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?


Pop Music versus Classical Music

Growing up in the 1960s I was programmed to love rock music by AM radios.  I never developed an ear for classical music.  Last night, three lady friends and I, attended the opening performance for this season of the Memphis Repertory Orchestra.  I tried hard to get into the music.  It’s not that I hated what I heard, it was  enjoyable, even fascinating, but I didn’t get the emotional response from that music that I do from pop music.  I’m trying to figure out why.

I thought the performances last night were very good, and plan to attend again.  I’m intrigued once again with classical music.


The last performance, “Les Preludes” by Franz Liszt, was my favorite of the evening.  I got into it. I could close my eyes and forget my body, and let my mind flow with the music, and it was fairly exciting, going through a range of sounds that often evoked comparisons to real world sounds, like sheets of rain, or movie soundtrack imagery, like a city coming alive in the morning.  But even though the music was pleasant and thought provoking, it didn’t push any of my emotional buttons like I’m used with rock music.  Why?

I’m not blaming classical music here, I’m blaming me.  After reading The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks, I’m all too well aware of my perceptual limitations.  This is a brain issue.  I know other people find this kind of music deeply moving and emotional.  Somehow my upbringing has made me colorblind to classical music.

Pop songs are short, usually have a strong backbeat that you can dance to, and they have a hook, a catchy phrase or melody that’s repeated.  The emotional mood of a pop song is usually singular, although there’s a few famous examples, like “Hey, Jude,” “A Day in the Life” and “Stairway to Heaven” that change moods in mid-song.  Pieces performed last night constantly shifted gears, and only rarely, did a short sequence push one of my buttons.  The second soprano, at one point sang a snippet of verses, that I wished someone would make into a whole pop song.

I would guess that fans of classic music must find pop hits musically terse and boring, if not monomelodic.  Symphony music is obviously polymelodic.

Classical music is like a long speech and sometimes I’m moved by a few catchy phrases here and there, but for the most part I’m indifferent to most of what’s being said.  It’s like listening to a foreign language speaker and occasionally hearing a word I know.

Classical music pieces are like novels with many scenes and pop songs are like short poems that hit you hard with one epiphany.

I would say a symphonic composition is like listening to an entire album of songs that must be perceived as a wholeness.  Parts of a classical composition that thrills me often lasts for just a few bars, sometimes only one, and never the 3 minutes common to a pop song.

Obviously, to appreciate classical music requires a different mindset.  I assume I am just too poorly educated to appreciate classical music, both in its technical nature, and in the training of my ear for listening enjoyment.  I also assume if I worked at it, I could learn to love classical music.  I should be embarrassed to admit this, but even pop fluff like Katy Perry or Ke$ha are thousands of times more exciting to me than any classical piece I’ve ever heard, and Bob Dylan is so far beyond them, that I’m in a different world.

My musical upbringing made me primarily attuned to the sound of the guitar, bass, and drums, and secondarily to organ and piano.  Later on I picked up a feel for the saxophone, mandolin, banjo, steel guitar, fiddle, trumpet and other instruments as folk, country and jazz influenced rock.  Eventually I worked backward in time through jazz and big band eras and acquired a taste for their sounds.  I have always liked symphonic music when it was played as movie soundtracks, but I’ve never been able to feel for music written before the 1920s.

To be completely honest, I’ve never learned to love jazz and big band like I do rock and pop, but I have learned to crave their sounds, to hunger for the feelings their tunes pull out of me.  Maybe one day I’ll be able to say I’m in the mood for a classical piece.

When I say feel for music, I mean, it makes me high.  It stimulates my emotions.  I crave it like a drug.  So far, classical music doesn’t get me high.

Classical music was a lot more popular in its day, but I’m not sure if it the common folk often hummed its tunes.  Few people got to hear Mozart’s compositions in his day, unless it was in church.  Folk music was probably more popular, or music from taverns and dances.

