Classical Music FAQ

Woodblock letters spell FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions – FAQ

Jump in. Try to stump me or just get the answer to something you’ve always wondered about.

Some questions may, over time, be moved to a different page, like the “Rarely Asked Questions” or “Really Obscure Questions”, or some name I may come up with in the future like, “Why in the World Would You Want to Know That?” page.

Have fun!

Q. What makes a piece of music classical?

A. There’s a little confusion because “classical” can have two different meanings. One meaning with a small “c” is a piece of music composed in or before what’s called the “common practice period,” roughly from the earliest music through . . . well whatever composer whoever you ask decided was the last classical composer. For some people, classical music is still being composed; for others, it stopped dead with the death of Mahler in 1911. Pretty much any classical musician you ask will have a different opinion.

The confusion comes because “classical music” also has a “Classical” (usually large “C”) period, which dates from the end of the Baroque era (Florentine camerata to the death of Bach in 1750), to the beginning of the Romantic period, usually considered as 1825, Beethoven’s “middle” period, or whatever other measure someone wishes to use. Bearing in mind that well-schooled musicians have highly informed and widely disparate opinions, what’s remarkable is the degree of agreement when listening to a piece of music on what “Classical” or “classical” is. The “Classical” period is usually marked by a great deal of evolved structure, logical and extensive theme development, and the lack or rarity of clarinets, saxophones, lutes, and other instruments which are typically thought of as belonging to certain eras.

Many people think that classical music is mostly orchestral. In fact, thousands of pieces were written for string quartets, piano trios, solo instruments, groups of singers . . . there’s no real way to limit it except by either dates or sound.

Q. Is it true that classical music enhances intelligence?

A. You’ve obviously not been reading my blog entries. The short answer is we don’t know for sure, but there’s a whole lot of awfully suggestive evidence.

Q. What is the secret of Für Elise?

A. By that you might mean its staying power, and the power this simple piece has to move us. There are several components of this song that contribute to its longevity.

  • It begins in a minor key with a major key at the end of the phrase. Minor keys are commonly thought to be sad, but a better word might be mysterious, poignant, nostalgic, or even “haunting.” Minor melodies typically are somewhat more complex than major melodies.
  • Many pieces have a melody that has a “u” shape: they start out low, they rise, and they fall to a pitch at or below their starting point. “Für Elise” reverses that expectation and starts out high, falls, and builds back to a pitch below the original starting point.
  • Western music tends to be built on a system of scales, chords, and arpeggios. Beethoven has simplified these in this piece to mostly arpeggios, played in various orders.
  • Most of us heard this piece when we were at an impressionable age. Even infants have sophisticated music discrimination built into their brains. If we hear this piece as children or young adults, as we usually do, it evokes those haunting memories, and provides us with a shortcut to those memories. Also it’s quite often heard in films or TV shows at nostalgic or poignant moments, and that contributes to our associations with the piece.

Q. I need some music to walk down the aisle to for my wedding, and I want something different.


Early Music:

  • Rose, Liz, Printemps, Verdure – Machaut
  • Navré je suis or another three-voiced chanson – Dufay
  • Any of the L’Homme Armé parody masses
  • Terpsichore – Praetorius


  • “Largo” from Xerxes – Handel
  • Prince of Denmark March
  • Trumpet Voluntary
  • Sheep May Safely Graze – Bach
  • Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring – Bach
  • Air on G String – Bach


  • For real impishness, Mozart Variations on Ah, je dirais-vous, Maman
  • Any classical minuet (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven)


  • An unfamiliar, slowed-down Strauss polka
  • Theme from Rachmaninoff 2nd piano concerto
  • Triumphal march from Aida
  • For sheer Machiavellianism, “Habanero” from Carmen
  • or “La ci darem la Mano” from Don Giovanni
  • An instrumental version of almost any Schubert song except “Gretchen am Spinnrade”
  • Something from Papillons by Schumann
  • Minuet by Brahms, Schubert, Schumann
  • Ave Maria – either the Bach-Gounod version or the Bach-Schubert version
  • “Locus Iste” – Bruckner
  • “See the Chariot at Hand” from Windsor Forest – Vaughn Williams

Q. Why are all classical composers dead white guys?

A. Dead, we can’t do much about. As for white, in fact, they’re not. Here’s a very incomplete list of classical composers of colour:

