Note – please also see our article that explains the different types of classical music. The term “classical music” awkwardly covers a huge variety of different styles and genres, a bit like how the term “The American People” covers a huge range of different types of people, lifestyles, etc.
It is an open secret that these days, classical music is not nearly as popular as it once was. This is clearly true, but at the same time, unnecessary and regrettable.
Back in the 1800s, when most of what we now term “classical music” was written, composers did not deliberately set out to create “high brow” and unapproachable/unpopular music. Sure, some composers did write some advanced stuff, but most of what most composers wrote was designed to be enjoyed by as many people as possible. If the composers had no audiences, they’d make no money; they needed to write music that people liked. Back then, they weren’t seen as writing “classical” music, they were seen as writing ordinary and normal contemporary and popular music.
How to Listen to Classical Music
People listen to music differently today and so have evolved their expectations of what music should be. It is only in the last hundred years that music has become ubiquitous. Prior to then, you couldn’t just turn on the radio, or listen through the internet. You couldn’t play a recording on a CD. The only way to hear music was via live performance. Sure, lots of people would perform music in their homes, but if you wanted to hear a symphony, or see an opera or ballet, that unavoidably meant going to a local theater, and of course, only seeing/listening to whatever it was they were choosing to perform.
As a result, hearing music was a special event rather than an everyday everywhere experience. When people attended a performance, they’d (mostly) sit quietly and eagerly listen to it and be focused on the music and the experience, the same way we do now when we attend a movie in a picture theater. They’d not also be getting ready for work, driving in the car, doing homework, cooking, texting, or any of the other activities where we often have music playing in the background now.
This is key. Today, much of the time, music is “in the background” and we ignore it as much as we focus on it. What was the tune they played not just before the one playing now, but the one before that? Chances are you mightn’t even remember. A lot of modern music is written with that understanding and expectation, and so it is easy to listen to – or perhaps better to say, easy to not listen to.
And now you probably guess the big difference between classical music and most modern music. In general, most classical music is best appreciated, enjoyed, and understood if you focus on it and concentrate on it. Some music requires more concentration than others, and we’re trying to introduce you to some of the more approachable and more easily enjoyed pieces.
That is not to say that much classical music can not be enjoyed as “background music” too. Some definitely can’t, but much/most can. Perhaps a distinguishing feature is that with classical music, the more “effort” or focus you put in to listening to a piece of music, the more reward/pleasure you’ll get in return. Classical music has a depth to it which much modern music does not have.
There’s another thing as well. Think of attending a university lecture. Of course you need to concentrate to understand what the professor is telling you. That’s the same as what we’ve been saying so far about the need to concentrate to best appreciate, understand, and enjoy classical music.
It is also true that if you are already familiar with the subject – maybe you’re a third year student sitting in on a first year class – then you don’t need to concentrate so much and you’ll readily understand and appreciate what is being taught, even if you only tune in and listen to every other sentence.
One more analogy. If you’re driving to a new address in a new city for the first time, you need a map or GPS so you know how to get there. The second or third time, you don’t need the map/GPS as much, and after a dozen times, perhaps you can do it from memory.
Both these analogies apply to classical music. Once you become familiar with a piece, you can more readily “fill in the gaps” when you’re hearing it again in the future, and so it is possible to understand and enjoy a piece, and not get “lost” in it, without concentrating so much in the future.
Now for the second point.
Coming back to the example of attending a lecture, assume now that the professor is speaking a foreign language! You need to learn the foreign language before you can understand what the professor is saying. No amount of concentration will help if you don’t know the language. Which brings us to :
Learning the “Language” of Classical Music
There is no one “language” for classical music. Our page about the different types of classical music explains how very broad the concept of classical music is. This is important, because if you like a particular piece of music, that doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll of course like all classical music. Perhaps more to the point, for a newcomer to classical music, just because you don’t like a particular piece of music also does not mean that you don’t like all classical music.
An open mind, and always extending your boundaries is important. Sure, it is lovely to return to familiar favorites, but from time to time, try new pieces too. If you like one piece of music by one composer, try listening to some of that composer’s other works, or listen to works by his contemporaries who wrote in a similar style, or listen to other music of that type in general.
Different styles of music have their own “languages”. Some parts of some styles share some components with other parts of other styles, just like languages sometimes share some words and grammatical concepts. Other parts are different.
Once you understand the style of music you’re listening to, you’ll come to build up a set of expectations and understandings as to what the music should be, what it will do, and how it will evolve and “tell a story” in music. You’ll get to say to yourself “Ah ha, I know what the composer is doing here” and you’ll learn to hear the difference between an introduction and a main theme, you’ll recognize transitions and bridges, repeats, codas, second subjects, and all sorts of other building blocks that go into making a piece of classical music.
This begs another question, perhaps. Let’s ask and answer it :
Do You Need to Learn Music Theory and Notation?
Some of the pieces of music on YouTube show the score, synchronized to the music. Some of the commentaries about music talk about music theory – keys and chords, minors and majors, allegros and arpeggios, diminished and augmented notes/chords, and so on. It can all seem a bit overwhelming – perhaps all you want to do is to just enjoy listening to “nice” music that sounds good.
In that case, there’s no need to get bogged down in any of this esoteric strange detail. The music is the music, after all, and it quite literally speaks for itself.
