Imagine yourself as a fan of classical music who wished to learn more about the development of music; you wanted to see the “big picture,” so to speak. If you were to purchase the music history book that is most commonly used in North American colleges and institutions, you would find a book that lists the compositions of about 500 composers. Currently, I find it impossible to remember 500 composers, and I doubt you will either. After all, you want to see the big picture at once, not momentarily learn material that will be lost to make room for new information and then regurgitated on a chapter test.

Since there are around four composers from each historical era (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern), my ideal music history would focus on just twenty-four composers. Even though periodization has lost favour with academic historians, it is nevertheless helpful for putting the bigger picture into perspective. At least half of these composers—Purcell, Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Wagner, Verdi, Debussy, and Stravinsky—you are undoubtedly already familiar with.

The repertoire for the history would be limited to twenty-four works, preferably music that is readily accessible on iTunes or YouTube, and my ideal music history would insist on providing an illustration for every assertion—no empty generalisations, please. It would also draw all the musical examples for each composer from a single work. Additionally, for mediaeval music, which is typically based on plainsong, it is best if the selections are all based on the same piece of plainsong.


Plainsong, Tuotilo of St. Gall and the Kyrie Cunctipotens trope (ca. 900)
Founder of Cunctipotens (St. Martial School, ca. 1125)
Oriente, En non Diu-Quant voi-Eius, Anonymous (13th century)
Missa Nostre Dame by Machaut (Kyrie, ca.1364)
Ave regina coelorum, a Renaissance anthem (ca. 1464)
Missa Pange Lingua and Josquin des Pres (Agnus Dei; ca.1515)
Missa O Magnum Mysterium, Victoria (motet; Kyrie; 2nd half, 16th century)
Weelkes, Descending from Latmos Hill as Vesta Was (1601)
Dido’s Lament from Dido and Aeneas by Purcell (1689) and Ein feste Burg by Buxtehude (2nd half, 17th century)
Concerto Grosso in A Minor, Op.3, No. 8 by Vivaldi (1st movement, 1712)
Bach, Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme (1731), Cantata 140 (1st movement)
Vintage [46:00]
Op. 73, No. 3 of the String Quartet in C Major by Haydn (1797) (1st movement)
The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart (1786) (Act II Finale)
Beethoven’s Third Symphony (1st movement, 1803)
Beautiful [30:00]
Schumann and Erlkönig (1815)
Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz (Dream of a Witches Sabbath, 1830)
Prelude to Tristan and Isolde by Wagner (1865)
Otello by Verdi (Act I, Drinking Song, 1887)
Currently [23:30]
La Mer by Debussy (Jeux de Vagues, 1905)
Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 by Schoenberg (Colors, 1909)
Le Sacre du Printemps by Stravinsky (First 4 movements, 1913)
Music for 18 Musicians by R. (I. Pulses, 1976)
The style of a certain composer or historical era would be described musically in my ideal music history. At this moment, I encounter a barrier. The vocabulary of literary and art criticism has gained widespread acceptance, making it possible to critique a poem or a picture without losing the reader. University students are frequently obliged to take courses in music theory before being allowed to attend a music history course since music criticism lacks a uniform vocabulary.

It’s difficult to convey the basics of music theory while writing a self-contained history of classical music in musical terms. The reader could consult a primer on fundamental music theory as needed, as well as a dictionary of all technical terms used in the book, as a partial solution. The benefit of reading a book over listening to a lecture is that you can set your own speed and stop anytime you need to get definitions of technical words.

My ideal music history would characterise works, composers, and eras in terms of three general concepts: time, tonality, and timbre, to avoid becoming too bogged down in music theory.

Time in music can refer to duration, rhythm (in the sense of “beating time”), repetition, and historical time, among other things (the placing of individual composers and works along a continuum).

Tonality describes how musical events are arranged in a hierarchy according to a single unifying tone. Tonal music is a term used to characterise music from the period of common practise, which spans around 1600 to 1900. (If asked to list your top five pieces of classical music, you’d probably choose pieces from this era.)

The term “timbre” describes the nature of musical sounds. Even when two instruments are playing the same notes, timbre enables you to tell a saxophone from a flute, for instance. You can distinguish between solo vocalists and a chorus of singers using timbre as well.

Nobody would want to limit their musical experience to just twenty-four works by twenty-four composers, so my ideal music history would never claim to be the absolute best. Instead, it would provide a picture that could be held in the mind at once as well as a framework into which other works and composers could be logically inserted. For more details download lagu mp3