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
265 Reviews
85% of reviewers would recommend this product
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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  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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  • 16 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 120-page printed course guidebook
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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 120-page course synopsis
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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 265.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Passion and knowledge! Mr. Goldberg's passion, knowledge and considerable wit keep these courses flowing. My wife and I agree they go at a nice pace for not overloading or under-serving the curriculum. Recommended to anyone who wants to know the basics of music!
Date published: 2018-06-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great coverage of fundamentals I just finished this course and was very happy with it. While I would have like to have him cover musical notation/reading music, I do understand why he didn't - way too much to cover without getting into that. I learned a lot about how music works, why some things sound beautiful and others not so much, what composers are trying to do in a given piece of music, how much changed over centuries. Many of the lectures, especially the last 8 or so, do require multiple listenings for those of us with a love of music but no particular talent for it. The professor is very good - easy to listen to, doesn't talk too fast, obviously very knowledgeable.
Date published: 2018-04-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great Courses PLUS Fantastic. I look forward to you expanding the number of PLUS courses. I particularly like the backup button; wish all video producers had one. I would like a history-like place to move courses from the WATCHLIST that I am finished with; HISTORY handles sessions not courses. The PLUS price is doable for a retiree. Keep up the good work.
Date published: 2018-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dynamic presentation A great launching pad for music appreciation. Still wondering where rap fits into the picture - is it music at all? I'm rating the value as "good," but I bought it on sale - regular price is too high.
Date published: 2018-04-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Recommended as infrastructure to other courses This is the eighth course I have taken by Professor Greenberg. After having read many of the raving, positive reviews about this course I can only agree – this is a wonderful course. I have four years of music training behind me (in the far past), but a lot of what was taught was new to me. Furthermore, as other reviewers have mentioned, this topic is often not so well presented to children and most of them really can’t be bothered with theory and just want to get to playing the music. Professor Greenberg’s delivery (as I have come to expect), was overflowing with enthusiasm, knowledge and humor. In my opinion all of the lectures about pitch, tone and harmony were beautifully presented, non-trivial, and fascinating. It answered a lot of questions for me like (for example) why composers were so obsessed with the keys of their works etc… If this had been my first course given by Professor Greenberg, I believe I could have understood the other courses better – so it should be taken as a first course on the subject in my opinion.
Date published: 2018-04-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Way to Better Understand Music This is more of a technical course on the understanding of the underlying principles of music. I found this course to be akin to a mathematics lesson. By that, I mean how tone, melody, and harmony work together to create a unified whole. It was fun to listen to how the different types of instruments are and how there are performed. This is a good course to give you some technical background to Professor Greenberg’s courses on the history of Western music.
Date published: 2018-03-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Study! Oh my goodness, what a marvelous introduction into the wonderful world of music. Professor is articulate, patiently teaching neophytes with gracious insight. His delightful sense of humor and sidebars keep each lesson lively. I am truly enjoying this class and learning to "hear" on an entirely new level.
Date published: 2018-02-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The technical data is accurate and well stated so that people with limited knowledge of physics can understand musical principles.
Date published: 2018-02-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fabulous material I really don't expect that I will find any other series of presentations that would match the unique gift Professor Greenberg has for imparting info you want to know and need to know in such an engaging way.
Date published: 2018-01-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Second course from Prof. Greenberg This is the second course I've bought from Professor Greenberg and he has yet to disappoint. I'm an adult flute student and have been studying for about a year. This course is a fantastic aid in learning music theory. I've found music theory to be quite dense. Professor Greenberg explains it in a manner that is entirely comprehensible. He combines story telling, history, physics and music and does so well. The course is fluid and engaging. I would recommend it all day!
Date published: 2018-01-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful overview I thoroughly enjoyed this lecture series. Robert Greenberg is very knowledgeable and has an entertaining approach to teaching. I found it too short, but that's only because I was enjoying it so much. I already play an instrument, so had no problems with his terminology or speed of delivery, as mentioned by some reviewers. I will now get his other series on understanding great music
Date published: 2018-01-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic imformation. Though I found the presenter a little quirky, the series was very informative and his credentials speak for themselves. Excellent series.
Date published: 2017-11-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent teacher The course is very difficult for a non-music person. Have never studied it. Mr. Greenberg understands that; and it is meant to be listened to more than once. I just love how the material is presented and, especially, his sense of humor. He’s a stitch and a very smart one at that.
Date published: 2017-11-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I love Robert's approach to understanding music. I taught vocal music for over 40 years at high school level and I appreciate his lectures to understand the aspects he highlights. His humor and language are great for my liking. Thanks
Date published: 2017-10-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent I thought that Professor Greenberg was outstanding.
Date published: 2017-09-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thank Dr. Greenberg Thanks, I've gone from not knowing the difference between a 1/4 note and a hemiola. To a real appreciation of the circle of 5th's.
Date published: 2017-08-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent overview of the subject This course provides an excellent overview of the subject. The instructor does a good job of explaining things every step of the way. Even so, plan on listening to the course more than once, because there is so much information to absorb. I listened to it while commuting, and will need to listen to it again so I can take notes!
