Sometimes listeners have trouble identifying music they hear, and they try to at least guess the composer. Sometimes it’s easy (like Haydn vs. Bartok), but sometimes it’s very difficult (Mozart vs. Haydn). We all have our favorite composers that we can always identify, but no matter who you are, there’s bound to be a work you haven’t heard. So, how can you recognize certain famous composers? They all have certain habits they put into every piece. If you can recognize them, you can answer the question of “what piece is that?” by saying, “I don’t know the piece, but it’s definitely Beethoven.”
Speaking of Beethoven…
Beethoven is my favorite composer. There are many things that set him apart, but the one thing he always does in his music is use a certain cadence. Maybe I’m being a little technical right now, but if you know basic music theory, you can follow along. If you are like me and didn’t really pay attention in class but learned it all later, all the better.
A cadence is a series of chords that bring the musical phrase to a close. Cadences always end the piece. The most famous cadence in music is V-I, or in C major – a G chord then a C chord (G being the 5th note of the C scale). Chord symbals are taken from the position in the scale they occupy, so if a piece is in C major, a C major chord is I, while an A minor chord is vi. Upper case denotes a major chord while lowercase is for minor chords. Confused yet? I hope not because this is all in the first week of first-year harmony class.
He Modifies it for His Own Use
Beethoven’s favorite cadence is I-ii6-V-I. He uses it in almost every piece he writes. The ii6 chord is substituted for a IV chord, but the “6” in ii6 means the root of the chord is the same note as a root-position IV chord. Whew. My brain is aching just typing all that. There are countless examples, but this one is pretty easy to hear. It’s at the end of the first movement of the “Emperor” Piano Concerto.
In this case (E-flat major), the chord is actually a ii7 chord (an f-minor chord with an e-flat in it), and ‘ol Ludwig uses that quite often. My favorite other example of this cadence (ii-V-I) is in the Violin Concerto. If you listen closely, you can hear it in the second theme of the first movement. He takes it a step further by making this one a vi-ii6-V-I (a-minor, d-minor, G major – C-major) in the key of C major. Confused yet? Sorry about all that, but you can easily recognize Beethoven by his use of these cadences. As we move on, no more theory. I promise (he says with fingers crossed).
Once you know Brahms and his music, anything else he wrote is pretty easy to recognize. He’s another one of those famous composers who has a personal “hook” as it were. For Johannes, it’s more a rhythm thing that a chord or pitch thing. Whew, no more harmony lectures.
Brahms loved triplets. They are in everything he wrote. When he wanted to develop an idea, the first thing he did was use triplets. Then, he usually takes that a step further by putting those triplets against eighth notes, or as we musicians call it, 2 against 3. Yeah, that’s about as technical a term as we could come up with. Below is an example of his love of 3 vs. 2 from one of his best early chamber works, the Piano Quintet in f minor.
In this movement, he goes back and forth between 3 and 2 (or 4) so easily you almost don’t notice it. You should definitely listen to the entire movement. It’s about as ferocious a 7-and-a-half minutes you’ll ever witness (Shostakovich 10th notwithstanding – see below). An honorable mention here would be the 4th movement of the 3rd Symphony. No wonder they call the 3rd Brahms’ “Eroica.”
Dmitri Shostakovich is one of the greatest Russian composers, and he accomplished that while under the scrutiny of Joseph Stalin and the USSR. Not exactly a lazy trip through a meadow if you ask me. His music is both awesome and terrifying, and almost all of it uses a rhythm that we refer to as a “gallop.” That’s a long-short-short rhythm made famous by the William Tell Overture (or Lone Ranger theme, sigh). I could pick just about any work of his, but for this exercise I’m choosing the most terrifying 4 minutes of music in existence.
Of the composers listed here, Dmitri might be the easiest to recognize. Here’s some homework (yay). Go to YouTube and search Shostakovich. Then choose any result and listen to it. It’ll have that rhythm throughout. I guarantee it.
Meanwhile, Still in Russia
Time for some more music theory. Don’t worry. This time it’s a little easier to explain even though it’s a more complex technique. Of all the famous composers, Tchaikovsky might be one of the most popular. His ballets are legendary (Nutcracker, Swan Lake), and his symphonies are all superb, even though we only hear the final three performed most of the time. Tchaikovsky’s unique chord progressions are one thing that identify him. Another thing is his use of suspensions in his music. A suspension occurs when you move to a different chord but keep a note from the previous chord. Mr. Tchaikovsky uses them liberally to create tension. Case in point, Romeo and Juliet. He gets the drama thing going early in this one. A huge sequence of suspensions begins at about 0:40 of the video below.
Another great example of creating tension (utter desperation in this case) is the climax of the 1st movement of the 6th Symphony. I defy you to find a more heartbreaking passage in Western music.
Famous Composers and Their Habits – Final Thoughts
All famous composers (and even the not-so-famous) have little quirks that find their way into everything they write. The examples above are pretty comprehensive within the composers’ works, but there are certainly some others. Mendelssohn loved to use Lutheran hymns in his works. Mozart loved to write beautiful melodies with one instrument playing a long, high note over them. Schubert loved writing a piece of beautiful music that modulates to just about every key on the circle of fifths. OK, the latter is a gross exaggeration, but sometimes it seems that way. Hopefully, this helps you figure out what you’re listening to more easily.