Learning To Love Classical Music

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 27, 2015

I’ve been a big music love all my life, but I’ve never really liked classical music. I keep trying, thinking classical music must be an acquired taste, or I need to be educated to its ways. In recent months I’ve been trying harder, attending a few concerts. Last night I went to hear The Ceruti String Quartet perform Opus 76, No. 4 (“Sunrise”) – Franz Joseph Haydn, Opus 11 – Samuel Barber, and Opus 59, No. 3 – Ludwig van Beethoven. I was emotional moved sometimes by the Barber, mostly because some melodies seemed somewhat familiar, like I might have heard the second movement in a movie soundtrack. I liked the Haydn least, and the Beethoven kind of impressed me, but still didn’t quite work as something I’d want to regularly hear.

Samuel Barber
Samuel Barber

I’m fascinated by why some people find classical music so moving and powerful and others find it annoying. I’ve learned to like classical music enough, from brief measures here and there within symphonies, that I want to learn to like it more. I believe I have a conceptual barrier to understanding classical music. By understanding I mean being able to listen to it and appreciate its artistic beauty.

One hypothesis I’m working with, is I don’t have the working memory to appreciate classical music. I can’t remember the melody to any song, even popular songs I’ve heard a thousand times. I can’t hum a tune, or remember lyrics. Popular music, which I love, is based on short songs built around a relentless rhythm. Rock, folk, country and to a degree jazz songs are composed around a steady beat, usually provided by drums and bass. Other instruments weave simply melodies within the beat, but they are seldom complex, at least compared to classical music. Pop music is close to a short chant, while classical music is often much longer, far more complex, and might be compared to several long poems all read at the same time, but which still create a coherent whole. To my mind, classical music is a jumble of words and phrases I can’t comprehend, often jarring, usually without resonating with my feelings, but occasionally twinging a sense of beauty.

I came up with my working memory theory because of three recent incidents. First, my friend Janis has listened to two symphonies with me that she remembered from her high school band days. She can still hum/sing them, and remember their ever changing movements. She’d conduct with her hands as she listened, which shows she remember their overall structure.

Then I saw a video of a 3-year-old kid “conducting” the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 5th.

If you watch young Jonathan you can see that he anticipates what’s coming up. He has memorized the piece. Janis has done the same thing with the two pieces we listened to. I don’t know any classical music well enough to anticipate any part of it, even the symphonies I’ve played four or five times. I have no memory for structure. Popular music is so repetitive that you don’t have to remember. Has popular music made me lazy, or do I just have a very poor working memory?

I did play the three pieces I heard last night before the performance on Spotify–so I wasn’t absolutely new to them. I wonder how many times I would have to play them before I would learn to anticipate all the changes?

I remember taking tests where I was asked to remember a series of numbers. I’m miserable at it. Which probably explains why I can’t remember lyrics, poems and melodies. I don’t know if this is a birth defect, laziness, or lack of training. But it also relates to a third clue I discovered when I read “What Makes a Prodigy?” Scientists have discovered that most prodigies have fantastic working memories, either in the 99th percentile, or even in the 99.9th percentile. Most childhood prodigies are good at math, music and chess—all things I’m terrible at.

This probably explains why all my life I’ve wished I could play chess, music and do math—I hunger to do what I can’t. It might also explain why I can’t sing or dance. Don’t worry, I’m not feeling pity for myself, I’m good at other things. We often want what we can’t have. I’m guessing it might take a certain level of working memory ability to appreciate classical music, say 70th percentile or above, and I must be way below that.

Last night as I sat alone in the hall, (none of the three friends I asked to go with me would go). I struggled to make sense of what I was hearing. I was impressed by the performers, and by the creativity of the compositions, but except for some of the Barber, what I heard didn’t feel like what I feel when I listen to music I love. And I have a theory about that too.

If you are born into a family of Baptists it’s most likely you’ll grow up to be Baptist. If a Muslim family adopted a Baptist baby, it would grow up to be Muslim. Or maybe Hindu if it was taken to India. I was never raised with classical music, so it’s a foreign religion, a foreign culture. Because some people can move to a distant land and embrace a new culture, religion and ethics, I assume it’s possible for me to learn to like classical music. I just don’t know how hard that might be, or if my short term memory problem will be a limiting factor.

