A few years ago I went to see the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra perform Beethoven’s Symphony Number 3, “Eroica”. I had heard it many times before on the radio and on CD but when the lights went down and the orchestra hit those first two monster chords, I thought to myself that Beethoven was surely the inventor of rock and roll! This music was powerful and moving and it just plain rocked.

Admittedly, those same chords don’t have anywhere near the same effect on a recording as they do in an orchestra hall. You really have to experience symphonic music live in order to fully appreciate it. In the hall this music sounded huge and menacing. I wondered at the time why so many rock musicians avoid classical music, or at least avoid admitting that they listen to it. This is not true of all rock musicians by any stretch; but I think it is safe to say that many of todays younger rockers (kids these days!) completely avoid the genre, thinking it to be pretentious and stuffy music written by and for intellectuals and prudes.

That is just so wrong on so many levels. Classical music has much to offer to any modern rock composer.

There is so much in classical music that can and does inspire rock melodies, themes, rhythms, harmonies and techniques. This is especially true in progressive rock. Bands like Genesis, Rush, E.L.P, King Crimson and Yes, to name just a few, often consist of classically inspired musicians and they have composed many a tune with classical themes in mind. This is no secret to today’s younger artists who may be inspired by the music itself but avoid the genre for self-conscious reasons of culture or fashion. The punk movement in the late seventies and early eighties pretty much put the kabosh on the art rock movement advancing in any meaningful commercial way. It is ironic that the punk rockers gained the same level of commercial success that they were rebelling against. Don’t get me wrong, I love punk rock too for the energy and creativity it injected into the scene, but I also regret that it seemed to come at the expense of so many progressive and art rock bands that I loved. C’est la vie

One problem in talking about classical music to people is the term “Classical” which really refers to a small time period from Bach to Beethoven. Here is how the history of music is usually broken down.

Early Period

Medieval (500–1400)
Renaissance (1400–1600)
Baroque (1600–1760)

Common Period

Baroque (1600–1760)
Classical (1750–1830)
Romantic (1815–1910)

Modern & Contemporary

20th century (1900–2000)
Contemporary (1975–present)
21st century (2000–present)

Classical as you can see really only refers to a period of about eighty years! Despite this, the term “Classical” is a handy one for lumping in all kinds of “old” music together into something you can get your arms around. I do it myself all the time, saying things like “I love classical music….” This doesn’t mean that I just like a hundred year period, or a handful of composers that lived in that period. It means I like instrumental music with strings and percussion and brass and wind instruments and harps and timpani and bassoons and clarinets and french horns and all that crazy stuff.

We could use better terminology to describe this type of music. Whether it be old or new, we are for the most part talking about music without words (setting opera aside for the moment). Some have tried to describe it as “serious” music. Good luck with that one. “Instrumental” music doesn’t cut it. “Classical” is not broad enough, neither are “Ancient” or “Early” narrow enough. “Orchestral” doesn’t work because those pieces can often be interpreted on a single instrument. It seems there is a conflict because our catalog of music is just so huge in scope. The result is that to properly classify a given piece of music requires an education on the entire history of Western Civilization! There’s got to be a better way than needing to classify something by it’s time period and it’s general structure only. (I’ll get working on some new classifications and get back to you…)

If it sounds good and has interesting ideas in it, why should it matter what century it was composed in? Doesn’t the fact that it is “old” make it even more interesting? Why don’t we see this music as representing the miraculous time machine that it is and embrace everything we can as a way of better understanding ourselves as artists and as human beings? Rather than hold our noses and turn on these rock stars of their day, why not appreciate the fact that not all of our musical heritage was lost to history in a catastrophic fire or flood? Why not study it, deconstruct it, reconstruct it make it come alive for us as musicians today? For those seeking new musical inspiration in their modern rock compositions why not turn on the way-back machine and breathe some new life into some older forms. Let’s here some modern rondos and bourrees symphonies, minuets and allemandes.

As the saying goes, “the more that things change, the more they stay the same.” By that same logic, given enough history, the more things stay the same the more they can change! I for one look forward to the day when a new understanding of older music can begin to embrace the present and future of music. Let’s inspire new artists to experiment with radically older forms and open up into more varied instrumental themes. The internet makes this more possible than ever before. I know that there have got to be some composers and bands out there that are doing this type of thing and I am just unaware. Maybe I have just been too lazy to go out and find them. I guess my hope is that this new/old music will find its way into popularity so I won’t have to look so hard.

Maybe we could at least try to remember where rock and roll got those big power chords!