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How to Listen to and Understand Great Music

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Great music is a language unto its own, a means of communication of unmatched beauty and genius. And it has an undeniable power to move us in ways that enrich our lives - provided it is understood.
If you have ever longed to appreciate great concert music, to learn its glorious language and share in its sublime pleasures, the way is now open to you, through this series of 48 wonderful lectures designed to make music accessible to everyone who yearns to know it, regardless of prior training or knowledge. It's a lecture series that will enable you to first grasp music's forms, techniques, and terms - the grammatical elements that make you fluent in its language - and then use that newfound fluency to finally hear and understand what the greatest composers in history are actually saying to us.
And as you learn the gifts given us by nearly every major composer, you'll come to know there is one we share with each of them - a common humanity that lets us finally understand that these were simply people speaking to us, sharing their passion and wanting desperately to be heard. Using digitally recorded musical passages to illustrate his points, Professor Greenberg will take you inside magnificent compositions by Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Verdi, Wagner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and more. Even if you have listened to many of these illustrative pieces throughout your life - as so many of us have - you will never hear them the same way again after experiencing these lectures.

359 pages, Audio CD

Published January 1, 1998

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About the author

Robert Greenberg

155 books175 followers
Robert M. Greenberg is an American composer, pianist and musicologist. He has composed more than 50 works for a variety of instruments and voices, and has recorded a number of lecture series on music history and music appreciation for The Teaching Company.

Greenberg earned a B.A. in music, magna cum laude, from Princeton University and received a Ph.D. in music composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has served on the faculties of UC Berkeley, Californiz State University, East Bay, and the San Franciso Conservatory of Music, where he was chairman of the Department of Music History and Literature as well as Director of the Adult Extension Division. Dr. Greenberg is currently Music Historian-in-residence with San Francisco Performances.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 179 reviews
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,180 followers
October 26, 2019
As I wrote in my review of the standard music history textbook, writers of survey material find themselves in an uneviable position: threading the needle between technical description and subjective response. In other words, a textbook writer must somehow discuss the music objectively, but with an absolute minimum of specialized vocabulary. As a result, even the best writers are bound to fall a little short of perfection.

But Robert Greenberg resolves this dilemma by avoiding writing altogether. Indeed, the audiobook format is arguably a far better medium than paper for a survey course on music. Rather than resort to scores or diagrams, Greenberg can simply play a recording of the music; and if he needs to break it down, he can play sections on his piano. The result is more integrated and more satisfactory than the textbook approach. What is abstract on the page—motivic development, thematic contrast, timbrel coloring—can be clear as sunlight when heard.

If the format is ideally suited to the subject, the man is ideally suited to the occasion. Robert Greenberg is a wild ball of energy—joking, screaming, whispering, laughing, and blabbing—all while waving and jabbing his arms about. Seeing him lecture is a performance in itself, as he goes the whole forty-five minutes without a single misspoken word. While some might find him grating, and others merely hokey, his animating presence helps to make this most abstract of all art forms into something eminently approachable.

But Greenberg would be little more than a clown if he were not, as well, an extremely knowledgeable and passionate musician. His examples are all well-chosen to illustrate his chosen lessons, and his explanations are both insightful and easy to follow. The lectures work so well because he can immediately exemplify any point simply by playing the relevant bit of music, thus sharpening our ears. Of course, this being a survey course, he does not go into great detail in any one area, and there are many omissions. But considering the time constraints, I think it would be hard to improve upon these lectures.

After finishing the aforementioned music textbook, I wondered whether language might have something to do with music development. I am gratified to find that Greenberg, at least, thinks that it does. The dominance of German-language composers in these lectures is overwhelming. After German, the composers’ languages by frequency are Italian, French, Latin, Russian, and English. Personally, I found it striking that there was not a single Spanish composer even alluded to in the course. Certainly you could not do a survey of visual art or literature with the same omission.

