Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

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Explore Beethoven Piano Sonatas with Jonathan Biss on Coursera

Ludwig van Beethoven Jonathan Biss, photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Pianist Jonathan Biss has created a new set of lectures on selected Beethoven piano sonatas on  The course is free, and is designed “for people of all levels of experience with Beethoven’s music (including no experience at all!).”1 This set of lectures will cover Sonata No. 3, Op. 2, No. 3; Sonata No. 8, Op. 13 (“Pathetique”); Sonata No. 21, Op. 53 (“Waldstein”); and Sonata No. 27, Op. 90.

This course, Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas Part 2, will begin in mid-January, but you can enroll now.

The first course, Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, will begin again on January 2, but you can enroll now as well.  This course provides an overview of the 32 sonatas, and contains a wealth of detail on the sonatas themselves and music history.

I took the first course, enjoyed it, and learned a lot.  You can read more about the course in an earlier blog post.  You may learn more about Jonathan Biss at his website, which contains the least serious biography I have ever seen.

Biss is in the process of recording all 32 of the Beethoven piano sonatas, and several CDs have already been released.

Follow this link for my post containing more free Beethoven resources.

Follow this link for my post containing more on Beethoven’s late string quartets.

And now, here is Jonathan Biss performing Beethoven’s Sonata No 5 in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 1.





Image attributions: Beethoven, Painting by Carl Jäger (1833-1887), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons,  Jonathan Biss, photo by Benjamin Ealovega,



Learning (and Describing) How Music Works: Free Online Resources

Cartoon by Toby Rush, man describing a musical passage to a woman "And then the bassoon choir comes in like flaming honeydew melons from on high"

Cartoon from “Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People” by Toby Rush.

You can enjoy music without knowing how it works, but knowing even a little bit will help you hear things you might have missed otherwise (for example, those repeated notes in Bach’s Magnificat and Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude).

And you’ll be able to describe to people what’s great in the music you’ve heard.  There are lots of great resources to help you learn how.

I recently found a set of pages explaining various aspects of music notation (and more) using a format you don’t typically see:  it looks like a graphic novel.  And I love the title:

Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People

While there’s a lot of information on each page, it’s very pleasing to the eye and easy to read.  The pages are available in several languages, and the English-language pages include British and American versions to accommodate, for example, the differing names for note lengths (quaver versus eighth note).

Read these pages, and soon you too will be able to casually toss around terms like “circle of fifths,” “complex meter,” “species counterpoint,” and “motivic development”!

But if you find yourself saying, “Hold on there, Sparky (Sparky is the Music Theory Dog of the series), you’re getting a little ahead of me,” here are some more options.

Coursera’s online course “Fundamentals of Music Theory,” offered by the University of Edinburgh, will start up on January 30, 2017 (a little off-topic, but also on Coursera, Yale University’s course “Introduction to Classical Music” begins January 2, 2017).

If you don’t have a lot of time, try

If you like to go at your own pace, see

If you’re keen on lots of details, check out

If you like using flash cards, look at the musical offerings on

Spend a little time at any of these websites, and pretty soon you’ll be able to say

Photo of Clara Schumann captioned "I see what you did there"

Just watch out for those flaming honeydew melons.


Image attributions:  Cartoon from Toby Rush’s “Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People”

Clara Schumann, photograph by Elliott & Fry [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,

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New Free Online Course: “Defining the String Quartet: Haydn” from Stanford University

Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy

Stanford University has a new free online course on Haydn and the development of the string quartet.

The first half of the course explores string quartet writing before Haydn, as well as his early works.  The second half is devoted to a detailed look at Haydn’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20 No 5.

The course will help you learn what to listen for and get a better understanding of how the string quartet works.

You do not need to read music for this course.  The music tutorial that is offered is minimal, and looks like a quiz–click on “Show Answer” for explanations.  If you do read music, “dynamic scores” are available. Even if you don’t read music, check them out, they’re pretty cool, and you can learn a lot through observation and pattern matching.  When you select a movement, a play bar appears.  When you click play, the notes that are being played turn red.  And for the trill, the tr and note wiggle up and down—I think that’s quite clever!

The course includes a video of each movement of the String Quartet in F Minor performed by the St. Lawrence Quartet.  The videos can be viewed with or without the dynamic score.  The videos may also be downloaded for further study and enjoyment.

You can go at your own pace, and you can earn a certificate of accomplishment.  You can pick entry level or advanced level for the quizzes.

For more details, here is the webpage for “Defining the String Quartet: Haydn.”

You might also be interested in the course “The World of the String Quartet” from the Curtis Institute of Music on Coursera.


Image attribution: Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


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Haiku Wednesday: Learn To Write Like Mozart, Free on Coursera


Like Mozart’s music?
You can write like him (sort of)
Now on Coursera.

Coursera is again offering its “Write Like Mozart” course.  The session will run from April 11 to May 29, but you can preview the first week of material now.  You have to enroll by April 16.  They will offer another session that begins on May 9.  The course is free, or if you want a certificate when you complete the course, it’s $49.

If you want to learn the basics of Western composition in Mozart’s era, this is a great class.  But you have to have some prior knowledge of the rudiments of music.  Not just the ability to read music; I mean chords, scales, key signatures, intervals, and Roman numeral analysis (not as scary as it sounds). The instructor, Peter Edwards of the National University of Singapore, suggests visiting if you need a refresher course on a particular topic.

