Harvard professor shows the history of music from prehistory to now in 5 minutes flat

February 26th, 2020

World, meet Leonard Bernstein.

For those who don’t know, Bernstein is an American composer, songwriter, conductor, pianist and music lecturer extraordinaire. Though it would take most of us a lifetime to grasp the depth and history of music, Bernstein proved that with the right teaching, it’s actually possible to cover it all in just a few minutes.

The clip we’re talking about comes from Bernstein’s 1973 Harvard lecture series, “The Unanswered Question,” which takes his students on a whirlwind tour through musical history.

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YouTube Screenshot Source: YouTube Screenshot

After watching this, you will definitely look at music history in a whole new way.

In 1971, Bernstein was invited to a residency at Harvard to become the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. It was during his tenure that he delivered a series of six lectures on music theory and music history. Notably a complex subject, Bernstein received much praise for delivering such intricate concepts in an accessible way—a true accomplishment for his time!

His undertaking was no small feat as he had to memorize each of the six speeches twice: once for the lecture, and once for a television taping. He also spent much time rehearsing as he illustrated his lectures with the piano, playing movements and sometimes complete works.

He named his lectures after a musical work by composer Charles Ives.

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Needless to say, Bernstein has a “note-worthy” musical career all his own.

Born in 1918, Bernstein pursued a passion for music early in his life, playing his first piano at 10 years old. In 1943, he received his first big breakthrough conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, making him one of the first American-born conductors to enjoy worldwide fame. Bernstein went on to compose the score for the beloved Broadway musical, West Side Story.

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broadwaynyc.com Source: broadwaynyc.com

Even so, few people know about Bernstein’s incredible Harvard lectures.

Bernstein’s lectures encompass a lifetime of passion and it truly shows. Each lecture has a different theme and covers a wide breadth of knowledge including subjects such as phonology (sound), syntax (structure) and semantics (meaning). His contagious enthusiasm rings out as he explains complex works in a series of easily-interpreted, entertaining speeches. After all, it was his intention to bring music to everyone!

The lectures themselves received mixed success. Colleagues teased his personal opinions, but ultimately it was his stylish approach as a professor that granted him an ongoing legacy.

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YouTube Screenshot Source: YouTube Screenshot

The entire thing was a true crash course in music.

In this video clip taken from his first of six lectures, Bernstein extends himself as a caring friend, excited colleague, passionate musician, and brilliant educator of music theory. He throws hard terms around, but softens them with a comedic dialogue woven into examples on his piano.

The beauty is in how he turns something fundamentally rigid and not user-friendly into something warm, inviting and approachable—even for those with no music experience.

In the beginning of the the clip, Bernstein merrily offers to give us a “very high overview” of music theory.

At just three minutes into the video, he’s already explained what he calls “total music.”

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YouTube Screenshot Source: YouTube Screenshot

American composer, Virgil Thomson, had only good things to say of Bernstein:

“Nobody anywhere presents this material so warmly, so sincerely, so skillfully.”

To experience a lifetime’s worth of music theory in just a moment’s time, watch Bernstein make it easy in the video below!

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Source: YouTube/paxwallacejazz