But if you find yourself becoming more and more interested in classical music, you might find yourself wondering why music sounds good (or bad), and what the “secrets” are of composing and playing music, and generally wanting to better understand the topic that is proving to give you such pleasure. In that case, you’ll quite likely enjoy learning more about the music, about the theory of music, about the history of music’s evolution, life-stories of composers, the different instruments and how they make the sounds they do, and so on.
You’ll also find that the more background you give yourself, the better and more effortlessly you’ll get to enjoy classical music, and the easier it will be to appreciate new pieces for the first time.
I experienced something similar when I first started to sell computers. I went out with an experienced salesman, and we visited a customer. The salesman was asked some questions about their present computer, and he showed the people how to do certain things with it. I was impressed (they were too). Afterwards I asked him how long he had studied that specific program. He said he’d never seen it before, but all the computer programs on our computers followed certain conventions, so he knew what to look for, and could guess at what to do.
It is the same with music. When you know what to listen for, and understand what it is you’re hearing, it is easier to “put it all together”.
Reading a score is also tremendously interesting – it helps you understand how the sounds are made, which instruments are playing, and lets you see parts of the music you might have otherwise overlooked. But be careful – it is possible to get so buried in technical elements of following a score that you lose the musicality of the experience.
For example, I tried to learn more about one of music’s most profound pieces – Beethoven’s final piano sonata – by studying the score, trying to differentiate between Beethoven’s concept and the interpreted versions performed by pianists. But the score was just a collection of notes on paper – they had no life, and they looked mechanistic (and very complex in parts, but disarmingly simple in others). The music was something more abstract, a totally different level to the mere notes in the score.
Appreciation Requires Repetition
Many popular modern songs have a simple theme, maybe a related second theme or chorus, and that is all. The theme is repeated several times with different words (different verses) and the related second theme alternates in some way with the main theme. You can hear it once, and remember the theme – indeed, you can hear the first half and already be able to guess how the rest of it goes. It might take a while to remember the words, but you’ve grasped its main tune straight away.
But a piece of classical music might have many different thematic elements within it, and one of the distinctive things is, when hearing a piece of music for the first time, you really can’t guess what is coming next. But each time you hear it, you get to understand more of its main “musical journey”.
At some point, you’ll understand and remember the main progression of the main tune. But maybe then you’ll hear a different version/recording of the piece, and all of a sudden, because of the different relative volumes and prominences of the different instruments, you hear parts of the music you’d not even realized were present with the other version, and you get to discover an entire new perspective on the piece – maybe you normally focus on the blazing trumpets and the richness of the trombones layered on top of shimmering violins and violas, and then suddenly one day you realize there’s a much longer/slower melody line being played “underneath” the brass and all the other orchestral sound, in glorious harmonization, by the cellos and double basses. And then after a few more playings, you’ll notice the occasional trills in the wood-wind punctuating the rest of the sound, and there’s still more that you’ll uncover in subsequent listenings too.
One of the great things about classical music is that you can listen to a piece a thousand times, and still hear something new and appreciate it in a different way each and every time. You’ll welcome the familiar parts and be delighted at hearing again your “familiar friends”, and also be delighted to pick up on subtle extra parts of the overall fabric of the music.
The point here is not to judge a piece of music based only on your first impression. You can probably do this for popular music, but you should not for classical music. Some of the most favorite pieces of music I now treasure the most were pieces of music that bored me silly when I first heard them. It seems there’s even some sort of yin and yang balance in this – the more effort you put into learning a piece of music and the longer it takes to appreciate it, the more pleasure you eventually get.
What if You Don’t Like Part of a Piece of Music?
You’re not alone. When I was new to classical music, I’d find that I really liked the “good bits” of a piece of music, but other parts would bore me silly. For example, many symphonies typically have four movements – a fairly lively movement, a slow movement, a rhythmical movement then another lively movement. I often found the slow movement, or maybe even two or three of the movements, to be unappealing, but felt that I was “failing” or “cheating” by not enduring the bad with the good.
There is no law that requires you to listen to any piece of music in its entirety. If you only like part of a piece of music, then congratulations. It is great you’ve now found a new piece to enjoy, whether it be one minute in the middle of a piece or one hour of a lengthy piece in its entirety.
It is very common not to like an entire piece of music. I’ll wager that the vast majority of all the people who claim that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is their absolute favorite piece of music have never even heard the first three movements of that symphony, and certainly wouldn’t like at least one of them if they ever did!
Don’t feel bad about not liking it all. Be happy you like some of it. And perhaps, from time to time, listen to some more of the piece as well; you might be surprised how, over time, you gradually come to like more and more of it. Or maybe not. I can think of some cases in my own “musical journey” where I started off only liking a very short part of a longer piece of music, but now, years (decades!) later, I find myself closely connected to every note in every bar of the piece. But there are other pieces which I still find unapproachably boring (much of Mozart, for example – so many people feel obliged to pretend to like Mozart, but I’m quite happy to tell the truth and say I find much of his music about as interesting and enjoyable as watching paint dry).
There are also pieces of music in a “between” category – projects that I’ve set myself; pieces of music that I don’t know well at present, and get little enjoyment from, but which I feel I should take the trouble to learn better, because I sense there’s a lot of rich reward waiting for me to unlock and find within the music.
For More Reading
I have very little regard for Edward Heath as a politician and former British Prime Minister, but he wrote an enjoyable and approachable book on music appreciation, “Music – A Joy for Life“, which I happily recommend as an interesting mix of music appreciation, personal autobiography, and general pot pourri of miscellanea.