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HOW TO: Listen to a Symphony

June 30, 2010
tags: ,
A typical CD version

Would you just go to the record store and chuck this on your stereo?

Classical music has a reputation of being hard to understand, as if one must study in advance to enjoy it. In this post I’ll use perhaps the most famous example of a classical symphony to illustrate that the general principles structuring it aren’t too arcane. Of course, with this example as with any music you can always simply listen and marvel at the drama, power, unpredictability and so on, and enjoy it on that basis. But I think it is also interesting to go through an example in detail to show you how well-organized, logical, and in some ways simple it is.

Classical symphonies nearly always begin with a fast movement which is in what is known as sonata form. (NB: there are also works called “sonatas” which consist of several movements, like a symphony, with the first probably in actual sonata form. It’s very confusing.) Here’s a brief summary of how sonata form works.

There are nominally five sections to a sonata form piece:

1. Introduction: A short, usually slow section that serves to set the mood or contrast with the initial theme (there is no introduction in the example here)
2. Exposition: The main theme of the piece appears, and it continues along in some logical-sounding way. There is a transition to a second theme, which contrasts strongly with the first (and is in a different key, though the idea of ‘key’ is probably too complex for now). The whole section may be repeated.
3. Development: The themes are varied and combined, maybe with new ideas added in. Tension is built with the use of less regular rhythms and more sudden shifts in the music than in the exposition. Towards the end of this section the music builds to a peak, leading into the…
4. Recapitulation: The first theme returns and is repeated in a very similar form to the exposition. The second theme also comes back, but now it’s in the same key as the first theme, ie. it contrasts less and is more unified with it. There is a final-sounding ending chord, which may or may not continue on into the…
5. Coda: A final section that uses the themes in new ways and forms the conclusion of the movement.

So after all this academic discussion, here’s the example I’ve chosen. Have a listen and watch, and notice the drama, the contrasts, the shifts in mood and so on.

The first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67, written between 1804 and 1808. I chose it because it is relatively conventional in structure, extremely familiar, and an all-around perfect example of the genre. As a bonus, it also defies the stereotype of classical music as prissy and light. This version is not the best sound quality, but it has a fun dramatic setting that helps to highlight the shifts in mood and the transitions between the sections. Listen through once to get an idea of the piece, then watch again, pause, rewind, and go back and forth, following along with these timed notes (maybe easier if you open a copy of this post in a separate window), and you’ll see what’s going on structurally beneath all the drama.

The most important parts of the work are the two subjects, the ubiquitous four note DA DA DA DUMM and the flowing, happy-sounding second theme. Once you’ve got them in your head you can hopefully hear the way that almost the entire piece is based on variations of these initial themes.


0:09-0:27 ; initial theme and variants
0:28-0:40 ; dramatic pause, more of same
0:40-0:50 ; builds to a climax, break
0:51-1:07 ; second, contrasting theme, sounds more relaxed, pastoral and flowing, announced by a horn fanfare. This is in a happier-sounding major key.
1:08-1:23 ; becomes more and more dramatic and transforms towards initial theme
1:24-1:32 ; initial theme’s rhythm but rises on 4th note, finishes on a final-sounding chord


1:33-1:46 ; horn introduction to initial theme again
1:47-2:09 ; theme developed in various ways, freer melody with more interweaving musical lines, dramatic buildup
2:10-2:20 ; echo of fanfare introduction to the second subject at 0:51
2:21-2:29 ; sequential rise of two note motif
2:30-2:39 ; sequential rise of single notes
2:40-2:47 ; second subject introduction echoed again, into more buildup
2:48-2:51 ; original theme starts to return


2:52-3:08 ; theme drops down in pitch to the original key, at full power, repeat of initial section
3:09-3:20 ; lyrical oboe solo interlude out of nowhere
3:21-3:40 ; original theme and variants repeated
3:41-4:23 ; second theme back, but it’s now in a different key – if you can click between 0:51 and 3:40 and listen to the horn introduction you may be able to hear they are different: the first is higher pitched.


4:24-4:39 ; continuation after dramatic chord (like at 1:32 but keeps going). If you imagine the music stopping at about 4:23 it would make sense to end there in a way, but Beethoven keeps the music moving.
4:40-5:01 ; first subject in backing to a new string melody, new material takes over
5:02-5:09 ; four note rhythm that is not quite the same as the first theme but reminiscent of it
5:10-5:18 ; call-and-response idea similar to 2:30
5:19-5:24 ; first subject rhythm with extended last note
5:25-5:34 ; big first subject is back
5:35-5:40 ; first expansion upon it repeated twice, and has a countermelody in winds. Compare to how the repeated phrase from 0:15-0:22 rises and seems to lead forward, whereas here it stays fixed and leads to a finish.
5:40-end ; big finish

As you can see Beethoven follows the ‘official’ structure, but adds in a few touches like the oboe solo and the long coda that are somewhat unusual. But the real genius is in the way he takes the simple four note theme and transforms and remakes it in all sorts of ways, then intermixes the second theme, recombines parts of the music in new forms, builds and releases tension at key moments, and so on. The sonata form is a framework that gives the piece a powerful direction, but the details are what changes it from an academic exercise into an enjoyable piece.

It may interest you to know that in making these notes I have gained even more appreciation and admiration for this work. I think this feedback between appreciating the formal structure of the work and relating it to the dramatic and emotional aspects is one of the most rewarding parts of classical music.

If you found this post interesting let me know and I may be persuaded to explain a piece in a different style in a similar way.

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