Date published: 2017-08-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Intro to Music Theory Make no mistake this is a college level course about classic music theory and the instructor uses a college vocabulary and moves at a college pace. This is not an appreciation of popular music course. If you are a novice to musical understanding it is easy to get overwhelmed by this course. This is perfectly understandable and the instructor says at the outset that you will need to watch this course several times. The first four lectures are easy, but then the difficulty ramps up a bit and by the tenth lecture you are in full blown music theory mode. So the best advice is don't sweat the details. If you can walk away from your first viewing (please get the video) with an understanding of timbre, tempo, scales, what a melody is and that harmony is a modern invention based on tension and release, you have done well. On your second viewing, lights will start going off in your brain and your ears will start to respond. This is the payoff, you will actually start understanding what you are hearing. It is the difference between hearing a foreign language conversation as gibberish and understanding what the speakers are actually saying.
Date published: 2017-08-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Even a musician can learn from this course I am an amateur musician myself (French horn) and singer, and I bought this course for my wife when she expressed concern about not knowing as much as she'd like to about the basics of music. She loves opera and has become a classical listener with me, but longed to understand the fundamentals. We watch the videos together and I have been surprised at how much I am getting from them along with her. Prof.essor Greenberg is a dynamic, and occasionally very funny, presenter and makes the information easily acccessible. For a hearty laugh, check out his discussion in lecture 4 of the tempo markings (presto, adagio, etc.) and compares them in Italian and German. We have already purchased his series on "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music" and will soon be watching and listening to many more hours of his wonderful presentations.
Date published: 2017-07-30
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Understanding the fundamentals of music I chose this course to learn the basics of music. So far I have done 3 lessons and have learned some music history and what a violin is, but I was hoping for a little more meat. Still, he is engaging so we will see if it gets better.
Date published: 2017-07-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course. You should produce a second course with professor Greenberg
Date published: 2017-06-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mesmerizing Even if you know nothing about music, Professor Greenberg's insight and depth of field will captivate your imagination. His enthusiasm for his subject is palpable and makes the information accessible and fascinating. The course assumes you know nothing but the English language and walks you through the building blocks of music. As the student you come out the other side not only knowing more, but experiencing music in a different more profound way. I will go on to purchase more courses offered by this instructor.
Date published: 2017-06-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A superb Teacher of Music I'm posting the same review for the many courses offered by Robert Greenberg I have taken. He is superb at explaining music, how it works and why it feels the way it does when you hear it. His courses greatly enhance my appreciation of the music, not just soon after taking his course but over the years thereafter.
Date published: 2017-05-28
Rated 1 out of 5 by from The voice is too much. I felt belittled just liste I could only get through part of the first lesson and did not absorb any of the content because of the instructors voice. His tone is heavy with sanctamoniousness and his manner is so pompus I could not listen. You could do a better job of getting what an average person would hear regarding g tone of voice.
Date published: 2017-05-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Authoritative Once I got past the professor's theatrical gesturing I recognized his obvious authority in the subject of music. His descriptions are VERY clear and he is not afraid to repeat more difficult sections. He seems to sense when his audience is wandering and repeats. The structure of the course is well thought out. I will review the course a second time as he recommends.
Date published: 2017-05-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent Course This course is full of music theory information, covering mostly classical but also some jazz and pop. The lecturer is humorous and extremely knowledgeable, never boring.
Date published: 2017-05-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyable and informative Wanting to learn more about music as I near retirement (plan for more time for learning to read and play music then), I found this course very understandable yet not too basic as to be inconsequential. Thoroughly recommend both the course and the instructor.
Date published: 2017-05-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Pitched just right! Having listened and thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Greenberg's "Great Masters" series, I suspected this series would be just right for my growing interest in understanding the music I love so much. It is somewhat miraculous that he manages to transmit content without any references to musical notation. His anecdotes are often groaners and predilection for the California phrase "whatever" bring a little whimsy to some pretty dense material. I have ordered the transcripts as a reference. I will listen again (and again, in the case of harmony) to selected parts. As someone with a background in STEM fields, I never had a chance to learn music theory but I've delighted in this course. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2017-05-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ambitious 1st Music Course As somebody with no formal music education, I was looking for a course that would supplement the usual introductory music texts. Dr. Greenberg has created an enjoyable class which covers many of the basic concepts of music theory. As he mentions in the course, it is difficult to expound upon theory without the introduction of musical notation. The professor has produced a course which effectively sidesteps this problem, although other reviewers have taken exception with the course still being too technical in nature. Were Dr. Greenberg to introduce musical notation, this course would likely become significantly longer, and probably less accessible to many layperson listeners. My recommendations for the ambitious listener are take your time watching these lectures, and if you have access to a keyboard to play along as the instructor plays basic scales and intervals. Playing along makes some of the more technical concepts easier to comprehend. The professor is extremely knowledgeable, he's a fine teacher and his passion for music of all stripes is infectious.
Date published: 2017-04-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Just What I Wanted! This is a Fundamentals of Music course geared toward the listener, rather than the musician. As such it was just what I was looking for.
Date published: 2017-04-04
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