I am not subscribing to some kind of linguistic determinism (though the idea that linguistic patterns influencing musical patterns is intriguing); I am only remarking on the strangeness that one culture, even one city—Vienna—could be so dominant, and another equally affluent culture so comparatively minor.

This is all rather beside the point. I am very glad to have listened to these lectures, and even a little sad to be done with them. Luckily for us, Greenberg is an extremely prolific teacher, and has seemingly endless courses on every area of Western concert music. Where does he find the time to conduct, compose, and play his own music?
Profile Image for Benjamin Thomas.
1,953 reviews272 followers
May 12, 2016
My friends, this is one amazing series of lectures. This is thanks almost entirely to the professor, Robert Greenberg, whose incredible ability to keep the listener engaged in the subject matter is beyond my ability to describe adequately. He is eloquent, yet down-to-earth; extremely knowledgeable on his subject matter, yet doesn't make the listener feel stupid; humorous without being silly. But most of all, he is super enthusiastic about the material and that certainly rubbed off on me.

Now, I've never been particularly knowledgeable about classical music (or should I say 'concert music'? See I was paying attention back on disc #1) In school I developed into a pretty fair trumpet player and was 1st chair in my high school orchestra. But my tastes tended toward jazz and rock music as most of the people my age did. Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, etc. were for old people or snooty folk who wanted to be considered intelligent and elite somehow. But as I grew older and actually listened to some of that sort of music...well, it would be nice to say that I grew to appreciate what it had to offer. But, frankly, I still almost always found it boring.

So when my wife ordered this set of 48 lectures (45 minutes for each one) I ignored it. However, I do have a long commute to work each day, over an hour each way, and when I finished my last audio book, I was left with nothing. Except this lecture series. So I put in that first disc. And my world was opened.

Yeah, I know, that sounds cheesy, but Dr. Greenberg's lecture style was so engaging that I kept on listening. And when that first lecture was complete, I kept on going to the second lecture. And so on and so on. Yes, this is a very long series and I did take a break to listen to an audio book or two in between but I was always happy to return to the lectures.

The lectures themselves include lots of historical perspective including biographical details of many of the famous composers as well as about the country and era in which it was written. Dr. Greenberg is not only enthusiastic about the music but he's a darn fine storyteller as well. The many types of compositions are broken down and dissected so we can understand how they are constructed, from symphonies to chamber music, to themes on a variation. The music itself is grand and the recording quality is awesome, so we can truly begin to appreciate the very soul of the music itself.

Color me amazed, not only at the material itself but also at my reaction to it. This is a survey course and as Dr. Greenberg says several times, he wishes he could go into more detail in many areas. Fortunately, he has quite a few other lecture series available that do just that. Not only will I seek them out but I will no doubt listen to many of these individual lectures time and again as well.

Profile Image for Julie Davis.
Author 4 books265 followers
December 17, 2014
I just discovered this was available through Audible for the mere cost of one credit. Just finished the first lesson and have to say that the tidbit about Beethoven at the end was practically worth the price all by itself. I will never listen to that piece of music again without laughing ... brilliant.

Lesson 26: the Symphony, music for everybody.

Miss Allbright: Today's topic will be Hell.
Bart: All right. I sat through Mercy and I sat through Forgiveness. Finally, we get to the good stuff.
I sat through the Baroque and I sat through sonatas. Finally, we get to the good stuff.

The Romantics!

