A Minute with Miles

News & Music Stations: Mon-Fri, 6:43 am and 8:43 am

How did the piano get its name? Why can’t you “reach” a crescendo? Who invented opera—and why—and how do you pronounce “Handel”? These and countless other classical music questions are answered on South Carolina Public Radio’s A Minute with Miles. Hosted by longtime NPR commentator Miles Hoffman, the segments inform and entertain as they provide illuminating 60-second flights through the world of classical music. (Photo: Mary Noble Ours)

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Jan 15, 2015

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the finales of instrumental pieces were almost always in fast tempos.  Composers felt it was important to leave the audience feeling enthusiastic and uplifted, so they also tended to end their pieces with a bang – or at least with some sort of satisfyingly emphatic musical statement.


Jan 14, 2015

In 1816, an Austrian by the name of Johann Nepomuk Maelzel set up a factory in Paris and began manufacturing a clever new mechanical device that he called a metronome.


Jan 13, 2015

Obbligato is an Italian word meaning “essential,” or “obligatory.” During the Baroque era, but even as late as Beethoven’s time, composers used the term obbligato to describe instruments or instrumental parts that were essential to a composition.


Jan 12, 2015

The oratorio is a musical form with the unusual distinction of being named for… a building. In the 1550's in Rome, a priest named Filippo Neri organized a series of religious gatherings that included performances of sacred stories with music.

Barab's Birthday

Jan 9, 2015

The American composer Seymour Barab started out as a pianist and organist, but as a teenager he took up the cello, and as a cellist he became a highly successful orchestra musician, founder of important string quartets, top commercial free-lance player, champion of new music, and later, after mastering the viola da gamba, champion of old music.

The French Horn

Jan 5, 2015

The French horn is only called the French horn… in English.  In French, it’s just called the horn, le cor – c-o-r.  In German it’s Horn, das Horn, in Italian it’s corno, and… well how about… Bulgarian… in Bulgarian, it’s Roq.  No French connections anywhere to be found.

The Harp

Jan 1, 2015

Here’s a little secret: harpists don’t use their pinkies. Since it’s the weakest finger, and since on the harp it provides no reach advantage—the ring finger stretches farther—the pinkie is just along for the ride. 

Flutist or flautist?

Dec 26, 2014

You say potato, I say potahto, you say flutist, I say flautist.  Well, actually I don’t say flautist, and neither do any of the flute players I know.  The Italian word for flute is flauto, and for flutist, flautista, and that’s where “flautist” comes from – although “flutist” is in fact an older term.

Handel's Messiah

Dec 23, 2014

Well, it’s that time of year again.  Choral groups all over the country are gearing up for performances of Handel’s Messiah. Or is it “Haen-del’s” Messiah?  Maybe we should clear this up.

Musical Notation 2

Dec 19, 2014

For a system of musical notation to be precise, it must be able to represent both the pitch and the rhythm of musical sounds.  Up until about the 13th century, no such system had ever existed.

Musical Notation 1

Dec 18, 2014

Do you read music?  Not an unusual question at all, is it? And yet think of the implications. We take it for granted that music can be written down, not just played; read, not just heard.

What goes on in a performer’s mind during a performance?  Well, lots of things, from the sublime to the salacious.  From thoughts and feelings whose only expression is in soaring flights of melody to very real concerns about whether or not Vinnie’s Pizza delivers after 10:30.

Beethoven's Birthday

Dec 16, 2014

It’s Beethoven’s birthday today.  He was born in Bonn, Germany, on December 16, 1770.  Now many people know that at a certain point Beethoven became deaf.  It’s a common misconception, however, that it was somehow miraculous that Beethoven was able to continue composing.


Dec 15, 2014

The minuet represents one of the longest-lasting dance crazes in history.  It most likely started out as a French country dance, but the minuet’s real success began in the 1650's when it was introduced in finer clothing, and with music by Jean-Baptiste Lully, at the court of King Louis XIV of France.

The Rondo

Dec 12, 2014

The Rondo is a musical form often used by Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, and their contemporaries for the last movements of their pieces.  A Rondo almost always starts with a lively or cheerful tune.

The Trombone

Dec 11, 2014

The trombone is an instrument that has remained largely unchanged for over five centuries.  In the 1400's, instrument makers created the trombone as a bigger, lower-pitched version of the slide trumpet, and indeed trombone is Italian for “big trumpet.”

