of the instrument is shorter than the flute, the pitch is higher, but it operates the same way. It is more of a specialty instrument, used when the part to be played is especially high.
Another wooden instrument, the clarinet, produces a fluid sound when air is blown between a single reed and the mouthpiece. As air passes through, the reed vibrates and creates sound. It has a large range of nearly four octaves so is a very versatile instrument. The tone quality can vary greatly depending on the musician, the instrument, the mouthpiece, and the reed.
One of the best western music instruments, the saxophone is made of brass, actually a woodwind instrument! It uses a single-reed mouthpiece much like the clarinet. The saxophone (“sax” for short) was invented in 1846 by Adolphe Sax to try to bridge the gap between brass and woodwind instruments. It is more powerful than most woodwinds, and more versatile than most brass instruments. The saxophone is used extensively in jazz, as well as in military, marching, concert bands, and also Indian Classical Music.
Brass instruments are essentially very long pipes that widen at their ends into a bell-like shape. The pipes have been curved and twisted into different shapes to make them easier to hold and play. Instruments in the brass family produce their sound when the player “buzzes” her or his lips while blowing air through the mouthpiece, creating a vibrating column of air within the instrument. Most brass instruments have valves attached to their long pipes. When the player presses down on the valves, they open and close different parts of the pipe, increasing the length of the pipe when played and creating a lower sound. In addition to the valves, the player can select the pitch from a range of overtones or harmonics by changing his or her lip aperture and tension. The mouthpiece can also make a big difference in tone. Brass musicians can also insert mutes into the bell of their instrument to change the timbre of its sound.
The trumpet has been around since about 1500 years BCE! It is the highest-sounding member of the brass family, and was often used for signalling /sending messages and religious purposes in the early days as the sound is very bright and clear. Air travels through six and a half feet of tubing bent into an oblong shape. The modern trumpet has three valves to change pitches, added in the early 19thcentury. This is extensively used in the military band of every country in the world.
The percussion section provides a variety of rhythms and textures to the music. Instruments in the percussion family make sound in one of these ways, by striking, shaking, or scraping. Percussion instruments can also be tuned or untuned. Tuned instruments play specific pitches or notes, just like the woodwind, brass and string instruments. Untuned instruments produce a sound with no definite pitch, like the sound of hitting two pieces of wood or metal together. Percussion instruments are an international family, representing musical styles from many different cultures.