Listening to Understand

Some time ago, I prepared this article in an attempt to explain, as the title would suggest, how to listen to classical music.

If I were to go back and read it now, I would likely excise much of the content, restructure the whole thing, and give it a different focus. It should have been What to Listen for when You Listen to Classical Music, but we’ll have to get to that topic another time.

In my day job, I recently had the opportunity to discuss classical music, and a realization hit me. Far too many people think of classical music as the stuff that plays in elevators, string quartets in fancy restaurants, a little Mozart before bed, or Wagner’s Walkürenritt in a dramatic moment of emotion.

But that’s tantamount to objectification of music, like watching an excerpt of a Shakespeare tragedy and calling it a comedy, or saying you love a movie when you’ve only seen the trailer. So then, the question is:

How do I listen to classical music?

Everyone has tastes, that’s for sure, so not everyone will like everything. It took me longer to come to appreciate Bruckner than it did Babbitt. But the point is that very little, if any, classical music was meant to be played in the background while you do other things. It is not meant to fill empty airspace.

For one, it’s important (I think) to consider today’s three-to-five-minute pop song (pop as in ‘popular’ music plucked from an album of similar tunes to be sold to radio stations and market an ‘artist’) as the musical equivalent of a sugar cube: instant gratification and little content. It’s over in no time, just long enough for that hook, the catchy beat or a moving lyric to hold your attention until the song is over.

Most of today’s audiences (myself included) aren’t able to get an in-depth understanding of a piece of music at one pass. Perhaps Mozart and Beethoven’s contemporaries were far more intelligent than us nowadays and could comprehend a symphony in a single pass, but you do need to train your ear. There many articles that discuss this topic, like this one, this one, another one, and this one I especially like.

For one, focus. It’s not a serious, highbrow, intellectual endeavor, but if you’re really interested in watching a movie or reading a book, you pay attention. Some source somewhere, maybe one above, suggested headphones and lights out (if you won’t fall asleep, but if you’re processing things, you shouldn’t) so you can focus on the details. What details?

The stuff that makes up music:

  • tempo- the speed of the music, how fast it’s played, the ‘beat’
  • rhythm- the accents on certain beats, the length of certain notes against others
  • dynamics- volume; the loud and soft parts
  • instrumentation- what instruments are there, and which of them play which parts when
  • pitch- how high or low the notes are

All of these things make up the musical ideas (if a bit oversimplified), and when you combine pitch and tempo and rhythm, you get melodies and harmonies (consonant and dissonant, i.e. pleasant sounding or rough sounding) (again oversimplified). There’s tons more to it than that, but it’s the kind of stuff you can pay attention to when you begin trying to process what makes the music sound the way it does.

The above articles also mention some ‘Ask yourself…’ type questions, stuff like:

  • What emotion is this? How does it make me feel?
  • What does it make me ‘see’ or think of?
  • What might the composer be trying to say here?

Make an emotional connection to the music; you’ll remember (and comprehend it) much more easily. Then zoom out. On a larger scale, ask yourself:

  • Does this part/section relate in any way to what comes before or after it? How? Have I heard it before? Is it new or repeated?
  • What do these different melodies/sections/movements have in common? What might their combination/contrast be trying to say?
  • What would be the overall mood/story/idea behind not just what I’m hearing right now, but of the entire piece overall?
  • Is one part ‘boring’ or ‘ugly’ or ‘strange’? Why? Could it be intentional?

At some point, if you haven’t already, you might want to go back and do some research that could help you answer some of the above questions and have more insight into the work. Listen to Mozart’s clarinet quintet, and then go read about the history of the work, or Mahler’s sixth symphony. Listen without any research, then go back and study up and listen again. The context informs your listening. You might begin to hear how the composer relates the emotion he wants to express.

Also, think of a piece of music as a city. Mahler likened his symphonies to entire worlds. If it’s a place you’ve never been before, it’s unlikely you’re going to become familiar with it in only one stroll through a few streets, unless you have an incredible sense of direction. These large-scale works of music are meant to be understood as a whole, on the large scale. It takes some time to break into them and really get what it’s about, so be patient. Start with something small (the clarinet quintet above, not Mahler’s symphony), and work your way up to the bigger stuff.

Also, as determined and dedicated as you might be, don’t beat a piece to death in one sitting. Give it one listen, move on to something else, and come back later, unless something you hear really draws you back to the work. As for Bruckner’s symphonies, I listened for the past few years until a mind-blowing concert experience and an incredible set of recordings  helped to make it all make sense. And yes, find different interpretations of the work, listen to different recordings. Give it time.  It’s incredibly rewarding.

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