The Well-Tempered Ear

What makes of piece of classical music great? Rob Kapilow wants you to know through his concerts and book. | April 21, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

What makes a lot of classical music great? It sounds like such a simple question. But the more you think about it, the more complex it gets.

Take the case of the undeniably great Beethoven (below):

Is his music greta because it has a memorable melody?

Or is it because it has poignant and piercing harmonies?

Maybe it is because it has an irresistible rhythm?

Perhaps it is some combination of all three?

Or maybe it is the historical importance of the work and the influence it had on other composers and works of music.

Maybe what makes particular piece of music great is the role it has played in your own life.

Clearly, what makes something great is a mix of the subjective and the objective.

But some of the decision is just pure experience or education.

That’s where The Classical Music Man comes in.

In a series of stories and analyses, Rob Kapilow – who has been both a conductor and a composer — wants to help you understand what makes shorter pieces of classical music great.

For 17 years, Kapilow (below, in a photo by Stephanie Berger) has traveled to concert halls around the country where he explains to the audience – both by playing the music and by talking about it – what makes a piece of music great.

“My project,” he says, “is to make the music accessible, to get people to ‘get’ it,’” Kapilow has said. His range is enormous, covering music from Beethoven to Piazzolla.

And now he has published his first book, “What Makes It Great” (below) that is based on the series. The digital versions even used acoustically enhanced scores. There are several of his talks posted on YouTube you should check out, including on Mozart’s Requiem, and one on a Beethoven String Quartet.

The Ear thinks this is exactly the kind of introduction to musical beauty that many people – both adults and young people – need. It is in keeping with the tradition of Leonard Bernstein’s famous “Young People’s Concerts” and, more recently and locally, with pianist Jeffrey Siegel’s “Keyboard Conversations, that next one of which takes place in Madison on May 2 at 7:30 p.m. in Mills when he will play and discuss Schumann and Brahms.

Here is a link to a story about Kapilow:

So, what do you think makes a piece of classical music great – at least for you?


  1. With just this little bit by Mozart I have tried to bring music to 3 and 4 year olds. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star doing the actions along with the kids. Clara Haskil plays it so beatifully.
    On Youtube:
    Mozart: 12 Variations “Ah, vous dirai-je, maman” KV 265 (Clara Haskil)

    Comment by dansk66 — April 23, 2012 @ 9:29 am

    • Some people might be tempted to dismiss this example of a simple teaching piece as Great Music. If it stimulates a young person, or even a not-so-young person, to bring music into their lives, that seems meritorious and worthy to me. Greatness comes in several forms, I suppose, and many of us are tempted to look high for it, rather than low or wide.

      Comment by Michael BB — April 23, 2012 @ 9:38 am

      • Hi Michael,
        A good point.
        You are right: Great music doesn’t have to be big or overwhelming.
        Thanks for the subtlety.

        Comment by welltemperedear — April 23, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

  2. […] Here is  link to that posting:… […]

    Pingback by Classical music: What is the greatest piece of classical music for you right now? « The Well-Tempered Ear — April 22, 2012 @ 9:58 am

  3. Jake,

    For me, trombonist/baritone hornist, what makes an orchestral or chamber music piece great is the brass parts. The fun of wrapping one’s brain around technical challenge, catchy melodies, dynamic contrasts. Even the immediate environment whether a concert hall, an orchestra pit, etc. Also the members with whom you’re playing is critical I think.

    The last 2 years I lived in Japan, I was an enthusiastic member of the Dazaifu Recorder Ensemble. It’s a semi-pro group of about 8 middle-aged to elderly women who practiced all day every Monday in a 400-year old building. We played repertoire from every periood from Renaissance to contemporary and performed in a small restaurant area in Fukuoka’s newest concert hall almost every month. Only 2 of us had music degrees, but all were semi-professionals who, while having a lot of fun, took themselves and the group seriously. I loved the group, the members, the ambiance of that building held up by something like 24″ thick wooden columns.

    I was also a member of a semi-pro trombone quintet in which I played 3d. Incredibly the 5th [bass] part was played by a typically small Japanese woman who was a PE teacher I think. She had a large bore horn with double F/E triggers and when she wanted fff, she could literally curl your hair.

    In those compositions without brass, what always brings me back to a piece is the emotional content: e.g., Beethoven’s Les Adieux & Moonlight Piano Sonatas, the dynamic variation between ppp-fff. The rhythmic subtleties of works like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The overall dynamism of pieces like John Barnes Chance’s Incantation & Dance.