Oooooo, if there's one thing I like it's a good romance. C'mon Berlioz ... woo me!
Profile Image for Alexis.
501 reviews3 followers
September 24, 2012
This lecture series was amazing. Sure, I did not learn to tell the difference between at Rondeau and a Minuet, or between A and A', or to tell when theme 1 is codaing into theme 2. But I know all those things exist now, which is cool, and throughout the 48 lectures, I listened to a whole lot of great music. And I think, for a little while at least, I will be able to tell the difference between a Mozart and a Beethoven, or a Debussy and a Tchaikovsky...
The professor is funny, passionate and engaging, I will seek out his other lecture series.
Profile Image for Skip (David) Everling.
169 reviews13 followers
January 12, 2015
48 lectures, 45 minutes each


Course Lectures:

Sources-The Ancient World and the Early Church
The Middle Ages
Introduction to the Renaissance
The Renaissance Mass
The Madrigal
Introduction to the Baroque
Style Features of Baroque Music and a Brief Tutorial on Pitch, Motive, Melody, and Texture
The Rise of German Nationalism in Music
Baroque Opera, Part 1
Part 2
Baroque Sacred Music, Part 1-The Oratorio
Part 2-The Lutheran Church Cantata
Baroque Instrumental Forms, Part 1-Passacaglia
Part 2-Ritornello Form and the Baroque Concerto
The Enlightenment and an Introduction to the Classical Era
The Viennese Classical Style, Homophony, and the Cadence
Classical-Era Form-Theme and Variations
Minuet and Trio I-Baroque Antecedents
Minuet and Trio II
Sonata-Allegro Form I, Part 1
Part 2
Classical-Era Form-Sonata-Allegro Form II
Classical-Era Orchestral Genres-The Symphony
The Solo Concerto
Classical-Era Opera-The Development of Opera Buffa
Mozart and the Operatic Ensemble
The French Revolution
Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67, Part 1
Part 2
Introduction to Romanticism
Formal Challenges and Solutions in Early Romantic Music-Miniatures-Lieder and Chopin
Program Symphony-Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, Part 1
Part 2
Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera-Bel Canto Opera
Giuseppe Verdi
Nineteenth-Century German Opera-Nationalism and Experimentation
Richard Wagner
The Concert Overture, Part 1
Part 2
Romantic Nationalism-Post-1848 Musical Nationalism
Russian Nationalism
The Early Twentieth Century and the Modernist Movement-An Introduction
The Search for a New Musical Language-Debussy
Profile Image for Fin Moorhouse.
55 reviews91 followers
October 26, 2020
I recently set out to cancel my Audible membership, and Audible tried tempting me to stay with a half-price deal. I am not made of resolute stuff: half-price was too good to resist. This is how I ended up paying £3.99 for Robert Greenberg's 'How to Listen to and Understand Great Music' — all 36 hours of it, plus a handy accompanying PDF. Throughout this full day-and-a-half's worth of recorded lectures, I learned about ancient musical theatre, through plain chants and madrigals, past Bach and the Baroque, opera and oratorios, the passacaglia, symphony, and concerto; Beethoven's da-da-da-DUMM 5th — to Schönberg and Stravinsky and all the rest. Greenberg is possessed of the kind of charisma and fervour to land the lead role in the Dead Poets Society. We get serious music analysis, to be sure, but no shortage of rambunctious anecdotes and historical titbits also.

Friends, there are plenty of reasons to be depressed at the state of the world. But I live in a time where I'm able to exchange half an hour of minimum wage work for a comprehensive guide to some of the major artistic achievements of the past half-dozen centuries (at least as far as the West has to offer). Until recently, concert music was the rich and/or elite. You could listen to what happened to be playing in your city's concert hall, and only then for a fee. Now the vast sweep of history's 'great' music is a search and a click away. That, I think, is something to be grateful for.
Profile Image for David.
Author 2 books30 followers
July 24, 2018
Greenberg is a masterful teacher. He is very understanding of his novice audience and teaches music appreciation with passion.
I suggest that readers refer to the review written by Benjamin Thomas, which I completely agree with.
184 reviews
October 6, 2019
Introducción a la historia de la música en formato de audiolibro, similar a la que se estudiaba en primero de BUP, entrando en la estructura de las distintas formas musicales y con muchos ejemplos.

El autor va también alineando acontecimientos históricos y cómo la evolución de la civilización occidental va afectando a los cambios en la música. Parte de la base de que el estilo musical occidental funciona como un espejo de la sociedad y busca correlaciones entre cambia políticos y sociales y corrientes musicales.