I’m mostly a self-educated person, even though I have a college degree.  I’ve read books about other places and times where the main characters were cultured, very well educated and spoke beautifully of the emotional depth of classical music pieces they loved.  That has often inspired me to buy classical music, but it just never worked.  I never felt what the characters described.  I’ve bought two separate recordings of Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, decades apart, because of the powerful written descriptions I’ve read about his performances.  Each time I was painfully disappointed.  I could sense their intellectual achievement but they were cold and passionless to me.  Simone Dinnerstein warmed up the Goldberg Variations quite a bit, but not enough to make them hit songs with me.  Maybe Roy Bittan should give them a go.

I know classical music offers greatness, I just can’t perceive it.  Over the decades I keep trying.  I’ve bought a couple dozen classical CD sets over the years trying to perceptually break on through to the other side.  Haven’t made it yet.  Last night performance encourages me to keep trying.

I went with three women to the performance last night, Ann and Anne, and Robyn, a woman who teaches and performs classical music.  I grilled her for information, and I asked her about her tastes in pop music.  I got the feeling she doesn’t share my passion for rock and pop that I do.  Were we each conditioned to like only what we grew up listening to?  Is it genetic?  I wished I could have telepathically tuned into the heads of my three companions to see how they each perceived the performances.  Just how different are our inner worlds?  Are classical and pop music such distant lands that they are each alien landscapes to the other?  Are classical music lovers mentally different from me?

Of course, we all have our own unique collection of passions.  I am never moved to yell or high-five a friend over a football play on television.  I absolute love Breaking Bad, a television show my wife feels only psychopaths could embrace.  My friend Peggy thinks about dancing the bop or shag all the time, but I’m never moved to get up and boogie.  My wife and her family are mesmerized by golf games on TV, while I sit around wonder where’s the Kool-Aid I should have drank to feel such happiness.

Maybe I’ll never love classical music, but I’ll keep trying. 

I do worry that learning to love classical might change the way I love rock.  Does it work that way?

JWH – 9/2/12

1001 Classical Recordings: Carmina Burana

Today I started reading 1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear Before You Die, edited by Matthew Rye.  I know next to nothing about classical music, and when I saw this book on the remaindered shelf I bought it thinking I’d go through the recommendations and try them out on Rhapsody or Rdio as an exercise in music auto-didacticism.   But starting with the first album, Carmina Burana quickly showed me what a vast undertaking this will be.  I thought I might could do one album a day, but that won’t be practical – not if I actually want to learn something.  I mean, I could just play the album and be done with it, but researching Carmina Burana on the internet has been a trip, and I think each album is going to take some work to appreciate.

To me, music as time traveling.  Up to now my adventures into old music has only taken me back to the jazz music of the 1920s.  Carmina Burana jumps me back to the 11th and 12th century – that’s quite a cultural shock.  Now here’s the problem with classical music – it’s old, sometimes very old, and unless it’s 20th century classical we don’t have recordings of the original artists and performances.  Classical music for the modern world is really listening to cover bands, and there’s lots of interpretations.  I hit a snag with the very first recommended album, Camina Burana, performed by Clemencic Consort, directed by René Clemencic, a 3 CD recording from 1975 that’s out of print.  Bummer.


The 1001 Classical Recording guide recommends this recording because it’s supposed to be more authentic.  Of course that’s both subjective and theoretical because we don’t know what a bunch of monks sounded like from the 11th and 12th century.   However, there is a movement in classical music called historically informed performance which means they use research and scholarship to guess what the original music might have sounded like.

Please read this Wikipedia entry on the history of the songs.  But we’re pretty sure they don’t sound like the monster chorales of the Carl Orff interpretations.  It’s when I heard “O Fortuna” that I realized I’ve been hearing this old music all my life, making it the oldest of the oldies I know.  Here’s how most people hear something from Carmina Burana today:

I did find some Clemencic Consort recordings on YouTube to illustrate the contrast of interpretations.

And these guys even look like they could be monks if they had the right outfits.

