It has come to my attention that some people – friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, folks met at parties – don’t know how to listen to classical music. They are interested in getting into it (some of them), and they would like to try, but they don’t seem to have the slightest idea about where to begin. Maybe their intention to listen to classical music is along the lines of eating more broccoli (i.e. they’ll never do it), but the intention is there. They are usually a little intimidated by the prospect.
I’d like to help. And so, with no small trepidation, I offer the following hints. Call them common sense. Those who already know how to listen to classical music are dismissed.
The first thing you have to know about listening to classical music, and probably the single most important, is that it demands your full attention, like reading a book or watching a movie. People aren’t used to listening to music this way anymore; our lives are busy, fractured and portable. We listen in the car, at the gym, on a walk, at work (while doing something else), as we wash the dishes or talk to someone. That is, we don’t really listen; we use music as soundtrack, or as background to multitasking, or as motivational beat to exercise.
But classical music, to be understood and appreciated, must be foreground. (Some people even find it irritating as background.) It is a narrative in notes. You must follow it, to hear what happens; you must participate in the experience. The best way to listen to it, therefore, is live (when you are more or less forced to), or in a quiet room, alone or with someone who knows not to talk. Turning out the lights doesn’t hurt. Your brain will do most of the rest, whether you know a lot about classical music or nothing at all.
It is often thought that high fidelity playback equipment is required for the enjoyment of classical music. It doesn’t hurt of course, but isn’t entirely necessary. Any kind of decent stereo equipment will do, provided that you follow rule No. 1. Following rule No. 1 is harder to do with portable equipment, however, and so we advise, as a best-case scenario, a home stereo that you have to sit down in front of.
A record player is good because it tends to keep the listener anchored, but few people have them anymore. A CD player is fine, though, or any playback equipment that isn’t too portable. Ideally, you would add a good pair of headphones to keep you tethered to your listening and to eliminate or dampen outside distractions.
A common myth: You have to know a lot about classical music to listen to it. True, a good many (though by no means all) classical listeners know a great deal about the art form, but they got that way after years of listening. They didn’t start out with that knowledge. In fact, perhaps most avid classical fans started listening to (or sometimes playing) classical music when they were kids, or teens, knowing little or nothing about it. The music was first, the smarts came later.
So, what, exactly do you need to know? Everything helps, to a point, in your appreciation of classical music, but learn as you go along. When I started to seriously listen to classical music as a teen, I knew little. I listened to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky records and tried to identify the instruments I was hearing. Clarinet or oboe? Trumpet or trombone? Violins or cellos? It was a first step in the decoding of what I was hearing.
Don’t know what those instruments sound like? Look up examples on YouTube, or listen to concertos that feature them as solo instruments. Additionally, many composers have written pieces that work as guides to the orchestra. These pieces include Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” Ravel’s “Bolero,” Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals” and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.
Read liner notes and program notes (though not while you are listening, please). If you’re just starting out, some of it may be Swahili to you, but give it time. Read and listen, listen and read. Certain things, if not all, will begin to clear from the fog.
How many times have you heard your favorite pop song? (I’ve probably heard “Brand New Cadillac” by The Clash hundreds of times. I know some Beatles songs as well as old friends.) My point is that people starting out with classical music often don’t give it enough of a chance. They hear something once and then give up. The truth is, though, that if you listened to any classical piece as many times as that favorite pop tune, you’d likely know and enjoy it just as well, could sing along with it, understand every twist and turn. Try it sometime. Listen to the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony 10 times (it’s only about six minutes long) and see if you don’t discover what all the fuss is about.
5. Where to start?
This throws off a lot of people, even before they begin. Everyone will have their own gateway drug, as it happens. I can’t say which one will be yours. I found Mozart and Beethoven kind of boring when I started; I was a trombonist, and those composers didn’t use the instrument in the spectacular way my early favorites – Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Rimsky-Korsakov – did. Lovers of rock and roll might enjoy gritty Shostakovich and Stravinsky to start. Jazz fans might like the chamber music of Beethoven, Ravel or Bartók. Almost everyone responds to Bach and Vivaldi right off, though others prefer something more contemporary, Philip Glass or John Adams. Concertos are good; they feature a virtuoso soloist in tandem with the orchestra. Operas could be your thing; they tell stories.
Simply put, start anywhere, but with something that interests you. Listen to classical radio. Note the name of a piece that you like and its composer. Get a recording of it and listen again a few times. Then listen to other pieces by the same composer, then to the music of his or her contemporaries and fellow countrymen. You’ll be well on your way, especially if you follow my other steps.