For me, there are two elements about rock music that seem to stick out: the beat, and a sense of edginess with the sound and the lyrics.
Let's start with the beat. Modern, non-classical music has a beat that is always present in the percussion parts, backed up by the bassline. You know what I'm talking about. You've danced to it at parties. You've heard it throbbing through your ceilings and walls when your neighbor is reveling in their new speakers. That beat.
Take a listen to this classic AC/DC song and see if you can tap your foot along with the beat or clap it.
It's both easier and harder to draw meaning from instrumental classical music. It's easier because we're not limited by words. The listener can draw any meaning they want from the music, and that might be totally different from what everyone else hears. Many shades of meaning can be found in a single passage. However, it's also harder, because we don't hear voices singing lyrics, so we don't hear the story told by the composer in words. We can't sing along.
BUT. Classical music is just as rebellious, groundbreaking, and edgy as anything written in the popular sphere.
Let's talk for a moment about Dmitri Shostakovich, a composer living in the Soviet Union during the 20th century (now known as the "modern" era in classical music). We know from history that the Soviets completely took control (or tried to) of every part of life for the people living under their rule. This extended to music. Public figures such as Shostakovich were expected to help uphold the regime. He couldn't necessarily write the music that he wanted to write, which was that of deep sorrow and anger at how his people were being mistreated by the government. He found sneaky ways to let his feelings into the music he wrote, all while pretending that his music supported the Soviets. Often his music has a bitter and sarcastic tone - at other times, it has a kind of terror to it.
The piece below is officially titled the third movement of his Third String Quartet. However, early sketches and notes on the work show that the five movements represent the story of a war. The happy innocence before the war, growing feelings of unease, the terror of war, the profound grief and loss in the aftermath of the war, and the struggle to find normalcy after the war ends. This third movement depicts the war. See if you can tap the beat in this movement, too!
**Take a moment to plug your computer into high quality speakers and turn the volume up! **
Also, the string quartet is the string world's version of a rock band. Generally speaking, the cellist is the drumset/bassist, the second violin and viola are the rhythm section and backup singers, and the first violin is the lead guitarist/vocalist. Generally. The beauty of string quartet writing is that it constantly changes and evolves, so the roles of the players change. The upper strings might suddenly take over the beat and bassline while the cellist gets the melody, and then have it switch back within a few measures. Listen to the Shostakovich movement again and see if you can keep track of who has a more rhythmic part and who has something that's more melodic.
Bela Bartok was a Hungarian composer who experimented throughout his life with different compositional techniques. Check out his String Quartet No. 5 below:
Also, if you liked the Bartok, the Takacs Quartet, who you heard performing in the video, will be in Washington, DC in January, performing all six of the Bartok string quartets in two days. Here's a link to the concerts.
If what you're after in your music is sheer intensity and volume of sound, and you've already connected your highest quality speakers, then you might be more interested in an orchestral sound. After all, the loudest and most intense string quartet is only four players. An orchestra can easily have over a hundred.
Now we're going to listen to a piece by Igor Stravinsky, another Russian who was pushing boundaries. He came of age in an era where Romanticism has pushed to the limit and he wanted to do something completely new. His ballet The Rite of Spring caused riots at the premiere. How's that for edgy and rebellious? This music uses an idea called primitivism, where Stravinsky tried to channel simple and primitive - think prehistoric tribes and cultures - ideas and beats. The plot of the ballet follows the life of a prehistoric tribe who has one gruesome ritual to ensure a bountiful harvest every year: one young girl is chosen and dances herself to death.
One of the things Stravinsky experimented with in his music was the sense of rhythm and pulse. There is always a pulse, but it's an irregular one. See if you can keep up with the rapid changes. Take a listen to one of the dances from this ballet below:
As required, the work displayed lyricism, a heroic tone and inspiration from Russian literature. Still, many hear a subtext of critical despair beneath the crowd-pleasing melodies.
[On the Fourth Movement, the recording of which appears below]
With his fate hanging in the balance, Shostakovich had to come up with an upbeat ending for his Fifth Symphony. Concluding with the melancholy of the third movement was not an option. However, the celebratory mood of the fourth movement sounds forced to some ears.
The movement begins with a string of march-like themes filled with swaggering attitude. The pace of the piece grows and the orchestra swirls with musical currents that burst with triumph – until all hope is dashed by another dead end.
The music that follows suggests quiet remembrance of those who are gone.
In a traditional symphony, we might expect a brisk march at this point, sweeping us on to victory. Instead, a dead slow march begins. Audiences recognized the musical reference toBoris Godunov – the opera in which crowds are forced to praise the Tsar.
Finally, with a great deal of effort, Shostakovich reveals his triumphant ending. As in the first movement, there is one expressively altered note, though. Not B natural, confirming the happy major version of the scale, but B flat, which delivers the sad minor version.
After so much time making his way to the major scale why does Shostakovich return to minor at the end? Perhaps it is his signal that the happy harmonies of the ending are as false as a Potemkin village.
Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 reflected his situation as an artist who would be judged by politics as much as by talent. Although some audiences heard condemnation of the government through inflections of despair, Stalin found the politics of the music acceptable and Shostakovich won a reprieve – at least for another decade.