Have you ever the heard the phrase, "You can learn a lot from your past?” Well, it’s true, at least most of the time. As a musician, it’s 99% true, unless you’re the 1% of musicians who do things Jimi Hendrix style, and seemingly make it all up as you go, and it, none the less, sounds amazing. I think it can safely be stated that when someone starts learning something, it is best to start with the fundamental information. So what is the importance of classical music? More importantly, how is classical music relevant to modern music and the modern musician?
When you think of classical music, you probably think of music written during the Classical period, around 1750 to 1830. That’s not false. However, today it’s a term that generally means any concert or fine art music, which can include music from any of the historic musical time periods. None the less, classical music does play an important role in today’s modern music. Regardless of any defining book-end dates, classical music serves as the grandiose foundation of musical knowledge, upon which, a great deal of musicians, at some point or another, have studied and/or used for inspiration.
In terms of modern day, classical music is being still written, and it’s most certainly still being used. Barry Manilow’s song “Could It Be Magic” was based on chord and melodic progressions from a Prelude written by Frédéric Chopin. George Gershwin fused classical and jazz in his piece titled “Rhapsody in Blue.” So classical music is still a huge influence today. In fact, there are hybrid genres now where people are fusing classical into the different genres by using classical elements in seemingly unconventional settings. Many modern bands, across the genres, are using some sort of classical elements. For example, a lot of acoustic folk bands are using the rich sounds of cellos and violins in their music. A heavier but subtle use of full string orchestration is becoming a more popular trend with many contemporary christian artists, like the worship group Hillsong.
Aside from fusing these classical elements into modern day music, classical music is a foundational element to many successful musicians. I’m talking about what classical music actually does for the musician. The discipline gained from studying classical music makes for a more serious, well-educated musician, and the classical technique alone, on any instrument, helps to build dexterity in whatever is used to play the instrument. Also, when studying classical music you gain a rich insight to the application of music theory, which in return helps a musician in learning and writing music. Not to mention classical composers really composed to the full extent of their instruments. So by studying more advanced classical repertoire you can come to have a more in-depth understanding of your instrument. I’ll name drop a few iconic guitarist here; hard rock guitarist Randy Rhoads, who played for Ozzy Osbourne and Quiet Riot, and Kirk Hammett, guitarist for Metallica, both were said to have studied classical music, and their guitar riffs have gone down in history. I would say that classical training contributed in some way as to how they cultivated their iconic playing styles.
We, being the creative musicians we are, are always holding a candle to the past and thinking “has this been done before?” or “has anyone ever put those two notes together?” Honestly, a lot has been done, but then again I'm sure there’s still a lot more to be done. We would never know how to push the boundaries if we didn’t understand what’s already been done. I’m not certain, but I really would find it hard to believe that Mozart or Beethoven knew what they were creating would change the world. I don’t think they knew they were making history. Whether it’s creating a new classical hybrid genre or simply studying classical music, classical music plays a staple role in the world of music. I know this is a quote from a famous painter but it captures everything; Pablo Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” The rules can be found in the roots of classical music and how you use them is up to you.