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Understanding the Fundamentals of Music

Understanding the Fundamentals of Music

Professor Robert Greenberg Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
Course No.  7261
Course No.  7261
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Course Overview

About This Course

16 lectures  |  45 minutes per lecture

We all know that beneath the surface of music, beyond the joy or excitement or even heartache that this beautiful language of sound can stir within us, lies the often mysterious realm of music theory—a complex syntax of structural and instrumental resources that composers may draw on.

No matter what kind of music we listen to—symphony or string quartet, saxophone solo or vocal ballad, hip hop or Gregorian chant—we feel the impact of that music and have done so all our lives, even though we may not know how such impact is achieved, or understand the fundamental processes of musical composition.

But what if we did understand how certain musical effects were achieved? What if we could learn to follow the often-intimidating language of key signatures, pitch, mode, melody, meter, and other parts of musical structure used by composers? What if we could recognize these various components at work as we listened to our favorite music? What if we could "speak" the language of Western music?

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We all know that beneath the surface of music, beyond the joy or excitement or even heartache that this beautiful language of sound can stir within us, lies the often mysterious realm of music theory—a complex syntax of structural and instrumental resources that composers may draw on.

No matter what kind of music we listen to—symphony or string quartet, saxophone solo or vocal ballad, hip hop or Gregorian chant—we feel the impact of that music and have done so all our lives, even though we may not know how such impact is achieved, or understand the fundamental processes of musical composition.

But what if we did understand how certain musical effects were achieved? What if we could learn to follow the often-intimidating language of key signatures, pitch, mode, melody, meter, and other parts of musical structure used by composers? What if we could recognize these various components at work as we listened to our favorite music? What if we could "speak" the language of Western music?

It's a language that Professor Robert Greenberg calls rich, varied, and magnificent, and he has little doubt about the rewards of even a beginning level of fluency.

"It's a language that pays us back tenfold—a hundredfold—for every detail we come to recognize and perceive! And it's a language that will only get richer and more varied, as our increasingly global culture contributes ever more vocabulary to it."

Learn the Basics of Music Theory without Knowing How to Read Music!

In this course, Professor Greenberg offers a spirited introduction to this magnificent language—nimbly avoiding what for many of us has long been the principal roadblock, the need to read music.

For anyone wanting to master music's language, being able to read musical notation is a necessity. But this course, as Professor Greenberg notes, is a basic course, designed to introduce you to music's language in a way that is similar to the way you learned your own native language, by "discovering and exploring musical syntax through our ears—by learning what the parts of musical speech sound like—rather than what they look like on paper."

By sidestepping the necessity to read music, these lectures represent an extremely rare opportunity in musical education—an opportunity to experience a solid introduction to music theory's basics in a way that is not technically intimidating, yet provides a substantial grounding in the fundamentals. As such, Professor Greenberg has devised a highly individualized approach to music theory. There is simply little or no literature in this field that can teach as much without recourse to music notation. Thus, it can appeal to those who are not learning, or even planning to learn, to play a musical instrument or to compose. It can even be beneficial to musicians who do not play a keyboard instrument and may have had difficulty grasping some of the more abstract concepts of music. As much as anything else, the course is designed to help deepen and intensify the experience of Professor Greenberg's other Teaching Company Courses, currently 21 in number.

Professor Greenberg has made use of a variety of tools, including thoughtfully chosen recorded examples, his own demonstrations at the piano, and helpful diagrams. One of those diagrams—a reproduction of a piano keyboard, with its keys identified—frees the student from needing access to a piano or any other keyboard instrument, a traditional demand of most music theory courses. It's of tremendous help in visualizing many of the course's most important concepts, such as how "pitch collections" are built, and it opens up the benefits of this course to anyone without access to a piano or keyboard instrument.

The extent of those benefits becomes clear the moment you start to apply the basic knowledge taught in this course. You'll listen to music with new levels of understanding and appreciation, not only when you find yourself at the concert hall, but also at home with your stereo, and when you're listening to your favorite music in the car or on a portable player.

Listen Over and Over and Learn More Each Time!

Each time you listen to this course—and Professor Greenberg has designed it to be listened to again and again—you increase your music-listening skills and come to appreciate what a complex and rewarding study music theory can be.

These are lectures that will prepare you, in Professor Greenberg's words, to "hear and identify those aspects of the musical language that are, collectively, the means to comprehending, on an intimate level, the music of the Western repertoire and, to a significant degree, the music of many other world cultures as well."

It's difficult to imagine a teacher more qualified to help you reach that goal. Professor Greenberg is one of The Teaching Company's most highly regarded, popular, and prolific teachers—as well as an award-winning composer in his own right. He has produced more than 500 lectures for The Teaching Company on a range of composers and genres, each marked by his characteristic knowledge, enthusiasm, humor, and, most important, unique ability to teach the technicalities of music to nontechnical audiences. A love of music and a desire to understand it are the only prerequisites you need.

