Understanding the Fundamentals of Music

Course No. 7261
Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
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4.6 out of 5
268 Reviews
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Course No. 7261
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Define and understand how to speak the language of music, including timbre, beat, and tempo.
  • numbers Discover the part meter, pitch, and mode play in creating memorable compositions.
  • numbers Explore how melody and harmony can make - or break - a beautiful piece of music.

Course Overview

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
 |  Average 45 minutes each
  • 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
    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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  • Download 16 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
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DVD Includes:
  • 16 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 120-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 120-page course synopsis
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Timeline
  • Glossary

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Your professor

Robert Greenberg

About Your Professor

Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
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,...
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Understanding the Fundamentals of Music is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 273.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Makes music more fun The course covers al the basic music terms and provides examples as the course progresses. a good way to have more fun as you apply the knowledge as you listen and play music.
Date published: 2020-05-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Understand Music at an Elemental Level Professor Greenberg is such a treat. He’s passionate, knowledgeable, and very witty, making his lectures engaging, enjoyable, and informative. His explanations, paired with musical excerpts illustrating his points, break down sometimes intimidating topics into understandable concepts. As an amateur musician, I had a passing familiarity with topics covered in this course, but Professor Greenberg really helped me deepen my understanding and gain an added appreciation of music theory. This course comes with the added bonus of introducing the listener to a variety of gorgeous pieces while giving him or her the tools to dissect what makes the music so great. This isn’t my favourite course by Professor Greenberg, but it’s very enjoyable and informative. It’s good for someone who wants to learn about and enjoy music at an elemental level. I highly recommend this and Professor Greenberg’s other courses.
Date published: 2020-05-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Solid Grounding of What to Hear and Listen For I've always been confused about intervals and progressions in harmony. This course gave me a new outlook on how to imagine the structures to cause the emotional evocations desired by the composer. I never knew how that happened before. Now though I'm a rank beginner in composition, I have a better path forward with concepts that make sense. A good course for anyone who enjoys very-authoratative, lesson presentations and with the professor playing crisp examples to show what the theory says.
Date published: 2020-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very pleased Excellent syllabus presented clearly with enthusiasm. Highly recommend.
Date published: 2020-04-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Learn the Language of Music I started back to music after retiring from an administrative life. Never took Theory classes and this series of lectures has been a Godsend. The Professor is animated and delivers the information comprehensively. I would recommend the lectures to anyone wanting to study the "language" of music in depth. The best part of DVD courses is that you can view them multiple times until you feel comfortable with the material.
Date published: 2020-03-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interestingly Informative! We are only on the third lecture but so far are really enjoying it. The lecturer is very animated and interesting to listen to, and we are enjoying listening for the different instrument "voices" in the sample pieces provided. My teen daughter who is not a classical music fan is eating it up!
Date published: 2020-02-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A wonderful, wonderful journey! I am a music addict and adult trumpet student. This course is providing me with such a wealth of information and inspiration! So many fundamental concepts so carefully, clearly and entertainingly presented. I've taken almost all of Dr. Greenberg's courses. He is unmatched in my opinion!
Date published: 2020-02-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This guy is hilarious! I never leave reviews, but this guy is so entertaining i am compelled. I'm a musician and expected it to be elementary and dull, but watching him is watching him conduct his audience, full of wit, humor and gems of knowledge
Date published: 2020-02-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Informative, Entertaining Course This course was a good review of the principals of music. I consider myself to have an intermediate knowledge of music and still learned a lot, although I did lose interest with the last two or three lectures. Even with my prior knowledge, he still covered areas that were new to me, or from a different angle than I remember. Mr. Greenberg is a great lecturer, with a lively and entertaining style that keeps your attention.
Date published: 2020-02-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Happy with the course so far. I am only into the course up to Lesson 7, but I am satisfied so far. I learn best by repetition, and it is easy to watch each lesson twice and absorb the information. The teacher is lively and uses humor to make lessons more fun. I was never satisfied with my knowledge of theory, and wanted to learn more without being overwhelmed. This was definitely a good place to start.
Date published: 2020-01-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Essential for anyone interested in music Professor Greenberg is one of my favorite GC lecturers. I have been working my way through every course he has recorded. He always presents the content in an entertaining and easy to understand manner. I also met him once, and he is a super nice person. This course is fantastic for getting a foundation in western music. You'll learn basic music history and music theory. You also will hear some beautiful pieces.