Vale la pena al menos para recordar y tener uno claras las diferencias entre el barroco, clasicismo y romanticismo. Disfrute especialmente los capítulos dedicados a Beethoven.
Profile Image for Verena Wachnitz.
164 reviews23 followers
March 11, 2021
This is an amazing audiobook. Interesting, engaging, fun. I learned a lot about music, but particularly enjoyed the way the author relates music to history. Composers and their work come to live. Highly recommended. I will be looking for more courses on music by Robert Greenberg.
Profile Image for Sher.
535 reviews3 followers
November 19, 2020
Absolutely fantastic. Dr. Greenberg takes the readers from Plan Chant to Schoenberg (atonal 20th C). Greenberg is a master teacher, and he is totally entertaining and passionate. Anyone who wants to understand and know how to listen to music throughout the centuries-- take this course. You cannot go wrong.
Profile Image for Tom Rowe.
1,042 reviews5 followers
June 15, 2012
This lecture series taught me a lot about concert music. I can now appreciate it on several new levels.
It is so full of information that I could listen to it again and still get a lot out of it. Greenberg is a riot. He is so funny and makes the material so much fun. Towards the end, I even strarted writing down some of his better quotes like "two twists short of a slinky." HA! It would get five stars, but it didn't sell me on opera. I'm still not sure what it is and how exactly it differs from musical theater. I highly recommend this series especially if you are someone who is interested in being interested in concert music.
Profile Image for James.
366 reviews14 followers
December 8, 2020
The last month has been a complete failure in my reading habits as I finished precisely zero books. What I was able to do, however, was to listen to this audiobook. Robert Greenberg is one of my favorite Great Courses professors and he didn't fail me here! It took 37 hours to get through, but not a minute of that was wasted. Greenberg walks us through musical history, noting the development of musical styles and theory along the way. He does so in a way that is profound, yet understandable with the values understanding of music, and leaves with an understanding of the differences between baroque, classical, romantic, and modern music, and plenty about the lives and influences of many of the major composers. He is engaging with his enthusiasm and dorky jokes, and fascinating in his knowledge. When this pandemic is over, I fully intend to subscribe to a season at the LA Philharmonic and or a local opera company. And knowing what I now know about Brethren, I will never be able to hear his second symphony without hearing his gastrointestinal distress...
Profile Image for Sarah.
Author 19 books431 followers
October 15, 2019
Oh, fair reader, let me give you some background before I tell you how HOLY SHITBALLS AMAZING this lecture series is.

I almost didn't get this lecture series, because it seems very intro-level and I am *not* intro-level. I studied art and music history for YEARS on a university level. I have played French horn for damn near 25 years now, in more classical symphonies than I could possibly ever count. I have played the piano for 30 years, performance level. I *know* music. But, I was feeling a bit... I don't know... frustrated. This year has been hard for me due to health issues... and I wanted something artistic. Something that would remind me that the world is still a beautiful place despite my weird headspace and the drama circulating around me. So I took the leap and started listening.

I *DEVOURED* these lectures. I mean, granted, music is my bag. I love music. I get lost in it. I always have. That being said, Greenberg has such a fresh and revitalizing perspective into so much of this stuff, and while some of it was just a refresher course for me, I learned SO MUCH I didn't know before. And the fact that he peppers his lectures with snippets of the songs/music he's talking about makes it just that much more captivating.

Look. You can't go wrong with these lectures. They are amazing. Captivating. Informative. I never wanted it to end. In fact, I'm in the middle of listening to this series a second time because I loved it so much.
Profile Image for Diego Arredondo.
136 reviews4 followers
January 7, 2021

Esa charla fue uno de los motivos por los que decidi sumergirme en la busqueda de conocer mas acerca de este genero tan impresionante. Siempre admire las melodias y la escala de los instrumentos usados para crear sinfonias que sentia invadian todos mis sentidos. Aun asi, siempre senti las ganas de poder escuchar una de estas y poder entender un poquito sobre las mentes que estuvieron detras de semejantes experiencias.