Another problem is knowing that the singers are singing about.  Here are the lyrics to the Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.  In all, there are 254 poems and dramatic texts that are open to musical interpretation.  I really do like Orff’s “O Fortuna” sound because the music goes with the lyrics:

O Fortune,
as the moon,
always dost thou
wax and wane.
Detestable life,
first dost thou mistreat us,
and then, whimsically,
thou heedest our desires.
As the sun melts the ice,
so dost thou dissolve
both poverty and power.
and empty fate,
thou, turning wheel,
art mean,
good health at thy will.
in obscurity,
thou dost attack
me also.
To thy cruel pleasure
I bare my back.
Thou dost withdraw
my health and virtue;
thou dost threaten
my emotion
and weakness
with torture.
At this hour,
therefore, let us
pluck the strings without
Let us mourn together,
for fate crushes the brave.

I’m nearly positive the monks never sounded like Orff’s mind-blowing space opera interpretation, but I can picture a bunch of guys singing the song above in medieval times and it might have sounded like the Clemencic Concert. 

Here’s what the original manuscript to “O Fortuna” looked like:


Rhapsody and Rdio have many productions of Carmina Burana, although most of them are based on the Orff interpretation, which are more fun because they are so emotional.  Orff does rock out, but the old monk sound is appealing, I’m just not sure I’d put any those cuts on a playlist to listen to regularly, but that might change as I learn more about old music.

JWH – 12/17/11

Musical Barriers

The other night I watched a riveting documentary “Genius Within:  The Inner Life of Glenn Gould” on American Masters (PBS).  Although I love music I’ve never been able to get into classical music.  I had encountered Glenn Gould decades ago when I read gushing review of his 1955 performance of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” so I rushed out and bought a copy.  Boy was I disappointed.  I thought they were nasty little gnarled piano riffs that were cold and unfeeling.  After watching the biography on Monday night, I went out and bought a new CD copy of Gould’s “Goldberg Variations” on Tuesday.

Guess what?  I found them just as unpleasant as ever.  How can compositions so admired, played by a performer deemed so astounding, be so unpleasant for me to hear?   Has my mind programmed with 59 years of pop music unable to fathom the implied beauty of Bach?

To be honest, the piano is not an instrument that soothes my soul, and Gould plays it in a style that I find painful.  Watching the films of Gould playing, it’s obvious he’s lost in a deep trance and I know he finds tremendous beauty in the sound he produces.  I can admire his skill, even though I don’t have the training to even begin to understand what he is doing, but as a listener trying to find a way into the world of classical music, not enjoying it is a real barrier.

While researching the “Goldberg Variations” I came across an article in Slate, “The Goldberg Variations Made New:  Move over Glenn Gould, here’s Simone Dinnerstein,” by Evan Eisenberg.  Within the article are downloads to three Goldberg variations played by Gould and Dinnerstein.  I find them as different as rock and rap.  Please download and play #28 (labeled 29 on the files) of each performance (Dinnerstein-28 and Gould-28).  Gould plays like a wild madman, while Dinnerstein makes her piece serene, which makes the piano seem warm and friendly to me.  I’m not saying I’d put the Dinnerstein cuts in heavy rotation on my playlists, but she makes Bach more accessible to me.

This brings up a number of questions.  Is there anyway I could train my mind to break through the musical barriers that keep me from enjoying classical music?  Could I ever love the “Goldberg Variations” as much as even “Animal” by Ke$ha, the song I’m playing at the moment as I write.  Is it a cultural barrier?  Did I grow up with wrong long hairs, The Beatles instead of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms?  If I played the “Goldberg Variations” enough would my brain grow new neural pathways and sooner or later I’d break through the classical musical barrier?

And why do so few people still listen to classical music?  Does it take a fundamental knowledge of music and music history to appreciate classical music?  Does classical music push the same buttons that rock and pop music push in my head?  Or is like ducks, and I just imprinted on rock?  If my Mom and Dad had played the “Goldberg Variations” in 1955 when I was four, would my musical tastes have formed differently?

And my music tastes do change.  I’m listening to Nicki Minaj and Kanye West at the moment.  Their rap and pop styles are light years away from the music I grew up on in the 1960s.  I started off with rock, went to folk, country, jazz, big band – hell I even love Ravi Shankar’s Indian music – so what keeps me from enjoying classical music?

JWH – 12/29/10


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