I tend to think it’s a matter of long term exposure. I used to really hate opera, but in the last year I’ve added a few arias to my Spotify playlist of favorites that I play everyday on random. This playlist are songs I can always hear and always enjoy, no matter when they come up. I’ve learned to love a few opera pieces enough to add them into the group.

Yet, I continue to struggle to conceptualize classical music. It’s funny what a newbie I am. I want to clap at the end of movements, whereas the obvious tradition is to sit quietly until the end of a piece. There’s no whistling, shouting, or stomping when a performer plays a particularly good riff. I was in a mostly empty hall with about sixty people in the audience. I think most of them were music majors, or older folk who love classical music. They all knew when each piece ended and clapped right on clue. I expected most of them were familiar enough with each of the three pieces they could have conducted. Which means they see classical music as a whole, something I can’t fathom yet.

Popular songs are played so often, and last so little time, that most people can grasp their basic structure quickly. A very long time ago I tried learning how to play the guitar and my teacher taught me the chord structure to “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song I’ve heard thousands of times since 1965. For a few weeks, decades ago, I could bang out that song, and had a feeling for its structure. I can’t even hum it now.

I listen to music in a extremely weird way, that might not be typical for most people. I don’t comprehend it’s parts. I can’t comprehend or visualize it’s structure. But holistically music pushes a button in my brain that turns on emotions. Music is a drug to me. Because pop songs are so concisely repetitious, they usually create just one emotion. Because classical music is so complexly varied, so diverse in it’s effects, that most of the time I feel nothing, but every once in a while, a measure, or even half measure of its music will find an emotion button to press. I wonder if I keep trying, I’ll learn how to like classical music so more of it’s riffs hit buttons within me that produce a response? One thing significant about classical music, and why I often compare it to movie soundtracks, is it creates a series of different emotions, sometimes even a rollercoaster ride of feelings.

Finally, I have one other hypothesis. I think I responded better to Barber than Beethoven or Haydn because he’s a 20th century composer. And that I liked Haydn least because he’s the oldest. I’m guessing the music of the 18th and 19th century was different because people’s minds were different, and I can’t tune into those periods—yet. With popular music I’ve learned to enjoy music all the way back to the 1920s, and I’ve even heard songs from the 1910s that are becoming catchy to me. For me to learn to love classical music will require learning to love music from other centuries. What’s fascinating is I started listening to chants from the Middle Ages, and I dug them. And I have a theory about why. Medieval music is more like today’s popular music, very simple. The early melodies were monophonic. Which makes me wonder if the minds of people in the 18th and 19th century were more capable of comprehending complexity than our 21st century minds?


9 thoughts on “Learning To Love Classical Music”

  1. You say you responded better to Barber than to Haydn? Do you mean to the music of Barber in general and Haydn in general or just to those individual pieces? I would suggest that you listen to a number of pieces by each before you decide.

    I’ve been listening to classical music for at least a half century now, and I’m no expert, but I have learned that I have found some individual works by a composer to be very enjoyable while others by that same composer leave me cold.

    Do you have a classical music radio station in the vicinity? If so, then I would recommend listening regularly to it to get exposure to a wide variety of classical music.

    In addition, if you find a piece of classical music that you enjoy, get others of the same type and listen to them. A long time ago, I listened primarily to works played by orchestras and larger groups and could never appreciate duets. One day a friend played a record (way back when) of works for guitar and flute featuring Pierre Rampal and Rene Bartoli, respectively. I was so entranced I went out and got my own copy. I then started searching for other works featuring the flute and guitar and then branching out into other instrumental duets, which thereby increased my own library and collection of works that I enjoy.

    Right now, one of my favorite CDs of duets is _Music for Two_ by Bela Fleck (banjo) and Edgar Meyer (bass and piano)–banjo and bass–I’ve wandered far from the flute and guitar.

    Another favorite CD of duets is a collection of Japanese short works by Rampal again, on the flute, and Lily Laskine on the harpsichord–the title is _Sakura_.

    1. Just those individual pieces. In fact, my favorite of the evening was the second movement in the Barber piece. Dealing with the composers entire works, it’s sort of like my interest in Bruce Springsteen. Out of all of Bruce’s work, my favorites come from two albums. I’m sure I can find something from Haydn that I like.

      I do have a local station that plays classical music. I also have Spotify. And I buy magazines like BBC Music Magazine that come with discs.