Este libro me llevo por un viaje a traves de la historia, ademas de aprender sobre la evolucion de la musica, lo que mas disfrute fueron las historias de estas personas. Lo dificil de la vida para algunos y sobre todo ese genio que quedo escrito en cada una de las notas.

No creo poder discernir la epoca ni el autor, con pocas excepciones, solo con este libro. Aun asi, mis lazos de afecto hacia esta musica son muchos mas.
355 reviews16 followers
February 3, 2018
I’m not sure if I should classify this as a book, but who’s counting? This was fantastic. There were some sections that were a bit of a slog, but I’m not a fan of opera so that’s why. This book really kept my attention, and the presenter was great and very funny. Very educational, and I will be looking for more work by this lecturer.
Profile Image for Mahendra Palsule.
146 reviews17 followers
July 20, 2017
This lecture series was well beyond my expectations. Having both attended and studied music appreciation courses myself and having engaged in sharing that knowledge with others, I know what a challenge it is, to even try. Prof. Greenberg not only excels, but the period and styles of music he covers in this series is as comprehensive as you would ever find anywhere.

The subject matter can become dry and academic a few times in the course of these 48 lectures but these occasions are few and far between. For the majority of the time, it is a kaleidoscope of history, composer biographies and anecdotes, and major representative works and their analysis, all generously sprinkled with good humor. Prof. Greenberg's passion is infectious, his knowledge is commanding, and his teaching is superlative. Highly recommended for any student of music.
Profile Image for Heather.
292 reviews33 followers
November 5, 2012
This is an audio-class which I listened to in my car (for months upon months!) -- 48 lectures doesn't sound like a lot, but at 45 minutes each, well... it took some time.

Very good class, outstanding professor who made me laugh all the time! What I missed is not his fault -- it was that dedicated note taking, study, and review work that I used to do in college which really cemented the lessons and helped me compare and contrast themes and ideas throughout courses. I would have also liked a few recap lessons thrown in there for each major period and then a synthesis at the end.

But, I highly recommend it and encourage you to check out all the other incredible courses at Great Courses!
Profile Image for Jason Friedlander.
112 reviews9 followers
September 19, 2018
I've rarely felt compelled to write reviews on this site, but having finished this today I'm moved to express, in all the sincerity that this often-times extravagant claim may purport, that this truly has been life changing for me.

There are few things I find more valuable than being brought into the fold of artistic beauty. To have been given the opportunity to appreciate and invoke hundreds of years of this mystical tradition over the last few months through these lectures has been absolutely invaluable.

Gesualdo. Bach. Beethoven. Mozart. Brahms. Berlioz. Mahler. Chopin. Tchaikovsky. Rimsky-Korsakov. Debussy. Stravinsky. Schoenberg. I've been graced with the condition of music. And I can't wait to explore it further.
Profile Image for Becky.
560 reviews36 followers
March 14, 2018
This was a great audio course that I played during morning and evening routine and housework. (Thanks, Alexa!) I have had experience with music theory, but strangely little of the music history and appreciation presented here. I loved the deep dives into various works representative of styles and forms. Normally I would listen to something this long (36 hours, guys!) at an increased speed, but since I didn’t want to distort the music I kept it real. Finishing feels like a significant accomplishment!
Profile Image for Jesús.
113 reviews8 followers
April 18, 2018
Versión audiolibro de 36 horas.
Creo que es la mejor forma de aprovecha este formato, es un recorrido histórico a través de la música con ejemplos y explicaciones, extremadamente recomendado para aquellos que estén interesados en música.