  • Juan de Araujo (1648-1712) born in Spain, emigrated to Lima at age 16
  • Vincente Lusitano
  • Esteban Salas (Cuba)
  • Jose Cascante
  • Rafael Antonio Castellanos
  • Roque Cerruti
  • Antonio Duran de la Motta
  • Gaspar Fernandes (ca. 1570 – 1629)
  • Juan de Herrera
  • Juan Mathias
  • Tomas de Torrejon y Velasco (1644 – 1728)
  • Jose Francisco Velasquez
  • Alberto Ginastera
  • Ignacio de Jerusalem
  • Juan Garcia de Zespedes (2nd half 17th century)
  • Diego da Conceição (Brazil)
  • Francisco Eusebio Delgado (1st half 19th century)
  • Juan Gutierrez de Padilla (Málaga, 1590-Puebla, 1664)
  • Narciso Serradell (Veracruz, 1843-Mexico City, 1910)
  • Manuel de Zumaya (1678-1755), Native American
  • R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943)
  • José Mauricio Nunes Garcia (1767-1830)
  • Francis “Frank” B. Johnson (1792-1844) African-American, composed in Philadelphia
  • Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)
  • Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (Joseph Bologne) (1745-1799)
  • José Mauricio Nuñes Garcia (1767-1830)
  • Juan Manuel Olivares (1760-1797)
  • Ignacio Neves (1730-1792)
  • Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780)
  • Maurice Arnold (1865-1937)
  • Claudio José Domingo Brindis de Salas (1800-1872)
  • Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949)
  • Edmond Dédé (1827-1901(03?))
  • Justin Elie (1883-1931) (Haiti)
  • Newport Gardner (1746-1826)
  • Carlos Gomes (1836-1896) (Brazil)
  • Felipe Gutierrez y Espinosa (1825-1899)
  • Justin Holland (1819-1887)
  • James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)
  • John Rosamond Johson (1873-1954)
  • Scott Joplin (1868-1917)
  • Charles Lucien Lambert, Sr. (1828-1896)
  • Lucien Leon Guillaume Lambert, Jr. (1858-1945)
  • Ludovic Lamothe (1882-1953)
  • Samuel Snaer, Jr. (1835-1900)
  • José (Joseph) Silvestre de los Delores White y Lafitte (White) (1836-1918)
  • Clarence Cameron White (1880-1960)
  • Henry Clay Work (1832-1884)
  • John Wesley Work, Jr. (1873-1925)

And of women composers:

  • Amalie, Princess of Saxony
  • Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel
  • Claude Arrieu
  • Lera Auerbach
  • Augusta Read Thomas
  • Marion Bauer
  • Amy Beach
  • Antonia Bembo
  • Louise Bertin
  • Marie Bigot
  • Mélanie Bonis
  • Lili Boulanger
  • Nadia Boulanger
  • Ann Callaway
  • Amélie-Julie Candeille
  • Francesca Cannini
  • Sulpitia Cesis
  • Cécile Chaminade
  • Isabella Colbran
  • Ruth Crawford Seeger
  • Agata della Pietà
  • Michielina della Pietà
  • Santa della Pietà
  • Jeanne Demessieux
  • Annette von Droste-Hülshoff
  • Louise Farrenc
  • Pauline García-Viardot
  • Kay Gardner
  • Peggy Glanville-Hicks
  • Sofia Gubaidulina
  • Guy d’Hardelot
  • Jennifer Higdon
  • Hildegard of Bingen
  • Augusta Holmès
  • Imogen Holst
  • Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre
  • Joan La Barbara
  • Francesca Lebrun
  • Zara Levina
  • Elisabeth Lutyens
  • Maria Malibran
  • Ursula Mamlok
  • Fanny Mendelssohn
  • Sophie Menter
  • Undine Smith Moore
  • Erica Muhl
  • Thea Musgrave
  • Nadezhda Rimskaya-Korsakova
  • Olga Neuwirth
  • Pauline Oliveros
  • Dora Pejačević
  • Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia
  • Marie-Anne-Catherine Quinault
  • Clara Schumann
  • Sasha Siem
  • Ethel Smyth
  • Germaine Tailleferre
  • Karen P. Thomas
  • Princess Wilhelmine of Prussia
  • Emilie Zumsteeg

You can also find a list of Composers of African Descent at

Q. I’ve heard Eugene Ormandy, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, was the Yogi Berra of classical musicians.

A. He was–although many of the quotations cited do make sense for musicians. Here’s the list.

Q. Speaking of conductors, what does that guy with the stick actually do? Don’t the musicians already know what to play?

A. For fun, get some friends together, and starting at the same time, and without looking at each other, or a clock, time one minute in your head. You will get a different ending time for each person. One of the jobs of a conductor is to make sure that everyone is following the same “clock.”

Another job the conductor does is to correct the balance of the orchestra. Brass is louder than woodwinds, both are louder than strings. Percussion may be the loudest of all, depending on the instrument being played. The conductor listens to the orchestra and directs sections or individual musicians to be louder or softer.

And the most important job: have you ever wondered why there are so many recordings of a particular piece of music, like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? It’s not just to keep musicians employed (although we’re happy for the paychecks). Each conductor has a unique vision for a piece of music, and they bring that vision to life through the details of how each musician plays the music. Some examples might be the bow direction the string players use for a particular note, where woodwind and brass players take breaths, how much accent a note receives, and hundreds of other details in a single piece of music.

Q. What are some dark or scary pieces of classical music?


  • Mussorgsky – Night on Bald Mountain
  • Bach – Toccata and Fugue in d

Q. What are some sad pieces of classical music?

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