All these skills are on constant display throughout the lectures, as Professor Greenberg takes you step by step through the material, laying a firm foundation before introducing the next concept. He begins by introducing you to the instrumental families of the orchestra and their characteristics, before moving on to subjects that might seem intimidating in a classroom: pulse and meter; sound, pitch, and pitch collections; melody and texture; tonality and tonal harmony. Professor Greenberg's lectures are clear and purposeful.

Learn about the People behind the Music

Along the way, you'll learn the human side of music—about the men and women who write and play it—and discover, for example, that:

  • When violinists or other string players use the bow over the fingerboard, or neck, of their instruments, a lovely, flutelike sound is produced, similar to the effect of clamping a comb-shaped muting device to the instrument's bridge. The technique is called sul tasto. Even though it is an effect that can be achieved instantly, without having to pause to clamp on a mute, string players generally dislike it. That's because the rosin they use on the hair of their bows to make the hair grip the strings gets on a part of the strings that may come into contact with the players' fingers—an unwelcome experience for string players. Not wishing to incur the wrath of the string section, experienced composers have thus learned to avoid using sul tasto unless absolutely necessary.
  • The piccolo has so much power that its piercingly brilliant sound can be painful, so piccolo players wear earplugs when they practice to protect themselves from their own instruments.
  • The extraordinary two-and-a-half octave upward slide—or glissando—that begins George Gershwin's 1924 Rhapsody in Blue has become the most famous clarinet glissando in all of music. Gershwin did not write it that way; he indicated a simple ascending scale. But Gershwin's original score was written for piano and then orchestrated by Ferde Grofé. Grofé knew that Russ Gorman, who would play clarinet in the Rhapsody's premiere, was extraordinarily gifted at playing glissandi. Grofé thus scored the opening of Rhapsody as a glissando, and the rest is musical history.
  • Hector Berlioz was rare among major composers for barely being able to play any individual musical instrument. The "instrument" he could play was the orchestra. Considered the most original, adventurous, and innovative orchestrator that had yet come along, his "Treatise on Orchestration" has been a must-read for composers and conductors since its publication in 1843.

Understanding the Fundamentals of Music is as rich in musical lore as it is in technical knowledge. It will reward you many times over, not only as you listen and relisten to the lectures, gaining a new understanding each time, but also as you listen to different varieties of music and find yourself enjoying a much deeper understanding of their compositional structures.

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16 Lectures
  • 1
    The Language of Music
    Professor Greenberg begins the course with an introduction to one of the musical language's key syntactical elements—timbre, or the actual sound or tone color of an instrument or instruments—beginning with the string section of the orchestra. x
  • 2
    Timbre, Continued
    His exploration of timbre continues with plucked string instruments and woodwinds—both single- and double-reeds—as well as a discussion of the concept of transposing instruments and dynamics. x
  • 3
    Timbre, Part 3
    You conclude our discussion of timbre with the brass and percussion families before moving on to the evolution of the orchestra from the early 17th to the 20th centuries. x
  • 4
    Beat and Tempo
    A simple definition of music offered in Lecture 1 was "sound in time." Moving from our exploration of the "sound" aspect of music, we now begin an exploration of the role of "time" in music. x
  • 5
    Meter, Part 1
    Meter refers to how individual beats are grouped in a given passage. This lecture considers two basic types, duple meter and triple meter, the "dance meter" of which the waltz is the most enduring and popular example. x
  • 6
    Meter, Part 2
    Examine some of the ways a composer can manipulate the listener's sense of beat and meter, including syncopation, compound meter, additive meter, and asymmetrical meter. x
  • 7
    Pitch and Mode, Part 1
    After three lectures of discussion about the "time" aspect of music—rhythm—you will return to its sound aspect, introducing and defining terms such as noise, fundamental frequency, pitch, pitch collection, note, melody, harmony, interval, octave, and overtone and Pythagoras's role in "discovering" the overtone series. x
  • 8
    Pitch and Mode, Part 2
    Professor Greenberg continues his discussion of pitch and mode with a focus on the essential building block of the Western pitch systems—the octave—and its importance in tonal music. In this lecture you will also explore musical modes. x
  • 9
    Intervals and Tunings
    Resuming you focus on pitch, you will turn once more to Pythagoras, and his investigation into what is now known as the overtone series. This paves the way for an examination of intervals, the evolution of tuning systems, and an introduction to the major pitch collections. x
  • 10
    Tonality, Key Signature, and the Circle of Fifths
    This lecture explains the concept of a tonal center, or tonic, discusses how musical keys are constructed and how they relate to one another. It also introduces a fundamental graphic and conceptual aid in understanding keys and their relationships—the circle of fifths. x
  • 11
    Intervals Revisited and Expanded
    An interval is the relationship between two pitches, and can range from the most simple in terms of acoustical ratio, where the two pitches blend well, to the most acoustically complex, where the pitches blend poorly. This lecture explores that range, from the simplest—the consonant, stable octave—to the most complex—the dissonant and unstable tritone. x
  • 12
    Melody
    Begin with an examination of the single most important aspect of music: melody. Here you will look at the four basic types of thematic melody: word melody, vocal melody, vocally conceived instrumental melody, and instrumental melody; and continue with an examination of musical motives and motivic development, and the function of motives in creating melody. x
  • 13
    Melody, Continued
    This lecture reviews and builds on the analysis of thematic melody begun in the previous lecture. Instrumental melody is discussed, along with other types of melody, including accompanimental melody, countermelody, periodic melody, and continuous melody. x
  • 14
    Texture and Harmony, Part 1
    The idea of texture in music—the number of different melody lines in a given section of music and their relationship to one another—is introduced by discussing the four basic musical textures: monophony, polyphony, homophony, and heterophony. x
  • 15
    Harmony, Part 2—Function, Tendency, and Dominance
    Functional tonality is the tonal system that dominated Western music from the 16th to the 20th centuries. It is at its heart about tension and release. This lecture discusses the roles of various harmonies. x
  • 16
    Harmony, Part 3—Progression, Cadence, and Modulation
    Professor Greenberg concludes with the concepts of harmonic progression, the movement from one chord to the next; cadence, the progressions that serve as musical punctuation marks; and the techniques of modulation, by which a composer can change keys during the course of a movement. x