Date published: 2020-01-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative, detailed, and entertaining. Dr. Greenberg's presentation of the fundamentals of music was informative, interesting, broad in scope, and presented with a touch of humor which made it enjoyable as well as educational. I have done many Great Courses and this one rates very high on my list of best courses. 5 stars.
Date published: 2019-12-18
Rated 2 out of 5 by from This is for historians I was disappointed with this course offering. It did not contain what I was after. I thought I was purchasing something to explain all about the signals on the page that tell you how to interpret the music on the music sheet! I would like my money back. Do you have what I'm looking for??
Date published: 2019-11-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting and entertaining I will probably view it again if I study music more.
Date published: 2019-09-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Sixteen great presentations I enjoyed every minute listening to Prof. Greenberg and the musical examples he used to illustrate the principles being discussed were interesting and made the topics come alive.
Date published: 2019-08-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Dynamic Lecturer Great to learn more about the technicalities of music. Like the lecturer and his animation. Like the music samples but I would greatly prefer to watch the instruments and instrumentalists play the instrument as the music is demonstrated rather than just listen to it.
Date published: 2019-08-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So you think you knew a lot about music and then.. I'm learning a lot and the professor keeps things interesting. I always thought that a music theory class would be dry and mathematical but instead it's deep and sometimes fun. And I thought I knew a lot about music going in but no... starting at the first lesson I realized that was not true.
Date published: 2019-08-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Super Outstanding Course I am taking this course because I know nothing about music and, at age 75, decided to learn to play a guitar. So, needed to learn something about music. I fully expected to be bored to death with notes, graphs and who knows what. Instead, I am fully engaged and learning a lot more than I ever cared about before, do care about now. Professor Greenberg is delightful and entertaining as he slips knowledge to you when you least expect it in a way that makes you retain what he says.
Date published: 2019-06-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Courses does it right Loving music all of my life but never had an opportunity to learn about it. Great Courses made it easy to learn and see how it's done. I'm sooo happy that I purchased this course. Downloading it gives you time to review over and over when you need to.
Date published: 2019-05-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. Greenberg Rocks! This course takes you on a wild ride through music history, with lots of examples, tidbits of music trivia, and easy explanations of music theory. Dr. Greenberg is a gifted teacher. His excitement about his lessons is contagious, and he presents a perfect balance of music and lecture. I thoroughly enjoyed this class, and have bought several others of Dr. Greenberg's. My only problem is that I have trouble stopping the audio recording in my car to get out of it. I often sit in my driveway for a while before turning off his lessons.
Date published: 2019-03-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lots to learn Love the lecture and the lecturer . With patience u learn a lot .
Date published: 2019-03-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Pleased! I am half way through the Fundamentals of Music course and am very satisfied with it already. The presentation is clear, understandable, and very interesting. I am getting just what I was hoping for in this course.
Date published: 2019-02-12
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Assumes musical talent I have watched every lesson. The course is thorough. The instructor is excellent. However, the course claims to serve both musicians and non-musicians. But, it does assume that the student can pick out one instrument from an orchestra's performance. It also assumes that the student can readily discern a slightly discordant sound from one that is consonant. A student without these talents will be lost, as was I. If I had these talents, I would have gotten a lot more out of the course and would rate it higher.
Date published: 2019-02-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Entertaining and enthusiastic teacher Others have tried to explain the circle of fifths concept to me before but I never got it until Prof. Robert Greenberg explained it. I'm in awe of this and many other topics he's covered.
Date published: 2019-02-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Title : Good description of title I went trough it in 2 weeks. I eill have to come back to fully absorb.
Date published: 2019-01-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Passion! I am enjoying the ride. Professor Greenburg is very passionate about his craft and it helps him get his point across. Looking forward to the next lecture.
Date published: 2019-01-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Understanding the Fundamentals of Music I enjoyed this course and learned a lot from it. Also I enjoyed the humor of the professor.
Date published: 2018-12-13
Rated 2 out of 5 by from This is for NON musicians only If you've ever been through a middle school band program, you probably know a lot of what is on this course. I just spent 30+ hours in the car with two 12-year old budding brass players and a 15-year old "retired" horn player. I, myself, have a Bachelors in music performance. We were all appalled and could barely listen to these. I had all kinds of comments from the back seats from "does he have any non Dad jokes?" to things I can even put here when he decided to "scat" to Maple Leaf Rag (that was terrifying). Not organized, not explained cogently; we either bored or appalled until we finally gave up at lecture 8 (after skipping many tracks). None of us found much to redeem it. I'm not even sure a non musician would get a lot out of this, but maybe? Adding a star for the possibility.
Date published: 2018-08-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course and Teacher Professor Robert Greenberg is both extremely informative and very entertaining.
Date published: 2018-08-15
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Designed for music background. The Greenburg courses are designed for those with a music background. I desperately want to learn classical music. He does not explain things, is verbose, and is an old school teach above students heads professor. I have been a professor at two of the top ranked schools for over 25 years. This is exactly how they tell you not to teach.
Date published: 2018-08-10
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