Opera Voices

Dec 5, 2014

There are three basic categories of operatic singing voices: high, medium, and low. For women, these categories, starting from the top, are soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto. (Mezzo means “middle,” in Italian.) For men, they’re tenor, baritone, and bass.

Opera's Popularity

Dec 4, 2014

Another word today about opera.  Over the centuries, opera has often been criticized, and justly, for any number of reasons: silly or unrealistic plots, bad acting, extravagant productions, outrageous ticket prices and an air of social exclusivity, and characters who should be at least a little out of breath on account of their dying of consumption or having just been stabbed in the heart but who nonetheless manage to sing lengthy arias at the top of their lungs.

There’s no such thing as a “short history of opera.”  Well… there is a famous college textbook called A Short History of Opera… but it’s 800 pages long.  I will tell you this historical note about opera, though:  it was invented – that’s right, invented – in the late 1500's in Florence, Italy.


Dec 2, 2014

Stradivarius is the Latinized last name of Antonio Stradivari, often regarded as history’s greatest violin maker.  Stradivari was Italian, but on the paper labels he glued inside his violins he gave his name as Antonius Stradivarius.

Violin Versus Fiddle

Dec 1, 2014

What’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle? Well, I’ve heard it said that a violin has strings, and a fiddle has “strangs.”  But in reality, violin and fiddle are just two different words for the same instrument.

It was a fad that brought the BASS DRUM, CYMBALS, and TRIANGLE to Europe. The fad was for a kind of Turkish military music known as Janissary music. The Janissaries were the personal guard of the Turkish Sultans, and they were famous for their bands, which featured the bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and an instrument of bells and jingles called the Turkish crescent.

Bad Conductor

Oct 8, 2014

Yesterday, we talked about good conductors.  Today, let's talk about bad conductors.  Some bad conductors or unimaginative, or uninteresting.  And others are just not very gifted; even when they have good ideas, they have difficulty communicating them.  Some may even put on an extravagant physical show, but without necessarily showing much that's useful to the members of the orchestra.  Other conductors are unprepared or undependable.  Good orchestras try to ignore bad conductors, and in fact, it's not uncommon for good orchestras to rescue bad conductors- to play passages of music correctl

Good Conductor

Oct 7, 2014

What makes a good conductor?  Well, musical imagination and intelligence certainly come first since there's no point in trying to communicate with an orchestra without ideas worth communicating.  An excellent ear is essential, both for judging overall results and for pinpointing specific problems.  And so is a rock-solid sense of rhythm.  A good conductor must also have a certain physical grace, or at least coordination in order to produce a clear beat and musically meaningful gestures.  And it almost goes without saying that a conductor will have enough personal presence to be a convincing

Canon Round Catch

Oct 6, 2014

A Canon, with one "n" in the middle, is a composition with two or more voices or parts in which a melody is first stated in one voice and then imitated in another.

Prima Donna

Oct 2, 2014

Prima donna, Italian for “first lady,” refers to the leading lady in an opera, the singer of the principal female role.  The term has been in use since the 1600s, the earliest days of opera, and by the 1700s it was already associated with the artistic and commercial cult of the glamorous leading lady… and with singers who were monumentally demanding egomaniacs—to put it politely.

Brass Instruments

Sep 30, 2014

Brass instruments are wind instruments and although they may be coiled or bent in different shapes, all brass instruments consists essentially of a very long metal tube.  If you straightened out all the tubing on a French horn, for example, it would be about 17 feet long!  And the tubing of a tuba might be up to 26 feet long.  There are two main ways to play different notes, or pitches, on a brass instrument.  One is to change the actual length of the tube either using valves as on the French horn, trumpet, and tuba or a slide as on the trombone.  The longer the tube, the lower the note.  T

Narrative in Music

Sep 29, 2014

I once asked the composer Max Raimi what he thought of a certain other composer’s music.  He replied that her music had interesting sounds, and interesting textures, and interesting moments, but that it tended to lack three things that he considered very important: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Chamber Music

Sep 25, 2014

Chamber music is music for small formations, from as few as two musicians to as many as nine or ten.  Chamber music rehearsals are very different from orchestra rehearsals.

Baroque Era

Sep 24, 2014

The Baroque era in Western music extends from about 1600 to 1750.  The earliest surviving opera was written in 1600, and the year 1750 serves as a convenient closing point because it marks the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, the greatest of all Baroque composers.