      I have discovered pieces here and there that I love. One of my absolute favorite’s is Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” I tend to love a lot of pseudo-classical type music – such as soundtracks. For example, like Michael Nyman music for Gattaca. A new piece I’m getting into, but haven’t listened to enough to know, is Shostakovich’s Symphony #5.

      One way I discover new pieces is listen to Best of Classical CDs on Spotify. There’s lots of famous pieces I’ve heard over and over again over the years, but I really don’t know the composers.

      I’m sticking with this project. I’m slowly getting a feeling for classical music by merely constant trying.

  2. I found this fascinating to read! I actually grew up in a household filled with classical music and even chose to study it in college, but I never really “got” it until recently. Like you, I couldn’t remember what happened or follow the music, even though I knew what “form” it was technically supposed to be in. So maybe what allowed the music to click for me will help it click for you!

    I’ve discovered that the music tells a story, almost like reading a book. It’s like there are different characters and different actions that take place. So what you can do (and what I enjoy doing) is reverse-engineering the story when you listen, so to speak. Pretend that you’re listening to the movie soundtrack of a book or even movie and ask yourself who the characters are and what they’re doing. My theory is that this is why so many people who don’t like classical music still enjoy movie soundtracks: they can connect what they are hearing to either vague or explicit characters and actions, giving them a more concrete grasp on the abstraction of the music.

    I like to think of the music as telling some fundamental, core story. Each concrete story we hear, then, is only one of many interpretations of the music that can shed light on it in a different way each time. Even if you don’t think in terms of a specific story, just listening with the mindset of hearing a story in general can be extremely helpful! For me, this has been the secret to understanding and really enjoying classical music. If you try it out, please let me know what you think!!

    (Also, only if you’re interested, I have written some blog posts using this method: http://ifmermaidsworesuspenders.com/category/classical-music-stories/. If you haven’t read these books and/or are curious how this would work in a less literature-based way, you could check out http://ifmermaidsworesuspenders.com/2015/07/30/valley-of-the-bells-2/. It might help explain what I’m talking about better! But no pressure either way.)

    I hope this helps!

    1. Thanks Aubrey, I’ll check out your web site. Your method sounds like those people who use memory tricks where they convert what they need to remember into a series of objects they place in a scene. I’m also going to read about some of the works to see if they had an intended story. I like your idea of considering the different instruments as characters. Classical music does sound like a novel where different people are talking.

      1. Please let me know what you think! There is also plenty of programmatic music out there, with probably my favorite example being Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky/Ravel. That was probably my first (and probably one of my only) experiences of being blown away by classical music as a child!

  3. What turned me on was Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite. It was a gift from my father when I was a teen and mostly into pop music. I haven’t played it in years, so maybe it’s time to do it again.

  4. Hmmm. I find that I really love some pieces of music and really am annoyed by others. It’s not the genre or even the composer / artist, it’s the individual work. I like some pieces from classical, rock, jazz, and pop… but certainly find a lot of it annoying enough to just turn the radio off, too.

  5. Jim, I’ve been meaning to comment on this post for weeks now. Sorry for the delay!

    I’m not very musical, and I rarely listen to music. When I do, I just want to listen to music. I don’t usually want it playing as a background to whatever else I’m doing. (Even when I play computer games, I turn off the music first thing.)

    But decades ago, I wanted to learn more about classical music. I’d found a little book, “How to Build a Record Library” (published in 1953!), in a used bookstore, and I started buying some of the more approachable recommendations.

    I discovered that I didn’t like any of them,… until I’d listened to them four or five times, at least. It was really strange. Once I’d listened to a particular piece long enough, I got to like it. (Of course, I was only listening to the ‘greatest hits’ of classical music, basically, and the most widely praised performances, too.)

    I still don’t like classical music on the radio,… unless it happens to be a work I’m already very familiar with. Learning to enjoy particular pieces didn’t seem to transfer at all to other pieces, even by the same composer. Funny, huh? But then, as I say, I’m not musically-inclined.

    I don’t know if I’d still feel the same way. My record collection was records. That’s how long it’s been. After records became obsolete, I bought a few classical CDs, but for some reason, it wasn’t the same. Maybe it was the performance, I don’t know.

    But I’ve got enough to keep me busy these days without listening to music, too. (Again, when I was listening to classical music, I was only listening to music. I gave it my full attention. And that takes time.)

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