Está dividido en lectures de aproximadamente 45 minutos, recomiendo cada una por completo, y tomarse un tiempo para escuchar música relevante al tema.
Profile Image for Siddhartha Golu.
97 reviews50 followers
January 16, 2020
I have been a lover of music since my early childhood - runs in the family - and have imitated and performed songs (mostly inside my own head) on numerous occasions. Despite this lifelong love affair with music of all kinds, there was one particular genre of music that always baffled me. Mostly because of my own ignorance, but partially also because nobody else was talking about it. Nobody else in my own vicinity that is. It didn't play on the radio, you won't hear it playing on any of the countless music channels and certainly, nobody was going on tours giving live performances.

This was the wonderful genre of concert music.

We have all probably heard the following names: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky. But, and this is especially true in India, very few listeners would be able to identify a piece of concert music by its composer, the way they would a Linkin Park song for example. Now I realize the comparison is a bit unfair, and I'm not trying to pit one musician against another - it's just to illustrate a point - the point being that we are grossly unfamiliar with these great composers apart from reading a passage about them in history books about what geniuses they were.

This series of lectures is dedicated towards amending this misstep. Narrated by the ever passionate and wonderful Dr. Robert Greenberg, this is a collection of 48 lectures of 45 minutes each (36 hours in total), which takes you on a musical journey starting from the ancient Greek music up until the first half of the twentieth century. For the lack of a better word, these lectures are absolutely amazing - especially because of the narrator. His enthusiasm is simply so infectious!

Do give this one a listen. I promise it'll be worth it.
Profile Image for Rafael Rosa.
63 reviews11 followers
July 30, 2017
Professor Greenberg takes us across the centuries to see the evolution and history of music, focusing especially on the works that defined how western music sounds, starting with the greeks and going up to the modernists of the beginning of the 20th century.

It's a long course, 48 lectures of 45 minutes each, but they are really well produced, we hear a lot of music, even if not complete pieces and Greenberg is a good lecturer, I like his style even if I don't like his sense of humour all the much.

A really great course, it opened my mind a lot about music, it showed its complexity in a way that now is more approachable, even if I don't really understand it. It even incentivized me to buy a piano and start to try to learn, let's see if I can play a Beethoven sonata some time in the future.
Profile Image for Eva.
530 reviews12 followers
August 24, 2019
This was an excellently put together course - I can't comment on the contents as I'm new to music theory (which is why I picked this course) but the very careful selection of examples, the way they were used to illustrate the individual points through contrast and repetition, and not least of all the incredible enthusiasm of the lecturer made me look forward to each of the lessons as well as feel like I have genuinely learnt a huge deal about music.
Profile Image for Snooty1.
441 reviews8 followers
December 22, 2017
There is no question..I’m significantly snootier now than I was before.
This is A LOT of musical knowledge with not only the breakdown of the most influential pieces of music ever created but also a dive into the lives and backgrounds of the musicians.
Definitely will continue the series with the dedicated lectures for each musician.
Profile Image for Pastor Matt.
179 reviews22 followers
August 15, 2018
I'll have to listen to and read this again. I've always wanted to learn about classical music but I have a tin ear and am still feeling my way around learning the ins-and-outs of the greats. Dr. Greenberg is a gifted lecturer. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Terry Southard.
623 reviews13 followers
October 12, 2019
Completely enjoyable - well, until we get to Arnold Schonberg in the last lecture, and I don't think ANYONE, not even the inimitable Professor Greenberg can make me appreciate HIM.

This is definitely something I will listen to again - even at its 48 lesson length.

Profile Image for Shannon.
75 reviews2 followers
January 31, 2022
This was enjoyable and interesting--Greenberg is an excellent and engaging teacher. I can't pretend I have a much better grasp of understanding music, but I gave this five stars because I think that's my own fault rather than the fault of the course.
Profile Image for Christopher Hellstrom.
Author 2 books7 followers
July 7, 2019
This was a fun course to listen to. Each of the 48 lectures were engaging and Greenberg's mercurial tangents were very funny.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 179 reviews

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