    So, what precisely is it that makes a composition great? I think ultimately it’s a combination of many factors but what stands the test ot time is work that appeals to human emotion.

    Comment by buppanasu — April 21, 2012 @ 11:14 am

  4. The aesthetic education of non-artists is THE essential element in cultivating an audience for Culture as a whole. Kudos to all who do such work.
    Great music is a composition that is both of its time, and timeless. It can speak with a new voice to listeners contemporary with its inception, and also exert a lasting influence on subsequent generations of listeners.
    I do believe that harmony is the least important of the 3 musical elements in creating this effect. Rhythm is the most important, since it is this aspect that has the strongest influence on the differentiation of one style or period from another. Chords become more dissonant, then become irrelevant, then cycle back to tonality over time. Melodies start as songs, then become rhapsodies, then explode into disjunct abstractions, only to return to ostinatos. But, rhythm remains the basic subdivision of whole, half, quarter, and ever smaller note-values into duplets and tuplets of every conceivable numeration. It remains both constant and nearly infinitly variable. It is immune to changes in style over time, and yet is a strong determining quality in distinguishing a Romantic piece from a Baroque piece, a Classical sonata from a Post-Romantic suite of Debussy or Ravel or a Prokofiev sonata.
    I think, to make a concrete example, Beethoven’s 7th Symphony has a great deal in common with the Who song ” Won’t Get Fooled Again”. The rhythm of the finale of the last mvnt has the same rhythm as the instrumental breaks in the Who song. They are both in the same key of A, and they both use the Amaj-Gmaj-Dmaj cord progression, typical for rock but untypical for Classical period orchestral writing.
    But, it is the rhythm that really unites these two masterpieces in their power and lasting influence. Melody touches the heart, harmony creates colors of beauty or stark realism, but rhythm makes a piece walk, dance, and move through time, as a masterpiece of lasting influence must do, for each subsequent generation of listeners, performers, and composers. Think Bach’s Goldberg Variation’s, Beethoven’s last symphony and sonata, Brahms’ character pieces and 1st symphony, Ravel, Webern, and Reich as exapmples of rhythmic determinants of stylistic periods.

    Comment by Michael BB — April 21, 2012 @ 9:57 am

  5. I can’t tell you what it might be that makes a piece of music “great.” I hope the answer cannot be boiled down to enzymes or some equally dry theory.

    However, given all the fascinating recent studies on the brain, and the discoveries of how sights, sounds, even caffeine affect it, would it not be interesting to do the following experiment… Have twenty people (mostly trained classical musicians but also a few like me who simply love music) select their favorite work. While they are in an MRI, play passages of that piece along with passages of other music. Watch what patterns form in the brain on the MRI screen. I expect there is a lot more brain activity with the piece they like the best. All those little synapses flashing like neon signs on a rainy night.

    It seems as if there has to be some connection between “greatness” and whatever it is that makes a melody linger in the brain, giving pleasure whenever it comes to the surface of thought.

    Or perhaps, the “greatness” comes when we are suddenly, involuntarily, connected to something greater than ourselves through that music, whether to God or to the collective consciousness of humanity.

    Maybe I just need more coffee.

    But of course, music as a whole has greatness.

    What made my very outdoorsy seven year old granddaughter take up the fiddle last year and still be sticking to it? She doesn’t live in a particularly musical household.

    What is it that has pulled me back and back again to the piano (and even to my accordion, for Pete’s sake) for almost sixty years, giving me constant pleasure, teaching me patience, guiding me through times of sadness and loss, helping me to celebrate the best times?

    We live in a smallish house in a boring Florida retirement community. But in our living room we have three pianos: a lovely old baby grand, a Yamaha vertical, and a Yamaha Clavinova. There is also an accordion, a full drum kit, a steel drum, two ukeleles and several other sound-inducing odds and ends. Friends arrive with guitars and sheaves of music and we play and sing well into the night, often with all the instruments going at once. (Of course, this is helped by the wine bar at one end of the room…) A bunch of unprofessional, mostly untrained, friends making music together may strike fear into the heart of the first violin in an orchestra, but I think Leonard Bernstein would have loved it.

    I enjoy reading your pieces every morning, Jake. And so often I wish we lived in Madison.

    Nan Morrissette

    Comment by Nan Morrissette — April 21, 2012 @ 5:54 am

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