Lecture Titles

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Robert Greenberg
Ph.D. Robert Greenberg
San Francisco Performances

Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions—which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles—performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, England, Ireland, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands.

He has served on the faculties of the University of California, Berkeley; California State University, Hayward; and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and has lectured for some of the most prestigious musical and arts organizations in the United States, including the San Francisco Symphony, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Van Cliburn Foundation, and the Chicago Symphony. For The Great Courses, he has recorded more than 500 lectures on a range of composers and classical music genres.

Professor Greenberg is a Steinway Artist. His many other honors include three Nicola de Lorenzo Composition Prizes and a Koussevitzky commission from the Library of Congress. He has been profiled in various major publications, including The Wall Street Journal; Inc. magazine; and the London Times.

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Reviews

Rated 4.7 out of 5 by 117 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Simply Outstanding! This sixteen lecture course (45 minutes per lecture) produced in 2007 is outstanding. Professor Greenberg covers the topics of timbre, tempo, meter, pitch and mode, intervals, key signatures, melody, and harmony in an entertaining fashion that holds one’s attention throughout, even for those with some knowledge of the topic. He includes plenty of musical examples from all musical genres to illustrate his points and makes efficient use of his 45 minutes per lecture. His “sidebars” – more advanced, nonessential information to supplement the topic under discussion – were great. Even if you are an expert musician I suspect you will learn from Professor Greenberg. At the very least you should enjoy his humor! I wish that my early band and music teachers had incorporated portions of this material into my musical training. It would have heightened my appreciation for the music we performed and for the instruments that I played. As a trumpet player I memorized the valve positions for the notes I played (as most every other trumpet player has from the beginning of time) but never understood why I was using those specific valve combinations for each specific note. It took Professor Greenberg to teach me why the trumpet (or bugle) without the use of valves produces the pitches C – G – C – E – G following the overtone series of a perfect 5th, a perfect 4th, a major third, and finally a minor third! It now makes some sense after listening to Professor Greenberg! I suspect that music instructors may feel that aspects of music theory are either too dull or too complicated for their students (who want only to make noise) – but I disagree. I encourage music teachers to try this course and reconsider whether or not to include some of this material in their classes. I recommend this course (and many others by Professor Greenberg) quite highly – entertaining and most informative. May 16, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Understanding the Fundamentals of Music Hurrah-Ha, Hurrah-Ha, Hurrah-Ha. I begin with kudos in triple time. Dr. Greenberg is outrageous, utterly entertaining and didactically skilled. He runs the course as if it's his own orchestral work (and this is a guy who writes music for brake drums). I had a GREAT music course in college and I consider Greenberg's opus my graduate work. So now, I understand major and minor, keys, and have heard a dirge from Eurydice, the first opera and so much more. The good professor is simply alive with knowledge and energy, but, most importantly, explains everything while NEVER talking down to the musical tyro (c'est moi). He also seems like a guy I would simply love to meet. A+++; two thumbs way up; bravo and a triumph. DJW September 8, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Professor Greenberg is a gem ! Even though I had a basic knowledge of theory, I learned much from this course. Professor Greenberg's approach opened up my mind for more fully understanding music and greatly expanded upon my previous knowledge. He made everything 'click' in my mind. Greenberg's teaching style is enthusiastic, humorous and full of vitality. He would have been my favorite professor at college. His knowledge of music is vast and his presentation skill is so natural, I felt like I had made a friend. I am getting ready to purchase another course from Professor Greenberg so that I can continue my musical friendship !! I strongly recommend this course to anyone who doesn't already have a solid grasp of music theory and classical composition. 5 1/2 stars for this course !!! August 27, 2014
Rated 1 out of 5 by The worst teacher This course was evidently not previewed. The teacher is vulgar and narcissistic and has a poor presentation of the material. I am in my senior years and had many teachers and this is the worst I have experienced. There are hundreds of music teacher who would do much better. We do not recommend this course. August 16, 2014
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