One of the nice things is, if you don’t quite pick up the content of the lectures the first time, you can play them again.  You can even download the lectures and slides.  And if you don’t complete the course–no loss! (if you haven’t paid for a certificate, that is).  You learned what you learned, and it’s more than you knew before.

If you don’t have the basics you need for the Mozart course yet, never fear. has a class “Introduction to Music Theory” which will teach you the rudiments you need to know.  It will begin on April 18. uses a flashcard-based approach for learning or reviewing music rudiments that is definitely go at your own pace.  Here are their musical offerings.  There’s lots of fun stuff there, including “Who Composed Me?” (there is also a “Who Painted Me?”) and 80 Operas, with musical clips.

Can’t read music?  Don’t want to pursue that right now? Still want to learn more about how all those dots and lines turn into glorious Mozart? has a course called “From Notation to Performance: Understanding Musical Scores.”  You do not have to be able to read music for this course.  The class is not currently available, but you can let them know you’re interested, and they’ll email you when it becomes available again.  The approach is one of visual pattern recognition.  You’ll learn how to be able to follow the “flow” of the score, and hear musicians discuss how they work together in small ensembles or individually and derive the meaning from the marks on the page.

So there’s lots of fun options out there, and if you find one you really like, let us all know about it!

Just be warned, these little courses (especially the flash card ones) are like potato chips—you can’t stop at one!

I have to get back to my music/art/photography/language courses now.  But it would be wrong not to hear some Mozart.

Here’s Mozart’s first symphony.  Written when he was eight years old.  Sigh.


Image attribution: Mozart c. 1780, portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce. Public domain. Questionably modified by C. Gallant.


Free Online Course: The World of the String Quartet

String Quartet

Here’s a valuable resource on the string quartet and its history.

Coursera offers an on-demand free course called The World of the String Quartet.  It was developed by the Curtis Institute of Music.  It is taught by Arnold Steinhardt, first violin of the Guarneri String Quartet, and Mia Chung, an interpretive analysis instructor at Curtis.

The seven-week course (this is a suggested timeframe, it is go at your own pace) covers the following topics:

Week 1: An Overview

Week 2: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven

Week 3: Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms

Week 4: Smetana, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, and Bartok

Week 5:  Debussy Ravel, Barber, Shostakovich, and Britten

Week 6: Schönberg, Webern, Berg, Ives, Cage, and Reich

Week 7: The Next Frontier

In addition, the course has its own webpage that includes links to performances and other online music resources.  There are discussion forums so you can connect with others taking the course, and quizzes to check if you’re on the right track.

Individual videos are fairly short, typically under ten minutes, which makes it easy to watch one when you have a little spare time.  So pour yourself a cup of coffee and get to know the string quartet!

Here’s the Aizuri Quartet at the Curtis Institute of Music performing Haydn’s Quartet Op. 64 No 3 Movement 1.


Image attribution:  Free clipart made available by

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Fundamentals of Music Theory — Free on Coursera

Just a reminder that the University of Edinburgh’s course Fundamentals of Music Theory will begin 3 August 2015 on  You can read about the course here.

It’s designed for folks with no previous musical training who want to learn how to read music.  It’s straightforward, with good pacing.  If you complete the course, you get a nice certificate that you can print out.  If you don’t complete the course, that’s ok too, you’ll know more than you did before.  It’s a win-win, so check it out!

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Where To Begin with Beethoven


Pianist Artur Schnabel compared Beethoven’s work to a mountain range:  vast, imposing, with infinite pathways to explore.

So where do you start with Beethoven?  Here’s my suggestion. has a free, go-at-your-own-pace, on-demand set of lectures, Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas.  The series is sponsored by the Curtis Institute of Music and hosted by renowned pianist Jonathan Biss.  Before he even gets to Beethoven, Biss gives an overview of the state of music in Bach’s time and in the time of Haydn and Mozart, so you have a background to understanding the environment in which Beethoven wrote.  He then explains the sonata form.  Even if you have little to no musical background, you should be fairly comfortable with the material, which is presented in a lively and interesting manner.

The lectures then move into the various periods of Beethoven’s sonata writing, with ample and engaging illustrative samplings of the works.  The course includes notes and lists of resources, and one can stream sonatas discussed in the course, performed by Jonathan Biss.

I took this course and learned a great deal about the sonatas and Beethoven (as well as Bach, Haydn, and Mozart).  I gained a deeper understanding of the music, and could enjoy and appreciate it more as a result of taking the course.

Biss is currently in the middle of a nine-year project to record all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.  Some are already available.  He has also published Amazon “singles” (short books) on Beethoven and Schumann, which I have read and enjoyed (see the recordings and books here).

I had the good fortune of meeting Mr. Biss after a performance some time ago.  After I introduced myself as one of his “Courserians,” he began to talk enthusiastically about the course, and told me that he planned to augment the course with lectures devoted to individual sonatas (he has).  It was clear he was happy to bring Beethoven to a wider audience, which was already evident in his lectures.  That wider audience is now in excess of 100,000 students from 160 countries!

So go to Coursera, sign up for a free account, and start exploring Beethoven’s sonatas.  While you’re there, you’ll also find an on-demand course on the string quartet (also brought to you by the Curtis Institute of Music) and a variety of other courses on music and many other subjects.   A course on the rudiments of music will start up 3 August 2015.  And keep an eye out for Write Like Mozart, a fantastic course on composition (sadly, not currently available).

Which is your favorite Beethoven sonata?  If you don’t have one yet, that’s ok—you will soon!