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.