The Great Courses: Understanding the Fundamentals of Music – Review

Written by Gordon Harvey on

Presented by Professor Robert Greenberg

16 parts, 45 min each = 12 hours

85 page course summary with references to the music selections

Everyone can enjoy music, but for those who don’t already know, your enjoyment can be multiplied many times over when you understand a little about it.  Obviously, the best way to understand music is to participate actively in it, but even as a listener, the experience is greatly enhanced when you listen with awareness, and with an understanding of how it’s put together – the things the composer and performer consider as they develop their work.

This program is a series of 16 45-minute lectures (that’s a full 12 hours) with the support of a very helpful 85-page written summary.  The lectures are available in audio form on CD or download, or video on DVD or download.  I chose the best-value audio download.  Music is more about listening than looking and the audio format is ideal for the daily walk.

Professor Greenberg is as forthright in his opinion as he is sound in his knowledge.  You may not always agree with him (the tritone is rarely used?  a blues or jazz musician may disagree) but that just makes the experience more stimulating and engaging.  And his passion for music comes through loud and clear.  If you need evidence, listen to his description of the cello (with which I heartily agree) for a blushingly frank example.

His explanations of sometimes arcane or esoteric concepts – the difference between rhythm and meter or the meaning of equal temperament – are as good as I’ve heard anywhere.  Some foggy regions in my understanding were cleared once and for all.  For example, I appreciated his discussion of the evolution of melody, something we take for granted but which didn’t always exist as we know it today.

The audio-and-notes format is, for me, the ideal way to present a topic like this.  Being spoken to directly by an expert who is equal parts authority and aficionado, who humanises the subject in a way that’s difficult for a book to do, backed up by the text summary, and with the aid of extensive examples of quality performances, brings to life a subject that might be dull in the wrong hands.  I’m certain that it will make you listen to music in a more involved way.  You’ll start to notice distinctions and layers that serve to deepen your understanding and sense of connection to the music.  You may find that music you were never really much into starts to reveal its qualities.

I have throughly enjoyed sharing my walks with the erudite Professor Greenberg.  I’m already looking forward to the Professor’s even longer ‘How to Listen to and Understand Great Music’.  The price may seem a little steep, but the publisher seems to regularly offer special deals.
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