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Learn the Basics of Music History

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

Emma Hays Johnson and Celaya Kirchner. Credit: Lauren Patin.

When thinking about classical music, many people know some of the big composers like Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart. What might be less clear is how do they connect, and what tradition do these giants come out of and how do they influence the music of today? Violinist Celaya Kirchner and cellist Emma Hays Johnson explore these connections in their six-part webinar series for M Institute for the Arts: “Intro to Music History — From the Middle Ages to Today”. You can now watch The Middle Age and Renaissance Era [View], The Baroque Era [View], The Classical Era [View], The Romantic Era [View],The 20th/21st Century Music [View]

and Living Composers [View].

Starting from the Beginning

This webinar is an accessible introduction to music history that is helpful for those who are new to classical music and aficionados alike. “Seeing the whole development puts the different styles of music into context,” says Celaya Kirchner. “It’s fun to see music from over 1,000 years ago develop into beautiful toccatas in the 17th century and that becomes a symphony in the 19th century, which gets taken apart by atonal music at the turn of the 20th century and then put back together again today.” While attending the complete webinar series is helpful to fully understand the rich history of classical music, participants can opt in to attend any lecture of their choosing and get a lot out of the experience.

Showing the Historical Connections

A focus on the webinar is showing the connections between great composers throughout the ages. “We focus on showing how music progresses from one period to another,” says Kirchner. “There are some pieces and composers that you have to highlight because they affected music so much that there’s no way to talk about music developing without them, like Palestrina or Perotin.” Palestrina and Perotin are less frequently celebrated in America in the 21st century than composers like Beethoven. Their music is written for voices and the choir, and Beethoven’s music is largely centered around instrumental chamber music and symphonies. Understanding Beethoven will be helpful in understanding the music of living composers, it’s all connected.

Listen to this playlist featuring music by Palestrina.

Beethoven’s music was influenced by the music that came before him and showing the progression of classical music is helpful in understanding it. “We try to include as much historical, political, scientific, and cultural context as possible,” says Kirchner. “Music didn’t develop in a vacuum, so why learn it that way? Hearing about the environment in which these composers were living helps to humanize them. Very often we learn about historical figures and can’t connect to them because they seem so far away.” By developing a deeper understanding of the composers as people, participants will gain the opportunity to develop their own relationships to the music.

Familiar Composers

Even if participants only attend one lecture, they will pick up on connections throughout history and gain a great deal. “In the next two lectures, we’ll feature composers that are probably the most familiar, like Mozart and Haydn this coming week and Beethoven and Brahms the following week,” says Kirchner. “We are particularly excited to talk about the Romantic Era in two weeks.”

Instrumental Connection

As string players, Kirchner and Johnson have a special affinity for instrumental music and emphasize the composers who developed string music, like Bach and Vivaldi. While there is no pressure for participants to have their own instrumental practice, the instructors hope to inspire the participants. “We hope that by attending our webinars, they are excited enough about music to either research further on their own or pick up an instrument if they haven’t already,” says Kirchner.

Community That Supports Music

The webinar is more than a place of learning, it’s a community. “Something that’s been really incredible about the webinar is to see the turnout,” says Kirchner. “Seeing all the participants in the zoom call creates a sense of community, a community of people that love and support music.”


“Intro to Music History — From the Middle Ages to Today” continues until May 30 (Saturdays at 4pm EDT). Participants can attend individual courses ($12 each) or the series in full.

Saturday, 5/9 — Classical Era [View]

Saturday, 5/16 — Romantic Era [View]

Saturday, 5/23 — 20th/21st Century Music [View]

Saturday, 5/30 — Living Composers [View]

Miss a class? No problem! You can access past masterclasses and series here. Learn more about the M Institute for the Arts here.

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